A Season of Gratitude, Not Anxiety
I had just met with the YDS Dean’s Advisory Council, tending to statistics, initiatives, projections, and the school’s institutional strength. It felt like a good meeting. I hurried to my rented car to drive down to my 30th reunion at Princeton Theological Seminary. The timing of the YDS meeting allowed me to include the reunion in my plans.
Nice coincidence. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Too busy. Too programmed. Too distracted by ministry. So the scheduling allowed four days to celebrate theological education and its impact on pastoral ministry. I connected with old friends, heard lectures, remembered days when a sense of calling into parish ministry felt both clear and innocent. We compared notes. It was good.
An Unexpected Critique
Then came the final Princeton convocation. Eugene Peterson was the preacher. The seminary chapel was packed. It was to be a worshipful affirmation of our vocation and service. Eugene’s lecture, though, was anything but a celebration of our accomplishments. It felt more like a deep and heartfelt critique.
He spoke of his own ambition as a young pastor decades ago, and how an innocent desire to serve the gospel by serving the church quickly morphed into a predictable desire to run good programs, please his congregants, fill the pews, be relevant, meet every expectation, and stay busy. As he put it, he became a caricature of himself: “If there was a deformation to which I as a pastor was subject, it was becoming a shopkeeper in religious goods and services.”1
He laid bare his fetish for activity, achievement, and institutional measurement. He spoke of a chasm between his personal faith and an experience of ministry that brought less joy and blessing than ordination had promised. His diagnosis was loving but severe.
Time, Story, Place
He described how literature became his corrective. James Joyce’s Ulysses taught the value of the ordinary, of time as the place of God’s unfolding. Wallace Stegner reminded him of the power of story to texture the meeting of meaning and sense in human life. And Wendell Berry took him back to place, so he could see his congregation as a locale, even a world, in which rich complexity arises from limitation and connection grows from patient dwelling.
The chapel was silent as his lecture advanced like waves on a beach. Most of the working pastors around me seemed to be working hard to avoid looking at each other.
Eugene finished with words of Peter Forsyth: “You have but a corner of the vineyard, and cannot appeal to all men; humility is a better equipment than ambition, even the ambition of doing much good.” Then he sat. And the room burst into applause, loud and sustained, with everyone soon standing.
I stood too, but I didn’t want to. I found the ovation ironic. We had been exposed for all the ways we have acquiesced to deformations of the best of our vocation. We had been challenged to recover the work to which we’d all been promised in some way. Applause felt like an indecorous response to that call. I thought we should have just inhaled to recover our breath and then sat in silence, like at the end of a Maundy Thursday service: quiet because we know the import of the moment, expectant because we know it’s part of Easter’s story. Instead, we applauded, stood in line to shake hands, and went off to dinner.
An Industry of Diagnosis
There is by now a whole industry of diagnosis and treatment for what is ailing congregational ministry. We read statistics of the palpable decline in the mainline denominations. Traditional evangelical churches seem to be declining too, if at a slower pace. The drop looks especially dramatic among the young.2 So we speak of a new reformation, of programmatic and ecclesial innovation, of getting technologically and culturally up to date, of celebrating entrepreneurialism in ministry, of missional or emergent or sticky churches, of trimming institutions, embracing virtual communities, and restructuring ourselves so we can get nimble – fast.
It’s become a commonplace in our theological schools to proclaim the imminent end to congregations as we’ve known them and the need for new voices to save us. Those who still serve traditionally structured congregations look quaint. The result of this, I think, is not more conversation about the church but less. We strategize the future, but with little agreement as to why.
So my thought is this: Let’s continue assessing our ills. And let’s continue experimenting with new ideas. Why not? That’s what it’s always meant to be the church. But let’s allow ourselves to be chastened, even a bit humbled, as we do that – less ambitious, more hopeful; less anxious, more grateful. For the church goes on, and congregations grow and decline, and folks find faith, and fields are tended, stories are told, and lives are lived for Christ all over the world.
We need to work hard for change, for sure, but we shouldn’t be so glib as to think that all the loving and back-breaking effort that’s gone into the institutional church, with all its flaws, is suddenly irrelevant. We need to treat our ills without so deforming Christian community that it ends up looking like a religious marketplace. And we need to treat those ills without so deforming Christian leadership that it looks less like pastoral vocation than it does nonprofit management or a glorified TED Talk.
