Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Beginning again...some new reflections on life in Church

One of the challenges of leading a church is, frankly, coming up with a leadership "style" that makes sense and is of use to the people I am serving as leader. Of course, that makes sense. And, to any organized, thoughtful and reflective person who is a good planner and takes time to think before they take action it is an achievable and simple undertaking. Thing is, I am not that person. Turning 40 and making the turn from one crisis to another over the past couple of years has peeled away my delusions of being the sort of thinking, reflective person I would be...and has brought me to terms with the reactive and extemporaneous person I truly am in the present moment.

As a leader, I am good in crisis. As a leader, I can make something happen when little is at hand. All good skills for someone out on the frontier, but not helpful when a parish community faces the whole-Body conversion that seems increasingly important if the Church is going to thrive and evolve in the coming years.

The temptation I have faced, and one that seems to be mirrored in today's Church, is that when I dwell in the reactive I tend to coast in times of plenty. Now, there are numerous forms of plenty...and Churches have faced them all in the past half-century. There have been plenty of members (not so much any more). There have been plenty of children (thanks to the Baby Boom and its successive echoes). There has been plenty of money (but hey, what with the market today and an economic/environmental crisis that promises to alter our cultural DNA for several generations to come, that season may be over as well). So, without plenty, what do we do? The fact is that the Episcopal Church is in decline. What makes that a very scary thing is that we are not in precipitous decline. That might prompt action (reactive action) on the part of leadership and those who are led, alike. It is a Church in gradual decline. That makes it reversible, of course...but only with those small course corrections that keep things like planes in the air...or those minor alterations in life-style that make people healthier in the long run.

It means taking the time, and being willing to express the effort, to think, reflect, pray, plan, try and fail over and over again. It takes being willing to admit that we don't know it all, or have it all, or can make it all happen right now. Talk about taming the tiger of our own self-involvement. There isn't really a greater demon we face other than the one that whispers in our ear that not only can we be in charge of it all, but that our own will to fix can actually provide the fix. Or, that there is even a "fix" that is possible. Truth is, everything can't be fixed. This world is passing. People and things age and die. All boats are sinking. All buildings are falling down. The only "fix" in life is to be willing to continually build, to continually grow, to continually evolve...and to be willing to understand that what was can only inform what might be. The past can NEVER determine the future, it can only provide precedent. And, precedents can change over time!

So, how do we celebrate being Church in such a fluid environment? Not easily. It requires stepping out of our comfort zone of presuming that in a world rife with change that there can be one constant, human institution. Worse, that we presume that constant to be the church. Why put that burden on a thing? It was bad enough to shoulder a person with that responsibility. We did that with Jesus and it led to him being nailed to a cross. Sure, God purposed that death in order that Life would triumph...but even in that human presuppositions and attempts at controlling the environment (even death) fell to pieces at our feet, even as Jesus' death shroud fell from his living visage as he rose up from death into life.

I am feeling this burden keenly right now. It is both a blessing and a curse. I can see how I have used my own will and reactivity to feed the demons in and around me in the past years. I have been given new tools, new eyes, to see how the demons of addictive behaviors and attitudes have clouded the Church around me, and in me. The tough part, again, is finding the way forward.

Sometimes big gifts come in small packages. This morning, a parishioner forwarded to me a sermon preached by the Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Bishop of Ohio. He was the guest preacher at a Diocese of New Jersey celebration of its recovery ministries. Being in recovery himself, he offered this perspective, preaching on the Gospel of Jesus' healing of the Gadarene demoniac:

Recovering people have a critical witness to make to the church and the world. Because of what we have experienced of the healing community beyond our demons, we have good news to proclaim, both by word and example. And it is news the world is desperate to hear.

If, for example, we are going to achieve global economic recovery, we will need to surrender to a globally healing community, we will need to live not for ourselves alone, but for the whole world. We will need to accept that economic recovery, like all recovery, will cost us. It will change the neighborhood, defining anew who our neighbor is. It will mean living in a new way. And that will require the patient yet uncompromising leadership of those who have seen what lies beyond the country of the Gadarenes and have come to know the one who alone can restore us to sanity.

Those who work the steps are well suited to this task. We do it week after week in home groups around the world. By our witness and our companionship, we humbly bear the grace of the one who cast aside the Gadarene demoniacs. We, like townspeople of Gadara, have seen him, yet we beg him not to leave our neighborhood. Rather we petition him, as we do one another, to “Keep coming back.”

More later...>

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