What's Next — Hard Questions and Real Change: Old First E-pistle 09.25.14

What's Next — Hard Questions and Real Change: Old First E-pistle 09.25.14

Perhaps it’s all the steps appearing – mysteriously, almost like a ladder dropping from heaven (see Genesis 28:10-17) — as we get more and more into the work of the Campaign for Old First, but I was intrigued and thankful this week for an article “Ministry Beyond Aspiration” by Gil Rendle, the church consultant.

His piece challenges church folk to get beyond aspiring to better lives… a better church… and a better world. Rendle chides that well-intentioned individuals and congregations leapfrog to — or settle for — abstract “aspirational” goals, and in so doing duck — we miss the hard, step by step work of that promises moving from where we are to a better place.

Before I go any further with Rendle’s helpful insight, let me list some of steps that I have noticed so far — almost like a series of hills we glimpse marching off into the distance as we near the crest of the first ridge:

First, there were all the nuts and bolts of how to run a capital campaign. This has included but not been limited to figuring out how to research and set campaign goals and share information that inspires interest and commitment. And there were deeper jitters, some anxiety about whether or not our community could produce anywhere near the kind of financial resources we need. Susan Mitchell, the UCC’s consultant, has been really helpful. And Mike Wass, our campaign chairman, has been tireless. We’re not done yet, but we are on our way, and making good progress.

One of the most complicated processes to set in place, it turned out, was a system for sending thank you notes that would both maintain confidentiality and assure that donors are provided a deep sense of the church’s gratitude for their commitment.

And there’s the difficulty describing the work we hope to do on the buildings sufficiently to develop a Request for Proposals and to interview architects. I only know of this challenge secondhand, but it has seemed to me, we almost need an architect in order to conceptualize our possibilities enough to share them with prospective architects. Many thanks for Mark Focht, who has been so helpful to that committee that Geneva is creatively heading up.

The last I heard about our plans to begin to flesh out possibilities for developing the social impact of our outreach ministries, the best thinking involved a number of different steps. “Imagineering” what we’d like to do. Some market research to check needs and the availability of resources to make various projects work. And another consultant to help identify and build relationships with potential partners.

But for now, the immediate next step is for people to consider with God the commitment they can make to the Campaign for Old First. We want to collect all those commitments by Sunday, Oct. 26. And on Sunday, Nov. 16, we’ll announce a total…

We’re just getting started really, but off to a strong start. There’s much work and many different steps ahead. Therefore, I want to lift up Rendle’s point:

We cannot just focus on where we want to end up, without figuring out a whole complicated and interconnecting series of sequential “next steps” that will add up to getting us where we aspire to be.

Bob Schneider told me years ago that covenant ministry wasn’t anything new for Old First: we had always said we wanted this congregation to be a larger worshiping, serving community. But he added, “what you have added, or said that is different, is that we need to change in order to grow.” (Lately, I’ve been thinking that we’ve probably got more change in front of us if we really want to become a larger community, but that’s for another E-pistle!)

“Aspirational,” wishful thinking often becomes a trap. Certainly, there is great power implicit in having clear goals, but outside of fairy tales, wanting to become different isn’t usually enough to actually become different. More is needed. Purposeful steps to get from here to there. And before that, asking ourselves difficult questions. And struggling with answers that often are not comfortable. Because they call us to change.

Congregations, and the people in them, mean well. Our faith teaches us that there is more to life than the present. It calls us into service for a better world yet to come. But not much is going to change if we stop there, with our good intentions.

What’s the first step towards change? Rendle says the first step is asking different questions of ourselves and our congregation. Not just what we want to be (thankful, generous, faithful, rich in service). Instead, we need to ask a harder question: what do we need to change about ourselves and our church in order to become more like we aspire to be?

Most likely, it won’t turn out to be only one difficult answer or one hard step. Instead, it’s a process that involves a number of questions and at least as many steps. Keeping our focus tight, on what’s next, but expecting we need a bunch of “nexts” before we start making real progress.

More than a vision of what could be, we need honest questions and real commitment to difficult change. And experiments to help us learn how to change. A step by step strategy for gradual evolution. We’re not going to change overnight. But if we keep asking what we can do… what we need to do… NEXT. If we seek out and employ metrics by which to measure our progress…

Rendle concluded, “Wanderers in a new cultural wilderness, such as we need to find better tools, better questions, and better measures to move closer to a promised land we sense is God’s will for us.”

See you in church,

Michael