finding a better story

There’s a deeper story than the ones we tell ourselves, but that story often stays hidden.  Bishop Porter Taylor once said at a clergy retreat that as leaders we really have no idea what the Holy Spirit is doing in our churches. If it’s of God, then it will unfold in mystery and a bit outside the light. Yet we speak as if we know exactly what’s going on beneath the topsoil.

Many of the stories we tell favor the thematic ruts of church growth and decline. Those are patterns are important but the story itself becomes addictive. A church is an incredibly complex organism, yet we struggle to find vocabulary beyond big or small, conservative or progressive, healthy or stuck, so those become the plumb-lines against which we measure ourselves…and the enclosures into which we settle.

If our church happens to be growing, we paw at that story like it’s catnip. We can’t put it down: we market it, we put in on a resume and we set our hopes and dreams upon it. We bust it out at clergy conferences and flash it on Instagram. This kind of storytelling has its place, but too much isn’t good for our souls. We get hooked on it.   It’s a fine line, the one between marketing and ego.

But when our church is struggling we get stuck in the underbelly of the same story.  Somehow the bitter herb is just as addictive. The stories we tell about growth and decline are often more about being enmeshed with the culture than about being authentic communities.

Yet when we listen for deeper stories – the ones that reveal themselves in contours and shadows but never quite in linear fashion – we might not quite see the Spirit work with perfect clarity but at least we get to put the meta-story down and take a breather. In that moment of exhale, can we catch a glimpse of the Holy?

Bishop Taylor’s words from a few years back have stayed with me. We have no idea what the Holy Spirit is doing.  A church isn’t one story; it’s many hundreds or even thousands of stories that could never be captured with a simple metric or even an overarching story line.

What’s your real story? Perhaps if  you can look past the noise of the present church anxiety, you might catch a restorative glimpse of the Holy Spirit, doing her thing, not thinking about church metrics and not caring overmuch, either.

the blessing of bad news

Sometimes the news isn’t good.   Sometimes negative trends that seem anomalous at first harden with time.  When that happens, how do we learn from bad bad news without  being crushed by it?

Feedback loops are vital to healthy churches. Changes in things like attendance and giving have something to teach us, if we listen.  But those lessons are often layered and opaque, and if we file them too quickly into hard categories we might drain the bad news of its potential for transformation.

Last week the Episcopal Church’s statistics for 2017 revealed that as a church we continue a numerical decline. Though every church is different, last year ECUSA saw about 2.5% overall decline in attendance. Over 10 years the drop has been about 25%. Ouch.

How do we take news like that seriously without being crushed by it?  Does acknowledging bad news foreclose on the possibility of something new happening?

I think we have to take bad news seriously, but do so without panicking. Deficits and empty pews can be painful but they can also be great teachers. Without question, cultural and demographic changes beyond our doors loom large. But our current contraction speaks also of our own reluctance, over generations, to receive mildly painful feedback and to do something about it in a timely manner.

Now the snowball has grown and we want to melt the ice, but we can’t do it all at once. It took several generations to get to this place. I expect it will take us a good number of years to get back out of it. It will take patience, but also a bit more practice in finding the medicine at the heart of bad news.

We can start by learning how to absorb painful feedback without getting into blame, defensiveness or denial.  I like what Pema Chodran says about dealing with hard things: when faced with uncertainty, don’t indulge your fears and anxieties but don’t repress them either. Somewhere in between those paths are a productive way to start anew.

The changes are real, and in many ways have been painful. The temptation to wish them away has probably accelerated the loss; it is simply not true to suggest that “we are doing fine.” Yet it’s not true that “we are dying” either. Neither story is the whole story,  yet each has something to teach.

Even the grimmest read of these statistics tells us that the 75% of us who are still here (actually, many of those are newly here and pretty excited about it) can be the foundation of renewed church, if we can have the courage to hear and respond to some difficult news along the way.

good stress & bad stress

Church work is hard. It should be hard, as any meaningful work is likely to to be. Writing a novel is hard. Being a parent is hard. Doing surgery is hard. Building a business is hard.

But is church work is the right kind of difficult? It’s stressful, but is it the wrong kind of stress? There’s such a thing as the right kind of stress, where pressure creates strength and value, and our response to it has the potential to make our churches more authentic and meaningful. Without stress, we wither. Without challenge, we become passive, we stop growing.  The right kind of stress sharpens our responses and gives us the opportunity to cultivate places of vitality and deepened faith.

Yet when I look at the challenges of church work these days, the things that are inherently stressful, I see a different kind of stress, one that’s far less productive. It’s the stress of upkeep, of stretching resources to keep up with the bigger church down the road, of keeping things afloat rather than building something dynamic and lasting. It’s a stress that doesn’t seem to be helping much.

Church work is wonderful work…at least it can be. Consider all the things that we as pastors and leaders get to do: we shape lives around prayer, we care for souls, we fashion and guide communities. We get to build something deeply valuable and lasting, and to read and write and proclaim some pretty remarkable things.  We get to walk alongside some of the most loving and lovely people around.

So why is it that church can be so challenging? I won’t litanize the many reasons here, but I know that if you’re responsible for a church that you have between seven and twelve reasons why you didn’t sleep so well last night.

It helps to separate the good stress from the bad. To me, good stress is: walking a family through a crisis, preparing a good homily on a deadline, taking on a tough conversation with your governing board, looking seriously at changing patterns in church and responding to them, working long hours in Holy Week to craft the best liturgy possible. This stuff is hard, but you hit your pillow at the end of the day knowing that your work meant something.

Bad stress looks a lot different, and tends to come when we or the people we serve aren’t taking seriously the reality that something has changed. Trying to “fill pews” without asking why they thinned out in the first place. Offering programs that folk ask for but don’t attend. Fitting a dynamic community (that waxes and wanes) into a static shell that, in in the case of my church, happens to be really big and cavernous.

Bad stress tends to be rooted in recovering something we had 20 or 50 years ago, whereas good stress looks much farther back to lay a foundation for present ministry and future flourishing. There are fine things to learn from that recent window of time, but not perhaps as much as we might think.

I like good stress. It’s good for me, and it’s good for my church. I get restless when I don’t have enough of it to make my work feel satisfying. When I have a whole lot of the bad stress, though, like bad cholesterol I want to get it under control.

Stress is never fun, but in can certainly be productive. We’ll always have to deal with both. Perhaps the key is to sense the difference between the stress that comes from impossible expectations and the stress that’s rooted in building something that will last.

the missing manual

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.