o, lORD, PLEASE CHANGE US!...(WAIT! ON THE OTHER HAND...): A PERSPECTIVE FROM THE TRANSITION TEAM
By Colin Johnson
We seem to be living at a time of unprecedented flooding. While certainly not something to
joke about, I offer no apology for retelling this old story, one of my favorites:
A certain community was experiencing a 100-year flood. As the waters approached his
doorway, a retired widower was hailed by a neighbor who was hurrying out-of-town in his SUV. “Wanta come along now?” called the neighbor. “No, I’ll be fine. The Lord will keep me safe, ” answered the widower from his porch . The neighbor drove on. Soon the floodwaters rose to the middle of the first floor and the man retreated to the upper story of his home. A patrol boat came into view on the flooded street. “We can get you down through that window. Grab this rope,” shouted the team. “No, I’ll be fine. I trust in the Lord. He will watch over me and keep me safe.” The boat motored on. The water rose above the eaves, and the man managed to escape to the roof of his house. A helicopter flew into view. “We’ll lower the winch and airlift you to hig h ground at the rescue center,” yelled the pilot over his bullhorn. “No, I’ll be fine. The Lord will keep me safe. This can’t get much worse or last much longer.” The pilot flew on. The water continued to rise above the roof of the house. The man was washed away and drowned. At the Gates of St. Peter the man was angry and railed at the gatekeeper, “I trusted i n the Lord to the end and was faithful. I shouldn’t be here. My death was your fault because you abandoned me.” A figure peered over a ledger from above. There was a moment of silence. “ Abandoned you? Our fault?” came the voice. “We sent you an SUV, a boat, and a helicopter.” At a recent Prince of Peace meeting, someone was asked, “How do you feel without a pastor at this time?” That someone—perhaps several someones—replied, “Kind of in limbo, drifting, nothing much is happening.” Mentally, I understood the response, but at the same time I had some disagreements about it. One way to look at is that our ministry had become like a piece of comfort food . . . a cinnamon bun. With the loss of our pastor, it has become a donut. There is a hole in the middle, but it is still a donut and, I hope, a pretty tasty one at that. But what we want is a complete cinnamon bun; we don’t want a donut. The issue is that we will need to accept the idea that our new bun is going to be different. It will have a different taste, a different aroma, and different consistency (notice that I resisted the temptation to say “more nuts, fewer nuts”). Why? Because we are not just changing pastors, but we should be looking at a change in our ministry as well. It need not be a large shift, but change will happen. What do we want to come out of "bakery?" That is a subject of a different discussion.
stagnant “Limboland.” In my mind, I began to enumerate the SUVs, boats, and helicopters in our inventory. 1) A congregation old enough to have traditions and an established, sound method of operation and yet young enough to endure the vagaries of change, perhaps even welcome it as a means to renew the vigor of the church. Yes, I assume that, on the whole, you will find evidence that most people are generally ambivalent to change. Some welcome it, some fear it, some resign themselves to it. More about that later. Let’s just say that there is much evidence that congregations with a willingness to change and demonstrating past change experience smoother transitions and calls. A prospective pastor might think, “If they can’t show me that their previous pastor moved them from A to B, how can I expect to get them to C?” 2) A solid group of dedicated council members consistently taking care of church business with monthly meetings under a solid constitution and set of by-laws, along with a “Covenant of Leadership” that defines some of its operational boundaries. 3) A host of ministry teams and committees with an understanding of their domains and tasks. For example, the Worship Committee responsibly plans services months in advance, clearly respecting the traditional liturgy while looking for creative ways to provide variety and diversity in the worship experience for all tastes. 4) A binder in the hallway full of multiple copies of specific instructions for tasks related to services. No one needs to be in the dark about specific tasks they can perform. 5) An interim pastor trained to lead us in the very thing we are engaged it. Make no mistake: intentional interim ministry is a “thing,” a recognized calling within the church body that is backed by curriculum at many seminaries, like chaplaincy or seminary teaching. It is not just a form of glorified pulpit supply or what pastors gravitate toward in retirement for extra income. Those are something completely different. I am certain that you can come up with others. Change. Those of you who have known me since way-back-when recognize that in my “previous” life I was a Missouri Synod Lutheran. In fact, I came into the Lutheran Church through my first wife, who was a PK, a “pastor’s kid.” Her oldest brother was also an LCMS pastor and another brother and his wife were Lutheran school teachers in California. A few of her uncles were pastors. As many of you know, the LCMS has a reputation for being quite conservative. You can’t take communion there without “announcing” for it or requesting a consultation with the pastor. The synod’s radio outlet, “The Lutheran Hour,” was a feature of our household when we could get it as it was often broadcast during service hours. (Remember when you last recorded a radio program!?) I may be misremembering, but I recall the opening strains of some staunch hymn like “Lift High the Cross,” while the charismatic and beloved Dr. Oswald Hoffman—or his announcer--intoned, “The Lutheran Hour, for an unchanging church in a changing world” [emphasis mine]. No, I haven’t heard the program for years; perhaps much or all of that has been altered.
