Archive for the ‘Church Life’ Category

handsThere has been quite a bit of chatter about my last blog post, so I thought I’d write a follow-up, an addendum, to clarify a bit of what I’m *not* saying.

I’m not saying that pastors are somehow “above” friendship.

I’m not saying that pastors don’t need friends.

And I’m not saying that pastors should be aloof or unfriendly.

In therapy circles we talk about the many different harbors we have in life, places where we take shelter.

What harbors do you have?  Here are some I’ve identified:

We have the harbor of our family of origin, those who raised us and (often) love us with an unconditional type of love.

We have the harbor of our close friends, a family of choice if you will, who provide the kind of filial love that we need to be fully actualized humans.

Some of us have the harbor of partners or spouses, a harbor that checks many different boxes on the needs chart.

We have the harbor of our closest friends, those intimate friendships where bonds are tighter than most any wind that can come along…most any wind.

And then we have the harbor of community, a place to belong and be loved in a communal way.

Now, just about every human needs almost all of these harbors to be fully actualized.  There are exceptions, of course.  Not everyone is called to be partnered/married.  And not everyone needs the harbor of a community past their family.  But, by and large, I think most humans need these particular harbors to be fully human.

Pastors included, of course.

But, depending on the issue that comes up in life, I would claim that not all of these harbors are *safe* harbors.  If you’re having trouble in your marriage, you shouldn’t go to your parents.  It’s not a safe harbor.  They are not unbiased.  You may receive the kind of love and comfort you desire, but it may not be the kind of love that will lead you to a resolution or an objective viewpoint.

When a pastor is looking for a safe harbor, a person to confide in, I would readily claim that a parishioner is not the port of call.  And can never be.

Categorically, can never be.  The relationship won’t work that way.

And this is what I mean when I say that your pastor is not your friend, at least not in the conventional sense of what deep friendship means: they can never confide in you.  Your relationship doesn’t provide them with a safe harbor.  There is always some distance necessary.

Most of the push back (most, not all) on my article has come from people in congregations who certainly feel their pastor is their friend.  In many ways, yes, they are right…in many senses of the word friend, they might in fact be “friendly.”

But if you cornered your pastor about whether or not they could confide in you, if you asked them clearly about the nature of your relationship, I would bet that they would be honest and admit that you’re not a safe harbor.

Because if you want your pastor to be a safe harbor, it can’t be any other way.

And look, I have lots of examples where this has messed people up, messed churches up, messed pastors up. I’ve encountered many people quite cold to their current pastor because they felt so close, so “friends” with the predecessor, even a sense of loyalty if you will, that it causes trouble, it causes deep confusion, some real hurt, and plenty of pain on all sides.

It is not a safe harbor in the end.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t have deep conversations, honest conversations, deep affection, and real love between pastors and parishioners.  That is all absolutely there.

But if the pastor is getting their friendship needs met by parishioners, they do so at the peril of the office, and the peril of that person continuing in the congregation after they leave the office.

In fact, I wonder what leads more pastors to depression: pastors realizing they can’t seek a safe harbor in their parishioners, or pastors who seek parishioners as safe harbors but then realize it didn’t work; it wasn’t safe?

Pastors need friends.  They need safe harbors.  And congregants need pastors who know that they cannot be it.

 

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*Disclaimer.*

dog collarI’m not wanting to be rude or put anyone off by this statement.  And this doesn’t come out of any recent personal issue or encounter.  And this is certainly not some sort of passive-aggressive way to get a point across to someone I’m reluctant to talk to in person.  That would just be bad behavior.

But this is a consistent point of confusion for many, and so I think it deserves a little blog article, and discussion if you wish.

*End Disclaimer*

Your pastor is not your friend.

It’s hard, because they feel like they are.

And this is not a hard and fast rule, by the way.  Some pastors do make a friend in the congregation, someone they can absolutely be themselves with.

But that needs to be rare.  It may not always be rare…and then things get fuzzy…but I believe it *needs* to be rare, for you and for them.

Because here’s the truth: you’re one day going to have to tell them something that you can’t tell a friend.  Something about yourself, a deep truth, that maybe only your best friend might know, but they’re not going to give you what you need about the topic because they’re too enmeshed in your friendship.

In that case you need a pastor.  You need some abstraction.  You need someone close enough to you to care, someone with some sort of authority, but also someone far enough away from you that they’re not going to hold it as the primary thing they know about you.

