Guide our feet to your path, O Lord, even though it be so very difficult for us to follow. Illumine our minds and hearts, that we may live and move and have our being in You.
What an incredibly challenging time we live in!
For the past few months, I’ve been involved in setting up and planning for a one-day workshop in “Creative Collaborations” for the smaller churches in my region. A HUGE percentage of all of them are in pastoral transitions of some sort or other and trying to pin down who and what they are, the kind of ministry they represent now, and what they want to do for ministry in the future. But times have changed and are changing so rapidly that models of ministry that existed during the last time these small churches were in pastoral transitions and understood how to go about finding a new pastor/ministry leader are almost nonexistent.
So, out of curiosity, I went looking to see what kinds of “jobs” are actually out there for pastors looking for new positions.
In almost every MIF I’ve reviewed, there seems to be a craving for “a pastor who will attract youth and younger families to our church” and something along the lines that if that doesn’t happen, the church faces continued shrinkage and eventual closure. Time and again (although not exclusively), congregations confess and sorrow over the fact that they have no children, youth, or young families. Each of these congregations, I am beginning to believe, are operating out of models of ministry they have always known and been a part of – models that were perfect for a time and place, a moment in history, that supported creation, maintenance, and stewardship of an institutional church.
I have come to believe we are no longer in that time and place; and history has moved on. This, of course, presents some additional challenges, both to the churches and their search committees, and to pastors and ministry leaders looking for work.
“Pastor-Saviors” such as those being asked for will only disappoint, I’m afraid. I am fairly certain the silver bullet that converts “new young pastor” into “advertising specialist and youth/children/younger families magnet” has not been developed, or if there are hints of it, it seems to operate outside the traditional models (and perhaps even the knowledge base and skill set) that seem to be espoused by these search committees. In a lot of cases, I can imagine these search committees know this is outside their knowledge base and skill set, which then puts that pressure right back on that “Pastor-Savior” position they are seeking to fill; and wah-la! Stuck behind a wall of institutionalized reality in a feedback loop destined to frustrate, even endanger the church and any potential ministry leader.
In my understanding, it is God who plants the seed, the Holy Spirit who waters it, and Followers of the Way of Jesus who harvest. There is no institution in that, it is a process – and it is organic. It is a seed that grows in a field, or a forest that reemerges from the ashes. How can “saving the church” be done by a “new young(er) pastor” at all? Not to mention, if I were looking, I’m fairly certain I would not be considered “young” anymore by current folks graduating from seminary even if I myself might be considered “young” by current search committees! Here, then, is the rub: into this incredibly changing and challenging world, those looking to serve in God’s Kin-dom in some ministry setting are faced with a dual reality. The church that was, and the church that is yet to come.
For folks like myself, I’d be considered a “mid-career,” “middle-aged,” maybe even “under-experienced” pastor, since I’ve only been an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament for 8 years, and in that capacity have only served as a part-time temporary stated supply solo pastor for a small rural congregation and a part-time temporary stated supply bridge pastor in an urban setting. From my perspective, the whole “institution” of “Called and Installed Pastor” is in and of itself an endangered species.
How does someone like me fit into the world, the church, and the changes that have taken place and feel like s/he knows enough to navigate the changes and still be true to the purpose and ministry of God’s Kin-dom?
Which leads me to wonder….
Is the only way to pass on the faith from older generations to younger generations to communicate their love, their dedication, their passion for the work of the institutional church they grew up with and have come to be a part of? If so, then no matter how passionate or loving they speak of their institution, their church, their community of faith as they have known it through the decades, it will not kindle a flame of similar longing, passion, and dedication in most members of the younger generations who have no allegiance to religious institutions – nor many other institutions, either. If the society as we know it has changed, and the institutional church as we know it has not changed, where does that leave us? If there is something else that needs to replace the institution of the church to become an effective tool and/or model of spiritual formation that can pass the Christian Faith on to younger generations, what is it?
Younger generations are engaged and living in the society our world has become, not the society of the past where institutions of faith were the locus and focus of community life. Life has become too complex, too multifaceted, and too fragmented all at the same time for that to be the case anymore. Many of our church buildings may indeed have central prominence in our physical communities – maybe even house or host essential services to those communities. But there are just as many in larger communities that have become brew pubs, community centers, and/or event venues for a plethora of community needs other than faith formation; or should I say formation in an institutionalized faith?
In this liminal space in which we live and move and have our being, a replacement for institutional church as we have known it is still unknown, and in the minds of most adherents even admitting that this may be needed is fearful to even consider. However, there are some markers as to what moves and engages younger generations of today. It is of paramount concern to existing communities of faith to discover and learn what these markers are and how they play out – or might play out – in their respective communities. To those more forward-thinking communities of faith facing transitions, their communal life together would do well to begin to craft their future ministry with those markers in mind; and by extension, to find ministry leaders to partner with them in this new voyage of discovery. But how in the world can we bear to face such change or transformation of our understanding of community and faith formation?
I would invite you to walk this next week of Palms and Passion with your feet treading the path and journey of Christ himself. Perhaps we may begin to find some of those markers in his story – for in his story we find our story, and in our story, we find the world.
Amen? May it be so.