Monday, January 7, 2013

Which Way? Competing Calls in Preaching ~

I've been pastoring my congregation for fifteen months now.  I spent much of my time during the first year or so, predictably, getting to know them.  I called it The Year of Listening ~ reflective of a disposition which, in the, context of congregational leadership, was quite the stretch for me. 
As I was listening to and watching my people, I was also, of course, listening to and watching the broader church and world.  And it seemed increasingly clear to me that the popular pundits are all correct ~ the church as we once knew it is dying, and those congregations that persist in the ways of the past will soon themselves be but faint memories.
And so I concluded that I needed to call the congregation to a broader engagement in the world.  I wasn't sure what that might look like, and I was under no illusions that we were all about to leap our of our pews and head for the mission field, but I did think ~ and still do ~ that even a largely elderly and staid congregation might become at least more aware of all that swirls around us, and calls for our intellectual and emotional and spiritual engagement.
"Enlarge Our Vision" ~ that was the title of last Sunday's sermon, in which I used the story of the magi to talk about new vision, expanded vision, and a willingness to open and offer ourselves to the unexpected.  The title came from a phrase that I thought I had heard Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain use when Krista Tippett interviewed him last fall (although when I reviewed the transcript of On Being, I couldn't find that particular sentence), and have been pondering ever since.
And then, as I participated in the usual Saturday RevGals Preacher Party, in which bloggers the world over discuss our Sunday preaching plans, I found myself voicing my doubts:
"Truthfully [I said], I woke up this morning feeling something at a loss. Over my Christmas vacation and then being sick the last few days, I've had a lot of time to think about how my congregation (75% over 60, many in their 80s) as a whole really sees church as the family to which to turn when their own disappoint them, and as the place to which to go on Sunday morning for solace and reassurance. The small group of younger (40s and 50s and early 60s) folks are unlikely to be joined by their elders in any significant mission effort, and are already themselves fraying at the edges. Everyone contributes mightily of their time, talent, and treasure to the maintenance and worship of the church; who I am to tell them they need to cast their nets a good deal wider?

I serve a classic rural, insular, elderly church that in fifteen years or less will not be here if things continue on the same trajectory, and  I am torn between whether to focus on meeting their immediate pastoral needs and or to encourage them to look outward and engage with the world."
I could write reams on this topic, but I think that, after one more concluding reflection, I'll leave it to the comments and hope for discussion.  My final reflection is this: 
My first instincts were supported by my spiritual director last month, who told me about having been called many years ago to a dying parish and being told by a colleague, when the time came for him to leave, "Thank you for bringing the world to this parish." 
My re-thinking was supported by the events of yesterday, which included dealing with a congregant's immediate medical needs in the hour before worship, and two  visits afterward, one to a member's extremely ill relative presently residing in an intensive care unit, and the other to a member who had a massive stoke just a year ago and will never live at home again.  (His wife does bring him to church regularly, but could not manage it with yesterday's weather.)
How do I urge these drained and exhausted people to focus on God's call beyond their own extensive needs?
I forsee a year of Ping-Pong preaching.  What say the rest of you?


  1. There was a Christian Century lectionary article a while back (oct2011) that included a story about standing in the storm and looking for guidance in the lightning strikes. It included this gem with which I'm sure you're familiar: "Finding your way through the wilderness of life involves pausing, noticing, opening, stretching, yielding and, I would add, responding. But first we need to know that we're lost."
    That sounds pretty much like what you're describing--so the question is first how to notice the lost-ness, then how to open and stretch and yield and respond. It sounds like you're on the right track, thinking about vision. Perhaps reminders that even in the midst of the everyday and the storm, it's possible to look beyond our immediate curtain of rain and toward whatever is being illuminated by distant light?

    Of course, I actually have no idea the practical ways to do that, but I look forward to finding out what you find out!