Pastors are trained in the art of not hearing what we hear.

People sometimes worry that a pastor’s view of them will be tainted by something they learn or know, but I assure you, we learn and know so much about everyone that we’ve come to the conclusion that everyone is just as messed up as everyone else, ourselves included, so no one is any different.  The CEO of the huge corporation with boats and houses is just as dissatisfied as the person living paycheck to paycheck, they’re just unhinged at a different point in their personhood…

By and large you need your pastor to be a pastor, not a friend, and your pastor is not your friend if they’re doing it well.

Plus, your pastor can never confide in you the way one confides in a friend.

They can’t.

I sit stone-faced in situations where people talk about one another.  My opinion in that situation may not be neutral, but it has to appear to be, because I probably have to be that person’s pastor, no matter my opinion of them.

Your pastor is not your friend.

There are certain exceptions, of course: childhood friendships, close bonds, ways we can compartmentalize our relationships that work in very specific situations.

But it’s not the norm. It can’t be the norm.  If it becomes the norm your pastor is no longer able to be your pastor.

Plus, if you and your pastor are friends, then your pastor can never leave.  As if leaving a parish isn’t hard enough, the idea of leaving not only parishioners but also friends makes it impossible. Co-dependent. Bad for vocation and bad for any avocations you now share.

This doesn’t mean you don’t kid around with your pastor. It doesn’t mean that you don’t drop by to say hi, that you don’t do things for one another that friends do.  It doesn’t mean that you don’t even sometimes take trips together, play sports, attend birthday parties, and have a beer or two…many of these things that friends do with one another.

And it certainly doesn’t meant that you don’t share many of the same qualities you would with friends.  Pastors can open up, to a point.  Pastors can kid around, to a point.  But everything is “to a point” and that point is exactly where the collar hits what you need from them…

In every situation, they are “pastor”…which is just a very different way of being than just “friend.”

And finally, one thing we have to be really clear-eyed about: friendships end.  They do.  Friends fight and squabble, hurt each other’s feelings, get jealous, and get enmeshed.  Pastors who become friends run the risk of ruining the pastoral relationship when the friendship dissolves.

This is just plain bad for the office.  It’s a bad risk to take.  It’s a risk, I think, not worth taking.

We’re not the only profession that suffers from this fuzziness.

One of my very best friends is a doctor.  I casually ask him for medical advice sometimes, but if push came to shove he’d refer me to someone else for serious diagnosis…we’re too close for him to be my doctor.  My best friend is a financial adviser. I ask him for financial advice sometimes, but he can’t manage my money.  We’re too close for that.

It’s hard to explain I guess, and hard to accept in some instances, but I really haven’t found any other way to put it:

Your pastor is your pastor, not a friend.

2721032_1408333739618_acee1eadStart-ups are motivated by possibility and imagination.  They’re not just reacting to what’s going on around them, they’re forming what’s going forward.

Start-ups are interested in perfecting one or two things that they’re doing, while dreaming of that one next thing.  They’re not trying to be everything to everyone, becoming bogged down in propping up the part of their enterprise that is flailing.

Churches should behave like start-ups.  All churches, not just new churches.

Now, I get it…you don’t like comparing a church to a business model.  I don’t like the comparison much, either.  But let’s not pretend that we don’t have something to learn here.  Churches *should* excel at implementing metaphor to everyday life (looking at you, parables), so let’s metaphorically explore this, OK?

Start-ups respond to imagination; establishment responds to fires.  If you don’t spend more time on what you can do than what you used to do, you’re not responding to imagination.  Big establishment brands have just that: a brand.  But they’re constantly having to try something new to keep the brand and keep the edge (think New Coke). They’re constantly putting out fires to maintain the status quo, instead of starting new fires of inspiration.

“Thing kingdom of God is like yeast,” Jesus said, “which leavens the whole loaf.”

The yeast starts a fire in the loaf, and try as it may, the loaf can’t help but react.

Be the yeast, young grasshopper…not the loaf.

