In a recent blog post, Amy Butler writes about the challenges of coming back to work after vacation. In her case, she had been away for month after her first full year as senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. I can only imagine what it takes to be the leader of such a large and complex congregation. I am certain she was ready for a vacation and it sounds as if she had a good and restful one.
Of course, the cost of taking time off is what it takes to get back into the routine on your return. Amy writes, “I spent most of the first week back getting caught up with latest developments, reconnecting with staff, and sorting through paperwork. While these tasks took a decided toll on my post-vacation zen, I noticed that my energy reserves significantly started flagging as (it seemed to me) folks emailed or lined up in person to tell me about various problems that had popped up in my absence. You know, normal church, just in concentrated form.”
We’ve reflected before on the impact of critical and negative thinking. We focus more on the problems than we do on what is good and going well. I wonder if this has anything to do with the perfectionistic push that many of us felt, growing up in churches that focused on the importance of getting things right juxtaposed to the direct or implied threat of punishment and hell. Scripture passages focused the consequences of sin were highlighted at the expense those that showed a loving God who desires to draw all creation near though acts of amazing grace.
I can see and feel the long term results of such an upbringing. The mindset is deeply embedded and often operates out of consciousness. What if we were more intent in focusing on what is sometimes called “appreciative inquiry”? What if we concentrated on what is good and right and going well with our faith community? Would we be surprised to find great blessings available right under our noses? How much easier would it be to be church and do the work of God’s Beloved Community if we would “accentuate the positive”?
Amy continues her blog by relating an incident that occurred in the second week after her vacation. She was starting to sort out the challenges of the week, when into her office walked an older woman, a member of the congregation whom she did not know well. The woman came prepared with a sheaf of papers and a list of what she wanted to cover. Amy steeled herself for this woman’s collected concerns, her selection of problems, her complaints and criticism. Here is what the woman said:
“You know, there is a group of us who get together by conference call every Tuesday morning at 6:30 to pray. We started this little group last year when you came to be our pastor, because we wanted to pray for you. As you start your second year here, we all know it’s going to be tough. There’s a lot of change, and it’s so exciting, but some people are unhappy. So before you get overwhelmed by all the grumbling, I wanted to tell you that we are praying for you.”
I have feeling that in the moment, Amy was stunned, speechless. This was not what she was expecting at all. Imagine – a group of people praying for you and your ministry and the life of the congregation and you weren’t even aware. That might not be so surprising in a large congregation, but what a gift! However, the thing that struck me most deeply was the woman’s parting comment, “We know there is dissension, and some people are grumbling about change. But we are praying. And we are taking our job seriously. We feel that we are like midwives—we’re midwifing the future of this church we love.” Isn’t that a wonderful image – “midwifing the future of this church we love”?!
Let me be clear that I do not sense dissension and grumbling within our community. I actually believe we are in a healthy place as we look to our own future. The positive spirit around the decision to hire Gregory Stevens as our Associate Pastor for Faith Formation and Family life was palpable and exciting. Gregory has many wonderful gifts but as he emphasized for us, he cannot do the work alone. He is not coming as our “savior”. He is coming as our partner in ministry. He will need all the support, including prayer, that we can give him.
There is a long road ahead of us as we seek to move into God’s future for FBCPA. I am sure that that road will not always be easy. There will be surprising twists and turns. We will have to go downhill as well as up. None of us can predict what will be at the end of the road – except, we know that God holds the future and is not done with us yet.
Will you commit with me to pray for God’s guidance, strength and companionship as we walk this way together? I believe such prayer is crucial in seeing and sustaining what is good and right and going well about our journey. In our worship, mission, study and community-building, let us, too, be engaged in “midwifing the future of this church we love so much.”
God bless and keep us on our way,