A Ministry Matters special feature by Billy Doidge Kilgore
My friend and fellow young pastor slouched in his office chair and spoke in an exasperated tone. “In the past few years, I have tried everything I know of to help this congregation find a future. You name it and I have experimented with it. Yet, nothing has changed.”
As I listened to him, I knew that he was greatly frustrated. In his voice, I could hear feelings of failure and defeat. To say that he felt hopeless would be an understatement. After a lengthy conversation about the struggles he faced, he finally confessed to me, “I am the type of person who likes to fix things, and the problems this church is dealing with don’t seem to have a solution.”
Trying to Fix Things
Today, young clergy serving the historic mainline denominations are part of a generation shaped by an anxious church that is looking for quick fixes to address its decline. As members of a younger generation, we see church life from a different angle than our predecessors who served the body of Christ in a more stable and comfortable time. Over and over again, we have listened to the depressing statistics predicting the demise of the mainline church. In many ways, we have been told “the sky is falling.” I don’t pretend to speak for all young adults in the mainline church, but I know that many of us have felt pressure to fix this problem. We have experienced firsthand the concern in the congregations we love and in turn want to do something in response, even if we know we are taking on a challenge that has no easy solutions, if there are any solutions at all.
As ridiculous as it might sound, I took the bait and bought into the idea that I could fix the church and reverse its decline. You can call me naive, inexperienced, foolish, or whatever you like but I believed it was the right thing to do in my mind. After all, I thought this is the least I could do for God’s church. In addition to pleasing God, I believed it would make all the wonderful people in the church who shaped me very proud. Looking back, it is embarrassing to think about how grandiose my thinking was and still is in some ways. After all, who appointed me be to a savior? As a wise colleague recently reminded me, “Jesus already fixed the church. There is no need for you to go to the cross too.”
Misunderstanding Our Role
If you have fallen into the trap of trying to “fix” the church, I don’t write this article to make you feel guilty or to encourage you to beat yourself up. At best, we are all stumbling along on the journey of faith in need of God’s grace. Careful discernment is always necessary in serving the church, especially in times like our own when congregations are under tremendous pressure to find a way forward. The time is ripe for us to confuse our human needs with God’s desires for the church. In addition to confusion over God’s desires, I believe a major reason for our misguided attempts to fix the church is a misunderstanding of our role as clergy.
In an age that encourages and often expects clergy to be religious entrepreneurs boldly paving a way forward for congregations, it is easy to misunderstand our role. As church members turn to us with their concerns about decline, we feel the pressure to “fix” our congregations, which can quickly distort our understanding of ministry. We find ourselves easily distracted by things that do not relate to our pastoral identity.
When I find that I am spending my time and energy in ways that are out of sync with my calling, I find it helpful to dust off my ordination vows and reread them in a quiet place where I can reflect. I am always thankful to be reminded that my vows do not ask me to “fix” the church; rather, they ask me to be faithful to the church. Nowhere in my ordinations vows does it say that I am to bear the burden of saving the church from decline; instead, my vows call me to “give direction to the life of the congregation.” Understanding the difference between “fixing” the church and giving it direction is crucial at a time when clergy are burning out and exiting the ministry at alarming rates. Rereading our ordination vows allows us to set the boundaries we need to free us of the impossible task of “fixing” the church.
Dr. Bruce Epperly writes, “Boundaries reflect your calling and theology of ministry. Our beliefs set our boundaries.” If this is true, then it is worth asking the question, what do your boundaries in ministry say about your understanding of God’s call on your life? Some clergy might find a wide gap between their boundaries in day-to-day practices and what they believe God is calling them to do in their ministries. If so, there is a need to reconcile the two.
To be clear, discerning a pastoral identity that reflects the ministry of Christ is not an excuse to ignore the challenges the church faces in the 21st century. We must respond to them in faithful ways and “give direction to the life of a congregation.” It is important for us to seek God’s vision for our future but not to take things into our own hands and try to control outcomes. I can personally attest to the fact that trying to fix the church is a recipe for misery. It will suck the life out of you and leave you jaded, cynical, and burnt out. Instead of going down this exhausting and frustrating path, there is the opportunity to commit together, clergy and laity, to turning the future of the church over to God. We can let go and trust that the God who has been faithful to the church throughout the ages will make a way forward.
At this time, the congregation I serve is in the beginning stages of crafting a vision plan for the future. Looking at my role in this vision, I find myself discovering more and more there is no place for my feeble attempts to fix the church; rather, God is calling me to be faithful to the role of spiritual leader. Now more than ever, the church needs faithful pastors who are willing to be spiritual guides through the turbulent times we face as the body of Christ. The body of Christ needs clergy who are willing to lead the people to the spiritual resources they need and discern the direction the Spirit of God is leading the church.