another challenge of re-entry...

One of the many insights I am encountering upon re-entry to the day-to-day reality of pastoral ministry is that I am so done with doing church administration, planning, visioning and church politics in the way I was taught back in the day. Those days are over for me professionally and for the wider culture. Our world has changed. Our people are hyper-stressed and overly busy. And almost no one under the age of 40 cares about serving on boards and committees and all the rest. 

Don't misunderstand - a lot of beautiful relationships were born of that type of church work in the
past with a deep sense of community and compassion created and shared - and I have been blessed by that experience. But that model worked best only when many middle class women didn't work full time outside of the home, children played for hours outside in unstructured ways, family systems were rigid and the economic pressures of making ends meet were significantly less oppressive. 

In other words, the way I learned to "do" church - and think about, plan for and administer a church - are gone. It doesn't matter whether we rejoice or feel nostalgic for the old days. Like Lou Reed sang in "Great American Whale:"  "Stick a fork in it... it's done!" I came to terms with this in myself in a surprising way during our sabbatical. Not only was I free for a season from doing church administration, but I had the chance to quietly observe what contemporary life looks and feels like from the perspective of those on the outside of the traditional church. And what I discovered is that most of what takes place in maintaining a traditional church is irrelevant and sometimes soul-sucking for those not invested in the institution.Further, I noticed in a fresh way that what drew people into the building looked something like this: 

1) Worship with spiritual, emotional, ethical and aesthetic integrity

2) Sharing compassion in clear and simple ways

3) And a vibrant counter-cultural vibe - that is, an alternative to the rat race - that was palpable

This makes sense to me. It seems to make sense to others who are on a truly contemplative journey, too. They aren't interested in shame or liberal guilt. They have no time to serve on committees and boards that carp more than make a difference. And they have precious little time for activities that don't have value. It can be sacrificial value, to be sure, but the ironic blessing of our burned-out culture is that people are no longer willing or able to participate in ways that no longer matter. As the former Mayor of Cleveland, Michael White, used to tell me: Make poverty your friend. That is, let the hard times and challenging demands of reality help you do what is right. Let it push you into clearing away the bullshit.

During the four months I was away from church culture - even a church I love - I found myself filled with joy and energy. It was more than a mere vacation (although at first there was some of that, too.) Rather, I now had time to live an integrated life. Parker Palmer speaks of living "an undivided where we can (un-learn what we were taught) early on... that it's not safe to be in the world as who we really are with what we truly value and believe."

Everyone pays a price when we live behind a mask... there's no way to connect and establish trust with such a person - and the quality of what might happen between us suffers as a result. Further, the person who lives a divided life also suffers. I can't imagine a sadder way to die than knowing I never showed up on Earth as who I really am... every time we show up as our true selves, we reclaim identity and integrity and new life can grow within, between and around us.

One of the mysteries of re-entry for me is this: can we find a new way of being together in our organizational lives in church that encourage joy and tenderness? Can we find new/old ways to let go of what no longer matters? Can we live and integrated, undivided life? Can we actively banish shame and blame as an administrative tool? Can we even move towards greater trust and less worry? Poet Mary Oliver got it right:

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, with the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall  
I correct it?

Was I right? Was I wrong? Will I be forgiven?
Can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do that and I am, well,

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it.
Am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia.

Finally I saw that worrying came to nothing.
And I gave it up. And I took my old body
and went out into the morning, 
and sang.

We shall see...


James D. Findlay said…
This is exquisite, James. What you express about what you found in your sacred time and space in Montreal I discovered, as a caring-for-the-world contemplative, some years ago: I am not meant to put up with the vagaries of church life as it now is. It came close to killing me, and did harm me, a few times. I have been a good pastor. But I live an undivided life when the steps of my path take me elsewhere. Finding teaching as a calling (it took me forty-plus years to get here!) has been the greatest gift. I wish you ALL the best, and the Spirit's power and guidance, in discerning and creating the New Life you have already tasted, and wish to enter more fully. I will continue to hold you in my prayers, every day, as I have been. Bless you, Man!
RJ said…
Brother Findlay: I recall fondly taking off my shoes upon entering your place in Cleveland and trying to sort out where the Spirit was really leading us. I am grateful for your encouragement and rejoice in your blessings of focus, integrity and an undivided life. I will keep you posted, for sure, and continue to hold you deep in my prayers. LOTS of love.

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