Remembering that summons to tend time, story, and place, we might do well to let our answers be as varied as the settings in which congregations arise. Some say the answer is to become more multicultural. They’re correct. But that means something rather different depending on where a congregation is. Some say the answer is to give up our buildings and loosen our institutional structures. They are surely correct also. But we’ll always need cathedral places, where resources constellate and communities are inspired for mission. Many of our places are important and worth preserving for the Spirit’s use.
Some say the answer is to become more liberal – or more conservative. Well, yes to those thoughts too. Neither liberal nor conservative approaches have all the answers for every setting. I’d even suggest that for some congregations, like my own, the answer might be in doing both – being conservative in some measures, liberal in others, for the sake of becoming who we’re given to be in God’s grace. We need to learn to navigate those tense, in-between places every day.
Gethsemane and Games Galore
One of those in-between places of tension is the terrain of cultural accommodation. Are we to adopt currently popular standards and techniques to reach new generations, or are we to be countercultural oases of hope and radically alternative piety? How do we witness to a consumer culture without becoming that “shopkeeper in religious goods and services”?
A church start-up in my neighborhood with megachurch ambition sent a mailing to thousands advertising their Easter program. They advertised an Easter fair with booths from local merchants, a velcro wall, snow trucked in for the kids, and games galore. One corporate sponsor was to give away an air conditioner, and another lucky worshipper would win a free five-star resort weekend. Nowhere was Jesus, resurrection, or Easter hope mentioned. That mailing was surely a signal of our deformation. Yet their zeal to reach people on their own terms challenged my mainline “you’re welcome if you already know you want to come” approach. Where do we catch the zeal while avoiding capitulation? Where do we find that place of faithful creativity, beyond mere “balance”?
A challenge implied by all this is the need for a more complex conversation about leadership. First, we must never separate thinking about leadership from the church’s belief that it begins not in skills or disposition but in identity – a baptismal identity in Christ that grows into a pastoral identity in the church. It is important that pastors be informed by entrepreneurial techniques. We should strive for success. Yet our identity should be defined primarily by memory of the One in whose name we do the work. We need to talk more about ways to hold that tension creatively. For leadership arises in God’s time, is crafted by Christ’s story, and cooperates with the Spirit in ways that fit very specific places. Measurement tools must take into account the unique qualities of pastoral identity.
Learning to Trust Again
With this, we must also broaden our view of who we train for leadership. We’ve focused almost exclusively on pastoral leaders. This is insufficient. The finest leader cannot lead people who are too anxious, protective, or competitive to be led. If she tries, she may hurt them, and she’ll certainly be hurt by them. That kind of hurt occurs too often, and it is contributing to our deformation. Because of this, I believe it’s time for our thinkers and our schools to pivot their efforts toward congregations, helping them work more faithfully with their pastors. We must see leadership more symbiotically. Pastors make their congregations, but congregations also make their pastors.
I propose that we supplement our teaching of clergy professionalism, therapeutic distance, and boundary-keeping with reminders to love, listen, and sacrifice. We should help lay leaders understand better their role in committing to ministry, sharing authority, and being led. In a culture in which confidence is eroding at every level, we need to learn again, in healthy and daring ways, how to trust.
If we’re to believe reports on the deformation of professional ministry, this broadened view of leadership is more important now that it’s been in generations. We must help all leaders – lay and professional – better become who they are called to be in Christ. Let’s stop building walls of demand and expectation as we argue about the future, and start giving grace and sharing hope – with God’s help. The church of the 21st century needs that from us.
As another coincidence had it, I was invited to work on this article while on sabbatical in the Holy Land. I mulled the topic while sitting in a cafe right outside the Church of the Nativity. The cafe had modern shade structures, an espresso machine, Wi-Fi, and flamenco guitar music through the speakers. It was a contemporary space in an ancient place, just yards from the cave where people first gathered around Jesus.
Isn’t that our condition in focus? We serve a long memory that has always included a hope-filled future. The core of our work will always be to gather around Jesus in whatever ways our time, story, and place allow. We go into the future from there.
Wesley Avram is senior pastor at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in North Scottsdale, AZ, and formerly assistant professor of communication at YDS, where he serves on the Dean’s Advisory Council. He is the author of Where the Light Shines Through (Brazos, 2005) and Anxious About Empire (Brazos, 2004).
1 This lecture, entitled “Lillies that Fester,” will be included in a collection of essays by several writers called Ambition, published in January 2016 by Cascade Books.
2 The 2015 Pew study, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” is the most recent of many accounts of this decline. See www.pewforum.org.