One of the benefits of being a pastor and not being in a call is that I can think about the wider church and play with ideas without repercussion. I can propose ideas, some very radical in nature. I can question things that many people might hold very dear and have for a long time without fear of consequence. I can say stuff that people know, but they are afraid to say out loud.
I’m just playing with ideas because here’s the reality – the way things are is not working and has not been working for decades. And the church doesn’t seem to want to do anything about it. That’s what institutions do though. Institutions exist to maintain things they way they are. Institutions protect themselves. Although I’d say the institution is doing a pretty crappy job of protecting itself – people have been leaving in droves. Correction – in some cases people are fleeing because they feel very unwelcome or unsafe.
Here, let’s say the quiet part out loud – in many congregations, there is extra effort made to keep those who refuse to change satisfied so that they will keep giving – because they have been around for a long time and so many of our congregations are really bad handling conflict in a healthy manner. And in doing so, a message is clearly sent and received. The people who leave are the ones who look to make change, to make updates, to do the work. They leave. They hear the message loud and clear that they are not welcome. That is not a recipe for sustainability or survival. It’s a long, slow, painful death.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. It never does. We can do things differently. There are always other options.
Here’s my ideas. And before you jump on my ideas and critic them and blow holes in them, let me offer this. These ideas aren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t even know how to implement most of them. They would be messy to transition in to. And yes, people would run away from them – So what? People are running away from the church now. It’s really just a matter of who would be running away. The idea here is that the status quo is not acceptable. And the fact that the church is doing literally nothing about it is beyond words. So, yes, I’m going to propose radical ideas in order to get conversation going. I want people to talk. I want people to get riled up about church. I want people to get angry about the fact that the church is settling for a slow painful death. I want people to debate. I want people to try things. I want people to explore. I want the church to discern vision for what it is called to. I want to see what resurrection looks like for the church. Because that’s where new life is.
So here’s my ideas.
Every church should have a life span. Pick a number. 25 years sounds like a good number to me. It’s a generation. At the end of 25 years, the congregation dies. That’s it. We proclaim life, death, and resurrection, but in reality we don’t actually believe it. We want our congregations to live forever. Nope. I think there is something powerful when we are intentionally thinking about death and are aware of it. We know we have a limited time and so we are serious about what we do with our time. We don’t fight over stupid things when we have limited time. We use our resources intentionally when we have limited time. Relationships become most important when we have limited time. And we aren’t ignoring death, like the culture does. We are embracing it and looking to what resurrection is all about. At the end of the life of the congregation, the congregation celebrates the fruit of faith, and either disperses or breaks up into new mission starts, or is a new mission start itself somewhere else. But the key is new. It can’t rely on the way it did things before. Everything would have to be new. New leadership, new pastor, new location, new technology, new way of worshipping, new community, etc. It is new. That’s what resurrection is all about – new life.
Every church should either not own property or if it does own property the main focus should be on using it for the community. One of the biggest challenges churches have is that they end up turning inward in focus – taking care of the property, taking care of the membership, etc. They turn into institutions that turn inward. The church is at its best when it is outward focused. This requires intentionality. Churches don’t need to own property. This will require them to be creative and turn on the creative and innovative juices to figure out how to be community and in the community. Maybe this means renting space, or meeting in homes, or using technology, or public spaces, or who knows what, or a combination of all that and things I haven’t thought of. If a congregation does own land, then use the space primarily for the community as the main focus. How can the congregation use the kitchen to feed the community as often as possible? How can the congregation convert it’s space to house people in need? How can the congregation make it’s space into a space where the community feels welcome and can use it for the community’s benefit? How can the church become the community space? It takes intentionality to think through this, and to build partnerships with the community.
No church should be an island. Churches should group together to do ministry together much more intentionally than they ever imagined. The days of a church having a single pastor with an office manager and their own musician are over, I hope. No one pastor is gifted at everything. Nor should they be. This is a recipe for a pastor being burnt out or abused. Instead, gather a group of 7-10 congregations together along with 5 pastors. Among those pastors, each is gifted in certain areas and between them, they can cover those congregations. Some pastors are gifted at pastoral care, while others are not. Expecting all pastors have an equal skill at pastoral care is ridiculous. The same is true of every other skill. Imagine pastors sharing responsibilities across multiple congregations? The impact would be enormous. Oh, I can hear the complaints – “But I wouldn’t have my pastor!” What’s this really about? Control? The world is changing and the church needs to change too, along with the expectations of the church and what is expected of the pastor and the congregation. We already established that maintaining things is not working.
This one is specific to the ELCA. The bishops need more authority. Recently one of the bishops sent out a letter to their synod offering words of support for the clergy in their synod. And, my interpretation, words to the effect telling congregations in the synod that they need to treat clergy better because abusive behavior of clergy has an impact on the clergy and word spreads and clergy don’t want to come to a synod where such things happen. There is something seriously wrong with our congregational structure when clergy abuse and congregational implosions and congregational power struggles that end in destructive and toxic situations seem to be the norm. I don’t know if this is something new. Something since the pandemic – a response the the anxiety and stress. I don’t know if it’s a combination of the pandemic and politics and economics and generational shift and more. I don’t really care honestly because regardless, it’s not ok. There is no excuse for it. And unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot that our hierarchy can do either beyond threaten to withhold pastoral candidates from congregations. As one colleague of mine recently described it, we swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction by making our denomination a congregationalist focused and empowered denomination. The argument isn’t to put all power in the hands of the hierarchy. There are problems with that too. But the current system is not working. All one has to do is observe.
That’s four ideas to get the ball rolling. I’d love to hear your ideas. Like I said, the point of this is to generate conversation. I don’t pretend to have all the ideas, or even good ideas for that matter. The ideas above are fraught with problems – I know this for a fact. But I also know that keeping things the way they are guarantees that we are set on a course for denominational death without any intentionality for resurrection because all we are doing is catering to and accommodating to the most stubborn and change resistant in the church. And I have no interest maintaining that.