Parish ministry: It’s good I left when I did.
I was shaped as a congregational leader in the 1960’s and 70’s: heady days of steady church membership, confident budgets, and familiar ethic traditions holding everyone together. Despite the daily pain of Viet Nam, race riots, assassinations, and a rising violent drug subculture, middle class Americans believed in the power of their institutions. It was this general optimism that brought the votes to ordain women in my Lutheran tradition in 1970, to start new congregations in blossoming suburbs, and to grow the church publishing houses that served tens of thousands of congregations.
By the time I was a few years into ordained ministry, I could see that church culture had started to change; America was changing. The explosion of affordable, personal technology began to change the way we communicate, socialize, learn, do business, and understand the world. We’ve become a worldwide, 7 days a week economy. We have seen the rise of extremist religious groups around the world threaten our allies as well as our own nation, with youth from our own region joining them. At the same time, religious conservatives calling out for us to become a “Christian nation” ignore the almost daily media stories of clergy sex abuse, its cover-up and current lawsuits.
Our culture has not stopped adapting. In a matter of a generation, church seems completely unnecessary to large numbers of people. Congregations have been slow to notice, even as theologians, seminaries and clergy have scrambled to adapt.
Our churches still use models of volunteer, non-profit, church building- and clergy-centric ways of being church, while our children hold in their hands tools that open the whole world to them. Their schools, their sports teams, and the internet, social media, e-publishing, and online gaming, are the communities that connect our children. While my children have been in worship with me their entire childhood, they do not connect with that community ritual the way I do. The prayers, hymns, creeds and sacraments that shaped me are just a small part of the huge flood of words, music, beliefs, actions and symbols their lives encounter every day.
We as members of churches must stop behaving as if these changes will all go away. If we keep electing lay leaders to manage our congregations who have this perspective, that “we just have to keep doing what we have always done,” we will continue to have buildings that are too big for the budget, clergy who get sick or quit from the stress, and lots of meetings where people wring their hands, demanding some shiny new youth program in order to bring in younger families. We need the best, brightest, most faithful lay leaders to join their pastors in helping recreate congregational life. We who care can’t give up.
Those who live, breathe and study the changing church point to the opportunity for us all to grow into what we have always claimed to be: people set free by grace to embody grace in the world. We must somehow take the best of our institutional life – our worship, our education, and our service – and do that well when we are together, and then keep living our faith in our lives. That’s what we need our clergy to be doing; equipping us through worship, conversation, training, teaching and example to live Christian lives. Not sitting in their offices, overwhelmed by the endless phone calls and paperwork of a shrinking intuition. If you have a pastor who is a good teacher and preacher, who loves God and is constantly out in the community meeting with people, trying to grow the church in the world, love them and join them. They know what they are doing.