The place as it really is

One of the things I’ve read that most resonates with my sense of pastoral work was written by Wendell Berry. Berry is not a pastor or theologian. He is a poet, a writer, and — most important here — a farmer.

In one book of his essays, I have a book mark that I go back to from time to time because it speaks to me of the heart and craft of pastoral ministry and work. Please pardon a fairly long quotation.

[I]t is not uncharacteristic for a farmer’s connection to a farm to begin in love. … One loves the place because present appearances recommend it, and because they suggest possibilities irresistibly imaginable. One’s head, like a lover’s, grows full of visions. One walks over the premises, saying, “If this were mine, I’d make a permanent pasture here; here is where I’d plant an orchard; here is where I’d dig a pond.” These visions are the usual stuff of unfulfilled love and induce wakefulness at night.

When ones buys the farm and moves there to live, something different begins. Thoughts begin to be translated into acts. Truth begins to intrude with its matter-of-fact. One’s work may be defined in part by one’s visions, but it is defined in part too by problems, which the work leads to and reveals. And daily life, work, and the problems gradually alter the visions. It invariably turns out, I think, that one’s first vision of one’s place was to some extent an imposition on it. But if one’s sight is clear and if one stays on and works well, one’s love responds to the place as it really is, and one’s visions gradually image possibilities that are really in it.

Wendell Berry, Standing by Words, pp. 69-70

I’m tempted to quote more, but I fear even this much is more than some of you will read. If you skipped the quotation, please, lift your gaze a couple paragraphs and give it a few moments of your time.

So what does this have to do with being a pastor?

Pastors coming to a new church are very much like Berry’s farmer. When you first see the place, when you stand in the pulpit and survey the rows of empty pews or chairs, when you drive through the neighborhood around the church, you begin to imagine things that might be. This is especially so if you are a pastor with “vision.” Many a pastor loves a new church not for what it is, but they imagine it might be or become.

But the truth always intrudes on these visions. Every church is a place with a history. Its people are a unique collection of sinners and saints who have worshipped, celebrated, grieved, worried, hoped, and fought with each other for a long time. The congregation is like Berry’s farm. It reveals to you over time how God is at work in and through it and how with some degree of skill and patience a pastor might work with what is already there to help nurture what could be.

Every pastor knows all this, but we do not all believe it. For some, the vision of what the church could be — what it should be — drives them to take a bulldozer to what is already there. If they are talented enough and stubborn enough, they can do impressive things to the old place, but they often leave a lot of spiritual wreckage to be carted off in the process.

And, sadly, most of us pastors are neither talented enough nor stubborn enough to force a congregation to conform to the visions we would impose on them. Instead, the pastors begin to resent the very flock they are supposed to serve. They tell cynical jokes to each other at clergy gatherings. They long for greener pastures and better church members. They have less and less joy in the work and, often, turn back from the plow they once spent so much time and energy to take up.

This is not a large church vs small church thing. I’ve seen pastors of churches of all sizes who learned to let the place shape their visions. I’ve seen pastors of churches of all sizes try, with growing anger, resentment, and heartbreak, to force the congregation into their vision of what the church should be.

I will never claim to be an expert or a great pastor. My ministry has been an immense blessing to me, and I pray I have been useful to the church. For my part, I have always seen my role very much in keeping with Berry’s description of the farmer who learns through the work to see what is possible, what is already being done by God, and how those things might be shaped by the gospel’s vision.

This is not speedy work, but our Lord who spoke to us of sheep and seeds and harvests, I think, appreciates a good farming metaphor. I know I am grateful to have been called to this work.

The quest for healthier and smarter churches

I am in that curious time in the life of a United Methodist pastor. I’ve left my previous church and not yet started work at my new church. It is a time of anticipation and enforced patience.

For me, it is a time to think about my first year in this new place. As part of that, I’m reading again Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage.

In the opening pages of the book, Lencioni writes about the fact that there is a crucial difference between the value of being a smart organization and a healthy organization. You need both. Lencioni writes that in all his years working as a consultant, he has never spent time with a business and thought the problem was that the executives needed to work on getting smarter about their business or fundamental business activities such as marketing, technology, and finance. The problem he sees that organizations are not healthy.

A healthy organization is marked by these qualities: Minimal politics, minimal confusion, high morale, high productivity, and low turnover.

