Monday, May 29, 2017

Should we stop inviting people to join our Jesus Club?

I'm a big Richard Rohr fan. This meme is one I've seen before, but this morning I posted it on Facebook because I need to take it to heart. I forget this truth over and over again and I need the reminder. 
As you may know, I'm in the first year of a new call. That means I'm navigating a sea of expectations--some my congregation is expecting of me, and some I'm expecting of myself.
Since coming to Ascension, a number of people are returning who have been away for a while. This brings me great joy, but it leads to stories about why they disappeared in the first place, and those stories are often about how the congregation or the previous pastors didn't meet their expectations. With a new pastor comes a fresh start, but I'm aware of the fact that the same expectations may still be in place, and I wonder how long it will be before I don't meet them.
One of the expectation traps I fall into is the one that says, "We need to grow." It's shorthand for, "We need to grow numerically so that we're around for a long, long time." It's what every congregation and every pastor wants. And it's killing us.
Since I've come to Ascension, we've only received a handful of new members, and lately I've been obsessing over it. We aren't keeping pace with the deaths and the people who have moved away, so we're loosing ground. Ascension is the first congregation I've served where this has happened and it has me rattled.
We're doing all we can to stop the bleeding. We're following all the expert advice on how to get people in the door and hang onto them once they arrive. I keep telling myself it's early, it will turn around, but then I succumb to the fear that is lurking in the recesses of every mainline pastor's mind these days--the fear that the congregation they're serving is going to be one of the many to bite the dust over the next few decades. It's happening all around us, and I'm afraid it's making a lot of us a little crazy.
That's why I'm always thankful when someone like Richard Rohr comes along to give me a whack upside the head, reminding me that the whole point of being a Christian is not serving an institution, it's following Jesus and allowing him to transform our lives.
Why is it so easy for me to forget that? I get sucked into a culture of scarcity and fear and devote myself to maintaining the institution; I've become a slave to expectations that have nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus never tells us to build enormous edifices, design great websites, offer services of worship that are major productions, have dynamic youth programs, or sermons that make our listeners want to stand up and cheer. He says, "Follow me."
That's not to say that we should be satisfied with mediocre ministry. We offer our very best to a God who has given us all we have. But we need to be clear about our purpose, and our purpose is not proving we're a church worthy of a future. Our purpose is following Jesus.
Maybe we need to stop inviting people to come to church. Maybe we need to stop taking attendance on Sunday mornings. Maybe we need to stop working so hard to get people to join our Jesus Club. Can you imagine what it would be like if we expended that same energy inviting people to follow Jesus and supporting one another as we walk the Jesus Way in the world, as individuals and as a community? I wonder if we can do that as long as the Church as an institution exists.
Here's the irony. If the Church continues to engage in this struggle for the survival of the fittest, we're as good as dead. But if we can be about inviting people to follow Jesus and supporting them on the Jesus Way in the world, I suspect we will grow and thrive. (Maybe it's a variation on "Whoever wants to save their life must lose it.")
Yes, every once in a while I need to be reminded of that, and I need to adjust my expectations accordingly. I'm not a pastor called to save an institution. I'm a pastor called to invite, encourage and support others who are, along with me, followers of Jesus. I trust as long as I'm doing what I'm called to do, God will do the rest.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Why I can't keep my mouth shut

I’m one of those people who has trouble thinking inside my brain. It’s like my thoughts need to breathe, and they can’t when they’re trapped within the confines of my skull. So, if I’m ruminating about something, I need to talk about it, or write it down, or do something to get it outside myself, where I can examine it and turn it over and tweak it until it looks like what I’m thinking (at the moment, at least).

As an external processor, I recognize that many people in the world around me are internal processors. For a long time, I tried to emulate them, assuming that was the normal way people share their ideas. But I’ve grown suspect of words like normal, and I’ve decided that I can only be who I am. Who I am is an external processor.

Internal processors formulate their ideas into thoughts before they reveal them to the world. I suspect most of them believe that’s the way everyone else thinks. When they spend time with someone like me, they may wonder why I feel compelled to say everything that pops into my head, why I don’t think things out before I speak. I want them to know that I AM thinking things out, but I need to do that WHILE I speak.

Back when I worked with Bishop Bob Kelley, he conducted all his correspondence with a Dictaphone. He’d record what he wanted to say, word-for-word, and then a secretary would later listen and type his words. I couldn’t imagine ever doing that. I would be going back and changing what I said so many times that it would be exhausting for both of us. I love word processing on a computer screen because I can read and re-write what I have written again and again before I'm satisfied with what I’ve said. If I tried to think like Bob Kelley, my head would explode!

For much of my life, I’ve envied internal processors. It’s a lot safer to share your thoughts when you can clearly own them than it is to share thoughts in process, thoughts that aren’t fully formed. We external processors open ourselves up to the possibility of being misunderstood. When we speak, we’re vulnerable.

Early in my ministry, I was figuring this out. Sometimes in meetings, I kicked myself for saying too much. Then the next time I would try hard to keep my mouth shut, and I kicked myself for not saying enough. I finally arrived at the conclusion that I’d rather kick myself for saying too much than for saying too little. And really, for someone like me, that makes sense. If I’m engaged, if I’m a part of the process, I can’t keep my thoughts to myself.

Being an external processor presents challenges for me as a pastor. I am not good off-the-cuff. If I don’t write down what I intend to say, I can go someplace I didn’t plan to go in a split second. On Sunday mornings, this happens regularly during announcements, or the children’s sermon, which are unscripted. I routinely jump down rabbit holes or say things I ought not to have said. Oy! It can be difficult for folks who expect their pastor to be diplomatic and in control of every word she speaks. With me, that just ain’t gonna happen, so unless they’re open to adjusting their expectations of a pastor, I’ll probably leave them bewildered and scratching their heads, asking, “What was THAT?” (This is just one reason why I really need to serve a congregation that's forgiving and has a sense of humor.)

It may not always be easy for people who work with me. As their pastor, they may expect me to give definitive declarations that they can accept or reject, and then we move on from there. Instead, what they often get are random thoughts that I’m still processing. I expect them to add their own thoughts to the mix, and then together we can figure out how we'll move forward. It’s called collaboration, and for me, it’s the only way to do ministry. It’s creative, and it involves everyone in the process. The results are always more fruitful than they would be if I sat in my study and came up with a final product all on my own and prescribed it to others.

I’m blessed to be serving in a setting where, for the most part, collaboration is expected. My external processing is truly a gift. I work with a staff team that listens to my ruminations on a daily basis. They help me sort through my thoughts and there is synergy when we put our minds together. The same is true for congregational leaders, although they aren’t as readily available to me when I’m thinking through a new idea. My way of external processing works well in a congregation where decisions are made collaboratively and all God’s people contribute to the ministry we share. I know the Spirit can work within the confines of our individual skulls, but she seems to thrive in an environment where she is free!

So, I’ll keep doing what I do. I won’t keep my thoughts to myself and I’ll invite others to join me. God will work with that. I’m counting on it.