If I could set my time machine back about eight years when I became the pastor of a church for the first time, I’d pack the missing manual that I could have used back then.
I’ve had wonderful mentors and teachers and colleagues and parishioners who along the way, supported me as I became priest, got a taste of parish ministry in a big ol’ place and then took the reigns of a church of my own.
I had a manual back then, or at least I thought I did. The things I thought I knew about pastoral ministry and church growth, things that I grew up around and experienced as an associate at a large church, didn’t hold up so well at my new gig. My new church was trying to rebuild in the shadow of bigger, shiner places, and in a time when church had shifted from the center of everybody’s life.
Over eight years the manual I started with has thinned out, page by page, as much of what I thought worked has ended up in the recycling bin. I’ve started to write a new manual for myself. I’m learned just how much the one I had before, the one filled with supposedly foolproof wisdom for church leadership, was filled with timeless assumptions that were of a surprisingly recent vintage.
The church is an ancient thing, and it occurs to me that we’ve been working on how to be the church and lead communities of faith for many hundreds of years. There’s time-tested stuff in that tradition, and the old ways still have something to teach us. As I’ve unearthed this new guidebook, the missing manual, I’ve changed. I think my church has changed, too.
Holding up our work against the backdrop of the past 50 or 60 years seems to result in anxiety…and shades of the same anxiety bubble up in many growing churches, too. Yet looking deeper brings new things to the surface. It helps us to see what’s valuable about the places where we are, and makes church more satisfying for all its wonderful complexity.
So here’s why I’m writing: the old manual had its place, and still has some good stuff in there. But it’s largely for a church that was a moment in time, and a short one at that.
Where I sit, that moment has largely run its course. At my church we’ve felt the pain of that and have begun to come out the other side. From here, I can see a few bits from the old guidebooks that continue to come in handy. But I can also see some wonderful things emerging, insights and practices that are hopeful and authentic but also, I’m learning, a bit more layered than the church that I thought I knew.