humility, listening and showing up...

In every congregation I have served - and I have had the honor to serve four very different and
wonderful churches over 35 years of ministry - an abiding commitment of mine has been the importance of shared commitment. I believe in empowering and equipping the laity for every aspect of ministry, and, holding them accountable for rigorous discipleship. There are no half-time promises for the leadership team of a faith community:  either you are in for 110% participation or not at all.  I know that not everyone can make such a promise - nor should everyone be expected to do so - as Christian formation is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. But people who cannot focus and give their best to the cause of Christ in a local church should not be a part of the core leadership team.  As St. Paul teaches, there are different gifts and different levels of service.

That is why in each of the churches I have pastored I have worked to create an appreciation for shared decision making.  I do it with and among my staff. I encourage it within our ministry teams. And I support it as vital within our elected leadership meetings. Not everyone "gets" why this matters - especially those with a long history in hierarchical corporate America. There are "best practices" in business that encourage teamwork, sharing information and encouragement just as there are top-down, need-to-know models of management. Both have track records worth noting because in different contexts both get results. As the body of Christ,  however, I found the hierarchical style to be counter-productive - especially in a small congregation. As a rule, churches with fewer than 100 in worship on a Sunday need more consensus than mid-size congregations because trust and respect are essential for accomplishing anything. This takes patience. This takes an enormous effort at building relationships. And this takes regular face-time with individuals as well as hours of prayer and careful listening. It is not time-effective in the parlance of some business models, but it is life or death for communities built on faith.

Don't misunderstand: in worship - and all congregational celebrations - there must be a clearly defined leader or else the event descends into chaos. Same is true for music and mission events:  without a clearly identified leaders, these encounters lack focus and effectiveness. So I am all for focused leadership at the right times. What I celebrate, however, with every breath I take in the local church is sharing information and discussions about key decisions. I detest and rigorously oppose hierarchy in this realm because it is counter productive and subverts trust. 
What I have experienced in nearly four decades of church work is simple:  showing up, as Woody Allen once said, is 80% of what we are called to do. M. Craig Barnes speaks of what happens when we show up at potlucks: mostly, we listen. Wendell Berry notes that showing up at a neighbor's front porch is much the same thing because we arrive without an agenda - we are there just to listen. In listening, we learn what is important. In listening, we watch the faces of those we love and learn what moves them, what energizes them and what evokes fear in them, too. As my old urban ministry mentor, Ray Swartzback, used to say: credibility is not portable - you have to earn it over and over again - and the only way you do this is by showing up, loving and listening carefully.

This week I have been blessed two time over that my lay leadership not only shows up - and listens - but is committed to sharing the cost and joy of discipleship with love in these hard times. We are learning how to refashion ourselves not only as a small worshipping community, but also as a small organization. It is humbling - and humility is good for the soul. I give thanks today that our leaders are profoundly committed to the way of humility. Sharing, not hierarchy, bodes well for our future.


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