As I consider the recent news about Edward Snowden, the man who exposed material collected by the National Security Agency, I have been wondering: do we, as Americans, see enemies all around? How much fear are we currently living with?
We should not be so naïve to suggest that there are not people in this world bent on harm. Whether it is a radical Muslim motivated to harm many people through an act of terrorism, or a young white American man bent on committing mass murder in an elementary school, evil is present in the world. It shows up at unexpected times and inflicts terrible damage. The after-effects of evil’s impact touch many of us, as caregivers, counselors, pastors, and government leaders interact with those touched by violence.
The presence of evil in the world demands a response. How might followers of Jesus live in a world we share with evil? I am challenged by the words of Geoff Tunnicliffe, Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance. In a recent Sojourners article, he writes, “We want to say loudly that we as evangelicals want to be on the forefront of peacebuilding. All the easy jobs have been done. It’s just the tough ones that are left.”
Where do we begin? Perhaps it begins by dealing with how we see those around us.
I give thanks to God regularly that our congregation is finding a great source of renewal and revival the more deeply we dive in to mission. When I began attending meetings of Congregations in Action (probably seven years ago now) I really wasn’t sure I could see the point of why a church should be interested in events like Fun Day, or reading stories to first graders. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the need or wasn’t moved with compassion, I just didn’t quite connect with how this fit as a ministry of the church.
Of course, those questions have been long since settled. We’ve worked quite a bit with CIA, sending kids to Camp Bethel, purchasing food through the Food pantry, on and on and on. The significant shift is that we are represented in the school by our presence. This isn’t just a check writing outreach; it’s one where we are involved, and that involvement has required us to rethink our own lives:
We’ve had to rethink our own assumptions about poverty, neighbor, and the role of our church in a community that is not immediately our home.
· We’ve had to rethink our own time commitments. It’s easy to get Lorrie to write one more check. It’s more difficult to carve out time in our day to serve.
· We’ve had to rethink our own financial commitments. From our personal contributions to the way we structure our church budget, the old categories and commitments don’t fit our present reality. A commitment to mission is changing us.
As the Hunger group ventures into new areas, I’m curious to see what the next few years will bring…
· Might we sponsor some more BVS’ers, perhaps challenging other congregations to join with us?
· Might we purchase a house, so we can help people in poverty get back on their feet?
· Might some of us turn our efforts in a bit different direction, moving from these immediate “charity” or “service” types of ministries to more “justice” oriented ones; becoming involved in other non-profit groups or even political organizations of one kind or another to be better able to undo some of the systemic sin so prevalent in our society; sin that we encounter on the level of our current service, but can’t really do anything about.
It’s easy to see why these might be logical topics for our footwashing service. Footwashing is about service. People in Jesus’ day came in from the outdoors with the dirt and dung of the city streets on their feet, perhaps not too differently from our own kids coming in after playing barefoot outside on a warm summer evening. Someone needed to provide a means to clean your feet. The process isn’t that difficult to imagine.
But if we leave it at that; if footwashing never becomes anything more than an act of service, then we are missing out on an important—and necessary—component of the event. It’s worth the focus because our congregation is liable to overlook it. There is also a spiritual component here as well, separate from the act of compassionate service. In John 13:10, Jesus says to Peter: “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." While we are tempted to see footwashing as primarily concerned with the soles of our feet, Jesus encourages us to look at a different soul, and consider our relationship with God as well.
The Old Brethren understood this. When you do some research into Brethren beliefs, you don’t go very far until you come to “mutual aid.” In our minds, mutual aid involves acts of service: disaster response; the old barn-raisings; taking a casserole to someone when they are sick; helping out financially like we do so often. But the Old Brethren added in one more category: church discipline. While we’ve largely left this in the past, it was a crucial faith practice for our spiritual ancestors.
The reasoning went something like this: if our love for one another binds us together to assist in a time of material need, how much more important is it for us to help one another in a time of spiritual need? Scripture backs up this view:
· Galatians 6:1. My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.
