Going theological part two...

NOTE: My on-going theological reflection on the development of our renewal at First Church.  This is part two in anticipation of the conclusion re: seven current actions we are working on that embody a new commitment to servant leadership. I shared Part One yesterday and hope to complete this essay over the weekend.
Thoughts on Two Hundred and Fifty Years of Ministry in the Same Place (part two of three)

When we began our journey towards renewal seven years ago, we trusted by faith that God wasn’t finished with us as a community. We didn’t know what that meant because it was unknowable before starting the journey; we simply trusted that God had been faithful to our great cloud of witnesses before and would continue being faithful.  Patiently and carefully, listening to one another and sharing prayer, tears and laughter, we began to discern a path into both renewal and reconciliation.  It should be noted for the record, however, that before there was an abundance of laughter, there was a surfeit of tears. 

Grief work in churches called to renewal is essential because “when deaths go ungrieved, death becomes triumphant.” (Jaco Hamman, When Steeples Cry, p.24) Both Douglas John Hall and Jaco Hamman have observed that in the past 50 years, the once dominant Christian churches of North America have been disestablished; in Quebec this took place legally while the change has been more cultural in the United States. Nevertheless, the once main line denominations are now side line institutions struggling for vision, meaning and resources. And the magnitude of this change is wrought with grief.

One son of First Church recently posted this sobering summary of contemporary church life on Facebook:  “Pray for your pastor: 97% of pastors have been betrayed, falsely accused or hurt by their trusted friends. 70% of pastors battle depression. 7,000 churches in the United States close each year.  1,500 pastors will quit this month. 10% will retire. 80% of pastors feel discouraged.  94% of pastors’ families feel the pressure of ministry. 78% of pastors have no close friends. 90% of pastors report working 55-75% hours each week. Pray for your pastor.” (Steven Small, Facebook, August 5, 2014) I would push this summary one step further and note that when our pastors are overwhelmed and discouraged, it is only natural for many in their congregations follow suit. Such grief “is the normal emotional, spiritual, physical and relational reaction to the experience of loss and change. It is a powerful and involuntary force governing the way your congregation will have its life together and engage God in the world.” (Hamman, p. 12)

In the summer of 2007, the magnitude of grief in First Church was incomprehensible to me. I knew the brain injury inflicted upon my predecessor had been traumatic and unnerving for everyone involved, but I was not aware of the additional congregational pain born of the cultural and political changes in our community. (NOTE: After serving faithfully and creatively for 22 years, he was struck by a hit and run driver while riding his bicycle – and left for dead. In time, he physically recovered but chose retirement during the years required to rebuild a life after such a brain injury. He continues to serve Christ’s church through writing and has become a trusted friend and colleague.)
Seven years later my sabbatical team and I wrote about this anguish like this:

Our congregation was struggling for an identity for the future. In the past, First Church had been the theological and cultural home of the community’s elite. Changes in culture, demographics and regional business needs rendered the old identity moot. (Further upon the) unexpected (but necessary) retirement (of our pastor of 23 years) we wandered through a series of interim pastors, false starts and despondency… We were in desperate need of… renewal.

What was actually true, however, was the desperate need for mourning.  The loss of a strong and trusted pastor was profound, but so was the confusion and resentment born of losing the region’s largest manufacturer – and the subsequent loss of jobs and people. And it would be a mistake to minimize the effects that our cultural disestablishment had upon the congregation: not only was Pittsfield becoming a more casual community, but it was forsaking its long history of involvement in houses of worship. To be blunt, the world was changing too fast for many. So when the pastor had to depart without an intentional transition, the congregation’s sadness and despair became palpable.  Without “an intentional process of letting go of relationships, dreams and vision,” fear and death became the dominant motif of our community of faith. And it demanded that we make the work of mourning the first step towards our renewal.

