Monday, November 29, 2010

It Should Be Obvious

In the zeal of leaders to move a congregation forward, focused on a Godly vision that propels a church into a missionary focus, it is easy to leave people in need of pastoral care on the sidelines. Pastoral care, often the center of activity for many congregations, can sometimes be dismissed as too time consuming and human resource draining. I have heard clergy say, "I don't make visitations and I sure don't do hospital calls". After recently hearing this said for the fourth time this year I am beginning to wonder what kind of pastoral care is taking place in the congregations where those clergy serve.

A few weeks ago I facilitated an assessment meeting in a program size congregation where this need rose quickly to the surface, with people bemoaning the lack of attention to pastoral care, both in organized and in personal ways. Many people in need were slipping through the cracks, not noticed, not responded to in times of crisis and illness, symptomatic of a lack of organized pastoral response. The comment was made that the small group ministries in that church were not enough because they could not address the pastoral care needs for the entire congregation. Shut-ins, members not active in groups, and others were slipping through the cracks. There were no organized ways to respond to those persons and it was beginning to disturb many of the leaders in that church.

We all know that many persons will not voluntarily make others aware of their needs and then resent the fact that 'no one from the church responded or visited me'. This is a never ending challenge that exists in every congregation. However, it should be obvious that pastoral care is an important function of a congregation and it is the leaders' responsibility to set up systematic ways to address those needs. The key definer here is 'systematic' and not left to chance. And systematic must include numerous people beyond the clergy.

It is fairly easy to justify busyness, focus on mission and growth and other aspects of leading congregations as to the reasons why systematic pastoral care isn't being done very well. But something is out of kilter when time isn't carved out to respond to people who are hurting. The church has many resources today including Stephens Minstries and the less involved but solid program called Community of Hope. Both of these efforts train individuals to respond to persons in need. Identifying persons with the gift of pastoral care and arranging for them to be mentored and scheduled for making visits is one of many other options. One thing is for certain though, clergy should not opt out of pastoral ministry altogether. When they do, it sends a loud message that the spiritual leader of the community doesn't care. This message will powerfully overshadow any effort that leader is making to move a congregation forward into a missionary vision. It will undermine other efforts in congregational development.

If you find yourself in a congregation that needs a systematic response to pastoral care, what role can you play in getting that established? Don't hesitate. This obvious need should always be addressed with thoughtfulness and love for God's people. Only when a pastoral ministry is in place can a congregation ever hope to move forward into its God-given vision for its future.

Monday, November 22, 2010

But They Get Mad!

I was recently teaching a class of persons in training and formation to become ordained priests who will serve small congregations. We were having a lively discussion about change and how difficult it is to lead it, especially in congregations that have spent most of their years managing and maintaining the way they have always done things. The subject of life cycles and death of ministries came up. In the course of the conversation one of the students cited a recent conversation in his congregation about a ministry that has exhibited all signs of death: little to no attendance; lack of energy; no one willing to lead and a general malaise and not knowing what to do about it. Yet when the subject was broached about allowing the ministry to die, a cry arose and they got mad about the very idea of shutting it down. He said that emotional reaction ended the conversation. The ministry limps on.

People predictably will grieve and get angry about the death of a ministry in which they have invested their time, energy and resources. Ministries that have outlived their usefulness are often such a part of the life of a congregation that the people involved do not want to let it go, even if it has totally lost its usefulness. Memories of a once fruitful ministry often become more valuable then the current reality. Helping people assess the vitality of ministries and helping them let go of ones that sap the church of its finite energy are hard work.

It is a leader's responsibility to guide a group in letting go.

This takes leadership skill. I have witnessed leaders who have arbitrarily and unilaterally shut down ministries and seen the resulting fall out. This is not skilled leadership. Bringing people into the reality through assessment, listening, discussion and necessary decisions will help move people forward. Life and death of everything is a spiritual journey. "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven..." Ecclesiastes 3:1.

It is critically important for leaders in the church to understand that they are the ones to help others in their spiritual journeys. Life in Christian community is about movement. It is about witness in the world. It is about fruitfulness for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

So the next time 'they get mad' when it comes to change in the church, step back, say your prayers for wisdom, discernment and a listening ear. Then be prepared to walk beside and a little in front of these persons on their journey. Know as a missionary leader you play a critical role in persons' spiritual growth and understanding that ministries are meant to be life giving, not life taking. Avoid the temptation to be a museum curator for memories of ministries that have long outlived their purpose. Instead, keep your sights on ministries that contribute to and renew the spirit. For it is there that the Holy Spirit is at work.

