Tuesday, January 05, 2010

a fresh look at a familiar problem

What is it about a calendar changing, a year changing, that inspires us to consider that our lives are reset in some way to begin anew? The clock strikes twelve as it does every other night. The morning dawns as it does every day. And yet the idea that something is new is so powerful that we truly believe we are at a beginning. The culture has embraced the "out with the old" concept so thoroughly that it permeates what we talk about, what we think, and for many of us, what we do.

I am among those, this year, reaching out not only for a fresh start but a transforming launch into the new year. I feel energy particularly as it pertains to my work. I have a clearer sense of my purpose as a priest "in charge" of a struggling congregation. A year of living with, in and through the bobbly rhythms of this small parish have revealed strengths and weaknesses (theirs as well as mine, though I am already fairly familiar with my weaknesses), and a sense of needed structure is emerging that I believe will help them claim their gifts and exercise the ministry to which they are called.

To help in that effort I spent the day yesterday outlining ministry descriptions according to the needs of the parish's common life. The list looks like that of a large church, and yet small churches need the same mechanisms to function in a healthy manner: communication, pastoral care, worship participants, education, a ministry of outreach, stewardship... The challenges are multiple when there are a small number of players with the energy, time and commitment to make things happen.

I'm thinking that it might be time to go to some of those we don't see often and yet call this place "home," and ask them to take on a specific role. They are needed. I recall a friend from another parish telling me that when she and her family moved to a neighborhood with a church just a block away, they spoke to the priest to offer their gifts for ministry. In essence they were told that they weren't needed. That family found their way to a small parish in a neighborhood far from their own and made that community their home. They were needed there, and the gifts they offered breathed life into a house of God that needed them.

This is far from being a new idea, this notion of matching people with their gifts. Yet somehow, as clergy, I think we fall prey to the idea that somehow that matching will happen with a minimum of effort. Announcing a need and expecting that an individual will claim their place to address that need rarely happens. It takes a conscientious effort to consider what people have to offer and unite them with a role to which they are particularly suited.

A year ago we went through a gifts and talents program that energized the participants and left us wanting to apply what we had learned. The failing of that program is that it offers no mechanism for application, nor does it provide ways to sustain the momentum it creates. We made an effort to gather and identify areas of ministry where we could apply our gifts. Individuals volunteered to take responsibility for moving forward with the ideas that were generated, knowing there were others whose gifts and interests could lend support. And then nothing happened.

So I struggle. As a leader I can empower and encourage and support until the cows come home. At the end of the day if the job doesn't get done what part of the failing is mine? Where does my responsibility end and that of the member begin? These are perennial issues of leadership, especially in the church.

So I pray. I pray that the opportunity to start anew is visiting not just me but those I serve. I pray that renewal will take place not just in my heart but in the hearts of others, and that the affect of that renewal will translate into action and, ultimately, transformation. It's not a lot to ask. It is a common hope. I will do my best to work toward its accomplishment.


Mompriest said...

It is a sad problem with those assessment projects, that no follow through is given...and small churches are often so small, and tired, that it's hard to maintain the momentum. I hope though that some fruits of this spirit blossom forth for you and the church!

Jayne said...

Small and tired... oh, how familiar a refrain.

I had to just sigh when I read that Rick Warren sent out a letter with only days remaining in the year that his Saddleback Church needed... oh.... $900,000 by the first of the year to make ends meet. At the New Year, he was pleased to announce in his sermon that his loyal members brought forth, not just $900,000, but $2.4K. Lotsa $$, Lotsa programming, Lotsa people to do lotsa things. I'm not saying I'd ever want to be a member of a 5-10,000 member church, but they grow and grow, and we are.... small and tired.

KimQuiltz said...

Our small, old (young building, old people *g*) church is heading for a time of change and I can feel us starting to gather up our strength and courage to face up to the task. We have a priest on the verge of retiring (for the second time) and unless we can find another retired (but not tired) old priest willing to work full time for half the pay, we may be heading toward a Total Ministry solution to leadership. Scary stuff!

Genie said...

One of the things that has proved helpful here in Vermont is to change the nomenclature of some of the leadership positions. Eg, 'priest in charge' is now 'priest in partnership.' Not only does this indicate that ministry is by/for/with all the people, not JUST from the priest; it is also an ongoing reminder that ministry is about partnership in and through relationship, and we are all responsible and accountable. This helps to 'empower' the people in the pews (tho sometimes it takes a while for the 'new' concept to sink in and be internalized), but it also helps take away the sense of some that the clergy must do it all. Maybe it even helps shift the burden for the priest him/herself.

Donna Henderson said...

Awesome message. Never forget that your congregation includes a grieving, 58-year-old, lonely woman in Idaho. Thanks.


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