A walk in the dark

I’ve begun to think about what might come next, for me, employment-wise.  Having been a pastor for some 32 years, my first thoughts move in that way.  If I am to be a pastor once again, what might that look like?  If I’m to take this business of divorcing Constantine seriously, what does a professional ministry look like? 

I think the challenge of unhooking a church like the United Church from empire, from colonialism, from white supremacy, is profound and painful.  It means leaving normal.  It means acknowledging that we have been part of something that has gone wrong, done significant harm.  We need to be willing to look at some very painful truths.  There’s a lot of repentance involved, here, and repentance is tough stuff. 

Not only that, but the way forward is rarely clear.  We have some role models, ancient and more modern, but it seems that wisdom and faithfulness are very local.  Copying what seemed to work somewhere else, in someone else’s church (or even the church we went to in _________) rarely works out.  God’s call in this place, for this time and this people, seems unique. 

So I think that pastoring a church right now means leading people on a walk in the dark.  It means discernment – a corporate process of listening to the Spirit, to our neighbours, to the signs of the times, to our own souls, to our tradition.  We’ll be leaving normal, leaving the familiar lighted paths, and facing some significant challenges, so we’ll need to stick together and move carefully – but we will need to move, and resist the temptation to stay where it is comfortable. 

Here are some things I think I will need to do in my next ministry:

  • En-courage.  This is challenging stuff, and we live in challenging times.  Courage will be, I think, a key resource.  How can I en-courage people?  I always hope to start by constantly proclaiming the love of God, that God loves us without exception and without condition.  Showing that love and appreciation to people is an essential part of that proclamation – paying attention to people, affirming their gifts, showing care in their difficulty.  But somehow also, I think it’s important to learn to take God more seriously, and ourselves less seriously – to pay more attention to God and God’s call than to our own ego needs (which is probably only possible if we know God’s got our back). 
  • Listen for the truth.  And I want to remember that the kind of truths we’ll have to be prepared to hear are the kinds of things we have been avoiding hearing, seeing, knowing.  They’ll be things about which we’re in denial, things we have hidden from ourselves, truths that may sting.  As I think they say in AA, “the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”  This will mean a careful reading of Scripture – which I have tried to cultivate all my ministry – but I think it will also mean hearing from a variety of people and a variety of perspectives.  I imagine myself needing to go outside of the congregation, listening to people, talking with people (especially in the demographics the church would like to attract), and inviting them in turn to speak to the church.  Our first posture needs to be a listening one. 
  • Experiment.  I think this is a time for crazy ideas.  When I was working on my doctoral project on Sabbath, the rabbis encouraged me to ask certain questions as we developed our sabbath practice:  what would be, for you, a perfect day?  What most feeds your soul?  What do you need to STOP doing in order to truly rest?  These are the kinds of questions I think we need to ask, and we need to (reasonably, sustainably) try some of the crazy ideas that make us excited. 
  • Collaborate.  This, I think, has been one of the key lessons for me in the last several years.  We need not do this on our own!  In fact, this seems to be a time for reaching across religious divides, making partnerships in our communities, honouring and collaborating with the good work of others, respecting and supporting the good that others are doing.  We are far stronger, more effective, and, I believe, more faithful, when we work together. 
  • Evaluate.  This is something that, in my experience, churches do not often do.  We need to evaluate what we do:  is it working?  What are we learning?  Does this fit with our mission and values? 

This is probably long enough for one post.  What am I missing?  What other things are necessary in order to lead a church into a place of transformation in Christ?