A local church is facing a number of pressing decisions over the next several months.
Attrition and the “Great Resignation” have created opportunities for budget revisions and have prompted much-needed discussions about staff responsibilities and mission alignment.
Identity conversations have required consideration of worship styles and outreach partners.
The potential sale of campus property has generated questions about impact, legacy and stewardship.
Denominational shifts have raised inquiries about tradition, affiliation and authority.
After listing these cascading challenges, the pastor told me, “There is so much coming at the church at once, I don’t know that we can handle all of it. No matter what decisions are made, there will be some sort of loss along the way.
“I worry that we don’t have the emotional bandwidth to make so many important and different yet related decisions one after the other. It feels like there isn’t a break in sight.
“And we are just getting our stride back, figuring out who we are again in the same space. Then bam! — we are hit with this mountain of deferred decisions we couldn’t make in the last two years, in addition to whatever was coming our way in the normal course of the year. I wish we could just rest for a while. I wish we could just be together and regain our strength for a season before we have to address what feels like a spewing fire hose of major challenges that all need attention right now.”
“What would happen if you did that?” I asked her.
She was flummoxed. “We can’t just stop. People are relying on us. We have to…”
Certainly, some decisions have nonnegotiable timelines, but we often let outside forces determine the urgency of others. In yielding to such forces, we relinquish our agency in making the wisest and best-informed choices for our constituents. Some forms of urgency limit our vision of the opportunities before us and create false binary choices.
“We have to do this now or never.”
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“If we don’t act on this, someone else will.”
Sometimes urgency makes sense. Emergencies and crises necessitate expedited decision-making practices. Thanks be to God for our leaders who know how to do this well.
The season that follows a crisis, however, requires a different kind of leadership and decision making, as well as alternative timelines for deciding.
It’s like in the movies. After a storm or an alien invasion or some other form of devastation has come through an area, those who reemerge are timid, unsure whether the environment is as safe as it once was. Will infrastructures still bear weight? Is the ground safe, or might it collapse? Is all the bad stuff gone? What is different and what is the same in the places we love, where we share history? What will our future be like?
In those grand cinematic moments, a leader predictably rises up to reassure the people: “We are here. We are OK. This isn’t the world we left, but it is the world we have. Our future will be bright. We are strong, and we will prevail.”
Triumphant music swells to a crescendo, and the people cheer in gratitude, affirmation and hope.
Perhaps the church should live into Oscar Wilde’s saying, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”
It is OK to emerge from this season slowly. Taking time to be together and renew relationships is good and holy work. Reinforcing the church’s relational foundation in order to be able to better serve the surrounding community is vital and slow labor. And rest is part of the equation, not a future reward for reaching a benchmark. Resting in and with one another is part of God’s perfect vision of Sabbath.
There are very few “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities when we worship a God of abundance. What might happen if we fully trust in God’s timing and generosity when we feel the tyranny of urgency pushing us to make decisions before we are ready?
What might happen if we delay or stagger making some decisions today to refocus our efforts on healing, resting, renewing relationships and re-becoming who we need to be in order to serve as the hands and feet of Christ to our neighbors tomorrow?
We’ve seen the end of the movies. With a slow and steady pace, we discover that the infrastructures do bear the weight. The ground does not collapse. The church is strong, and we will prevail.
Certainly, some decisions have nonnegotiable timelines, but we often let outside forces determine the urgency of others. In yielding to such forces, we relinquish our agency in making the wisest and best-informed choices for our constituents.
As the countdown to midnight closes out one year and ushers in another, a number of time-honored traditions and expectations will stir to life. Some people will kiss, and others will light fireworks. African American churches may have Watch Night services, remembering the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation. Other communities will host parties with rituals of gratitude and toasts to 2020. In my Southern upbringing, food plays a central role. We eat greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread and ham with the hopes that they will bring us health, money, gold and luck, respectively.
And then there are the resolutions. Getting healthy might mean losing weight, giving up carbs, working out or curbing alcohol intake. Getting smarter about money might mean refraining from impulse purchases or being intentional about investing.
We make resolutions because we know that something needs to change. We want to be or do better.
Yet New Year’s resolutions are often spoken of tongue-in-cheek, because we also know that change is hard. It’s hard to stop doing something that has given us pleasure or in some way has worked or been comfortable for us. It’s even harder to start doing something that is new or unfamiliar and may require an investment of time or energy or even pain.
Still, we make resolutions because we want to chart a new course and live differently in the world and in relationship with others. We have hope that we can change, and we know that our lives will be improved with the revisions our resolutions entail. New Year’s is a great time for individuals to make a fresh start.
And what about communities?
What might happen if communities and organizations took the time to reflect on the past and assess what changes or even fresh starts might be made? Certainly, policy changes and corporate restructuring can happen at any time during a year, but what if we took seriously a period of reflection for — in the language of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky — “getting on the balcony” to assess how the organization is functioning and then talking openly about what needs to stop, start and/or change.
The timing seems right. Giving to nonprofits and religious organizations peaks at the end of the calendar year, as does attendance in church services on Christmas Eve. Organizations and communities are reminded of what their spaces look and feel like full of people and are riding the high of budget pressures eased by end-of-year giving.
As the holiday greens come down from sanctuary walls, those who have been faithful church attenders throughout their lives will undoubtedly wonder again why the folks who attend on Christmas Eve don’t come back. Their programs used to work. An attractive children’s ministry used to be enough. Church used to be the place where we lived and learned about friendship, family and faithfulness to God. The nostalgia for what used to be in the golden age of the church’s role in the public square is strong. It is easy to think that if we just try harder, the things that used to work will work again.
But they won’t. Something has to change.
This is where the words to the traditional New Year’s song “Auld Lang Syne” can be helpful. We tend to know the first stanza, which asks, “Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?” The song asks whether auld lang syne — the good old days — should be forgotten, wondering how and when we should move forward. Then the chorus rings with, “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”
Consider that imagery. We’ll take a cup of kindness for the old days. The song subtly acknowledges the difficulty of change and leaving behind that which has served us well. It offers us kindness as we remember and move forward, much like the theme of traditioned innovation.
According to L. Gregory Jones, traditioned innovation is a way of thinking and being that holds in tension “the life-giving character of the tradition” and the future. “Rooted in tradition and the preservation of wisdom, [it] cultivates the adaptive work that is crucial to the ongoing vitality and growth of any organism, Christian institutions included.”
What if we looked at our organizations and congregations in this way? What if we looked with kindness at the past and what used to work and leaned into hope and the future with a willingness to let go of some things and take up others? What if institutions challenged each other to get on the balcony and reflect on their missions, vision, values and programs and then create resolutions for being more community-centric and responsive to how the community is today, rather than how it used to be?
The new year comes for individuals and institutions alike. The reflection that precedes resolutions helps us all do and be better than we were last year. So pour yourself a cup of kindness, and consider how you and your organization will move into the hope of this new year.