Most businesses are smart enough to succeed. Lots of them are unhealthy and don’t know how to get healthy.

What does this have to do with churches?

I’m not expert. I’ve been a pastor for 14 years at small to very small churches. I have no book to write about church growth, and if I wrote one, no one would buy it. But I do have a few thoughts on this question.

First, a lot of churches have a double-sided problem. They struggle with being healthy organizations. Sadly, churches are often places with lots of politics, lots of confusion, low morale and the other markers of unhealthy organizations. This is nothing new. Read the New Testament and you see it from the beginning. But being healthy is not the only challenge many churches face. They also often struggle with the fundamentals. They can be quite muddled about strategy, confused about how to reach and communicate with insiders and outsiders, and challenged by technology and sound and basic financial management. Not every church has these problems, but many do.

Second, I think Lencioni is fundamentally correct when he says that healthy organizations get smarter. Healthy organizations see problems and deal with them instead of avoiding them. As a result they develop the skills they need. I’ve seen businesses and churches that exemplify this. They are exciting places to be.

So the question then becomes: How do churches become healthy?

That is the rest of the book, which I’ve only started reading again. Stay tuned. Please feel free to share your experiences with healthy and unhealthy churches.

The big C Church

I’ve been reading City of God by Augustine recently. A couple of passages about the nature of the church have grabbed my attention and won’t let me rest.

Normally, I would write a post about these kinds of passages and try to make some point or argue for some conclusion arising from them. But for the last couple of days I’ve been trying to land on a conclusion without success. So, I’m going to share these quotations and some questions they are stirring up for me.

Here are the passages:

[W]hile the City of God is on pilgrimage in this world, she has in her midst some who are united with her in participation in the sacraments, but who will not join with her in the eternal destiny of the saints. Some of these are hidden; some are well known, for they do not hesitate to murmur against God, whose sacramental sign they bear, even in the company of his acknowledged enemies. (Book I, Chapter 35)

And later:

In this wicked world, and in these evil times, the Church through her present humiliation is preparing for future exaltation. She is being trained by the stings of fear, the tortures of sorrow, the distresses of hardship, and the dangers of temptation; and she rejoices only in expectation, when her joy is wholesome. In this situation, many reprobates are mingled in the Church with the good and both sorts are collected as it were in the dragnet of the gospel, and in this world, as in a sea, both kinds swim without separation, enclosed in nets until the shore is reached. There the evil are to be divided from the good … (Book XVIII, Chapter 49)

I love that phrase “in the dragnet of the gospel.”

Here are some questions and thoughts that arise for me from reading these words.

I experience a tension here between Augustine’s realism about the church as it is and John Wesley’s passion for a movement that strives for a robust sense of lived holiness. Perhaps this is at its heart the difference between a church and a movement. If so, I wonder how United Methodism — or whatever forms come next — learns to live with that tension.

I wonder what Augustine sees as the role of the clergy in shepherding those in the church who are known to “murmur against God”? What, I wonder, did the bishop do in the face of members of the church who did not keep their baptismal vows? Wesley did not hesitate to eject “disorderly walkers” from Methodist class meetings. What would Augustine say about that?

Finally, I’m struck by the Augustine’s language about the church here. Just as his book speaks of the church as the city of God, he writes in these passages in a sense of the church as a collective. The church is being prepared for its final exaltation and glory. The language is a contrast to the way I often think and often hear others speak about the church. We often see the church as a collection of individuals, and we usually talk about salvation in terms of this or that individual. Augustine has a different point of focus. Clearly, he is attentive to the fact that the church has individual people in it, but his vision of the church and salvation seems to come — for lack of a better phrase — from the top down rather than the bottom up.

Again, I feel a tension between our emphasis on local, contextual, and congregationalist impulses and the idea that the Church (capital C this time on purpose) is a body that as a whole is on a pilgrimage toward glory. I don’t know exactly how to describe this tension much less discuss ways to navigate it, but I wonder if we United Methodists have let our distrust of our broken polity erode our ability to perceive or speak about the Church in the way an Augustine would.

As I warned you at the start of this post, I don’t have any conclusions to argue here. I am sharing these passages from Augustine and some of the thoughts in my head because I need to get give those thoughts another place to live for a while until I can give them more attention. I don’t have the leisure right now to wrestle with them like Jacob.

I’d be interested in any thoughts or questions these words stir up for you.