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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Coming to Grips with failure...

As you may imagine, there are all kinds of different types of pastor "jobs." Approaching my 24th year of pastoring, I seem to have found my calling in this gig. (Using the "better late than never" approach, although to be fair, most ministers work well into their 70s, so I still have another 25 years to go.) What I seem to be good at is transitioning congregations from one pastor to another, what we call in our tradition, "interim ministry."

To be fair, all ministry is interim ministry, as we are in the time between the resurrection of Jesus and our resurrection, both communally and uniquely. Wolfhart Pannenberg, who died just a few weeks ago, would call this "proleptic eschatology." Since we're in this interim time, anyone who ministers would be--technically--interim; however, what I do is interim-interim ministry.

Pastors leave congregations for many reasons. They have worn out their welcome. They have run out of ways to motivate and encourage their parishioners. They are unethical, and their congregations no longer trust them. The congregation can be unethical, and the pastor no longer wants to be part of such a community. There are lots of reasons why pastors leave congregations.

(On an aside, this is one of the great differences between a denominational congregation and a non-denominational congregation. In non-denominational congregations the pressure on a pastor to continue doing ministry or continuing to abet unhealthy behaviors is very strong. If something no longer works in that relationship, the pastor and congregation must come to some kind of agreement in order to survive. While that might lead to new and greater ways of being a Christian community, it often devolves into the pastor succumbing to the pressure of sin. At least that's what we get from the press. I mean, Jesus only worked his ministry for three years, and there is no indication that anything more than that is beneficial to the community. Nor, for that matter, for Jesus.)

What I like to do is come into those congregations that have a leadership vacancy, and give them a new way to see their future. Even congregations that are healthy and flourishing can use new images of leaders. (And what images that can be! I have yet to follow a pastor--male or female--that has hair longer than me.) Congregations are pretty convinced they know what they need, but that only happens because they have not thought about what they need.

Congregations tend to repeat the same patterns over and over again. (This is the great failure of denominational congregations, and why some pastors go into non-denominational ones. You can easily get stuck in a rut if you never think about the things you think about.) The ministry of transition that I seem to be called to is one that allows congregations to think about what they do, and if they want to continue on in the same way; or, if they want to make changes. Some congregations actually know they want to change, and that's another good reason to have a transitional minister.

What is interesting to me is that these transitions are often approached as failure. They aren't, of course, but because we think all relationships should be eternal--including the pastor/congregation relationship--to bring in someone like me to a congregation seems to admit failure. But this is the kind of failure we want in life.

We want the kind of failure that doesn't kill us, but instead teaches us, or makes us stronger as Nietzsche might say. We want the failure that allows us to process our identity, to assess our resources, and to pray into our future with God. We are OK with the kind of failure that the cross of Jesus Christ represents.

Because from his cross  we understand, we live, and trust in our identity, in the power of suffering to resource our lives, and to live into the future for which God has called each and every one of us. The cross of Jesus Christ is a failure--no one, not even Jesus, wants to die--but his cross is not the final word. Neither are our failures. Neither are our deaths...there is always resurrection. There is always God.

That's why I'm called to interim ministry...I like to tell people who feel as if they failed, that God might not think so.

May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.

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