“Unchanging?” Imagine my reaction when I discovered the first chapter in our interim committee’s guidebook Temporary Shepherds: A Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry, now 20 years old itself, to be titled “The Changing Church.” Lordy, what’s that all about?! As I have come to appreciate, to call it a “changing” church is not heresy, but only reality. For one living in Utah, a “changing” church means one that revises its heritage and history about once every five years. In the 70’s the “unchanging” Missouri Synod found itself in the midst of a true schism stirred by the faculty of the St. Louis Seminary, a bunch of theologically rabble-rousing liberals. My father-in-law regarded them as fodder for excommunication; my brother-in-law kept his lips tight. The schism threatened to divide families. It was that rift, by the way, that indirectly created the ELCA by bringing about the merger of the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church, and a third group that included those that had split off from the LCMS. The Missouri Synod had advocated years earlier for a merger of the synods, but then refused to join it when it occurred. They would also later be active in creating and promoting a new hymnal that they then refused to use, but that is another story. Ah, well.
The LCMS was big on church discipline. Absent members were tracked down and notified that their membership would be wiped off the books at a certain time. As an elder, a position we do not have in the ELCA, I was once asked to “disfellowship”—I believe that was actual, official term used--from membership an abrasive communicant and his family. He habitually challenged some point of doctrine I can’t even begin to remember. Later, when pastoral misbehavior came into the picture in the same congregation, I submitted evidence to the regional synod office that resulted in his defrocking. Boy, wasn’t I the synodical “hottie!” And also, boy, wasn’t I hit by change . . . in more ways than one?! When I was asked to join the Mutual Ministry Committee at Prince of Peace some years ago, I requested assurance from Pastor Scott that no disciplinary actions were part of the duties. None were. I suited up.
As a PK, my wife insisted on being on “best buddy” terms with every pastor of every congregation to which we belonged (and, no, I don’t regret a bit that I once regarded Prince of Peace founding Pastor Barry Neese as my closest friend in Cache Valley). Our pastors were treated like family, given generous gifts, and expected to attend major dinners in our home: Thanksgiving, Easter, progressive dinners, you name it. It was only later that I understood some of the darker aspects of this behavior, although I confess that I still don’t understand it all that well. Consequently, when the misbehaving pastor was forced to leave the congregation, there came about a complicated system of transactions whereby our family had to it was a case of God opening another door for we eventually found our way to Prince of Peace just as it was being formed. Also, you see, my daughter adored her Uncle Clifford, the LCMS pastor. Had we stayed in the Missouri Synod, she would have been unable to realize her dream because the LCMS would have barred her from the very thing she wanted most: to become a pastor herself. Then “Change” happened. Our move to the ELCA allowed her to enter the University of Chicago Seminary with some endowment support of our home church Mt. Tabor in SLC, earn her M.Div. degree, and serve several ministries to this date in northeastern Illinois.
But I make the above revelations (testimony?) without intending to preach from my private confessional. It is just what it is, as they say.
[See Postscript II here.]
Our Temporary Shepherds text claims there are three types of people in a church: (1) those who make things happen, (2) those who let things happen. Don’t be one of those in the third group who wake up one day and say, (3) “Hey, wha’ happened?” In closing, I would admit that I left one critical item—deliberately--off my “SUV, boat, helicopter” list. That would be you all and the talents and skill sets you bring to the process. They may be, in the end, the most important. And so I challenge you to examine your gifts, your resources, and get to work. Need some references? Try Ephesians 4, Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and 1 Peter 4. If you are cut from a more interpersonal relations cloth, maybe brush up on one of the old human systems programs you have in a file drawer or in your set of self-help books (se below). Ask us about the one we are using. We will be coming to you for help, but there is much you can do to help yourself during this time. God bless!