· Matthew 18:15. If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.
Our sins are rightly forgiven in our confession of faith and baptism, just like people who have had a bath don’t need their entire body cleaned. But we still sin. Confession and forgiveness must still be part of our lives.
We ignore this at our peril; for all of the vital mission and ministry our congregation is doing, it is necessary that we pay as much attention to how we love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength as we do learning to love our neighbor as ourself.
Our congregation has recently experienced renewal through the ministry of the Hunger Group. Originally conceived as a short-term study group in the summer of 2011, these Central members have found renewed energy, focus, and challenge through their commitment to understand and alleviate hunger in the Roanoke Valley. We have each benefitted from their leadership.
Small groups are not new to the history of the church. In fact, the Church of the Brethren began as a small group, as eight persons gathered for Bible Study, prayer and baptism in 1708. Many Christians throughout the years have found a deepened sense of faith and commitment through the shared life of a small group.
In order to be effective, a small group needs to find togetherness in the following areas: someone to bring the group together; a commitment to stay together; a focus which guides their study together; opportunities to do mission together; chances to get together; and times to pray together.
The first two categories are the minimum commitment for a small group to exist in any meaningful way; without these, the group is significantly flawed and will struggle to accomplish effective ministry.
Leadership is what brings the group together. Leadership takes a number of forms: a convener; a study leader; a fellowship coordinator; a mission coordinator, just to name a few. In fact, an effective small group will divide up these tasks among the group members, thus sharing in the overall group planning.
A commitment to stay together is also critical. This commitment will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose. A prayer group or life-stage group may stay together indefinitely; a study group (like we offer in the summer) or a focus group (like our membership class) will meet for a short period of time, or until a particular task is complete. Whatever the case may be with each group, commitment must be clearly stated and agreed upon: how often the group meets, how long the group plans to exist, and what members do to prepare for group meetings are key questions.
The next four categories will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose of the group. They need not exist in equal proportion, but will be present in some form:
A small group should study together. This will likely be what brought the group together in the first place; whether the group is a Sunday School class or a mission group, a time of study will open our minds to greater understanding of God’s activity in our lives and in the world around us.
A small group should do mission together. Whatever the purpose of the group, there should be some project that takes the group outside of itself into the community. When we put mission first in our lives, the Spirit opens up some interesting doors.
A small group should get together for fellowship. Whatever the main purpose of the group (mission, study, prayer, etc.), the overall group experience will be enhanced by spending time together doing other things. Deep relationships centered around fellowship can powerfully impact the group’s commitment.
Finally, a small group should pray together, encouraging one another in their shared spiritual growth. Through prayer and discussion, group members can help one another grow in deeper faith and commitment.
As our congregation moves forward and seeks continued renewal and growth, small groups should be at the forefront of our thinking. Approaching our Spring Council Meeting, I see several implications of small group thinking for our congregation.
- First, the days of measuring church commitment by a willingness to serve on a committee are over. Instead, small groups with a strong emphasis on mission and spiritual growth must be the priority of our congregation.
- Second, consider the small group(s) (Sunday School classes) you are in. How are the above six characteristics on display in that group? Is there a clear investment in shared leadership? Have each of the members in the group expressed their own commitment to the group? In what proportion are the qualities of study, mission, fellowship, and prayer present? If these qualities are there, then thanks be to God! If they are not, is it time for some soul-searching among group members? Could it be that the group has simply outlived its original purpose? Is it time for the group to be either renewed or disbanded so members can reform into a new group?
- Third, the Nurture Team is once again offering small groups for the summer. Would you prayerfully consider joining one of the groups listed below? We will not be able to offer each of these classes; which ones of the following will God call us to?