Instead of trying to keep the brand, though, why not just make innovation and imagination part of the “brand?”  Google has successfully done this (so far), as has Apple. It is possible to change the narrative, but you have to respond to dreams rather than fear.  Which brings me to my next point…

Start-ups dream and have faith; establishments fear. Once you get power, you long to stay in power.  Once you become the biggest, your quest becomes about staying the biggest.  One of the terrible things about being a start-up is the uncertainty factor of the future.  But if a start-up moves into the establishment phase, they quickly learn that the uncertainty factor never fully leaves, it just changes into fear: fear that you’ll lose market share or newness or what have you.

And so the trick, then, is to ignore the uncertainty altogether and rely on innovation and potential as your main motivator.

This doesn’t mean you don’t heed advice or warning signs in a failing endeavor.  If anything, leaning on potential and dreams will hopefully spur you to do some due diligence and research before setting out on the next new adventure you undertake.  But when big establishment thinking entrenches a system, it becomes about big conservation strategies, big consolidation efforts, and big risk-aversion…which leads to big death.

Jesus said that we are to give of ourselves for others (Matt 16:24). Which might mean that the current decline of the church might just be a sign that we’re starting to understand what Jesus means.  I’m not saying that size is indicative of discipleship (though I’ve made a claim smelling like that before), but I am saying that if we’re failing to risk on reaching out because we’re afraid it will change things and change us (and our church culture/habits/etc.), then we’re probably adopting fear rather than faith as our motivating impulse.

Start-ups make history; establishment protects history. Well, sort of.

Look: the history of your church is important.  Your church has done a lot of good in the neighborhood.  It has changed peoples lives.  It has provided a spiritual home.  Perhaps it has been a change-agent in the footsteps of Jesus for your community.  None of that can or should be denied.

But if your church is going to continue to do good in the neighborhood, to change lives, to be a spiritual home, to be a change-agent, it can’t be trying to lift up its past as some sort of golden-age of life.  Every living thing has a life cycle.  But if you want to hasten a demise, start pining for the past.

Start-ups don’t have hang-ups about the past because they don’t have one to be hung up on.  No matter how long your church has been at the corner of First and Fairbanks, every day it has a ministry opportunity that was not present yesterday, and so while it has a past, it also has tons of potential futures.  That is what you focus on, by God.

Look, I have the unfortunate lot in this work of being stuck in the post-boom years of churchgoing.  I call it unfortunate only because so many people lift up the 50’s as the standard of how churches should be and operate in America.  If you look at the 50’s, where civil religion and the church walked hand-in-hand post World War II, you’ll see an anomaly, not a norm, when it comes to church participation.

If you want a norm, check out church attendance from the 30’s.  There’ll you’ll see kind of a plumb-line.

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And, can I be honest?  While church attendance in the 50’s and 60’s may have been high, poll folks around my age and ask them if they think the society they’ve inherited is utopian.  Turns out that church attendance may not directly correlate to societal health.

Churches of the mainline: hold on to your past loosely and embrace the dreams of the future.  Innovate. Explore. Jesus calls this out of you more than anything because it’s what we need now more than anything.

In other words: be the yeast, not the loaf.

 

best-family-beach-vacations-east-coast_f_mobiThere are certain times when my office sits empty.

Sometimes it’s because I just work better at coffee shops for some reason.  Sometimes it’s because part of my work as a pastor is to be with people, and those people aren’t always at the church.

But this summer it has largely been because I’m on vacation. I have one more on the books, the first one that Rhonda and I will be taking without kids in over 4 years. And I have to be honest with you about why, especially this summer, I’m using up all my vacation time…and why you should, too.

Reason #5: I’m never not a pastor unless I’m gone.  And even then I usually am. As I approach the 10 year mark in this profession, I am becoming more and more aware of this reality.  Now, I know pastors aren’t the only people who feel this way about their jobs, but I’ll let you in on a little secret:

If, by some miracle, I make a friend who is not a parishioner, and who did not know me before I was a pastor, you know what I tell them that I do for a living?  I tell them I work for a non-profit…and that I don’t like talking about work.  Because the minute I tell them I’m a pastor, I either a) become their pastor/counselor with no chance of reciprocity, or b) become seen as the morality police, and the relationship significantly changes.

Vacations, being with family, these become grounding experiences where I am reminded that I am not just a pastor, but a father, husband, son, and yes, friend.

And you are those things, too.  And if you forget that, you need to go on vacation.

Reason #4: I’m allotted the time, but no one expects me to take it.  Even I don’t normally expect that I’ll take it.  And so when this summer came around and I had the opportunity after, frankly, a difficult year, to spend extra time with family far and near, I decided to set my calendar…even though I didn’t think I should.