    1. I've been thinking a lot about wilderness images a la Exodus and you make a good point, Teri - first you have to pause and notice that you're lost. I've been thinking a good deal about wilderness imagery a la Exodus, but I'd venture that, in the midst of worship and meetings and monthly pancake breakfasts and Bible studies and financial and health challenges, others see the church as oasis rather than wilderness. And I'd further venture that most dwindling congregations don't realize that they're lost until the close-or-merge notice is posted on the door. Tthen perhaps they look back and say, "There it was -- why didn't someone post a change-of-direction sign back there?"

      I think the "there" is now and the "someone" is me, and I believe that alertness and intentionality are good things, so the question becomes: Do we change direction and become another kind of church entirely, or do we change direction only in the sense of celebrating and living into exactly who we are, with the knowledge that either one may spell the end?

  2. I'm glad you posted and happy to join in the discussion. We must have started our calls about the same time - I'm also transitioning from the listening phase to the more active stage.

    This is my first call and I'm finding all the study and advice on missional congregations aren't particularly relevant in my context. There's just not a lot of local outreach for my community to do, and often the needed areas of outreach are hidden. I'm still exploring, and hopefully this second year in the community will start to open some of those doors.

    On of the best pieces of advice I've gotten post-seminary was from a synod staff member. Her suggestion was to focus on developing spiritual practices.

    This made sense to me, and after some listening and reflection, I thought the best place to start is with prayer. In my context, very-very-rural, one of the best ways to connect to the world around is to pray for it. During worship, we pray for things happening all around the world. The congregations (I have 2) looked at me a bit strange the first couple of times I talked about a shooting in Norway or a natural disaster overseas. But now they have come to expect us to pray for things from all around the world. I've actually had a congregation member come to me with a concern about something happening in one of our companion synods!

    I'm fortunate that both of my congregations are committed to giving to mission outside the congregation, and I have been trying to connect them to the stories of the people who benefit from that giving. I also have been doing the same thing with the quilts and care kits our women's circles make (these are sent by our denomination to areas in need, mostly overseas). I was shocked to discover that women who had been collecting mites, sewing quilts, and putting together layette kits (some for decades) had no idea what happened after these things left our church building.

    Still I struggle with ministry in such an insular community, and a declining community. There is the reality that our members are dying, and the congregation is getting older and less active. The community itself is declining - there are fewer and fewer young families. All the good stuff out there that focuses on reaching out to young adults doesn't seem very useful here.

    I guess the question is what is the mission of an aging congregation. I firmly believe that God has a specific mission for every congregation that for each stage of it's life together. What's the reality of the community, the life stages of the members (health, family obligations, and such) and the congregational life stage? How is God working through our weaknesses?

    In my context, we're grieving - the glory days when the pews were full, and the glory days when there were more families on the farm, when we had 2 grocery stores, when we had a school in the community. I've realized that part of my call here is to facilitate the grieving process so that the congregations can begin to look at the 'new normal' and discern God's purpose for them in this time and place.

    And a big part of that is focusing on prayer and waiting on God.

  3. Ramona, are you my long-lost identical twin? If we wrote a book with facing pages for each of us, they would tell much the same story -- and many of the same ideas.

    Last year I preached through spiritual practices for Lent. My model was BBT's An Altar in the world, so some of the practices were what you might expect -- Sabbath, for instance -- and others were more imaginative in title. When all was said and done, I realized that, given my context, I had told them ABOUT spiritual practices, but had offered them no practical tools for pursuing them. I suggested some Wednesday evenings for doing just that during Lent this year, and was met with "people complained about too much church last Lent."

    So I am thinking about preaching the same series, but from a practical bent. For example, instead of talking about the two Scriptural bases for Sabbath keeping, I'll talk about how you create a mini Sabbath some evening during the week when you are a big box store manager with an unpredictable work schedule and many family responsibilities, or even what might you actually do on a full Sabbath day -- how might you structure it like a mini retreat? Things that I thought were obvious are not at all, and ideas that in my home church would have resulted in people taking it upon themselves to ask questions and create opportunities for learning and practice -- not here. So I am learning learning learning.

