All week long I've been like a broken record or a damaged MP3 file. So how did this happen? How did I wake up this morning to find that I have started to resemble those old guys in the balcony in the Muppets show? I suspect that there are a few inter-related reasons - some good and some humbling - and I share them now in the hope that others engaged in ministry will offer me their insights.
+ First, let me own my own bullshit (as per previous postings.) I know that I am wrestling with grief. Like many men, whenever I am tired and anxious it comes out as anger - or in my case as crankiness - with a slight edginess in all I think, say or do. But as with any such complicated "gift," there is often an up and a down side active at the same time. The upside (as I see it) is an almost palpable intolerance for wasting time. I don't want people taken away from loved ones on a cold night for stupid reasons. I don't want already overly committed friends to experience unnecessary busyness that squeezes the solitude out of an already demanding day. I don't want the people I love to be "guilt tripped" into filling some institutional slot just so that a chair at a meeting can be filled and counted. And what I want for others, I also want for myself.
Thankfully, over the years we have eliminated most of our unnecessary meetings in our congregation. Our system isn't perfect but now there is only one night each month when ministries and council meets to plan, pray and prepare for action. Not only has this fostered greater lay ownership, it has also freed me from the expectation of having to be a part of every church conversation. To be sure, there are lots of other times for small groups or one-on-ones devoted to study, action and/or reflection; but only one regularly scheduled administrative meeting because we have come to believe that life is too short and precious to be wasted. Now most of our "official" work is about relationship building. As I noted in last Sunday's message, our values try to embrace these three truths: being is more important than doing, living from the heart is more important than living in our heads, and acting with others in loving compassion is more important than most of what we do as individuals.
Sadly, this does not seem to be the norm in the wider church. In fact, I have come to sense that there is a weird type of "works righteousness" alive in the institutional church that encourages us to act like going to meetings equals faithful living. And that is the downside for me at this moment in my life: these meetings exhaust and exasperate me so much that I come home feeling as if my time has been wasted. I find these gatherings disconnected from the real demands that real people must wrestle with every day - and ultimately disrespectful.
Sometimes I simply shut up and eat my frustration. That is probably the better course of action and is going to be a part of this year's Lenten disciplines. But at other times I find myself calling into question both the style and content of these meetings because both are so poorly conceived. I am at the point of passive resistance thinking that the time has come for me to simply resign from many of my wider church commitments. I don't want to denigrate those who find value in these meetings, nor do I want to be a pain in the ass for those who are committed to running them. I love the church - locally, nationally and internationally - but I am fed up with business as usual when it comes to boring, wasteful, ineffective and works-righteousness driven meetings.
QUESTION: How do others deal with this reality?
+ Second, in my exhaustion over wasted time, I have come to see that what really matters - and what truly energizes me - is being in living relationship with people. That is another upside: being with a friend as she is dying, visiting a member in the hospital, sharing prayer or tea in some one's home has value. Leading a discussion or study has value. Hosting the celebration of Eucharist each week has value. Planning good meetings - and cooperatively, well-organized liturgies - has value. Going to band and choir practice has value. Writing and studying and praying has value. Sitting in quiet contemplation has value. Walking in the woods with my lover and our dog has meaning and value. Encouraging others to deepen their life in faith has value. Working on a well-planned and effective social justice campaign for housing for the homeless has value.
QUESTION: How do others strike a balance between their commitment to their local church and participation in wider church events?
One last concern: given the shortage of dollars as the US creeps out of our most recent recession, I am seriously wondering whether we should join the majority of congregations and start cutting back our financial support to the wider church. That is heresy for me, but I see so little value at this moment in time - and such great local need - that I wonder whether that time has come for us? Most other congregations in the United Church began to cut their giving to the wider church 20 years ago. I wonder...
Well, none of this resolves my shock at becoming an old grouch. But it helps me clarify some of the factors that are contributing to this sad state of affairs. Perhaps that is why I've discerned that one of my challenges and commitments during Lent is to SHUT UP more! To everything there is a season and now is a time for more personal silence. Let's see where that leads?
Last night, as I drove home from my clergy group I gave thanks to God for these colleagues and the relationships of depth and trust we are building. And for that experience in an otherwise grouchy week, I give thanks.