Summer Small Group options
1. Bible Study, following the International Lesson.
2. Hunger Group
3. A book study, led by Cheri Burton: Wish You Well, by David Baldacci.
4. A small prayer group
5. A theological book study, led by Pastor Tim. Some options:
a. Something in the area of Peace Studies.
b. The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This is largely a Bible study on the Sermon on the Mount.
c. Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. A theological study of the central tenets of Christianity.
d. The Naked Anabaptist, by Stuart Murray. A theological treatment of the basic principles of Anabaptist thought.
e. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. An explanation of basic Christian beliefs, written for people who may question why they should believe in Christ.
6. Other: ______________________ (what interests you?)
On December 21, 2012, I had the privilege of preaching at the Homeless Persons Memorial Service. This annual event is held on the day of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. My sermon was based on Ruth 2:1-7 and Luke 2:8-20. Being a sermon, this is a somewhat longer blog entry than normal.
Tucked away in the pages of the Old Testament, just past the bloody book of Judges and just before the larger historical books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles is hidden a priceless treasure. Like that perfect Christmas gift that we find in an off-the-beaten path gift shop on one of the last shopping days before Christmas, the book of Ruth takes us on a delightful journey of God’s faithfulness and people’s holy persistence seeking to regain control of their lives rebuilding hope and faith in the midst of death and loss.
We are delighted in Ruth because stories of the underdog coming out on top remind us that what is possible for one is possible for any; and that in the midst of our own present sufferings we might one day find our hopes and dreams restored, and our futures made more secure.
But this treasure of a story leads to some surprises, if we will take the time to appreciate its complexity and nuance, rather than simply sitting it on a shelf to admire from afar. I wonder if we would appreciate Ruth as much if she were a member of our congregation or a member of our family. I say this because Ruth, for all of her grit and faithfulness, is a rule bender and tradition breaker; a woman who had no problem stepping out of the accepted cultural roles for her day and pushing people to acknowledge the fullest intent of what God sought to establish in our lives.
The story begins in Moab, where a couple from Bethlehem---Elimelech and Naomi---have gone to live because there is a famine in their land. It is ironic that at the outset, the “house of bread” (Bethlehem, translated) is empty, and this family goes to the land of an enemy to live. Over a period of the next 10 years, Elimelech dies; Naomi’s two sons marry Moabite women, then the sons themselves die, leaving Naomi with 2 daughters-in-law. Chapter 1 concludes as Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem, encouraging the two girls to stay in Moab with their families, where they can presumably be remarried. But Ruth will hear none of it, and openly disobeys Naomi, insisting that she will return to Bethlehem with her.
It is a bad decision that Ruth makes, really. Reckless. Foolish. Stupid. This was a patriarchal society in which these widows lived. It might grate on our nerves to hear it said, but they needed the protection of a man in their lives to have virtually any chance at survival. Women did not function in society on their own in those days. Add to this that Ruth so far has had no children, even after 10 years of marriage. Long enough to assume that there would be no children. Add again to this that she is a foreigner, from the land of Moab. Any honest follower of God in those days would have known that being from the land of Moab was not good; even the Bible says “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation” (Deuteronomy 23:3). But this is the kind of woman Ruth is, someone who is willing to risk her own future so that they a mother-in-law she has grown to love will not face the challenges of life alone.
In chapter 2, the two women have returned to Bethlehem, and now it’s time to get down to business. They need food. Ruth sets out on the morning described in our text to do what anyone would do in her particular time and place---go to a field where the harvesters are working, and glean around the edges and corners of the field where the harvesters were not allowed to glean, and also pick up what they have overlooked in their efforts. It is roughly the equivalent of going to the food pantry to get food to eat, and its purposes and limits were described in the OT law. These limits on harvesting were how the community looked after the poor, and they were squarely within the practice of their faith.
