“What has our church been doing wrong?”
September 14, 2017—This was a question posed to me by a very concerned member of the congregation a year into my time there as interim pastor there. As happens often during interim periods, church membership, attendance, and giving were lower.
Often, many people who were already disengaged with the church in one way or another decide to leave without the emotional tie to the pastor. Others cannot bear the unknown of who the next pastor will be. Still others who come from different denominational backgrounds cannot understand the interim pastor process and why it takes so long to find a new pastor.
This question asked whether there was something terribly wrong with them that the search was taking so long? Was there something that people didn’t like that the church should consider changing?
We talked about the typical timeframe for pastoral searches, which seemed to normalize the process for this member. We talked about my appreciation and hope for the congregation, which seemed to help make the member feel more hopeful.
But what I heard in this question was also an echo of another question I’d heard: “We’ve tried everything, but we still aren’t growing. What else can we do?”
Both of these questions assume that there is a problem, that with enough analysis, will be clearly and easily defined. Underlying both of these questions is an assumption that what the church is facing are technical challenges that can be solved by technical solutions.
Examples of this line of thinking are familiar to all of us. Our church doesn’t have a lot of young people and young people need to see young leadership, someone they can connect with, so call a young pastor with young children. Our membership is down, so we should work on getting out ads and putting our name in the newspaper and getting a new church sign, and we should work on branding. If we can just figure out what we are doing wrong, then we can do the right thing and correct course and everything will be fine again.
Except then we are ignoring all the ways in which the world has changed. We are ignoring the ways that the pace of our lives has changed. We are ignoring the many ways in which we are church for the 1950s and 60s. We still rely on volunteers the way we relied on them when most families could live on one income and there were always people who could come by mid-day and mid-week to help with things around the church. We still program as if Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings are protected.
When I, as a new seminary graduate, said to a much older member of a congregation that I didn’t think the church was called to be a purveyor of spiritual goods and services, I was told that I was too naive and not experienced enough in the ways of the business or the church world to know what I was talking about. 10 years into ordained ministry, I still believe this.
2 years into interim ministry, I agree with all those who believe that we are in a time of another Reformation.
The Protestant Reformation was in part a call back to the essentials: scripture, grace, faith. It was a call away from the beliefs and practices that were seen as corruptions of those essentials. It was a time when the church had come to see itself as the dispenser of spiritual goods and services, when the church had come to love its order and rituals and power and riches more than God.
For all my appreciation and hope, my final words to the member was that I thought this was a key time for the congregation, as it is with so many congregations trying to figure out what it means to be church in the 21st century. It is make-or-break time.
This is the time for rediscovering our identity. This is the time for honest and difficult self-examination. This is the time to ask who and what church is about for us. This is the time to ask who and what God is for us and for the world. This is the time to ask whether we just like being a social club that occasionally talks about God. This is the time to ask whether we are truly open to those who would radically change who “we” are. This is the time to ask whether we are merely open and welcoming or whether we will go a step further and invite people to grow and serve alongside of us in this incredible journey of faith as followers of Jesus Christ.
This is the time for rediscovering our mission. This is the time to look beyond the walls of the church to listen to our community, to listen for ways that we are being asked to be neighbors to them. This is the time to discern anew God’s particular call and mission for particular churches in particular neighborhoods. This is the time to excise those things that keep the churches from living out their particular calls. This is the time for unswerving mission alignment.
And this is the time for rediscovering our whole-heartedness. This is the time to examine what it is we love more than God. This is the time to decide whether we love the internal life of the community, the institution, and the family and programs we have created more than God’s vision for God’s beloved creation. This is the time to assess whether there is desire, will, and energy to do what is necessary.
Desire is not enough. We can say what we want all day long without it making a whit of difference. Desire and will are not enough. We can want something and with intention plan something out in our minds all day long without it making a whit of difference to anyone but our mental selves.
Churches must have or find the desire, will, and energy to do the hard but important work, including putting into action the things we discern. All three are required to meet the adaptive challenges of this time of reformation.
Churches going through transitions in pastoral leadership have an opportunity to engage in a church reformation, to reconsider who God is calling them to be and do in the church and in the world, to learn new ways of being and doing for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is an opportunity for transformation, not by our will and design, but through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. May it be so, for you and for me.
Jihyun Oh is interim pastor of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. She transitioned from being the staff chaplain for the Marcus Stroke & Neuroscience Center and ICU Coordinator at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. She is a 2006 MDiv graduate of Columbia and a current DMin student. She enjoys gathering around the table with friends and family, watching movies with Minions in them, and being a new cello student.
The Center for Lifelong Learning will explore Reformations Then and Now on January 22-25 with worship, plenary sessions and workshops in honor of the 500th anniversary of “The Reformation” that gets most of the credit. More information here! We hope you’ll join us for this fantastic event!