Mourning implies living through grief; to live with loss and change: Due to its intentionality, mourning is work. Mourning requires mindfulness and decries nostalgia. You have to embrace Paul’s challenge to the believers in Rome, whom he commanded to have “sober judgment” about being the body of Christ. (Romans 12:3) Doing the work of mourning is not about replacement but describes a process of evoking memories of the past, discerning the impact of change on the present, envisioning a future and then living into that new identity. The work of mourning is a creative response to loss.

Once again, our great cloud of witnesses – this time from Israel’s exile – is instructive for they, too had to grieve and lament before they were ready to rebuild and renew. In Isaiah 61, the prophet of the Lord was inspired by God to tell his people: “God has anointed me as the herald of joy to the humble, to bind up the wounded heart and preach good news to the poor.” It is essential to grasp that the Hebrew word we translate as “preach” is basher, “from the stem basher, which literally means meat or flesh.” (Hamman, p. 10) Perhaps a more helpful rendition of the Hebrew in Isaiah 61 would be: The Spirit of the Lord is on me because the Lord has anointed me to ENFLESH or EMBODY good news to the poor.”

In prayer, by accident, through conversation and the wisdom of others, we discerned that there were three places we needed to embody mourning before the light of renewal would dawn: worship, church council and our engagement with the wider community. It was not always pretty. As in any group being led through their grief, there is often anger and acting out to say nothing of resistance and sabotage. There were countless nights when I wept and actually prepared my resignation. Like Moses before me, I grew weary of the “murmuring” and active dissatisfaction that was our reality for the first three years of my ministry.  Thanks be to God there were times of laughter and joy, too because without them I would have been long gone.
Thanks be to God as well that most of the elected lay leadership of First Church trusted the grace of God as expressed in our great cloud of witnesses.  They were faithful, if uncertain; they loved, even when afraid; and they knew beyond any obvious evidence that God was not finished with them yet. Further, they came to trust that I did not recommend – or make – capricious changes – they were all intended to take us deeper into the work of mourning and renewal – so the leadership trusted. They were rigorous in their questions and critique, but they gave me the space, love and respect to “embody and enflesh” some of God’s spiritual good news.

·        Worship:  Because public worship is the front door through which new and well-established folk experience the church, this was we needed to embody new encounters with the Spirit. The music had grown stale – well-executed and beautiful – but in a narrow and limited way. Sung responses were outdated and complicated to sing. The words of the liturgy sounded like 1950. And people were not accustomed to full participation during the 10:30 hour. As one old salt said:  “We were mostly a place where the pastor pastured and the congregation congregated.”  There was a lot of mourning to be done as we changed the worship experience. There was sorrow and uncertainty when long standing staff retired. There was resentment and resistance to hiring new and more contemporary musical staff. 

Personally I came to value this quote by James Dittes:  To be a minister is to know the most searing grief and abandonment, daily and profoundly. To be a minister is to make an all-out, prodigal commitment to a people who cannot possible sustain it.” We spent a full three years grieving and mourning about worship because “when you grieve the disappointments and disillusionments… you create space for yourself to continue to grow in ministry. Such space in turn makes growth for your congregation possible… for the art of creating space for others to grow is the essence of pastoral ministry.” (p. 29) With tears and clear explanations, with courage and support from key lay leaders, with an abounding trust in God’s grace, we kept moving beyond exile towards healing. And while there will always be more work necessary, after five years of wandering and rebuilding I think it is fair to say that we have entered a time of creativity, zest and celebration in worship.

·        Council:  Without the support, love and trust of the elected lay leadership the work of leading a people through grief into mourning and renewal is impossible.  Thankfully I inherited a faithful and well-trained group of leaders when I arrived in 2007. Not everyone was charitable, of course; but the majority refused to engage in gossip and honestly brought their concerns to my face rather than triangulating and causing deeper pain.  The journey into mourning on this level took three forms:  a) periodic study and prayer retreats; b) study and prayer at the opening of each council meeting; and c) the strategic and prayer-filled rewriting of our by-laws.  During our retreats – where we crafted a new mission statement, envisioned new directions for worship and saving money and also discerned the focus of our Open and Affirming commitment – we studied scripture. That is, we learned from the great cloud of witnesses.