If we take the text at face value, we’re left with an image of what happens in these verses: Ruth leaves early in the morning to work in the field, taking her place among the other poverty-stricken women in the community, competing for what little grain might be available. Along the way the owner of the field comes by to check in with his foreman. He sees a woman he does not recognize, inquires about her, and then seeks to bless her quite significantly. Boaz’ opinion of Ruth has been heavily influenced by both the local gossip chain and now what he can see with his own eyes, and he is moved with compassion.
It’s a compelling story, but it’s one that doesn’t quite add up in my mind. There are some clues along the way that what actually happened might have been a bit different from this. First, it is strange that Ruth asked the foreman to work in the field, or that he would have reported that conversation to Boaz. Asking permission to work in the field is the equivalent in our day of asking a traffic cop permission to walk on the sidewalk. Of course you can, these practices are clearly established.
Second, and in a portion of the text that we did not read, Ruth says “thank you” to Boaz for allowing her to work in the field. But she says “Thank you” with a bit too much enthusiasm in my mind. Again, why be so thankful for someone doing something that was both the social custom and religious law to do?
Third, I’m troubled by this particular line of thinking because it seems to make Ruth so much less bold than she is in chapter 1. The Ruth who goes out into the fields to harvest the leftover grain, no matter how hard working and faithful that it is---and it is both of those things---is so much less than the Ruth who goes toe-to-toe with her mother in law in chapter 1, and who gets all dressed up, sneaks down to the threshing room floor and curls up next to a slightly drunk relative in the middle of the night in chapter 3, trusting that he will wake up and “know what to do.”
The key to unlocking this mystery might be found in verse 7. It turns out that verse 7 is one of the more difficult verses in the OT to translate from the Hebrew. The word choice and phrasing are obscure, which has led Bible translators to offer somewhat divergent translations of what goes on there. Most translations pick up the idea that Ruth has been working all morning, except for a brief period of rest. But some Biblical commentators tell us that this phrase isn’t to be translated literally; that it’s actually a colloquialism, a slang phrase if you will, for someone who has been standing around for a while waiting for something to happen.
If we follow this other line of thinking, a different picture of Ruth emerges, something like this: Ruth does indeed leave the house early in the morning, and goes to the field. When she arrives she sees slim pickings. Knowing that there isn’t enough there to feed she and Naomi, she goes to the foreman to ask for permission to work---not with the women, but with the men. Understandably, the foreman is flummoxed. He doesn’t know what to think. Ruth is asking too much, pushing social conventions too far, bending the traditions and breaking the rules. This is above his pay grade, and he doesn’t know what to do. Finally, Boaz arrives and the foreman can push this problem on to him. He describes the situation and summarizes it by saying “and she’s been standing here all morning.” Ruth has pushed the system, and now she is waiting for an answer.
Maybe it’s a stretch, but it fits. Nowhere else in the story is Ruth satisfied with the status quo, the safe way out. Ruth is not one to err on the side of caution. Instead she pushes through the expectations, makes everyone around her mad and uncomfortable, and forces them to deal not with law, but with grace. Boaz was not allowed to harvest the edges or corners of his field. But how wide is an edge; how large is the corner? These are important and messy questions. In our love for the seemingly grace-filled and simple story of Ruth, let us not forget that Ruth was an outsider in every sense of the word: she was a foreign, childless widow. Each designation a stigma in its own right. And she was a rule breaker, someone who refused to stay in her place. But in the strange calculus of God’s grace, she ends up finding what she was looking for: someone in whose eyes she might find “favor.”
If there ever were a group of people who ought not be surprised by behavior like this; if there was ever a time of year when we ought to say, “Yes, Lord, of course!” then we are the ones and now is the time. Ruth wasn’t the last one in the Bible to find herself in a field of grace; these shepherds, society’s outcasts in their own day, were the first to hear of the birth of the Savior. Not the king; not the governors, not the religious elite nor the socially upright and outstanding. On the hills safely out of sight and sound from more polite society, a Judean hillside was transformed into a field of grace. And we ought not overlook the fact that all of this happened outside the same town; it could well be that the shepherds were standing next to---or in the middle of---Boaz’ field. A field of grace indeed!
