One of the great opportunities of not being in a pastoral call right now is that it is a time for reflection and discernment. This has been a time of Sabbatical for me in a way – at least unofficially. And I’ve really needed it.
As a pastor, we’re often thrust into the thick of congregational and institutional life – deep into these things and usually we don’t realize how deep into it we actually are. It’s no different that other folks who are deep into their businesses and industries.
I remember working on Capitol Hill in DC – it was similar: you lived it and breathed it all the time. There was no escape from the politics. It was my life. Legislation always ends up relating to electability and fundraising – always. Understand those two points and you understand 90% of how DC thinks at any given moment. That’s a slight exaggeration of course, but not much.
It wasn’t until I stepped away from all of that that I was able to have a different relationship with politics.
And here I am now as a pastor who has had time to step away from congregational and institutional life. I’ve had the opportunity to have no liturgical responsibilities during one of the busiest times of the church year – Christmas. I’ve traveled throughout Advent and the Christmas seasons, visiting different churches. My intent has been two-fold: 1. To experience different types of worship within the liturgical tradition (primarily ELCA) and 2. to be a support to colleagues by just showing up where they are leading worship. I know how much this has meant to me when colleagues have shown up where I was leading worship.
And in my reflection I’ve realized a few things about the church and culture in general and about myself in particular.
About the church and culture: I don’t think the church knows how to deal with unhealthy cultures very well. I think part of this is that it was never designed to deal with unhealthy cultures fully. Churches are made up of people after all. And the church has been the place where sinners go for forgiveness. We’re literally attracting broken people. We’re loudly saying “Give us your unhealthy.” That’s not a bad thing. It’s who we are. And let’s be real about it – if we’re the place where people go who are sinners and broken and unhealthy, then it’s unlikely that we’ll have the most healthy cultures around. It’s not like we can fix people – that’s not what we are offering. We’re not a “10 steps to a better you” type of thing. We’re offering Jesus, which is different.
Churches are not designed to deal with unhealthy cultures because they were never meant to fix them in some ways. Certainly not as institutions. Institutions exist to maintain the status quo, not to change. In order to change, an institution needs to do something remarkable – it needs to die, willingly. Correction – In order to experience transformation, an institution needs to do something remarkable – it needs to die, willingly. And to die, you know what has to happen – you have to let go of control. Wow. Now we’re talking about transformation. And that’s quite scary for a whole lot of people. And most institutions don’t like to let go of control either, because control means order. And institutions are orderly if nothing else.
Institutions aren’t set up to die. They are set up with an expectation that they will go on forever. They protect themselves. They will do whatever they have to in order to maintain life as it is. They will say whatever needs to be said, even if they don’t actually believe it – so long as what is said will protect the institution and keep it alive. Institutions are human things with human desires. That fits right into the mold of unhealthy cultures.
So we have this paradox of an institution that doesn’t want to die or let go of control, but proclaiming a message that we are to die and that we are not in control.
So the question is – what are we to do? We need to ask ourselves some important questions:
What is it that we are really about?
What do we really believe?
What is most important?
Is what we are about the institution or God/Christ/Jesus?
Church is messy, just like life. There are some really good things about church that have caught my attention during this time of reflection. Maybe this is obvious, but again as a pastor, I have been stuck in the nitty gritty of the church, so I’ll say this is one of the biggest strengths of the church – the sacraments. This is something that I think our churches take for granted because we are around the sacraments all the time and we forget the significance of them.
This past Sunday I witnessed a baptism. It was beautiful. Baptism in the worship service is more than just the sacrament for the child. It’s about the promises being made among the family and more importantly, the community gathered – the congregation and the church at large. The symbols that are involved in baptism are meaningful and rich. The words carry weight. This is something that matters a great deal. This is where the church shines.
In the Eucharist, again, we see the church shine. In liturgical traditions we see churches carry the significance of the Last Supper. You can see it when people come forward. It’s a holy moment, even if someone doesn’t understand a whole lot of what’s going on, they know something special is taking place.
These are the moments, just two examples, in which people encounter God. It’s right there. You can see it clearly. And that’s what people are searching for. That’s what they want. That’s what they seek in a church. It’s why they are part of church after all – to encounter and know the living God. What more could anyone ask for?
