In the early summer of 1997, I began the two-year journey of checklists and meetings, reports and conferences, appointments and applications that concluded with a letter from the bishop of my diocese confirming that I was, indeed, a “postulant for holy orders”. We then sold our house and moved over six hundred miles away from our extended family, our friends and parish community so I could invest three academic years in formal study. This vocational journey, from my first meeting with my rector (pastor) at the beginning of the process, until I was ordained as a priest, spanned nearly five and a half years. Throughout those years, people consistently encouraged me, constantly saying things like, “You’ll make a good priest, because you’re such a people person.”
I’ve been at this work (which I love!) for going on ten years. I’m still a “people person”. There’s only one problem. The culture has moved so far beyond the training I received, I worry if I will ever be able to catch up. I was trained to offer courses. I was trained to do book studies. I was trained to organize committees. I was trained to fill out reports and keep records of Sunday attendance. We debated the best practices for “growing” congregations. We learned how to analyze congregational dynamics and spot malfunctions within the congregational system. Sadly, most of those “practical theology” classes are no longer relevant, much less “practical”. The routine activities of what used to constitute parish life have less and less connection to the lives of the people who show up at Trinity Church on Sunday mornings. It is increasingly obvious to me that joy and delight I derive from being around people is not the same thing as having any sort of clue about the ways in which a parish priest is helpful (or not) in marshaling and coordinating the people in her/his specific congregation to engage in the mission of God in the world — which is not the same as teaching them how to be good church members.
I’m presently reading a book entitled, The Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church, by Reggie McNeal. In the opening pages, the author identifies several “shifts” necessary for moving from one way of being church toward a different one. McNeal summarizes the program model of church as a congregational way of being in which the mission is primarily about keeping people in the pews, buildings in good repair and programs of various sorts and conditions humming along in perpetuity — and with a balanced budget. The missional model of church understands “church” as an active presence in the world rather than a passive presence withdrawn from the world. The missional church is the people of God on-the-move, engaged in the mission of God, who is on-the-move “out there” — with the poor, the hurting, the estranged, the sick, the stressed and the apathetic. The role of the pastor in this “missional way of thinking” would be less about program development and more about people development. The missional pastor functions more like a mentor/coach and less like an ecclesiastical functionary.
McNeal then highlights what such a change in perspective would entail: “We must change our ideas of what it means to develop a disciple, shifting the emphasis from studying Jesus and all things spiritual in an environment protected from the world to following Jesus into the world to join him in his redemptive mission.” (p. 10, emphasis mine)
The author goes on to underscore how difficult such a shift will be for clergy — not because clergy are resistant, per se, but because such a way of thinking is simply not how we were formed by our training. McNeal writes, “The typical clergyperson is groomed to do project management (yes, even a sermon is a project) and perform religious rites, not develop people…Leaders will have to travel a steep unlearning curve to move away from the activities and behaviors that support the program-driven model.” (p. 11)
McNeal continues, “This shift also means that church membership or some level of involvement in a local congregation will no longer be the primary spiritual expression of missional followers of Jesus. Missional Christians will no longer be content to help their church succeed in getting better at ‘doing church’ or consider their commitment to the church as an expression of their spiritual depth.” (p. 11)
I went on to read another forty pages, but I recognized I had to come back to pages 10-11 and let this stuff sink in. I believe McNeal has described the reality I see unfolding in my little corner of the world. That reality is exciting and more than a little frightening. Can a graying church-geek like me learn a new set of behaviors? Am I willing to stumble and fail miserably in my learning process? Can I climb the steep unlearning curve McNeal describes?
Just because I’m empathetic, a reasonably attentive listener, a sometimes encouraging presence, a good teller of stories, a (mostly) coherent preacher and particularly gifted with remembering people’s names, does not mean I have any real clue about how to be an effective “equipper of the saints” for participating in God’s mission in the world. Being a “people person” may be a start in the right direction. But it isn’t enough.