letting go

Change and Control

By Rev. Mindi

Recently I was part of a conversation with someone about a local nonprofit advocacy organization. The local nonprofit has had ups and downs but is less than three years old. It’s doing amazingly well for a new program. And yet, they told me that one of the founding board members feels the organization should fold because “it’s fizzling out. No one wants to be involved.”

I and others look around and see the amazing work this organization is doing, how it is reaching new people all the time, and wonder how in the world a founding member could say that. Then we realized that this founding member is tired and doesn’t want to be involved any longer, but does not want to see the organization proceed without them, and does not like the direction it is going with the new folks that have become part of it.

Immediately a little bell rang in the back of my head. This is just like church.

A lot of churches have people who are on the governing board who have been part of the congregation for a long, long time. They remember how great the church used to be, and all the programs it once had, and all the things they used to do—and because the church is no longer doing them, the church is fizzling out. Dying. Even if new people are coming in.

Now, we all know churches that hold on so dearly in hopes of not dying that they don’t ever change and eventually do end up closing. But I have seen a few churches in which those in leadership clung so tightly and were ready to have the church close and die as long as the hymns didn’t change. As long as the pastor they loved could bury them. As long as they could still sit in the same pew. And the leadership board never changed because they never asked anyone new, or made assumptions that new people couldn’t fulfill the commitments.

I guard against jumping to the conclusion that this is all elderly people in the church. Some of the greatest supporters for change in every church I have ever served and in many churches I have known have been my 80+ folks. While they love the old hymns they haven’t been afraid of trying a new song, or a new way of worship, or a new way of community involvement, even if they cannot participate at the same level any longer. I have found it doesn’t matter what age the person is; what matters is control.

Are those in leadership willing to let go of having control and allowing room for the Spirit to guide change in the congregation? Are we willing to let go of having control and allow room for new people with new ideas, insights and energy to move an organization forward? Are we willing to let go of “my way” or “our way” or “the right way?” And perhaps the greater question, for both the nonprofit organization and for our churches is this: can we be part of something we don’t have control of?

I see churches closing, but I also see a number of churches managing a great shift, from inward focusing to outward focusing, to finding new ways of being part of the ever-changing communities we are in. While these congregations may dwindle in numbers on Sunday morning, the impact they are making on the community is increasing tremendously. Making this shift does not mean these churches won’t close; but it does mean they gave the opportunity for the Spirit to be at work.

Churches, community organizations, nonprofits and others can learn from this: when we try to control and put our vision in place as the right one, it may work for a while but eventually it will fail. Because the Spirit works in community (we see this all the time in the book of Acts). The Spirit works when we come together and build vision together. When we try to maintain control, we have lost sight of the work of the Spirit among us. When we only have the same people, the vision grows stale. Leadership must change and grow, just as the church or organization must change and grow, and just as the community already is changing and growing.

Trust the Spirit; trust the process; trust that new leadership in the church will not let it fail. Even if they don’t do all the things you once did. Even if they don’t continue all the programs you did. Even if they come up with something very different than what your vision of the church should be. Trust the Spirit, and trust that new leaders will be open to the movement of the Spirit of God just as you are.

How do we let go of Sunday morning?

By Rev. Mindi

One recent Sunday morning, I looked out over the empty pews and I thought to myself, “what can be done to get people here?” Then I thought of all the “regulars” who weren’t here, and I thought to myself, “What can be done to get the ‘regulars’ to come back?”

Then I wondered why am I so worried about Sunday mornings?

I’d fallen into the Sunday morning trap again—the idea that “church” is the thing we do on Sunday mornings only, that “church” is the place we go for an hour on Sunday.  We’ve known, from the beginning of our movement, as Paul talks about us in 1 Corinthians 12, that the church is the body of Christ. It’s like that old song we sang in Sunday School: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people…”  We all know this, and yet, we fall into the trap again and again and again.

When I looked beyond the empty pews, beyond Sunday, I remembered all the volunteers we had for the last two weekends for our annual Rummage Sale. I recalled all the neighbors who came out, who not only perused our “treasures” but also sat down over a hot dog and chatted with us about their lives. I remember the people who lined up for pies on Saturday morning. I also remembered the Women’s group that gathered earlier that month for lunch, the two Young Adult Pub Theology gatherings, and the bags of donations that appeared in the office for the local women’s shelter.

Why are we so caught up on Sunday morning? Why is Sunday morning still the litmus test as to whether or not a church is healthy or viable?

Money.

Sure, we receive money at our Rummage Sale or other events, but the main way we keep our lights on, pay the pastor (me) and fund the missions and ministries of the church is through the Sunday morning offering.  And if people don’t come on Sunday, they are not necessarily going to give financially—mainly because we don’t ask.

What if…

We offered other ways for people to give to the church—online giving, card readers, QR-codes on the bulletin?

We encouraged giving at other times, at other opportunities, to share in the ministry and fellowship of the congregation?

We counted our blessings in the people we reach out to, the small groups, and the missions and ministries we offer instead of persons in pews?

And what if… dare I say it?

We changed everything.

What if we weren’t as concerned about being financially viable as we were about the ministries and missions we share in?

What if we sold our buildings, moved to partner with other congregations, or started meeting in public spaces such as schools, libraries, coffee shops, or other locations?