Be willing to say last rites over dead ministries and celebrate the birth of vibrant new ones. Only then can the church be renewed.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Church Has Left the Building

I just got back from a great conversation with a priest who has a tremendous capacity to think outside the box when it comes to being creative with his congregation. He has fostered a culture of creativity for the 12+ years he has been there. He shook this staid congregation when he first arrived and persons uncomfortable with spontaneity and creativity left for places of greater predictability.

This priest has shaped a culture at this church to expect the unexpected. To anticipate that God will bless the unusual. To be ready to work hard, have fun and be faithful and creative in the process.

He has worked at identifying persons who have gifts and strengths in different areas and put them to work in appropriate ways to support these efforts. This has generated a level of empowerment, enthusiam and anticipation that has undergirded the great outreach they have undertaken.

One of the imaginative things they did as a congregation this year was "Church Has Left the Building". A large team of persons organized the event and lined up a variety of activities from which the membership could participate on a Sunday morning in lieu of going to church. Everything from working in soup kitchens, repairing homes, cleaning out elderly residences, to addressing invitations for a cancer center's benefit were undertaken on that day with three fourths of the attendance involved in some act of love and service. There were appropriate activities for every age group from three year olds to the oldest members who were not mobile. When it was all said and done 235 members had participated. The results were amazing and the fruit of these acts of love in the name of Jesus has multiplied, not to mention what it did for the spirits of the persons involved. They have now asked the question, "What's next?"

I raise this example to demonstrate how important it is to get outside of our routines, to allow for inspiration and trust that God will bless this kind of creativity. Our natural inclination as congregations is to look internally, to think that Church is inside the building. But the reality is that for the Church to be healthy and responsive to a world that doesn't know God, the Church has to get on the road.

Activities of this nature are never easy. Often leaders have to battle the resistance of congregational members who are fearful of creativity. But this is about faithfulness, being willing to risk for the sake of sharing Christ's love. We will never know what fruit will be born until we are willing to take these risks.

When was the last time your congregation left the building, set about to take the church on the road? What creative idea has God placed on your heart that needs to be explored?

Step out. See what happens. The results may truly amaze and bless you and all that are involved.

Let's get out for a road trip!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sharing Faith Stories

NO excuses for not having written this blog since the first week of October. However, I have been in three other dioceses working with clergy, bishops and laity on congregational development and then back home to oversee our own clergy conference. (What's that about no excuses?) There seem to be common themes amongst all of these circles. One is the undercurrent of a sense of urgency about the need for change in our churches. It feels like there is a sense of anxiety about what that means. People are talking about needed change but many can't define what exactly needs change. The other themes I am hearing are 'doing more with less' and the challenge of 'what to do with empty buildings'. But there is a common theme I am also hearing and that is 'sharing our faith stories'. All of a sudden lots of folks are asking how to help others articulate their faith.

I find the first three themes to be predictable at a time the statistics tell us that attendance numbers are slowly decreasing, we have aging congregations and we have an abundance of property. But the fourth, concerning sharing our faith as individuals, is, indeed, very hopeful.

I frankly don't care what has caused the tidal wave of interest in this topic, I am just glad it is being talked about. I have been an Episcopalian all my life and I remember the stigma attached to talking about one's personal relationship with God in Christ. I have heard numerous people say that they ran away from other denominations that emphasized this activity and were so glad that the ability or williness to share one's faith didn't seem to be important or 'required' as Episcopalians. This comment was often followed with a seeming sigh of relief. A defining description has often been that 'Episcopalians live out the faith not talk about it.'

There is so much our church has to offer, especially to persons who appreciate the opportunity to ask questions and not be judged for doubting. Perhaps it has been this culture of acceptance that has inhibited the certitude of faith sharing. But there comes a point when our inability to be open about our spiritual lives diminishes us. I find that bonds of friendship and community grow dramatically when individuals and communities articulate the power of God in our lives. So many of us have experienced blessing, transformation, reconciliation even the miraculous because of our faith. These are stories of hope and power. These are stories that should be shared, dare I say, must be shared to those who do not know God.

It will be messy and perhaps uncomfortable to take on new practices of sharing our faith stories as Episcopalians. I am convinced we will all be the better for it. I think it has something to do with what Jesus asked of us..... Let's encourage these new ways of living together as believers. I can't wait to hear the stories of my fellow Episcopalians who will hopefullly grow in their ability to tell them!