I'm a big Richard Rohr fan. This meme is one I've seen before, but this morning I posted it on Facebook because I need to take it to heart. I forget this truth over and over again and I need the reminder.
As you may know, I'm in the first year of a new call. That means I'm navigating a sea of expectations--some my congregation is expecting of me, and some I'm expecting of myself.
Since coming to Ascension, a number of people are returning who have been away for a while. This brings me great joy, but it leads to stories about why they disappeared in the first place, and those stories are often about how the congregation or the previous pastors didn't meet their expectations. With a new pastor comes a fresh start, but I'm aware of the fact that the same expectations may still be in place, and I wonder how long it will be before I don't meet them.
One of the expectation traps I fall into is the one that says, "We need to grow." It's shorthand for, "We need to grow numerically so that we're around for a long, long time." It's what every congregation and every pastor wants. And it's killing us.
Since I've come to Ascension, we've only received a handful of new members, and lately I've been obsessing over it. We aren't keeping pace with the deaths and the people who have moved away, so we're loosing ground. Ascension is the first congregation I've served where this has happened and it has me rattled.
We're doing all we can to stop the bleeding. We're following all the expert advice on how to get people in the door and hang onto them once they arrive. I keep telling myself it's early, it will turn around, but then I succumb to the fear that is lurking in the recesses of every mainline pastor's mind these days--the fear that the congregation they're serving is going to be one of the many to bite the dust over the next few decades. It's happening all around us, and I'm afraid it's making a lot of us a little crazy.
That's why I'm always thankful when someone like Richard Rohr comes along to give me a whack upside the head, reminding me that the whole point of being a Christian is not serving an institution, it's following Jesus and allowing him to transform our lives.
Why is it so easy for me to forget that? I get sucked into a culture of scarcity and fear and devote myself to maintaining the institution; I've become a slave to expectations that have nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus never tells us to build enormous edifices, design great websites, offer services of worship that are major productions, have dynamic youth programs, or sermons that make our listeners want to stand up and cheer. He says, "Follow me."
That's not to say that we should be satisfied with mediocre ministry. We offer our very best to a God who has given us all we have. But we need to be clear about our purpose, and our purpose is not proving we're a church worthy of a future. Our purpose is following Jesus.
Maybe we need to stop inviting people to come to church. Maybe we need to stop taking attendance on Sunday mornings. Maybe we need to stop working so hard to get people to join our Jesus Club. Can you imagine what it would be like if we expended that same energy inviting people to follow Jesus and supporting one another as we walk the Jesus Way in the world, as individuals and as a community? I wonder if we can do that as long as the Church as an institution exists.
Here's the irony. If the Church continues to engage in this struggle for the survival of the fittest, we're as good as dead. But if we can be about inviting people to follow Jesus and supporting them on the Jesus Way in the world, I suspect we will grow and thrive. (Maybe it's a variation on "Whoever wants to save their life must lose it.")
Yes, every once in a while I need to be reminded of that, and I need to adjust my expectations accordingly. I'm not a pastor called to save an institution. I'm a pastor called to invite, encourage and support others who are, along with me, followers of Jesus. I trust as long as I'm doing what I'm called to do, God will do the rest.