Warning: This is a bit of a rant. Sorry. If you are reading this, some of this may upset you (especially if you are a member of the church I serve). But, I think in my ranting a perpetual realization has propped up its annoying head. If you’re interested, read on…
It’s day 4 of this “My Life in Pictures” project, and I forgot to take a picture today—not a good record. Since I have no picture and today was a busy day, and I need to blow off some steam, I’m offering this rant and the insights I may have gained from my rant.
Tonight a committee meeting was scheduled. Out of seven people who were supposed to be there, one besides me showed up. It had been scheduled for two months. I sent out a reminder e-mail yesterday (some might say that was not enough time, but it had been scheduled for two months). I called some of the others and it was obvious the meeting was not going to happen. I wish this were the first time this had happened.
At first I was angry and frustrated at the seeming lack of commitment. I know people are busy and have a lot going on—I’m busy and have a lot going on! I believe adults should be adults and take responsibility for themselves, so I tend to get upset when I’m expected to send out “reminders”. I’ve been told by colleagues, “Which is better? Sending out an e-mail reminder a few days before, or sitting in a room by yourself? A small price to pay.” Yeah, but what about the principle? I have a calendar. I put things on it. Sure, I mess up and miss things every now and then. But it seems kinda chronic with some folks. As a pastor I struggle with how best to respond, but I end up trying to be understanding and, in the end, accommodate.
But as I drove home I began to wonder if it really is fair to blame those who didn’t come to the meeting, or those who join the membership but do not exhibit much commitment, or those who come up with some pretty zany ideas with little or no sound theological foundation (in my less than humble opinion). I wondered, as I have often the past several years, if the Church (big “C”) has somehow failed generations of people in the U.S. in helping them discover and learn what it means to be Church, what it means to be the Body of Christ, what it means to be community. For several decades the Church has been blessed with some incredibly gifted “give it my all” pastors who worked tireless hours and gave of themselves freely and selflessly. But, as they did, I wonder if what they were really doing was over functioning, and in effect steeling the Church from the people and relieving the people of their responsibility to be the Church? The great Reformation of the 16th century returned the Church to the people, but then over the centuries, the leadership seems to have stolen it back.
I wonder if what is happening is a self-fulfilling prophecy, telling ourselves as professional clergy that it is up to us to keep this thing going. So we begin to take on more and more responsibility for keeping it going, thus relinquishing the people of their responsibility. But, then we get upset that we’re investing so much of ourselves while our worship attendance and membership dwindle. We begin to resent the people for their lack of commitment (maybe I should replace “we” with “I”?). I wonder if we are setting ourselves up for failure, let alone the Church. When we teach our children to ride a bike, we can’t hold on to the back of the seat forever and then get upset that they are not learning to ride a bike. At some point we have to run with them and then let go! They may fall a few times, but they will get it.
A new generation of pastors is emerging which has heard stories of its predecessors dropping out of ministry at alarming rates, destroying their families’ lives (the stories of “pastors’ kids” run amuck are way too easy to find), and in the end, despite their 60-70 hours of investment each week, ended up stealing from the people the very thing they were trying to create: the Body of Christ, interconnected, interdependent, and working in harmony to serve a loving and just God. This new generation of pastors has come out of seminary with “boundaries” as a watchword. We learned (I’m not that long out of seminary) to establish boundaries early: “your day off is your day off,” “being the Church is the work of the people, not the pastor, so learn to trust your people,” “the divorce rates among ministers is higher than the national average, don’t let that happen to you.”
Some of these things I heard as a seminarian, some I have heard from others who are in seminary now. When these young pastors enter churches, they enter a pattern of pastoral leadership that makes establishing clear boundaries very difficult. Often they are following a series of these over functioning pastors who viewed self-sacrifice as the mark of a good pastor. The congregation struggles to adjust, if they are able to at all. The pressure to “perform” can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, the new pastor often either leaves that position within a few short years, or abandons their call and the Church completely.
I learned in seminary the word “liturgy” means “the work of the people.” If our people are not clear about their work, if they have never been invited to wrestle with crafting a job description, then how can we expect them to live into the positions to which God has called them. So I guess I cannot blame my friends who did not show up to the meeting tonight—and yes, they are my friends. I can blame the past, but it will do no good. If I believe in this call God has given us, then I must engage that call and keep pointing, as Jesus did despite disappointment after disappointment, to the One who invites us all, the One who calls us by name, the One who remains present to us even when we aren’t paying attention. I must keep pushing both my people and myself to look and see so we may engage what the Creator of all things is doing.
There are days when, out of frustration at my limited effectiveness and out of anger about the state of “Church”, I wonder why I continue to pointlessly bang my head against the wall in this work. There are days when I think about leaving it, going back to school, and getting a “real” 9-5 job, a job which does not steal me away from my family several nights per week, or consumes my attention so much that when I am home I’m not emotionally or mentally present. But, I know, if I did do that I would still end up trying to point, trying to increase awareness, trying to make things better. I know it is in the Church where I belong, not by default, but by calling. I know in my heart, though so often my head disagrees, that I belong in the Church that I love and love to hate, the Church that has raised and shaped me in spite of itself sometimes, the Church to which God has called me. Yes, this is where I belong, in this imperfect, messy, but, somehow beautiful thing we call the community of faith, the family of God, the Body of Christ. This is where we belong because this is where God has called us.
The questions I believe the Church is struggling with (and maybe has always struggled with) are:
· What has God already been doing in our midst?
· What does it mean to be the Church?
· As the Church, how can we participate in what God has already been doing?
The challenge is discovering and owning a theological language that helps us articulate these types of questions, and an environment that allows us to experiment with temporary responses. Not answers, but responses. “Answers” end the conversation. “Responses” invite more dialogue. Shouldn’t the Church be a place where we are invited to continually “respond” to God and one another, always inviting more questions, more responses, more dialogue? We are not starting over, but we may be starting anew. I pray for a Church where doubt and faith walk hand in hand as we seek to discern together how God is present and active in this world and what God is doing. A Church where it’s not “what we’ve always done”, but “what are we going to do now?” I pray for a Church that is willing and able to take risks—calculated risks, but risks nonetheless—and stretch our imaginations of what is possible.