Last Sunday’s sermon touched a nerve. More people than usual commented it was helpful. A few felt, as one of you said, I “rattled their cages.”
Beloved, if I have a problem with someone over an issue, I’ll go to that person directly. But when I see challenges in the life together, I need to engage them publicly. From the pulpit, I try and tackle them theologically.
Please remember (as if you could forget!): I’m too fallible a preacher to claim to deliver the truth from on high. That’s not a UCC understanding of homiletics. Instead, leaning on the biblical stories and our theological traditions, working with my own limited powers of religious reflection, praying for the Spirit, I aim to make you think… to support YOUR reflections, so faith informs the issues relevant to your life. If I get you questioning, or praying, or looking up Scripture, even in disagreement with me, I’ve done my job.
Because Old First is feeling into new ways of doing ministry, with more questions than answers, all the kinks aren’t worked out yet (particularly communication, coordination and accountability). But I’m noticing buds, even nascent fruit. The vision is to engage as many people as possible in transformative ministries. Ministry here is to be diverse, broad-based and decentralized, rather than hierarchical. Empowering and permission-giving, rather than gate-keeping or nay-saying.
Here are my hoped for approaches to our work together. You may believe other commitments would serve us better. If so, I hope we talk.
1) Religion is about what matters most. In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff. One time in my last job, the Executive Council spent an hour and a half and reams of paper discussing a $900 decision over decorations. The next item on the agenda, a $35,000 expense for bringing the ship, “The Amistad,” to port in Oswego, had neither an explicit plan nor any details in writing. This latter, big-ticket item was affirmed in under four minutes.
Time, energy and anxiety are often dedicated in inverse proportion to a subject matter’s importance. Keeping perspective, letting go, or at least delegating the minutiae could keep us focused on weightier issues (justice, service, sharing God’s love in an increasingly diverse and ever smaller world). Wasting time on what doesn’t matter, the church gives people it hopes another reason to give up on organized religion.
2) The sky doesn’t fall very often. How many mistakes in church life are irreversible or deadly? Individual decisions add up to traditions, but few single missteps are unsurvivable. Rare are the choices that warrant competitive, all or nothing, win/lose holy wars.
Given our theology and the “unfamiliar secular world” facing the contemporary church, certainty is going to be rare. At best, we see through a glass darkly. We work from hypotheses. When we stumble, we get back up, brush ourselves off and try again. Often mistakes are the best way to learn. And real growth, in the sense of maturing, almost always hurts. Certainly we need to be good stewards, but there are rarely perfect answers. Letting go, trusting others, being patient, and waiting to see by and by are spiritual disciplines.
3) Everyone only wants the best for our church, though we disagree, even have radically different views of what “best” would be. We’ve got history. Old battles are remembered. Hurts linger, still smart. We can be passionate in our differences. Each of us can become intransigent. Or is tending a golden cow. It can feel like someone else’s way is going to lead to ruin. Clarifying our corporate vision and goals may help. Acknowledging that community life is always a give and take could make a difference. But tensions within the community are also just human.
Battling wills or winner and loser paradigms draw lines… form cliques… complicate and confuse further… create more hurt and delay than necessary for getting where God wants us to go. Instead, let’s give each other “the benefit of the doubt,” (sort of a human incarnation of grace). Collaboration as the heart of our engagement gives us greater ability to listen and learn from one another.
4) Scientific method works by gathering empirical information. In a number of different situations recently, we’ve launched into long, tense, and what turned out to be misguided conversations and meetings. Why? Because we have taken up an issue before gathering the necessary information. Misinformation and ignorance create tensions that later-arriving contra-indicating facts struggle to dispel.
In other cases, we have asked a person or two to do some “reconnaissance work,” gathering information for the meeting. When someone else hears of their assignment, there been a suspicion that “something is going on.” What’s going on? We are trying to prepare meetings so they make the best of your time and effort, and turn out productive.
5) For every 10 people in the church we need a small group. The Elders grew in effectiveness all year: tough issues are much less daunting for them now. Besides clarifying their role in our new governance structure, they have come to know and care about one another.
Our last meeting, we spent the first 45 minutes checking in with one another personally. Leadership groups and ministry teams at Old First are meant to be spiritual companion groups too– among the smaller, intimate settings where people find their place among the greater whole.
I learned last year folks at Old First are too busy to sync schedules. Without set times, it is hard to schedule meetings. If there’s a set time, but no work, cancel the meeting– or just gather briefly to check in with one another. We all need to be cared for.
Faithfully yours, Michael