Recently, I’ve been in conversations with regional/conference ministers and bishops of varying denominations. Our conversations have flowed something like this:
Regional/Conference Minister: “Most of my churches are declining and exhausted. People aren’t coming back after the pandemic. But I have faith. I just need more staff, more money, and time.”
Me: “What a difficult position you’re in. They’re lucky to have a leader who cares so deeply. What if more staff, money and time aren’t enough? What if we need an entirely new imagination?”
Every time I say this, my heart breaks just a bit for them and for us. More staff, money and time will not lead us through this great transition. More imagination just might.
A few years ago we bought a home that was built in the early 1900s. It is a craftsman-style home with lead-weighted windows and rippled glass. The walls are covered in plaster, and the chimneys are made from bricks held together by aging mortar. When we bought it, we knew that it needed upgrades to be a safe home for our family.
We had options: we could have learned to live with the issues and moved in as if nothing was wrong. We could tear the whole house down and build something more modern. We could gut the home, taking it down to the studs and keeping only the foundation and basic floor plan. Or we could thoughtfully renovate those things which needed to be fixed but would require careful planning, vision, and patience. We opted for the latter.
For those of you serving in judicatory roles, you face a similar question: How shall we deconstruct these denominational structures so that a connectionalism more beautiful, creative, safe and ready for this age might emerge?
I understand this road having personally served as a regional judicatory leader for six years and a consultant to the national staff of a denomination for many more. You are at the nexus of the great tension point of our transition as a denominational system. Do we pretend as if nothing has really changed? Do we tear our structures down? Do we gut them and rebuild using the old floorplan? Do we thoughtfully and strategically renovate keeping what is good and has a place in our future, while replacing what is rotted and dangerous to our present? Maybe all of the above?
You are in an impossible position – your job description is to invest in the vitality of local congregations in your region. That requires careful, prayerful discernment on the meaning and matter of “vitality.” These congregations may be looking to you to save them; you may be looking to them to make you a savior. But here’s the hard truth: more staff, more programs, more centers for transformation, and more money will not save the Church in its current form. Though, you may burn out trying.
The work of judicatory leadership today is not just about shoring up the existing system; it’s about imagining a different way of organizing, responsive to the larger changes in our culture which God is surely shaping just as faithfully as the Church.
That work has never been done before. It’s a new act of leadership, one for which you and I are called and wildly unprepared. It means inviting those who follow you on a journey you yourself have never traveled. Doing so means you must trust yourself enough to issue the invitation at all.
For some of us, this is the kind of risky, creative work that makes us come to life. This is the kind of work for which Convergence was created and wishes to engage with you. We hope you will join us on February 1, 2023 for an online Futures Lab: Imagining the Future of Spirituality for denominational leaders.
Some years ago, Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, a young, creative, generative faith leader in NYC offered a prayer to a gathered group. She prayed:
God Who Creates, God Who Redeems,
God of shalom—of peace, God of sh’leimut—of wholeness,
We remember standing at the shore of the sea, afraid,
Our enslavers in hot pursuit, ready to take us back to captivity.
We remember the tumultuous sea before us that showed no signs of parting.
And we remember you told us: v’yisa’u—go forward.
We stepped forth. The waters parted.
We moved our bodies from slavery to freedom.
You moved our souls from oppression to redemption.
God who Creates, God who Redeems,
If it can happen once, it can happen over and over and over.
Let us cross the sea with all who are enslaved, with captors on their heels.
And together, let us make those waters part!
The vision is powerful. Here are the people of Israel with an army to their back and a sea in front of them. They had nowhere to turn when the call comes, “V’yisa’u!” Go forward. The call comes BEFORE the waters part. It comes before the assurance that there is a way out of no way. It comes before the risk becomes certainty. “Go forward” God says. Trust that the waters will part. An exciting future awaits you!
Ours is a call to take that step, to break new ground. Doing more of what we have done in the past is risky and often short-sighted. We need a new path forward in judicatory leadership that risks the renovation, reimagination, and revolution of the Church. If you would like to explore that journey more, we hope you will reach out.