Monday, September 07, 2009

For the Love of the Church

My mother is the mayor of a small town in Southeastern Colorado where I spent a week last month. During my time with her, much of my mother's heart was captivated by an explosive conversation occurring within the community. The town, like many small communities, is suffering from the economic downturn. There are several empty storefronts on Main Street. Many citizens in the town are struggling with their small businesses, loss of jobs, and the changing economic landscape.

A couple of years ago, the town did a nationwide search to find the right administrator for the city. They found their ideal candidate - someone who shared creative ideas for what could happen in their community, someone with a proven track record of making a big impact on a similar community in Florida, someone with tremendous passion to bring about much-needed change.

The administrator was hired. He moved his family across the country. He unveiled a plan for urban renewal, an extensive plan for how to bring more commerce to the community by making simple changes in the community that others would find more attractive. The man has poured his heart and soul into the position, yearning to bring his experience, his dreams, his visions, and his ideas in order to bring about the change he was hired to bring. My mother has been filled with excitement, along with many members of the city council. But, two years later, the administrator has announced an early retirement. He has been accused of having self-serving ambitions. He has been called a liar. People have worked hard to push him out, to stop the change from going any further. Vicious, vicious things have been said about him in an online forum attached to the town's newspaper website.

And now, every morning, my mother sends this person an email that says, "Do not let anyone steal your joy."

My mother has been repeating the same thing to me this week. "Donna, do not let anyone steal your joy."

In response to my last entry, I received an incredibly helpful email from a dear colleague who is in ministry several states away. My colleague wrote and shared how she was filled with the pain of labor, how she was working so hard for something new to come about in the congregation she serves, and how the labor pains are excruciating. She then offered helpful advice to me on what mothers do after they give birth, suggesting that I do some of the same - that I hold the church tight right now, that I sit back and admire this precious gift, and that I take delight in the gift that has come. Her email was a blessing to me.

But, I keep thinking of her labor pains, my labor pains, and the growth pains that I am currently experiencing. I spent a week with this colleague back in May at a conference in Atlanta. There were three of us sharing a hotel that week - three women clergy who love the church, three women clergy who are in churches that have the capacity to explode, three women clergy working far more hours than is probably healthy, three women clergy having to explain often to our spouses and partners as to why we are not going to be home until after 9:00 yet again, three woman clergy sharing our hopes and our dreams and our love of the church. And, this week, all three of us have expressed the enormous pains associated with being a pastor - the criticism, the lack of trust, the second guessing of our every move, the desires of our congregations to be comfortable with the present and uncomfortable with the not-yet.

We all love the church. We responded to a call to ministry because we saw the church as this dynamic agent of change. We know the church as an organization that has the capacity to transform lives from the inside out and to make a huge impact on the community. We have seen the joys of ministry - the incredible gift of spending time with people who confess their darkest sins, who are encouraged to live new lives, and who make changes in their lives in the name of the gospel - who let go of some things in order to journey into the unknown future of discipleship. We love our positions. We love Jesus and his call to serve the least of these. We know the power of amazing grace and long to open others to the grace at work in their lives. We are aware of what unhealthy churches look like and what healthy churches look like. We have been exposed to growing churches and declining churches. We have been mentored by all kinds of remarkable people who have shared with us how to be the most faithful pastors that God can enable us to be.

We have also been exposed to all kinds of people who work to steal our joy. We have all been accused and criticized for similar things. We have been questioned about things we have said and things we have written. We have been criticized for messages God has given us to preach and for showing too much enthusiasm for things God is doing. We have been chastised for doing some things and questioned for not doing other things. We have all experienced our share of pain, and frustration, and heartaches.

But, again, we all love the church. We all have the same hopes and dreams for what this body can become and be and do and serve. None of us came into this occupation with self-serving ambitions. We all know that it's too painful of a place and that we could do a million other things with our lives if we really wanted to be self-serving. Again, we are here because we love, love, love the church!!!

For four years, I had the precious privilege of working in seminary admissions, listening to the hopes and dreams of individuals who had heard God calling their name. In almost every conversation, I also heard about the dreams people had for Christ's church - the ways in which people were eagerly anticipating the ability to bring about change and transformation in the name of Jesus Christ. Individuals had been exposed to the power of the Gospel and the gift of this Gospel being embodied in the life of the church, and individuals wanted to be part of a healthy, dynamic community of faith where others could experience this same gift.

Our seminaries do the very best that they can to train these individuals to serve Christ's church as faithfully as they can. They are then sent out where they quickly discover that it is not easy to be a pastor. As Greg Jones, the dean of Duke Divinity School, often says, "We too often see our most gifted graduates appointed to pastor in churches where they are least likely to succeed." What he means is that people who are just graduating are often sent to smaller churches, many of which are in decline instead of experiencing growth. They are sent to places that are not eager for change, places where people are quite comfortable and do not always cling to the passionate new pastor who comes with countless ideas for what the church is called to be - the Body of Christ working for transformation in the community.

Again, I do not know of a single pastor who responds to their call in order to be self-serving, in order to change things for the sake of change, in order to upset the status quo just for the heck of it.

So, why do so many congregations accuse us of this nonsense? Why is it that the church has so much trouble with change when the basis of our faith is found in a book that tells us of the story of Jesus who came and never allowed anyone or any person to be the same - Jesus who called his church to be his body on this earth - Jesus who preached good news to the poor more than anything else - Jesus who invited all people to his table - Jesus who confronted the way things were in the temple so that something new could emerge - Jesus who was radical and brought about radical ideas.

My brothers and sisters in ministry, please do not let anyone - ANYONE - steal your joy. Stay close to the one who called you and journey with the voices found in the Psalms and other places in scripture.

My brothers and sisters who sit in the pews, please, I beg you to think long and hard before you stand in the corner of the narthex whispering about what your pastor has done to upset you, please think twice before you question her motives or her moves, please pray for your pastor each day, please talk to her if you do not understand something or are concerned about something instead of gathering around a lunch table talking about her, and please, whatever you do, please do not offer her heavy criticism just before she enters the sanctuary for worship on Sunday.


Anonymous said...

I get what you're saying, but think your mom means don't let anyone "steal" your joy. Unless, truly it is about metal reinforcements.

I'd like to read more of your blog, but the white type on black background is difficult.

pastorchrisowens said...

Donna, thank you so much for this post! It's a very timely reminder for me, too. I had a horrendous week of criticisms stemming out of our own growing pains and some challenges we're facing right now. So, I feel you pain.

But then again, I don't face the same challenges you do being a female clergyperson. I know that is a prejudice you always strive to overcome- one I'll never know.

Thank you for being there alongside me in the battle to reform our church. We certainly walk away with our share of bruises and breaks, don't we??