How amazing is that?  I didn’t think I should.  And I didn’t think I should because, implicitly and explicitly, I have been trained to see my work as my measure of worth and value, and that is just not true.

One of the reasons I’m offered a generous time-off package is because I work a lot when other people aren’t working like, oh, every weekend (and most every holiday except for 4th of July requires me in a funny robe).  And having sat next to people on their deathbeds on many occasions, none of them wax nostalgically on their time in the office.  They wax on their time with family, “away”…and, well, I want some stuff to wax about.

And you should want some, too.  I sit with people on their deathbeds, and not once have they regretted a vacation opportunity they took, even in the face of mountains of work. Go on vacation.

Reason #3: When I’m “off,” I’m not off.  This is closely related to issue #5, but not exactly the same.  In this world of hyper-connectivity, even when I leave the office my “work day” doesn’t end until I close my eyes, and it begins with a “quick email check” the minute I open my eyes.  It’s a personal problem.

Oh, and that emergency number knows no clock…which it shouldn’t.  There’s a reason we have an emergency number, and please know that I am always willing to rush to the hospital.  But that means I am on call.  And it is something you should know about your pastor: they feel as if they are always on call, because by and large, they are.

And I’ve noticed, especially as my children have gotten older, that the divided life I lead between watching them with one eye, while keeping the other eye on my iPhone, has been destructive for my spirit and my parenting (let alone my “spousing”).  Jesus says we are to give away ourselves for others, but that means I have to have something to give away.

Let me be very honest for a moment with you: I am jealous that you get to leave Friday late-afternoon and come back Sunday night from mini-holidays to the beach or to the mountains or to the lake.  With my work schedule, we can sometimes leave Friday evening, but we always have to be back Saturday night.  And if there’s a wedding or a funeral or a church event or…I mean, it just doesn’t work out.

And if none of that resonates with you, remember that the Sabbath is instituted by God.  Do you take an actual Sabbath?  I often don’t…and I need to.

Vacations can, if we allow them, be times that we are actually, truly off (even though that’s not always the case).  And if you are leading a divided life, with one eye on the things you love and the other eye on the things other people think you should love, you need a vacation.

Reason #2: My grandfather. He worked for “Ma Bell,” as he called it.  Southern Bell at the time.  Union work, which allowed him to retire early, support a family, have a great pension, and live a good life, taught him the value of a work week.  Jobs like that are scarce anymore.  But he told me once that his people (union folks) worked hard to make sure that 40 hours a week was the standard unit for work in these United States, and that though I would probably work over 40 hours, it shouldn’t be the norm.  And if it was the norm, he said, “well, what did we work so hard for?”

Well, it’s the norm.  And not only is it the norm, it’s the expectation for most salaried professionals. For you, probably. Which is a problem, and it is killing our ability to work so we can live, and pushes us into the living to work category of existence, save for the privileged few who have 4 hour work weeks.

Do honest work. Do good work. To meaningful work, a full 40 hours of it.  And then we should honestly rest.  Good rest.  Rest with meaning and intention.  

Reason #1: I love my family more than my work. I have to say that because, well, I’m not sure they can tell that by my behavior most of the time.  It is just true that, as a pastor, I put other people’s families in front of my own. A lot. And while I can’t make up for lost time, I can look toward the future with intention.  Vacationing is one way I can do it.

And don’t get me wrong, I love these people, and I (usually) love my work.  But do I love it more than the first calling I had, to be husband and parent and son, to be faithful to that first claim upon my life?  No, I do not. And if I don’t want to become resentful, and if I do not want my family to resent my work, I have to attend to the balancing act somehow…imperfect as I walk it.

So, what about you?  Do you love your family more than your work?

The ability to vacation at all is such a privilege in this world, and it’s not afforded to everyone…I realize this.  How can my work as a pastor speak to that inequality, while also being honest about my own need to be away.  How can your work do the same?

 

contact-lens-discomfort-296x238“Were you Baptist before Lutheran?” someone asked me recently.

No. I was more atheist than anything…which is sometimes like being Baptist (as any faith affiliation is), but mostly not.  A closet atheist, but a convinced one nonetheless. I think I was asked this question because sometimes I sing Gospel tunes in worship, or ask for an “Amen” in my sermons.

