Our current situation is one that may make us feel like someone hit the pause button on life. Plans and dreams have been put on hold until such a time as we are let loose from our homes. While on one level this may be true it needs not to be. I have watched as church leaders, pastors and laity alike, have adapted and adopted new approaches to ministry while holding on to the very core of who we are as God’s people. That core is centered in the hope of the Gospel and God’s ability to overcome even death.
We have all heard the cliché, “When one door closes, God opens a window.” I have been wondering what windows are being opened for us through this pandemic. Part of my work is focused on helping congregations discover how their unique identity connects with their ministry setting. For many of us, we have lost touch with the communities we live in. Long before the virus, neighborhoods shifted from places of connection to individual kingdoms of isolation.
It is interesting that this pandemic has caused many of us to find our castles to be prisons of sorts. The places that have been a refuge from the busy world are now places of loneliness and boredom.
To counter these feelings, many have done something we have perhaps not done in a long time, walking around their neighborhood. I for one have taken my dogs on more walks in the past two weeks than usual. I have also noticed that a lot of my neighbors have done the same. Families, seeking to escape their homes have taken to the streets on foot and bicycle.
Is this one of the windows of opportunity that God is opening? No this isn’t the time to stop all those folks and tell them about the love of Jesus. (Ok if that’s your calling go for it but do it at the appropriate distance.) I see a great opportunity for us to get to know more about our community and the people who make it up.
What if you turned walks into an opportunity to help your congregation know more about who your neighbors are? Here are a few questions to ask yourself while you are out walking:
Who lives in your community?
What do you observe about housing?
What types of housing do you see? Single family, apartments etc.?
Is it similar to your own?
Is it well kept?
How is God already working in the community?
What is “good news” for the people of the neighborhood?
When I was ordained as an Elder, I was sixteen years old and had a wide-eyed idealism about the church and in particular about the Presbyterian Church (USA). I remember willingly volunteering to attend presbytery meetings. I enjoyed the system that was our Presbyterian polity. I recall the excitement of seeing Robert’s Rules being used to advance a point and thought it was a wonderful expression of how humans could disagree and yet come to a decision.
Over time that joy became muted by frustration. Like many, I knew that “our” way was still the best, but the flaws become more evident. I would roll my eyes and tune out each time one of the Presbyterian Peacocks unfurled their feathers. You know the peacocks, the folks who have something to say about everything and do so in such bombastic ways that they are like a majestic peacock looking for a mate.
I also have to admit that there were also times when my joy of being Presbyterian was almost snuffed out. During the contentious times of division over ordination and marriage I all but stopped attending meetings. I couldn’t stand to see the church that I valued and loved tear itself apart. The bitterness and contentious nature of meetings seemed like anything but kingdom building.
Yet today I sit on the other side of the equation that is presbytery. As I ready myself for my first presbytery assembly as a staff member, I ask myself what is different today? I am thankful that a lot has changed both within myself and the PC(USA). I personally have changed my perspective on what it means to be part of this wonderful animal that is the church. I have changed my frustration into action. One of my commitments as I have entered this work is to be mindful of what the purpose of this connectional system is all about. I want to ensure that the frustrations of my past inform how I work with pastors and congregations. How can I make an impact on the church at large? I also believe that the church has changed. Through the pain of the past we have come to a new place in relationship with one another and God. As William Chapman said of the Book of Order, “There is blood on every page.” I believe we are in a time of renewal and transformation that was brought about by the painful work we have done.
I was asked by someone, “what the Sheol (not the word actually used) does it mean to be the Associate General Presbyter for Congregational Vibrancy?” Honestly, I’m still working on what it means but over the past two months I have thought a great deal about it. I keep getting drawn to the last word of the title, VIBRANCY. To me the opposite of vibrant is dull or muted. A dull, monochromatic church doesn’t sound so great. It reminds me of the life Dorothy was living in Kansas. Prior to the storm she lives in a dull, sepia tone existence. In her dream state she encounters, for perhaps the first time, a vibrant idea of life. I believe that the church is entering into a time of embracing the fact that God is turning up the colors of our life together. This couldn’t happen at a better time. As political division, global warming and racial tensions dull the world, as Christ disciples we are called to bring light to the world. We are to be vibrant witnesses to the loving Gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe that for us, unlike Dorothy, we are not in a dream land but can truly become vibrant with God’s help. I beginning to see my job is to help congregations become a little brighter in their ministry settings and perhaps help them to discern what it means to be a vibrant Body of Christ in the world.
A prayer for Pastors who lead congregations during this “most wonderful time of the year.”
Holy God, as the final preparations are underway to celebrate the birth of your Son may all those who lead your people in worship find their own hearts filled. Filled with HOPE that every moment spent in worship will be given to your glory. Filled with PEACE in the knowledge that your love will be shown even if things aren’t just right. Filled with JOY as the last bulletin is printed. Filled with LOVE as they welcome old and new friends to worship. Filled with LIGHT as we celebrate your love which is born and dwells among us in Jesus Christ. Encourage your servants as they minister in your name and proclaim the Good News of Christ Birth. AMEN
This week I have been blessed to be reading a book titled, “How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going” by Susan Beaumont. The Subtitle is Leading in a Liminal Season. The liminal season is that in between time of life. General Presbyter Daris Bultena asked me to read it as he said it was a good exposition of his leadership style and understanding of the world.
As I read the book I picked up on how important it is for us to understand that we are all in a liminal season as the church and a society. The liminal time of life as Beaumont explains is a time that comes in between separation and reorientation. As the church we have all experienced what she calls separation. Our identity and status has been stripped from us and all that previously defined us is pretty much gone. We no longer hold power and sway in the culture as we used to. Reorientation as she defines it is a “reforming period in which a person, group or social order adopts a new identity.” Page 3.
