My wife has for some years now been serving as interim pastor in various congregations around the synod. I’ve heard from others that she’s quite good at it, and I believe that. She has gone to considerable lengths at her (our) own expense to complete several training experiences advancing her pastoral understanding and skills for serving in these very specific and uncertain circumstances. As the Holy Spirit would have it, she has very often found herself serving with congregations struggling with the unsentimental realities of declining numbers, aging and needy facilities, fewer than enough people to carry on and support the congregations’ ministries, no hopeful new pathways opening on the horizon, and nowhere else to turn. In a few of these situations the pastorally correct and loving thing to do has been to walk with these faithful ones as they learned to let their congregations go, celebrating God¹s faithfulness in the past and affirming God’s grace and power for the present and future.
As for my own “career path” in congregational pastoral ministry, a bishop’s associate, in a recent exit interview between parish pastorates, told me the staff was surprised that I was willing to consider a call from a congregation to which my name had been given, a congregation with whom I did come to serve. Why, the question implied, would an experienced pastor go to a place like that, with so few discernable prospects and such obvious problems, not to mention the unimpressive pay scale? As the Holy Spirit would have it, I, too, have nearly always found myself serving in congregations near the margin of existence. A colleague once questioned me as to why such might be the case. I had no answer then and still don’t. One hypothesis I have entertained is that neither my wife nor I have been considered “quite up to” the level of sophistication and challenge required to run (excuse me, I mean, “serve in”) a successful parish with bright prospects. It’s hard to test such a hypothesis, though, without absolutely ruining your remaining self-esteem. Another hypothesis I came up with is that we were so darned good at making lemonade that everyone assumed it was just our calling. Hard to test that one, too. Maybe it’s a combination.
Or maybe it¹s just God’s call – no other explanation needed. For my part, I have no doubt that God has indeed called us to all the pastorates in which we have served and do serve, every one. So maybe God sees things we just miss. And maybe we miss out on what God sees because we so often want to be other than we are. Not content with being faithful, we want to be successful.
It really doesn’t even need to be said. Of course we want to be successful! We want our ministries to thrive and grow. We honestly do want to reach everyone we can with the gospel about God’s love for us all in Christ. But I grow increasingly fearful that over the last decade or so, and persisting today, we are evolving a veritable cult of success in the church. The prominent use of success-oriented language at church-sponsored “leadership” and “spiritual” events bespeaks, it seems to me, an uncritical adoption and use of many of the concepts and terms of the secular corporation, as if those concepts and terms were theologically neutral, as if they were just tools God has handed us for righting the ecclesiastical ship, which has, to be honest, been sailing in some harsh and unforgiving waters of late.
The problem is, the concepts and terms we are using are not neutral. They become increasingly competitive and quantitative in nature, laden with techniques and measurements and presumed marketing savvy and tricks of organizational novelty and emotional manipulation, all to help us believe we are saving the ship when we may only be rearranging the deck furniture. Apply these superficial and unbiblical ways of thinking to our congregational life, and we come up looking, sounding, and acting like nothing so much as bottom-line-hugging businesses, obsessed with numbers, but not able to address our significant spiritual needs and deepening societal unravelings. We may indeed thus wind up with a few successful enterprises (excuse me, I mean “congregations”), but I question whether we will be able to say what we are truly being successful about.