We broke bread together, we told stories, we wept and grieve in the open – and in time we shared our hopes and dreams. I am convinced that this “slow church” approach to embodied mourning was the key to moving into new life.  As some theologians believe – and Jesus taught us – the leadership of a congregation is to become the leaven in the loaf.  When they are grounded in God’s grace, not only are they able to interpret the movement of the Spirit to the wider congregation, but they radiate joy rather than despair. “We learn the skills of hospitality in small increments of daily faithfulness. The moral life Is much less about dramatic gestures than it is about steady work – faithfulness undergirded by prayer and sustained grace. The surprise is how often it is accompanied by mystery, blessing and joy.” (Christine Pohl in Sojourners magazine)

·        Mission:  The Old Testament book of Proverbs, an ancient collection of wisdom statements designed to help young people transition into successful adulthood, includes this aphorism in 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (KJV) Over the years of decline and death, the outward mission of First Church lost vision. Everything that was taking place was good, but our efforts seemed more designed to make us feel satisfied that we were on the right side rather than making a difference in our culture. When asked early in my ministry, “What is the mission of our outreach work?” there was a long, confused silence and then the embarrassed confession that nobody really knew.  This, too, had to be grieved – and it was frustrating to own our lack of vision. In time, however, we were led to two significant changes:  a) we crafted a pithy mission statement that allowed us to evaluate our work and use of resources; and b) we reclaimed the liturgical calendar as a guide for our social action.

After prayer and study – in retreat and in private – we wrote:  In community with God and each other, we gather to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and to share compassion. This allowed us to prioritize our limited time and funds to strengthening worship, Christian education, acts of both social justice and compassion. The liturgical calendar helped us refine this mission even more:  in the summer months of ordinary time we gave time to caring for the earth; in the fall as ordinary time was shaped by Reformation Sunday and All Saints Day we made certain that we were offering hope to those in need of food and shelter; as winter morphed into Advent and Christmas we addressed peace-making; and in spring we were shaped by the movement of Lent/Easter and acts of renewal and rebirth. We also found that we needed to join others in the ecumenical church who have created the “Season of Creation” in September to give special emphasis to environmental justice.

As I stand on the precipice of a sabbatical in 2015, I am certain that without the grief work of mourning First Church would be in much tougher straights than we are today. Jaco Hamman is right:  When you grieve the disappointments and disillusionments you experience in ministry, you create space for yourself to grow. Cleary Israel’s return from exile is a model for our renewal.  Our internal struggles for trust, our deep and sometimes contentious arguments and laments were, in reality, symptoms of grief that were also signs of hope. Sr. Joan Chittister once said that renewal is always about learning to “see the eagle within the egg.”

Our great cloud of witnesses might put it like this:  I know it is Friday – and all we can see is the Cross – but hold on because Easter Sunday is coming!” What I have discovered over seven years is that by honoring the call to mourn – and creating expressions of beauty and joy in worship – we were able to listen for God’s still, small voice and follow in creative and playful ways. We were empowered to emphasize gratitude rather than obligation or judgment. And we took theology seriously as we prayed with fear and trembling.

Slowly, patiently and quietly a new/old way of being First Church began to take shape in ways that honored the great cloud of witnesses while charting new ground as servant leaders.  As we prepare for my 8th year of ministry at First Church, I see seven ways that this truth is being embodied in our life together. We are not always consistent and we sometimes get our new commitments wrong as often as we get them right. That is part of the holy/human story of being God’s people – call it sin or just human nature (they are profoundly related) – still these inconsistencies do not diminish in any way the radical change we are exploring in community
credits:
1) Rebecca Leigh
2) Dianne de Mott

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