The Liminal period is where most of us find ourselves today. She defines the Iiminal period as:
A disorienting period of non-structure or anti-structure that opens new possibilities no longer based on old status or power hierarchies. New identities are explored and new possibilities are considered. Pg. 3
Of course this isn’t how we normally see this time. The liminal time is most often experienced in the most negative ways. At best it is a wilderness time that we suffer through at its worse it is a time where we tear each other apart. The liminal time is in fact a time that is challenging, confusing and upsetting. Yet we experience liminal times regularly. Things end all the time. What we do with that in between time is what matters.
More times than not, our uneasiness with the in between time causes us to rush to action on the future or to try and recapture the past. We have all seen this when a pastor leaves a congregation. The first thought on everyone’s mind is, “when do we get a new pastor.” This is a completely normal response to loss and the upheaval it brings. Every person and organization want stability and peace. Still, if all we do is rush to a “solution” we miss an opportunity.
It’s in that liminal time of opportunity that we find ourselves as the church in the world. We know what we have been and we want to discover what we shall be. Discovering that future self cannot be found unless we embrace a positive approach to liminal time. She says this:
Liminal seasons are also exciting and innovative. The Promise of a new beginning unleashes creative energy, potential and passion. All truly great innovations are incubated in liminality. God’s greatest work occurs in liminal space.” Pg. 2
One of her first positive points of liminal time gives me courage and hope. She holds that during liminal periods Communitas can emerge. “Communitas is a Latin noun referring to an unstructured community in which people are equal.” Pg. 15 As the old passes away new realities emerge. In particular new relationships that start from a new place without perceived power structures and hierarchy. As the church we are finding that the old ways are crumbling or have crumbled into ruins and we want to rebuild the temple once again. If we embrace the liminal time we can instead allow a new communities to emerge and new ethos of interrelatedness to develop.
That of course sounds great…. A new vibrant community is something to get excited about, isn’t it? Of course it is exciting but our fear of the unknown and the comfort of the past stands in our way. What do we need to do to begin to embrace and grow in the in between time? The answer is the same that has been given time and time again but we often forget. Trusting that God is in the liminal space is the only way that this can become more than just a horrible time before death. God has worked in so many liminal times; the wilderness after Egypt, the desert following Jesus’ Baptism and of course our time now in Christ. Our Christian life is often explained as a time where we live in the already but not yet kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom has been established through his life, death and resurrection but we are in between the full manifestation of that kingdom. Our whole life and faith is based in liminal time. If that is the case surely God is working in the midst of the church’s liminal experience.
What is your internal experience of the losses the church has experienced?
Are you ok being “in between” the past and the future?
The Apostle Paul speaks of living by faith in 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10. Here Paul seeks to set our minds on something more than earthly fear. Prior to this he reminds us that we are fragile and like jars of clay and yet held in the potter’s hands. At the end of chapter four and the beginning of chapter five isn’t looking to comfort people in the midst of fear. Rather, he seeks to embolden them with a sense of spiritual vision, purpose and protection. “For we walk by faith, not by sight” is his call to confidence in the Lord. Along with Paul, we know that living the life of faith is not a cakewalk. To be bold ambassadors of Christ in the world means that we have to have faith in what God is doing, even when (or perhaps especially when) we have fear.
As you can imagine answering a new call is surrounded by fear and anxiety. To leave a place of comfort and love to enter a new ministry takes courage but more importantly, faith. The song “We Walk By Faith” is based on this on chapter 5:7. I’m struck by verse three of this hymn:
3. Help then, O Lord, our unbelief, and may our faith abound; to call on you when you are near. and seek where you are found:
It is important to trust that God is helping us in our unbelief and causing our faith to abound. Anytime I have conducted Ordination or Installation Services I have always highlighted the phrase, “I will with God’s help.” This dependence on God is what empowers us to step out in faith. That’s what it means to call on God and to seek God.
Being one week into a new ministry is not a lot of time. Much like newlyweds, everyone one is on their best behavior and the honeymoon is in full swing. Yet one of my greatest vocational fears has been answered. A few weeks ago I made the following post on Facebook:
Today was the first time in 20 years that I woke up on a Sunday morning and wasn’t the pastor of a congregation. I…
Over the course of this first week I was immersed in the life of The Tropical Florida Presbytery. Our Pastors Pause, Leadership Council and Committee on Ministry meetings all helped to allay the fear of losing my identity as a Pastor. For 20 years I have lived life as a congregational pastor and all that comes with. How would this new role change that identity? If I have seen one thing over this first week it is that what pastors and congregations need first and foremost is a pastor. By that I mean someone who is going to take time and foster relationships and trust. “The Presbytery” in our system hasn’t always been about loving and trust filled relationships. When talking about the congregation the Book of Order says:
G-1.0102 The Fellowship of the Congregation
The polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) presupposes the fellowship of women, men, and children united in covenant relationship with one another and with God through Jesus Christ. The organization rests on the fellowship and is not designed to work without trust and love.
This is my favorite passage from the Book of Order and what it says in regard to the congregation is true of the Presbytery. Polity presupposes fellowship and covenant relationship. Over this week I have seen how the commitment to fellowship and relationships is a real and present force in the life of Tropical Florida Presbytery. I don’t need to fear “not being a Pastor” because I am in fact still a pastor. The difference is that the flock I am serving is now comprised of Pastors and Congregations not individual families and one community.
Yes, I will need to adjust and discover new means of ministry and I have a lot to learn. Yet I know that if I lean on my Pastor’s heart and walk by faith, God will equip and use me for vibrant ministry. I still have fear and anxiety but I also am able to step out in courage because God is helping in my unbelief and causing faith to abound.
What has been a recent time of walking by faith in your life?