On the use of such language (at “leadership development” or “spiritual enrichment” events) as “thriving” to describe congregational ministries (implying also the opposite — what would that be? – “failing”?), and being a real “disciple” versus only being a “member”, etc., I refer you to Pr. Julie Ryan’s excellent piece in response to a recent such event for congregational leaders. You will find it in the last issue of Let’s Talk. If you didn’t get or didn’t read that issue, call a friend, who might still have theirs. Or, I’ll copy mine for you. It is really worth the trouble. I can add nothing to Pr. Ryan’s thoughts on the subject, except to tell you I found it deeply affirming that someone summoned the courage to express in a public forum a needed cultural critique of our “church visible” with pastoral and theological depth and clarity. What bothers me, I think, is not a particular “leadership event.” What bothers me is not even the use of secular understandings, instruments, and techniques that can help us reach more people with God’s good news. What really bothers me is harder to pinpoint than that. Yet what I sense and experience in so many ways has been working its way into our thinking about the church and about ourselves for some time now, and it does not go away. I will call it an attitude. It shapes the cultural milieu of “being church” in which we are increasingly asked to operate. And its assumptions are rarely if ever challenged or even questioned. On so many levels the message just comes across: If you really want to be faithful in our day and time, then you need to be willing to cast aside most of what you have been taught it means to be the church. Is an old liturgy getting “stodgy and boring?” Then it’s beyond redemption. Don¹t cherish it and nourish it, don’t spend time working on bringing it to new and heartfelt expression. It’s “traditional” and stands in the way of progress and must be dropped, or at least sidelined. Are old committees clogging up the works? Then “blow them up.” Don’t bother reshaping congregational working groups, don’t mess with adaptations, and don’t stop to worry about anybody’s feelings. These days we¹re going with “ministry teams.” And all this is new and exciting, and lots better for the progress of the gospel in church and world. Exactly how? Did you ask? I get the impression it¹s better not to ask.
The language used will of course change. New techniques will in time fail to get us past the problems. But the attitude seems to have acquired a life of its own. It endures. And I find it on the whole disheartening and chilling. Where is our wider church trying to take us here? We want to be relevant, but do we honestly believe there is no longer a sacred treasure of worship and teaching to articulate, renew, and pass on? We want to be filled with all the fullness of faith, but do we imagine we will convince the world solely by the sincerity of our feelings of faith or the intensity of our religious passions? We want to feel we are part of a greater and wider community of faith, yet is the only pastoral encouragement the church can offer its loyal partisans something on the order of, “Get with the program or get left behind?” Where is the lived gospel here? Where is accountability? And why can’t we at least sometimes admit that we’re just plain scared? Is there nothing we won’t do to pander to the world’s fleeting interests and desires, nothing we won’t trade off for the sake of looking successful? Then maybe we should be ignored.
Very recently a small group of members of a congregation I know of attended a “thriving church” type of workshop in the area, hosted by a very obviously successful and very obviously large parish. A cadre of presenters worked the crowd promoting the notion that most any congregation can be successful if they just have the vision and the fervor to be truly faithful in our challenging times. Appropriately, the little congregational group was impressed, even inspired. But, on the drive home, as they came physically closer to their familiar parish context, questioning among themselves as to how they could bring these great ideas to fruition in their needing-to-be-revitalized little congregation, with its part-time or unpaid everything, they began to be overwhelmed with the improbabilities. It wasn’t that they didn’t have the stomach for innovation. They had already turned their committees into ministry teams (I don’t think they blew up the committees, though – that might have been a serious mistake, not blowing them up), and they had done most everything else they could think of and afford to really put their little place on the map. Still the numbers were in slow but steady decline. Then they went to that workshop. And it felt like, somehow, by comparison to the picture of thriving congregations they had been hearing tell of, their little operation (excuse me, I mean “ministry”) just wasn’t quite up to snuff. Such anxious and doubtful spirits will need a strong and clear application of the gospel of God to their uncertain situation by a wise and caring pastor who is willing to walk with them in all their flawed humanity, someone who can see that humanity
redeemed and shining in the light of Christ.
Such a pastor they do have, fortunately. Her work in this context continues to be a work of significant faith and courage, but one should not call it heroic. Just pastoral. Faithful. And she will likely never be called upon to speak at a workshop about “thriving” ministries.