Lutherans can do that, right?

In one of my theology classes at university (called “Black Theology/Black Church) we were assigned the task of visiting a historically black church on a Sunday morning.  For a university that, at the time, was only 6% people of color, you can imagine this was a stretch for many in the class.

Off I went with two classmates one Sunday morning to First Church of God in Christ in Gary, Indiana.  We arrived a little early, disrupting a small Bible study taking place in the sanctuary.  And when worship started, the small Bible study turned into the small congregation, perhaps only numbering 20 in total.  And the little electric organ ramped up and we all stood up and clapped (on 2 and 4), and hands were held high and “Amens” came aplenty and we sang and sand for probably half an hour.  No hymnals, mind you. It seemed everyone got the words but us newbies…though we stumbled along.

And then the pastor came with a message, another half hour or so.  And then an offering, “the tithe” as it was called.  And then more singing.  And then a second offering, or “the gift” as it was explained. The pastor must have seen my perplexed face. And then an altar call, where no one was particularly saved but everyone was blessed.  And then gone.

And the whole thing was totally foreign to me.  Totally uncomfortable.  Doubly uncomfortable, in some ways.  I felt that my presence was a disruption…this white guy coming to watch.  And then I also felt disrupted by the strangeness of it all: I didn’t know the hymns, I didn’t shout “Amen,” I didn’t want to be saved.

And looking back I’m thinking, I’m wondering, if this experience wasn’t one of the big wedges that got stuck in my armor of atheism. It shook me up. It made me feel totally uncomfortable.

And I paid attention to it.

When something forces you out of your comfort zone, there are two natural responses: run or ridicule.

We can run from discomfort, preserving ourselves and what we already know.  As Father Richard Rohr has been known to say, “We only want to learn what we already know.” This is true in most all of life, but I see it most clearly in the church where the ruffling of the feathers means the rumbling of the masses.  We essentially decide to go find a place that makes us feel more comfortable…at least, for a while.  Because nothing is comfortable forever. Evolution is the way of all living things.  And even the relative plateau times are really just the cover for quantum leaps of change.  Even in times of so-called steadiness, the tectonic plates are shifting underneath it all.  Hence why a straw can “break the camel’s back.”  Were things not always in flux underneath the surface, a straw wouldn’t have that power.

Or we can ridicule it.  Write it off. “That’s not the way we do things,” I say, trying to preserve a sense of “we” that is largely based off of a heightened sense of “me.”  Ridicule is a philosophical tool we use to take power away from things that don’t fit in our worldview.

But we have another response that we can use: we can pay attention to the feelings of discomfort inside of us and learn from them.  Why do I feel this way?  What is the underlying thing, true or imaginary, I’m trying to hold on to?  How can this moment teach me?

Jesus employed discomfort as his tool for growth in everything that he did.  He caused everyone around him to feel uncomfortable.

The Christian church is going through this extreme time of discomfort.  It’s happening at all levels: from the denominational offices to the congregation (and even to the individual Christian).  And we can run from it; some are certainly doing that.  They’re voting with their feet and their faith.   We can ridicule it; some are certainly doing that.  “Just keep things the same until you push my casket down the aisle,” is a phrase many pastors have heard and many parishioners have entertained.

Or we can learn from it. We can let it instruct us.  We can trust that we catch a better glimpse of God in these moments of discomfort. After all, there must be some reason Jesus used this as his primary teaching tool!

Discomfort is now my friend.  We’re not best buddies; I’d like to see them less than I do sometimes.  But they always teach me something, usually something about myself and my preconceived notions.  Something I can’t learn elsewhere.

And it’s hard to learn these lessons…any other way.

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Going up?

The votes are in.  It is clear that, in many and various ways, the church is slowly but surely abandoning the cross as its primary identity.

The new hotness? The arrow.

And if you doubt this is true, think of all the churches that have an arrow pointing upward, or “right and up” as the business world calls it, in their logos. As their logo. It’s the new “thing” and it speaks to optimism and the “you can do it” vibe that much of Christianity is giving off these days.

You don’t have to Google too much to find one.  You probably will see it on a bumper or as a window cling on your way home from work today.

And that’s not bad, necessarily.  But it certainly isn’t the cross.