    And I, too, am thinking that much of my preaching needs to focus on where our mission dollars and gifts go. Like yours, my congregation is not "missional" in the contemporary sense, but people are extraordinarily generous and I have seen that they LOVE to hear about where their dollars and Christmas packages make a difference.

    And yes, with rare exceptions, the young adults with families have departed -- they are, if in church at all, in bigger and more conservative churches where black and white instructions for life are the focus.

  4. We need to talk. I have some ideas and especially, a wonderful graphic I'd like to share with you. I'll message you to set up time for a chat in the next couple of days...Much love.

  5. I have a friend who for many years was vicar of several rural parishes in England. I think he found a similar difficulties.

    Reading your post made me think of the dynamic of the second week of the Spiritual Exercises, when we contemplate Christ and in doing so come to deepen our own discipleship to the point the Ignatius expected that some sort of election or vocation would result. Does this play out with communities as well? Does our sense of corporate vocation come from our corporate experience of Christ? The dynamic, I would guess, is more complex as individuals interact both with Christ and with each other.

    1. Brilliant, especially the idea of a dual Week 2 dynamic going on.

      Robin (signing in on a different computer that won't let me access my own blog)

  6. I hope I'm not missing the point with this comment, but perhaps it's possible to see and honor the mission in each person's life, as serving the image of the suffering Jesus, whether at home or abroad in the larger world? Those whose hands are presently full at home could be blessed with new tools for prayer or contemplation, and those whose hands aren't so full might gain deeper insight into their own call. I believe I would feel overwhelmed by a call to "outer mission" if I was caring for a critically ill loved one. In that situation, I think a call to deeper spiritual journey could feed me, but a call to "do more" outwardly would probably evoke resistance. Your Ignatian background and spiritual direction gifts could do so much for both types of parishioners.

    1. Karen, you are not missing the point at all. This is exactly the kind of thing I'm pondering.

  7. I'm thinking that I need to read up on Ignatian spiritual practices. I don't know them as well as I would like and from the comments above, I think it may give me a starting point.

    Tonight, at Cong. A council meeting, we're looking at the member rolls. We've established that a ministry of the council should be praying for our inactive members. It's a big step for a congregation where the inactive members get no communication from the church - you have to come to worship to get newsletter or bulletins. I'm hoping a period of intentional prayer for our members who do not attend will result in greater compassion, inclusion, and concern for those outside the congregation.

    1. That's a great idea. Our directory does include everyone, and everyone hears from us -- but we could go a step further.

  8. Similar context for me, Robin. The congregation I serve does really good ministry...for their generation. It speaks to them. It is meaningful for them. It is church for them.

    It is not ministry which speaks to younger generations. I have preached several times on this, we had a good evening conversation around this topic. But, it has stayed in the talk-only stage. Comments like, "sounds good...but I don't want to lead it...let someone else (translation: pastor).

    One of their gifts is I am celebrating that at our annual meeting and then tying it to the word "AND"....and what is the next step.

    Ultimately, it is their decision...they can do good ministry for many years yet. In fact, they might run out of people before they run out of money. That is not the way I would choose...but I cannot choose for them. I can only "hold the container" and wait. ( it. not. easy.)

    1. I'm thinking that for all the books out there on missional church and attracting young families and blah blah blah, there should be at least one for the vital older and yes, dying, church - "vital dying" is not an oxymoron, as anyone who knows anything about genuine hospice care knows. Hmmm . . . another post is coming on.

    2. Exactly! That's been my conundrum - it's not that I don't think reaching out to younger families is important, it just that we don't have many to reach out to. So what do you do in the meantime?

      There's a particular challenge to do 'missional' for the young families and young adults and youth and still balance the needs of the majority of the congregation (read boomers and older). It's great for the congregations out there in contexts where there are pools of younger folks to draw from. But I'm pretty sure I read that the majority of congregations are small, rural ones - what about talking about missional for the rest of us?