A young couple attending a synod assembly as delegates not very long ago, when I was serving a still smaller congregation in the city (and was working full-time elsewhere to compensate for the lack of a salary), stated it to me with crashing simplicity why they would not be willing to attend another such event. Ministries like ours, they noticed, were not being celebrated, encouraged, or supported in that place. We just didn’t show up on the screen. Or, if we did, we seemed to fall into that dubious class of congregations dubbed (at that time) “unhealthy” or “threatened.” We, on the other hand, honestly felt that ours was an amazingly vital, talented, and open little community of faith. Our leadership was young and committed, the worshiping congregation was culturally diverse, reflecting the character of the neighborhood, and we were even growing a little. Our worship was what I like to think of as “contemporary traditional” (words which don’t go together in the current lexicon of the “thriving church”). We were a little unusual, somewhat offbeat, but definitely warm-hearted, outreaching, and welcoming, and word was getting out.
But it was quite clear to us that our synod and our ELCA had bigger fish to fry. In vivid contrast to us, the “super-ministries,” as I call them, were well funded and staffed and were offering lots of important-looking workshops claiming the ability to teach the rest of us how to be more successful. For our part, after a few years of trying, we had honestly stopped looking to our larger church for any meaningful support, or even interest.
And we just sort of went our own way, without looking back. New people kept coming through our own doors, and several were staying. Just being the church together was one of the most relevant and important things happening in our lives. And no one even thought of questioning whether the partisans and hangers-on of this little community of faith were truly “disciples” of Jesus. Clearly, it seemed, somebody in this picture was out of touch. And it didn¹t seem to us that it was us. Anyway it didn¹t look to this particular young couple like there was any need for us to remain at the party. Whatever it was about, it would go on without us.
But, even if we were deluded by our own hopes and dreams (much preferring to think of ourselves as creative and resourceful rather than considering ourselves just sickly), even if our own stubborn urban denial prevented us from seeing our own diagnosis clearly, is it not even so possible in the shared life of the church to lift up the impaired, the languishing, even the dying? Must we go on implicitly blaming our small congregations for their lack of conspicuous success? Must we continue to imply that they are somehow being less than faithful, less than passionate about the gospel? Have we done the ultimate theological about-face by declaring that the first shall, after all, be first? Have the “winners” simply edged everybody else out of the game?
No one I take seriously is saying our congregations should stay snugly nestled in the past, consoling ourselves about how glorious things used to be and complaining about how nobody wants to help out anymore. Many, if not most, of us know the effort, pain, and risk involved in reading and digesting the signs of the time, and most of us have undertaken with trepidation the considerable pastoral and theological tasks of helping congregations open to and move into the future with courage and faith. Yet I, for one, do not feel that most of the things I am doing or most of the things that are happening in the congregation I serve are considered worthy of celebration or even notice by the church we are part of. Our congregational life, and my pastoral ministry, do not feel, therefore, like a shared journey with the church in its wider expressions. This may or may not be crucial to God’s vision for us, but I know things were not always thus, and it feels like something real has been lost.
Sometimes, as we persist in the ministry of congregational leadership, over the underlayment of an equally persistent daily discipline of prayer, study, and thought, sometimes, as we seek a faithful response to God’s leading in our very specific (and often mighty peculiar!) situations – sometimes we do discern honestly hopeful and exciting possibilities. Sometimes a way does open to us. I should correct that. God’s way always opens to us. I shudder to think of all the “openings” I have been too preoccupied or too scared to see. But our success, or our lack of it, is quite honestly not our concern. Success is not always the outcome of faithfulness. Truly proclaiming and living the gospel in our congregational settings will not necessarily be greeted with applause from a grateful world. Focusing on how we are doing by some external measurement of successfulness is a distraction, not a help, in the work of being the church. It doesn’t energize. It drains needed emotional and spiritual energy.
I find myself uneasy about expressing such thoughts. I really don¹t want to be just one more of those bothersome complainers, a basically negative person looking for some unwarranted place in the sun. That simply is not my character (but, then, what do I know? – maybe I should just say I hope it isn’t!). I continue to be confident, on the other hand, that God will continue to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify God’s church in all kinds of mysterious and surprising ways. As this happens and continues to happen, I even dare to hope we will begin to find ourselves in a kind of recovery from our addiction to success and its attendant but short-lived emotional and spiritual rush. And maybe we will begin honestly noticing, celebrating, and praying for each other on this daunting yet necessary journey on which God is leading us into God’s future.