What if we all, when we pledge our finances to the church, also pledged our time, our gifts, our talents? What if we took a share in the work of the church, each of us?

This might mean that…

Pastors could no longer survive on a congregational salary alone. Let’s face it—a number of our pastors are already bi-vocational and many of us do not meet denominational standards for compensation.  It would mean that seminaries would have to completely change because those going into ministry wouldn’t be able to afford the three-year master’s degree, knowing that they would be coming out with debt (five, but often six figures worth of debt). And this is already happening—seminaries are closing, or completely going online. Students take one or two classes at a time while working a full-time job. I’ll say it again: this is already happening.

We would have to all change—the church, the pastor, the body of Christ.

We would have to change everything. But we might be able to do something radical.

We might be able to follow Jesus differently.

I’ll raise my hand: I’m scared of this. I have loans to pay off. I have other debts. I need to provide for my family. But as it is, I serve two congregations part-time. I am surviving. I also love what I am doing. I have begun to change. But it’s time for the church to recognize this isn’t temporary.

This is the new normal.

Why Holding on too Tightly Is a Bad Idea

By Derek Penwell

In the Deer Park Discourses the Buddha famously observed that “life is suffering”–the first noble truth–which, when first heard by students in my world religion classes, strikes them as unnecessarily morose.

“Yeah, life sucks and all that … but it’s not all bad.”

At that point, I explain to them that the word used by the Buddha (dukkha), which often gets translated from the Pali as “suffering,” doesn’t just mean something like “unremitting agony.” It can mean that, of course; but it means much more.

Dukkha is better understood as a wheel in which the axle is off center, making the wheel wobble constantly as it turns. Dukkha is like a pebble in the shoe, which can cause great pain, but is more often experienced as a phenomenon that exists just beyond the horizon of awareness, always seeming to lurk at the edges of consciousness. It is, in short, the nagging sense that something is not right.

Suffering … not in the epic sense of the grand heroic struggle, but in the dislocative sense that life is not as it should be.

Why is life dukkha? According to the Buddha, the second noble truth is that life is dukkha is because we desire.

“Of course, we desire. Why is that bad?”

Again, I stop and explain that the word the Buddha used (tanha) is probably better translated “selfishly grasp.”

We suffer because we grasp after things intended only to satisfy ourselves. We want things because we want them, and when we don’t get them, we experience suffering.

Our selfish grasping causes us to treat things as permanent, which things are only transitory (anicca).

I believe that this time love will last forever, that my new _________ (fill in the blank) won’t break, rust, expire, wear out, etc., that the body that has served me so well in the past will persist through time. When that which we grasp for inevitably stops working, leaves, runs dry we suffer.

Moreover, as the Buddha observed, we’re extremely proficient at lying to ourselves about the nature of our existence (anatta). We tell ourselves that the world we inhabit is the real world, and not just the world we perceive, that truth is an easy thing to possess for ourselves, and not for our enemies, that we are finally who we believe ourselves to be. When we find out the extent to which we cling to illusions, we suffer.

By now, my students are itching to argue with the Buddha. That’s when I break out the third noble truth.

The third noble truth consists in seeing the first two noble truths together as inextricably bound up with one another, then seeking to untangle them. The Buddha said that “If you want not to suffer, you must not selfishly grasp.”

“That’s fine for the Buddha; he gave everything away. He didn’t have anything left to hold onto.”

Exactly!

Jesus said something very much like this about 500 years later: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:35–36).

So, here’s the thing. Churches are not unlike individuals in their mad scramble to hold onto something, to grasp after that which is impermanent.

Have you ever been to a church where desperation hangs in the air–the feeling that “we’ve got to do something, or we’re going to die?”

Have you ever been to a church where every meeting is punctuated by hand-wringing over money? The lack of young families? Declining worship attendance?

Have you ever been to a church where failure is not viewed as a learning experience, but as one more step down the inevitable path toward extinction?

Dukkha. Tanha. According to the Jesus and the Buddha, they’re causally related. The more you have of one, the more you can be sure you have of the other.

If you want not to suffer, you must relinquish your grasping. That is to say, you must disentangle yourself from that which causes your suffering. You must detach from those things, ideas, expectations to which you cling so desperately. Turn loose.

“Again, easy for you to say.”

But it’s not easy for me to say, and even harder for me to do. I didn’t say it was easy, only necessary. Jesus says the cost of the whole process is a cross, which is to say, death (Mk 8:34).

So, maybe the way to think about it looks something like this:

Have you ever been to a church that spends more time struggling over what to give away than what to keep–that is, expends more energy on the Outreach committee than on the Property committee?

Have you ever been to a church that sees its small youth group not as a disappointment, but as an opportunity to offer more focused ministry?

Have you ever been to a church that views its building as a present to the world and not as a bequest to its members?

Have you ever been to a church where worship is centered on the gift that is offered to God rather than on what individual participants “get out of it?”

Have you ever been to a church where truth is a friend and illusion is the thing to be avoided at all cost?

Have you ever been to a church in which justice is not just the securing of individual rights, but the pursuit of a vision of the reign of God in which there is no justice until it gets extended to everyone?

Letting go means relinquishing everything, perhaps even the life to which we cling so desperately.

Take heart, though, if you follow Jesus, you already have a pretty good idea what giving it all away looks like.