Could it be that as we are gathered here today to remember some of our own modern-day outcasts, that we are the ones most in need of grace? Might it be that if Jesus were to show up in Roanoke this Christmas, it would be on these downtown streets, and not in any of our Christmas Eve services? The ones we gather to remember today died in no small part because they were homeless. It may well be that some of us have been frustrated by their presence on our streets, at our intersections, or even in our churches. Mental illness, addiction, and the long-term effects of PTSD among veterans make us uncomfortable, because they truly are difficult circumstances to relate to. Accidents and murder that claim people’s lives are tragedies in every circumstance, regardless of social standing.
And yet could it be that the fields of grace in Roanoke are not to be found in the houses of worship or the places of temporal power, but on the streets and under the bridges. If the angels of heaven were to grace us with their presence again this night, where might we find them? And how might we find ourselves obligated to act toward those to whom the angels appear?
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to offer the opening prayer at the Roanoke City Council meeting. This is the third time in the past four years that I have had the Invocation for the first Council meeting of the new year. This is the prayer I offered for our city:
Here we are, O God, the beginning of a new year.
We know, God, that these new beginnings are somewhat arbitrary;
there are items of business left over from 2012;
there are ongoing challenges that did not solve themselves while we have been celebrating the
there are bills to pay; issues to tackle; and relationships to mend.
And yet, even in the ongoing routine of life, you offer us the chance to start over, to begin again, to wipe the slate clean.
May it be that each one of us as individuals, and these persons who have been elected, appointed, or hired to lead our city,
would take advantage of this time to reevaluate and reexamine our lives;
to consider the forgotten and the persecuted;
and to faithfully use their gifts and talents for the benefit of us all.
You have asked us, O God,
to love you with our heart, soul, mind and strength,
to love our neighbors as ourselves,
and to love our enemies.
May this be the case in this time and in this place.
Last Wednesday evening, our Bible Study group began a study of the book of Ruth. I was not able to be present, but as a surprise to the group made this short video blog to help introduce our study. Take a few minutes to read the book of Ruth, and ponder the questions. We will reconvene for Bible Study on Wednesday, November 7 at 6:30 p.m. in the chapel.
In a recent Wednesday night Bible Study discussion, our group took a closer look at the steamy account of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. I won’t take the time to retell the entire story here, but the gist of it is that in order to provide some means of security for herself in a patriarchal society, Tamar (who is a widow) poses as a prostitute and becomes pregnant by her father-in-law, Judah. How many people knew this story is in the Bible?!?!
After the fog cleared from our glasses, our Bible study group began to ask why this story is included in the Bible. We might prefer to just hold our noses and turn the page---a scene of paying for sex with your daughter in law---getting her pregnant in the act---is bit too “R-rated” for our so-called holy sensibilities. What purpose does this story serve?
I think the answer to this question is very mundane. God had promised Judah’s great-grandfather Abraham that all nations would be blessed through this family tree. This story, steamy and illicit as it is, demonstrates how God’s promise would be continued, because Judah and Tamar’s son, Perez, is in the family tree that includes such notable Bible characters as Boaz and Ruth, King David, and eventually, Jesus! This seedy story serves to advance the genealogy, something that was quite important in the culture of the day.
But perhaps another question is more important in our day, one that is suggested in the question posed by our group. We asked why this story is included in the Bible. I might ask “What stories are we not telling about ourselves, our history, our churches, our cities? Whose stories get left out? Why are we not telling these stories? And just who gets to make these decisions, anyway?”
In a previous blog entry, I mentioned that one important role of church planting is to engage the sinfulness of the city. This includes venturing out into the forgotten and abandoned places of the city to hear from those who call those places home. Why are some places and people forgotten and abandoned? When it comes time to make decisions, allocate funds, invite people to leadership roles, whose voices are included in the decision making process?