Submitted by Colin Johnson, PoP Council Secretary and Liaison to the Transition Team
Postscript I: As I re-read this rambling blog while continuing to study the interim ministry manual, I discovered that I had unconsciously revealed something actually recommended by the manual during this time. That is, I had told a story, made a testimonial—actually more than one story--that revealed a topic of some concern to me that might be dealt with openly during the interim. It was a story that I might not otherwise have told. In fact, I have been trying to find a format it for some time. I had written it up last year, and then rejected it, believing the matter to be unsuitable for various reasons. Now it seems appropriate in this context. If you missed it, please re-read this from the middle point on. Hint: it has to do with church discipline. While my story is obviously not about Prince of Peace and occurred 30+ years ago, perhaps you have one that contains personal concerns about the ministry here—positive or negative--that could be opened up for dialogue and incorporated into the interim ministry report that will inform the call committee in its own work. Often, issues are brought forward and resolved during this period that might be ignored at any other time. Don’t let it fester. Think about it. Postcript II: As I reviewed my “essay,” the following paragraphs seemed to contribute to its length as an irrelevant interruption, so I appended it as a separate section here. Feel free to ignore it and just stop reading here if you are not interested in such things, as I am. One of the first things presented to us by Pr. Teri was one such tool like those described below:
Coping with change is hard work. One “tool” often used in addressing this challenge is an operational format based on human systems thinking that attempts to explain why we act—and interact—as we do. Often these represent a plotting of means to reduce conflict in institutional human transactions, paths for resolving organizational issues, instructions for conducting productive meetings, and the like. They help to explain why some relations work, some do not work, and what choices one may elect to do about it. If you have ever been appointed to a leadership position in an institution—most probably a job for which you were not specifically trained—you will discover in your files--as I did when I retired--numerous folders containing such programs handed out in workshops sponsored by your superiors. In recent decades, systems thinking methods have moved from analytic ones to more holistic structures. I used to tell my students there were two processes in examining a work of art, both necessary and essential: an analytic and a synthetic process. “Analyze” literal means to take apart, to break down; and “synthesize” its opposite. You may have to tear apart a non-functioning clock to see how it works (analyze), but it is never, ever going to run again unless you “synthesize” it, put it back together. . . correctly. Could be that it works with congregations, too.
Analytic systems tend to be vertically hierarchical with the single “vision” and the visionary (Steve Jobs) at the top, the various goals somewhere in the middle (tackled by the engineers, and the middle-managers), and the myriad tasks at the bottom (the assemblers of computers, team lead-persons, and so forth; in other words, the workers). Those systems are marked with illustrations that are usually plotted in one direction, straight. We tend not to like those structures, especially in universities and churches. Today’s more integrated, holistic systems give us many illustrations that are circles or at least healthy triangles, often with feedback going in several directions. No part is more important than another; all parts contribute to the health of the system. Not only is the whole greater than the sum of its parts, but a part contains/reflects the entirety of the structure. A “bad” part can infect the whole organism; in an analytic system, the bad part can just be lopped off. Good riddance. In a holistic system, we see how eliminating it would affect the entire body. Some of us are old enough to remember Eric Berne’s popular self-help book I’m OK—You’re OK, where the object was to replace unhealthy triangles of "Parent," "Child," and "Adult" role-playing scenarios based on real-life situations (which one are you in this situation??) with healthy -- or healthier -- ones. His book was dozens of circles, triangles, and arrows that were fascinating to sort out in a system called transactional analysis.
But make no mistake: I want to be clear that I enjoyed the process of studying such systems and still do. I found them valuable in the short term as they seemed to open up a world of insight directed at specific problem-solving techniques in a variety of human relationships. Fascinating to study, they nevertheless required extensive concentration to incorporate into one’s everyday working environment. As much as one sorted through them, there was always the problem of why no one liked working with Jane (a fictional example). Jane was an anomaly. Was this our problem or was it Jane’s problem? Maybe it was Jane who didn’t like everyone else. Maybe Jane was not a circle or a square. Maybe Jane was a pentagram. I digress, but, as you can see, I am having a lot of fun with this. I once diffused a hallway fistfight between two of my colleagues. I don’t know what human systems thinking tool I used during the half-hour confrontation, but I’m certain my colleagues didn’t care, nor did the students trembling behind nearby office doorways, or so they later told me. Nor did the system give me much confidence in my continence in that particular stressful moment. (Way, way too much fun now!)
This blog is run by the council members of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Logan, UT. For more information, check out our church's website at princeopeace.org.