Most churches are busy counting sheep these days. It’s time for denominations to collect statistical data for their congregations from the previous year. How many new members do you have? How many baptisms did you do? How many people died? And the tell-tale number that most pastors pay the closest attention to, how many people did you average in weekly worship? It’s all about the numbers.
I always bristle at this. I know that followers of Jesus aren’t called to be successful in the eyes of the world, we’re called to be faithful in the eyes of God. And I know that Jesus wasn’t hung up on numbers. In fact, he seemed to do everything he could to thin the crowds out with the things he taught and the way he lived.I also know that what really matters in ministry can’t be measured numerically. How are the people in my faith community striving to follow the Jesus Way in their lives? How are we embodying Jesus by making a difference in the world around us? How are lives being transformed in and through our faith community? Those are the questions I wish my denomination was asking at the end of the year, not, how many people are coming to our Sunday school?
The questions that really matter seem antithetical to counting sheep. It would stand to reason that when a faith community is striving to follow the Jesus Way, they would not be popular, they would go against the status quo, and their numbers would be small.But, of course, congregations and denominations care about numbers because they are institutions. And institutions are wired for self-preservation. As a pastor, I do everything I can to resist getting caught in the institutional trap.
Nonetheless, I have my own problem with numbers. It’s a problem that’s hard for me to admit. But, if I’m completely honest, I have to confess that counting sheep tends to hit me where it hurts the most-- right in the ego.Before I came to Holy Trinity, had you asked me if I cared about the size of the church I served, I would have insisted that numbers had no effect on me. A pastor serving a large, thriving church is no more valued than one serving a small, struggling one. But then, when I made the decision to actually leave one of those thriving churches and go to a struggling one, I learned something painful about myself. Apparently, my ego did care about the numbers. I had a PhD. I had served on the bishop’s staff. I had been a senior pastor of a large congregation. I had 25 years of experience. I should be moving up the ladder, not stepping backwards. I wasn’t proud of my pride. But there it was, staring me in the face.
When I came to Holy Trinity, our worship attendance was in the 40s, on a good Sunday. It didn’t take long for those numbers to increase. New people started attending and joining, and we stopped worrying about surviving. The congregation breathed a sigh of relief. It was enough for them. But it wasn’t enough for me. I wasn’t going for a mega-church, but I had it in my head that in order to be viable, in order to do the kind of ministry that a church needs to do, we needed to have at least 100 people at worship on a Sunday. I was sure that it would happen within a couple of years. I knew I was a good preacher, and I could bring them in. But it didn’t happen as I expected. We crept up into the 70s and got stuck. At about the eight year mark, we even started to slip backwards.I coped with this by convincing myself that I wasn’t going to get hung up on numbers. I focused on the way we had expanded our mission, how we were offering people the opportunity to grow deeper in their faith, how lives were being changed. But I have to admit that there was a part of me, a part I was trying hard to deny, that was feeling beaten down. I would look at pastors who served larger churches, churches that were adding staff, churches that were building additional space, and I wondered what they had that I didn’t have. In my head, I knew it wasn’t personal, but in my gut I was feeling the punches. Maybe I wasn’t the pastor I thought I was. Hmmm. Or, here’s an idea. Maybe this didn’t have as much to do with me as I thought it did. Maybe it wasn’t my church after all. Maybe it was God’s church.
I decided to go with the latter explanation. Holy Trinity is God’s church, not mine. I will do my best, but ultimately, I’m not responsible for the outcome.The thing is, I’m not sure if I really believe that, or if it’s an idea I’ve latched onto because it helps me protect myself from feeling like a failure. It’s always so hard for me to sort these things out. Have I convinced myself of this because living with self-deception is always so much easier than being honest about my own shortcomings?
So I wonder how much of my faith in God’s sovereignty over Holy Trinity is, in fact, a way of protecting my ego. I don’t know. What I do know is that, for whatever reason, it helps me to recognize that this isn’t my church, but God’s church. If I hadn’t struggled so much with the failure of my ministry at Holy Trinity to meet my expectations, I would still be living with the illusion that I can be the church’s savior. And that was an illusion that had to go.This year, our average worship attendance went way up. And maybe I should be feeling really good about myself, as a result. But I know better. I realize that the new people in the pews had absolutely nothing to do with me. I didn’t do anything in 2013 that I hadn’t been doing in 2012. By what might be considered an “odd set of circumstances”, a large number of new people found their way to Holy Trinity last summer. Of course, I would call that odd set of circumstances the Holy Spirit.
This year Holy Trinity will be reporting to the ELCA that we went from an average worship attendance of 70 to 90 in one year. And it will be just another number to them. To me it means so much more. That number humbles me as a pastor. It reminds me that it’s not about me. And it fills me with renewed faith in the God who is at work in the world. Sometimes even in churches.