Sermons are now “TED talks.”  They’re “how can I improve my life?” talks instead of “how does Jesus ask me to give up my life?” proclamations. (And I love me some TED talks)

And, look, I’m all for practical and relevant sermons.  I think I give them. And I’m all for trying to improve myself and others.  I hope I do that in some ways.

But I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t die on the cross so that I can learn how to reach higher in life.  I’m pretty sure Jesus talked, lived, and died in such a way that makes me desire downward mobility rather than upward mobility.

The downward mobility of washing feet.  The downward mobility of kneeling with those in grief. The downward mobility of embracing a life that banks more on repentance and grace rather than “trying harder” or “getting it right.”

In my neck of the woods so many churches are embracing the arrow over the cross.  The arrow of “make your life better” instead of “God is embracing you where you are, and believe it or not, that is better than constantly trying to make your life better.”  And I get why it’s happening, at least in part.  Arrows can speak to transcendence, a desire that humanity has been wrestling with since we first started to think bigger than our stomachs.  But the problem is that arrows promise a false transcendence; a transcendence that requires you to “keep climbing” instead of giving up.

But the cross speaks of giving up.  Specifically giving up your life for the sake of others.  And only then realizing that your life is given back to you in a new way.The cross speaks to the truth of human fragility, human vulnerability, human suffering and, subversively, Divine hope.  The arrow speaks to the lies of stair-stepping our way to salvation and human moral progress in such a way the sacrifice is less about “what I give up” and more about “I’m going to work harder.”

A difficult truth to swallow for some may be this understanding, which I’ve come to see as true: sometimes I find people following other faith paths (and sometimes even no faith path) living a more cruciform life than those with Jesus fish on the back of their cars.

And it’s not about wealth or church attendance or even belief statements, necessarily.  It’s about, as Jesus says, “Losing your life to gain it.”  It’s about starving the all-consuming ego monster in deference for the Other in front of you.  It’s about God resurrecting you more than you trying over and over again to resuscitate your happiness, self-worth, career, what have you.

This is something that 12 step programs understand so well, and something that we’re missing in the pews (or auditorium chairs, if that’s your thing).

Now, before you write that response below, I have to clarify something: I’m not for living or wallowing in total depravity.  I’m not for shunning the gym or canceling your therapist.  I am all for self-betterment in the non-annoying, non-cloying, non-consumerist ways it can happen (spoiler alert: that audio book will not “take away your Mondays”…but you knew that before you bought it and you bought it anyway because you’re willing to try anything to get rid of that feeling, right?).  This is not just a “grumpy church person” rant.

I think these things form and shape us.  And I think arrows are bad news when it comes to spiritual life.  They look like good news, but as a Lutheran I must “call a thing what it is.”  And it is bad news.

Because we don’t climb our way out of life.  This life is not about the climb.  We can’t climb out of that life, no matter how high you go, but we can live in such a way that we give up that life in exchange for a different one not so intent on moving up, but more intent on having the Spirit move within.

But the Spirit does all sorts of thing that will make you unhappy.  Things like:

Ask you to give up your life for the sake of others.

Ask you to put down the self-help book, to help the other selves around you.

Ask you to speak out against injustice  and own your role in the system (a system that promises you ascension at the expense of others).

Things like convince you that God is less interested in how much money you make, and more interested in how much money you decide to keep.

And, ironically, that’s exactly what we need.

maxresdefaultThere is an exciting but difficult reality facing the mainline church: the seismic shift mainline (and other) congregations are feeling will be in full effect in the next twenty years (which the sainted Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence“).  Right now we’re just feeling the tremors, and even these small shifts are causing extreme anxiety!

Which means that the landscape will look radically different in the near future, and I’m not trying to be an alarmist, but we need to start considering what might need to be in place so that we can move with the shifts, and we need to do so from a multiplicity of angles: pastor, evangelism, congregational structure, ecclesial hierarchy…all of it.

Many conversations around this topic focus on the pastor, specifically how we’ll have to embrace bi-vocationality or even employ circuit pastors as congregations dwindle to the point that calling full-time clergy will no longer be an option.

That’s an important conversation.  I fully realize that my generation may be the last who can expect to make a full-time living in mainline churches with this odd way of being in the world that we have named “Call.”  In some ways, seminaries today are training the ecclesial equivalent of a cobbler: a noble but antiquated profession.  That is to say, while much of humanity still wear shoes every day, the work of a cobbler has changed significantly (as in, they’re largely out of work).  I have no doubt humanity will still seek spirituality and look to religion as some sort of compass (when Google fails them), but it will not be the same.  It just won’t.