I can see two reasons (and I’m sure there are more) for telling the “seedier” stories of our lives. First, telling these stories reminds us that, for good or for bad, there are reasons why things are the way they are. And the reasons aren’t always what we have been told. So the next time you’re driving through the “other” part of town, you might ask yourself how it came to be that way. The answer is likely different---and more complicated---than you first thought.
Second, we must always remember that God is not limited by our seedy pasts. In a later part of the Bible, the apostle Paul says to a group of Christians who had pasts of their own: “Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of ‘the brightest and best’ among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these ‘nobodies’ to expose the hollow pretensions of the ‘somebodies’? (1 Corinthians 1:26-28, The Message).
How can we do a better job telling our stories, and respecting those whose stories might not live up to our levels of so-called respectability?
If I were starting a new church, I would want the following four components to be present. These aren’t the only four; they are simply four. All four of these components assume the presence of an active, vital small group ministry.
1. Witness that engages both the beauty and sinfulness of the city. In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus charges the church to make disciples of all nations. One way we do this is by baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This instruction refers to the evangelistic and invitational aspects of our faith. We are to invite other persons into an eternal relationship with God, one that begins to be experienced while living here on earth.
Being an urban dweller, my commitments to witness are shaped by my experience of the city. Historically---and somewhat contrary to what we might sometimes think---cities have been places of safety and stability, free from the untamed “wilds” of the open country. What made a city different from a town or village was the relative density of the people within the city walls. Cities became places where the rule of law and the density of people made the exchange and advancement of ideas possible. Education, art, and music flourish because the safety and stability of the city enabled much to emerge for the common good. The church should willingly engage those areas that mutually edify all persons.
But cities also have a dark side. Human sinfulness has created ghettos and forgotten places within the cities, places that even the church has abandoned. Part of the church’s witness must include venturing out into other parts of the city to learn the stories of people who call these forgotten and abandoned places home. How might we all be transformed by such witness?
2. Teaching persons to have an active, vital relationship with Jesus. In the second part of the Great Commission, Jesus’ instructions continue: and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. One task of the church is to teach its members the basics of Christian belief and practice. Such thought appears elsewhere in the New Testament as well: in Luke 11:1, the disciples come to Jesus and ask, Lord, teach us to pray. In Acts 18 we meet Apollos, a man who taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. Priscilla and Aquila, upon meeting him, invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more accurately (Acts 18:24-26).
A new church should make active discipleship training a vital part of their life from the beginnings. Such training should include basic Christian doctrine as well as spiritual faith practice in areas such as prayer, fasting, effective Bible study, testimony and witness. As Richard Foster writes, such basic spiritual disciples are not for the giants of the faith, but for ordinary Jesus-followers, people who “have jobs…care for children…wash dishes and mow lawns” (Celebration of Discipline, 1). In other words, each of us.
3. Experiencing the deep relationships of a new family. I am increasingly convinced of something others have been sure of for a long time: in the practice of our faith, our relationships must right. The apostle John states this with black and white clarity: If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20).
The sacrificial love that the New Testament calls us to involves more than just affectionate feelings. In a significant way, the church must become family for one another, sharing deeply the opportunities and challenges of life; walking with one another in times of struggle; celebrating the high moments with great joy and love.
Early Christians experienced the church as a new family; many of the first generations of Christians were kicked out of their own families when they became Christians. Joining a new faith group meant abandoning the old one and all who continued to practice it. In a first-century world with no financial or other safety nets, family was all a person had. It was the Christians who would step in and be family for new believers.
While I’m not suggesting that Christians abandon their families of origin upon conversion, I do recognize the great value of the church modeling healthy family relationships in the mobile and increasingly dysfunctional world in which we live. A new church would appeal to many by learning to be family for those separated from their families of origin by distance or dysfunction.
