If an institution is in decline, it’s in decline. It’s going to die, and no amount of study and work on “future directions” or “LIFTing” the church is going to do a shred of good. In fact, trying to reverse things is a failure of good pastoral care. It’s like walking into hospice and slapping the patient on the face, shouting, “Hey, get up, there’s still life in you! Let’s make plans for the future!”
I’m not at all surprised at this. The ELCA event was a simulacrum, a copy of a copy of a copy of what we think we are. It was Oz with the curtain down. And as likable as Oz may be, once he’s exposed, you know the jig is up and a new story is on the horizon.
Practical truth is more likely found at the bottom and the edges than at the top or the center of most groups, institutions, and cultures. (Richard Rohr)
I’ve failed in Arkansas more than once. When I first moved here, I tried to facilitate our congregation going multi-site in order to develop a campus ministry or new faith community. It didn’t work out.
Which isn’t the same as saying it wasn’t worth doing. It totally was. The time we invested, the work we did, the lives that were changed, all of that was worth it. We just didn’t “launch” the new.
Then this past year, I found myself on the margins again (more culturally than congregationally), this time around refugee resettlement. So we started again, this time with a group of like-minded individuals. I didn’t try to get my whole congregation to sponsor refugee resettlement. Instead, we built a non-profit.
Over time, we discovered hundreds of people passionate for resettlement in our state, with volunteer leaders willing to form a self-directed work-team that did everything necessary to successfully apply to become a new refugee resettlement site, and as of this writing the organization, Canopy NWA, is poised to launch this fall with the staff and funding it needs to resettle refugees in Northwest Arkansas.
All of us involved in the ministry didn’t try to get our whole current institutions to get on board…. instead, we found ourselves at the margins, and got together and started building a new ship headed in a different direction.
It hasn’t always been easy. I find myself having to conduct two different kinds of pastoral ministry in the meantime. Sometimes the work we’re doing with Canopy causes anxiety among the existing systems–in the congregation, in the community, in the state. This is where the pioneer/hospice concept carries so much value. There’s ministry to do in both contexts. Among the group launching the new, the work is figuring out how to get the ship space-worthy so it can launch. That’s the pioneering work, and as a pioneer, it’s the stuff I most lean into.
But I also have to know how to be a pastor in the other context. I need to put on the hospice hat. In hospice, there’s pain, grief, anxiety, fear. The words of hope, the way of being present, is different. I’ve been learning I need to listen, sit down for longer one-on-ones, just be present. I know how to put on the hospice hat when I walk into an actual hospice facility. The reframing is important, and helps me know how to be present in multiple contexts.
So I would tell all redevelopers, and really all pastors, if they were willing to listen: If your organization is in decline (and almost all our churches are, statistically), then spend 50% of your time as pastor of the existing institution. Wear that hat, and wear it well. But then do the hard work of pioneering. Start something new, together with others, exercising the practical truth that is found at the margins.
This needs to happen at the denominational level also. Currently, the ELCA at its national level is a sick system, intractably caught up in its own mode, and really unlikely to recover. It needs hospice. The problem is, it keeps meeting every three years thinking it can rise from the ashes and enact change from the top and center. It keeps telling us, “We are church together,” when in fact it has little if no effective method for hearing from the margins and launching something new.
What the ELCA needs, even though institutionally it will fight it tooth and nail and implement many kinds of sabotage (not the least of which will be stonewalling, what I have started calling the Boozman strategy) to undermine it, is a movement of pioneers from the margins, who will gather, and then move, and will, if successful, eventually organize structurally in such a way that it becomes not a simulacrum of the current ELCA, but the next thing that moves on while the ELCA dies.
I have no doubt, based on the functioning of our current denominational headquarters, that things will go out in a spectacular fashion, with the leadership continuing to put on a show of listening to the margins while regularly buffering itself against any actual change. And increasingly I’m just fine with that.
But what I do want to do, and am inviting in this post, is to find ways to “live on the edge of the inside” (in Richard Rohr’s words), and discover who else is out there with me.