the missing manual

If I could set my time machine back about twelve 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, as I got a taste of parish ministry in a big place and then as I took the reigns of “a church of my own” (BIG air-quotes on that one).

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 always hold up so well at my new gig. My new church was about a half-century past its numerical peak, faithful and loving but trying to rebuild in the shadow of bigger, shinier places, and in a time when church had shifted from the center of everybody’s life.

Then I moved to Cleveland to become Dean of Trinity Cathedral. There’s less of a manual for that one – it’s a particular kind of gig – and yet many of learnings I stumbled into in parish ministry have come in handy. And I’ve kept learning…through major change, pandemic, personal loss, and new things to celebrate.

Over these twelve 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 learning just how much the one I had before, the one filled with supposedly foolproof wisdom for faithful 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. And of course there is wisdom beyond that tradition that can actually help us to be who we’re supposed to be.

As I’ve unearthed this new guidebook, the missing manual, I’ve changed. I think my churches have changed, too, because this work is best when it’s shared.

Holding up our work against the backdrop of the past 60 or 100 years generally results in anxiety…and shades of the same anxiety bubble up in places that are even doing pretty well.  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.

But the point of all this isn’t to make church more satisfying or even to : it’s to create healthy places of faith and community where we can each become free to be who God created each of us to be.

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.

That moment has largely run its course, and  if there’s any doubt the pandemic pretty much settled the argument. That’s painful, but in some places we’ve felt the pain of it 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.

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