4. Dissatisfaction with easy answers. It is always easier to identify the sins and idolatries of previous generations than those of our own. How are we to practice New Testament Christianity in our modern society? How are the teachings of Jesus to be lived out, especially as they relate to economics, treatment of the poor and alien (think immigration), war and sex?
The Christian faith is extremely counter-cultural on these points. How do individual believers take passages like the Sermon on the Mount, or Revelation, or even Old Testament books of Amos or Micah and apply them to modern-day challenges?
A new church would do well to encourage critical thinking, deep Biblical study, and on- the-ground analysis of social reality in its study together. Moving beyond the reactionary politics of slogans and applause lines, the church can provide thoughtful analysis and sacrificial involvement in the issues of the day.
So, having read this far (and I hope you have!) what ideas do you have on these 4 components of a new church? I’d be delighted to hear your views.
Because it's Friday, I thought I'd post something fun. I'd like to say that the sound clips below are my favorite Andy Griffith Show one-liners, but that's not exactly the case. I'm limited by the number of clips available. That being said, these are a lot of fun...
3. In the scene where this quote appears, Barney has been talking about his belief in the supernatural, in the form of the spirit of a dead Count. Andy is not impressed. It reminds of the leadership principle "Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is that you're stupid and have bad ideas."
Traveling around the Church of the Brethren last year as Moderator provided many opportunities to think about healthy leadership. I visited some congregations where strong leadership was evident. By looking around at bulletin boards and church bulletins and talking with members and pastors, I could tell that certain congregations love Jesus, love one another, and clearly understand their mission in the Kingdom of God. These congregations are served by strong and compassionate pastors, who have a clear sense that their job takes them outside the walls of the church. Typically, these congregations enjoy long, healthy pastorates.
On the other hand, it is clear that some congregations I visited won’t exist in 10 years. While they get along well with one another and love their Lord, it seems their main purpose is to get together next week for worship---in the same manner they have for years---all the while wondering why more people (especially young people) don’t join them. Somewhere in the past, these congregations have traded the challenge of leadership for the comfort of management, and they have been managed nearly out of existence.
There is much to be said about leadership that is worth paying attention to; much more that can be said in a brief article. These four thoughts on leadership are one place to start, drawn from Edwin Friedman’s book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
1. Ineffective leaders focus on pathology; strong leaders focus on strength. A medical example is helpful here. In the long run, we are more likely to be have good health if we practice healthy habits: good diet, regular exercise, plenty of sleep. In churches, rather than focusing on what is “wrong”, strong leaders work to strengthen those areas that are already strong, thus making more strong, healthy leaders to share in the work.
2. Ineffective leaders focus on symptoms; strong leaders seek enduring change. Many congregations gather each week, wondering where all the young people are. “If we just had more young people, we would be ok” is a refrain sung in churches about as often as Amazing Grace. This is “symptom thinking.” Strong leaders insist that their congregations take a hard look at themselves, identifying the reasons and roadblocks for why people (of any age) aren’t in attendance, and seek to change those areas.
3. Ineffective leaders are stuck trying harder; strong leaders are fed up with the treadmill. No matter how hard you nail shingles to a roof, you will not be able to stay ahead of a hurricane’s wind! It’s a losing effort, so don’t even try. Working harder is not effective when we are working against the natural forces of the system. Applying this point to #2 above, we can see that if a congregation doesn’t want to change, working harder for growth will not be very effective. It’s why one church planter titled his book I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church. He wasn’t interested in the treadmill.
4. Ineffective leaders try to minimize conflict; strong leaders recognize that conflict and sabotage are often signs of effectiveness. Anyone who has raised children understands this point. When you assign more chores or expect better behavior, you will get resistance. At that point, the parent’s role is to not give in to the complaining. The same is true in churches. If we want to grow, we will need to change. In fact, many churches are already changing---they are declining to the point of non-existence. So it really boils down to “what kind of change do we want to see?”
Where does your congregation fit in with these four principles of leadership?