I spent the weekend at a mountain camp/retreat center with other church leaders from around Arizona. If you’ve ever been to this sort of thing, you’ll know that it involved a lot of ‘sharing;’ a lot of coffee; some dancing, silliness and general hilarity; and group-building activities involving things like rope, pvc pipe, and blue plastic tarps. (yes, we have pictures).
Which is to say that, in many ways, once you’ve been to some kind of leadership retreat, you’ve been to them all. However, this one had unique components that placed it a notch above other similar events. For one thing, it was a uniquely gifted bunch of people who gathered. Makes a big difference. Also, the purpose of this gathering was not to ‘fix’ our churches, or to go home with a new program or operation model that would help us ‘get more people.’ This was more about how we approach ministry in a rapidly-changing culture; how we engage our communities; and how we can be more fully present and aware in our churches, families, and neighborhoods.
There was one exercise that I found especially meaningful, and will use again in other circles. We were asked to organize ourselves into groups of 4, and have a simple discussion–pretending that we were a church committee. An interesting sort of role play.
One member of the group was to approach the ‘committee’ with an idea. And our task was to say ‘no’ in as many ways as we could, in under 3 minutes. So when the first person said, ‘I want to take a group of senior citizens to Haiti, for a mission trip,’ the rest of us had to come up with as many reasons as possible to stop the conversation in its tracks–again, pretending to be a group of church leaders.
The whole room was erupting in laughter, between excuses, because it was so easy to engage every ‘no’ we’d ever encountered in church life. “We aren’t insured for that!” “We don’t have the money for that!” “We need to help the poor right here in our own community!” “We need the old folks to stay home and knit us some more prayer shawls.” “We’ve never done that before.” And so on. Like i said, it was funny because it was so true, so familiar, and so telling of the culture in much of mainline Christian America. The first and easiest response is always ‘no.’
Then we had to take the opposite approach–someone was to come to the group and suggest a youth group choir tour, and the task of the group was to shout, ‘yes…AND,’ then add another idea to enrich the initial propsal. “Yes, AND let’s engage them in some kind of multi-cultural experience on the road.” “Yes, AND, let’s sell cd’s of their concert to help them raise money.” Yes, AND, let’s make this an annual trip.” “Yes, AND, let’s have them do a presentation for the congregation, and share their stories when they get back.” Yes. And yes, and yes, and yes.
Awhile back, I wrote about the rules of improv, and the lifegiving properties of YES, AND. The retreat exercise of last weekend confirmed everything we know about the power of affirmation and engagement. It was a simple reminder that, as often as we say ‘yes’ in the life of the church, we are making room for the Spirit to move among us, and to do a new thing with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Of course, on occasion, we have to say no. “No” to the old models of growth; “no” to out-moded elements of worship; “no” to expensive and unsustainable programs that do not give us life; “no” to people who halt all progress in its tracks, and hold our ministries hostage with their check books. We have to say no, sometimes, in order to find the deeper ‘yes’ that waits for us, just beneath the surface. The trick is to engage in mindful discernment, at all times; and to never say ‘no’ just because it is easy and familiar to do so.
In the Disciples of Christ tradition, it has always been our practice to say ‘yes’ to new life, even when ‘no’ seems easier and more comfortable. In the coming year, there will be some opportunities for us to engage a more open, inclusive and life-affirming gospel. We might have to say ‘no’ to some things in order to declare this particular piece of good news. But like my friend Julie, over at Under the Ginko Tree–and like so many of our colleagues, church members, and partners in mission–i cannot wait to say “yes,” when it is my turn to do so. I cannot wait for the AND that will come after.