The New Testament writers understood the importance of social stability. The letters of Ss. Peter and Paul include requests for prayers for the leaders of the government to provide peace, security, and order. These prayers are not acts of patriotic support for the government or the empire. They are offered for good order to be preserved so that the church can experience peace. Essentially, the writings of the New Testament reflect a community living in exile. They followed the example of Jeremiah writing to the exiles of his day. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)
Stability is a desired state for the Christian. St. Benedict in his Rule declares that the two types of monks that are the most detestable are the sarabaites and the gyrovagues. These two types are said to “take their own desires and pleasures as their laws, calling their every whim holy, and claiming that whatever they do not want to do is unlawful” and “always moving from one place to another and never remaining in the same place, indulging in their own desires and caught in the snares of greed” respectively.
How Important is Stability?
Early in my own ministry I had a really good experience at one place that was followed by a bad experience at another place. My response to the bad situation was to think about the previous one too much. I believed the new place would benefit from the example of the old place. I used examples and told stories from my experience in my previous place of ministry. It did not go over very well, as you can imagine.
I dropped out of active ministry for a time after that wondering if I had made a mistake in career choice and continued the self-indulgence of feeling sorry for myself for awhile. I sought counsel from other ministers and prayed and reflected while working a factory job. During this time, I learned the importance of practicing stability for ministers.
Years into my renewed ministry a church member came to ask me an important question. I was moving to a new church. She asked me the following question, “How can you go somewhere else when you have [this place] in your heart?” My practice of presence or stability had made a difference in my work.
Stability is an important practice for ministers especially for those of us in an itineracy system. Being where we are demonstrates concern for “the welfare of the place where we have been sent.” A colleague once remarked that we should start thinking in terms of the parish model rather than the local congregation model.
The Fruit of Stability
Practicing stability is basically staying where you are. I became a joiner. I got involved in many areas of community life. Serving in a local foodbank was an easy move if my congregation supported the ministry before I arrived. Getting involved in children’s sports and school activities was just as easy because I had children.
The parish model of ministry helped expand my thinking and practice of ministry. Beyond the activities I spoke of above, I found other ways of getting the congregations involved. I admit that some of these ways were taught to me by the congregations. A Christmas cantata in a small town often requires the involvement of two or more local church choirs. A community heritage event could include a worship time involving many churches with an offering being taken for the sake of a community based ministry. Ecumenical Thanksgiving services are good ways to introduce lay members to one another. A joint Easter Sunrise service can be beneficial to community stability.
I was fortunate to serve a charge and a small rural community because one of my predecessors approached the county mayor and asked, “What can the church do to help?” The mayor said it was the first time a pastor ever asked him that question. An idea for how the church could reach out to the community became opportunities for mutual ministries. Church membership, attendance, and budgets did not necessarily grow. But, the importance of the church to the welfare of the community increased in each place.
The public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 outbreak asks people to maintain physical distance from our neighbors. Calling the act social distancing is a mistake. The error is evident when we keep talking about the importance of distancing for the sake of the most vulnerable. Physical distancing is being done for the sake of each other no matter our own state of health. Congregations that are live streaming worship are doing so for physical distancing for the sake of health. Worshipping in such ways are not examples of social distancing. Many churches have been doing this already for people who could not attend in the church buildings or meeting places so that they may stay connected.
I note that my neighbors are maintaining physical distancing. At the same time, we check on each other more often. I sat outside one evening reading when my neighbor on his way to work offered encouragement because he knows I live alone. Because we are experiencing cabin fever, we sit outside more and wave to each other and inquire how the other is doing.
When we can’t stay home we have an opportunity to express gratitude. There are times when we must go to the grocery store or other places we need to be. It is a good time to say “thank you” to retail and delivery workers. Saying “thank you” to the customer is part of their job. It is an arrangement we are used to. It is time to open our eyes and see that our welfare is connected to theirs.
Stability as Being
We can criticize the efforts of government leaders at this time. Don’t simply be critics. Continuing prayers for their work are important for reminding us that the welfare of our homes and communities require our efforts.