I, however, want to look at this seismic shift from the place of the congregation, or more rightly, from congregations.  How might congregations be organized now, or re-organize themselves now, to prepare for this inevitability?

There are a couple fronts already being worked.  Congregational renewal, missional training efforts, alternative (at least to traditional forms) worship styles are popping up all the time it seems (beware the hipness!).  Like advertisements during daytime TV, they all claim to have the fix.

But I want to move the lens out even wider than the individual congregation.  Move the focus out to the neighborhood.  And then wider still, to maybe a section of the geographical landscape.  As a point of reference, consider my own locale: Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill here in North Carolina.  In this geographical area we have 13 ELCA congregations, some just a few miles apart.

Why do we maintain this kind of density?  The short answer has to do with tradition, identity, and an allegiance to an old model of church planting.  The longer answer has to do with a merger in 1988 that happened without much sacrifice in the pews, causing churches of the same denomination to end up literally across the street from one another.  That is a lack of strategic vision, a “let’s play nicely” way of operating on the surface that, in actuality, is Darwinian “survival of the fittest” at its worst.

I’m not saying the 1988 merger that formed the ELCA was bad or wrong; far from it.  Indeed we’re one of the only denominations to come together despite disagreements.  Most other denominations simply fracture (looking at you, other Lutherans).  I’m just saying that it was done without the strategic vision necessary to ensure sustainability of mission (it deferred instead to sustainability of form).

But as I gathered with some area clergy yesterday, all of us sitting around the table in a first meet-and-greet of sorts, I made the bold claim that in 20 years one of our parishes would no longer be around (at least one).  And it’s not like any of our congregations are in trouble on paper; they’re not.  We’re all growing (in different ways), and doing good ministry.  But for how long?  With the seismic shift happening, how long with this model last?

The truth: not long.

And then I said this: what if all of the churches around the table started to live like the Acts community in scripture?  That is, what if instead of thirteen individual congregations being present in this geographical area, known colloquially as “the research triangle,” what if we pooled our resources, pooled our laity, pooled our creativity and ideas and just created Triangle Lutheran Church?

And Triangle Lutheran Church has eight sites and fifteen pastors, each individual site retaining it’s particular tradition(s) and flavors, though joining together in missional efforts, corporate identity, and even in specialized ministry (as the context dictates).  Live in East Raleigh?  Head to our Good Shepherd site or St. Philip site, depending on which side of Falls you live on.  Out in Cary?  Check out our Our Savior’s campus.

Nothing earth-shattering here as far as ingenuity goes, right?  But polity-wise this would be a seismic shift for our mainline denomination.  Perhaps big enough to match the seismic-shift already occurring…

What does this accomplish?

First, it is my conviction that this will begin to stave off the accelerating number of congregational closures that are taking place in the mainline church.  Banding congregations, and pastors, together not after they’re dwindling/dead, but even when they’re growing helps morale, accountability, and stops the siloing effect that is plaguing our churches today.

Secondly, yoking pastors together (with a Head/Executive Pastors at the helm of the parish) will provide a structure for mentorship that is desperately needed in the profession today.

Thirdly, we don’t engage in the creativity-killing practices that typically infect multi-site congregations, specifically when it comes to proclamation.  Pastors will preach and preside at individual sites weekly, none of this “live-streaming,” consolidating, muting of messaging that creates cultic personalities for clergy.

Finally, with pooled resources (and that’s a non-negotiable…too many yoked congregations fail because they fail to truly and fully pool their resources), logical distribution practices, and pooled missional efforts, a parish like Triangle Lutheran Church could afford a localized missionary (or two!) for those radical experiments needed to work with the new evangelism landscape this shift will bring about.

None of the above is new.  In fact, I think it’s probably the oldest model of church out there.  But we need to get back to it.

Look, I do not think the Church is going to die (or, following the story we tell every Sunday, stay dead for long).  But I do think congregations and even whole denominations will.  And my question, no…not a question anymore but a quest. My quest is to help ensure that there is still this particular voice being heard in the world.

Another way of saying that is: God’s not going anywhere.  But will we be the ones telling the story?  And if we want to be, how will we change to make it happen?