Which leads to where I am in my journey. I’ve been going through my own process. I don’t know where I’ll end up, of course. This time of reflection though has allowed me to recognize a few things. First, I miss preaching. I don’t know the context in which I’m supposed to preach, but I feel a definite pull towards preaching. And yes, that includes my style of preaching, preaching Gospel justice, offering a sermon that is challenging and thought provoking and proclaiming radical grace and hope, really believing life, death, and resurrection, and more. Oh, and hands on ministry that is uncomfortable. That’s who am I and it’s how I preach. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m ok with that. And that means I probably have some unique settings to preach in that I need to discern. I’m not interested in preaching in all types of settings either. And that’s ok too.
Second, and this should be no surprise, I’m called to continue to “push” for change in the church. I don’t know the right word here, so I’m using the word push. And change isn’t the right word either. Transformation? Reformation? Innovation? I don’t know. The way things are isn’t working – just look around. The numbers don’t lie. This isn’t new either. So are we going to deal with reality or are we going to lie to ourselves and pretend that nostalgia works? We need innovation. We are called to it. The church should be on the cutting edge of trying new things, of pushing the limits, of going outward because it has nothing to lose, stepping outside of the thought process of institution, and jumping into the movement of faith of the way of Christ.
I’m not going to do nostalgia. I don’t even know how and I’m not interested in trying. In her book “The Future of Nostalgia,” Svetlana Boym talked about nostalgia as a personal disease and a public epidemic. “It seduces rather than convinces.” (Pg. 13). Nostalgia is about creating a past that never existed and one of the sins of the church is the sin of nostalgia for a church that never actually existed except in people’s minds.
Beyond nostalgia, I’m also not going to accommodate and make excuses for racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and hatred. Nope. Not going to do it. I’m not putting up with these in church. I’m not interested in excuses for slow change about these things either, if they ever change at all. This is about seeing the humanity in people. This is about seeing the Image of God in other people after all. Once seen, how can I possibly unsee the Image of God in other people?
Of course, that’s easy for me to say right here, right now, not in the moment. I too am a broken, sinful human being. I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. And that’s not me making excuses. That’s a recognition of who I am. I’ve got junk to deal with too. My hope that is that people will point when I do something or say something that isn’t Christlike so that I have the opportunity to acknowledge it for what it was, to do what I can to offer healing and repair, and to work to make the world a better place. In other words, I want to change.
I understand there are people who won’t change. So be it. They will be who they are. I pray that God will touch their hearts and minds. And I will be who I am and I will seek out and find those who are interested in moving forward.
There are ways to move forward as a church. We don’t have to wait for everyone to get on board before we take the first step. We don’t have to wait for consensus before making progress. We can launch new missions and new starts where the expectations are different right at the beginning. We can begin new ministries where healthy expectations and assumptions are baked in. We can take existing things and roll in new folks where new rules and roles are implemented. We can start new days where we practice and form new habits today and reinforce them each day. There is no excuse for continuing the ways of the past that do not empower people and lift people up, that do not see the image of God in others and see the value of people. There is no excuse for churches, the institution that carries the very Word and hope of God, to be anything but promoting the very best of humanity.
For those that would refuse to get on board, so be it. Let them. And let them understand what they are choosing – stop pouring resources into them. Encourage pastors to move out of them and do not send other pastors and deacons to those places until there is a willingness to change. Reward behavior that moves a congregation in the direction of the Gospel and discipleship.
Stop only responding to abusive situations and being quiet about them. Instead be proactive about them. In her book “On Repentance and Repair,” Danya Ruttenberg offers an excellent model for institutions to follow to repair damage that they have done in order to make things whole and right and ensure that future damage won’t happen. It’s not about shame. It’s about wholeness and making things right.
Often the church feels like it is reactive – always responding, never leading or being proactive. Like it has to not do this or that or else it will lose money or members or else…It can be exhausting. You want to change the church? Make it proactive? You need leadership that is willing to be proactive, that is willing to unsettle people, even lose people, and lose money, proactively stopping unhealthy cultures. And at the same time begin to do healthy things – like invest in healthy people and cultures and expectations. Leadership that is willing to innovate and try and risk failure and do things as a team and as a community. Invest in a community. To listen to God in the Trinity and see what God is up to and invite people into that work. To risk the institution for the sake of the Gospel and the mission that Jesus has for the church. That’s a church I want to be a part of. And I’m willing to bet that other people do to – both in the church, and other folks who aren’t in the church. People who left the church because it worried about losing cranky people rather the innovators. People who left because the church wasn’t living up to what they knew it was capable of. There are lots of these people out there – just waiting for the church to be…what the church has always been called to be. For the church to be Christ. That’s the church I’m called to. That’s the church I want to be a part of.
That’s what I’ve been discerning during this time. That’s what excites me.