Messin’ With the System (and A Beloved Metaphor)

There are a number of pastors who feel I am being too hard on the church, too critical of our ministries — and by extension, too critical of them.  I apologize for that.  I believe from the depths of my being that pastors and be_nice_or_leave-734194laity leaders are doing the best they can, and that none of them are trying to be anything less than good leaders.  I also believe that the church we serve is constrained by its own system — the tag line of much of my teaching comes from Dr. Ezra Earl Jones’ deeply profound observation: “The system is designed for the results it’s getting.”  Our current system of church is designed for decline — it is an institutional preservation model out of step and time with the larger culture and spiritual movement of the day.  And pastors are stuck in this system.  Take fine china, run it through a wood-chipper and what have you got?  (Hint: not fine china!)  You take the best intentions and efforts of deeply committed Christians and run them through a wood-chipper and what have you got… you catch my drift.

Picking on pastors is not my intention, and not my desire.  I rarely ever meet a pastoral leader who is not willing to change and grow.  We all know we can do better.  We don’t need some annoying blogger running around poking us while nagging, “Do better.  Do better.  Do better.  Do better………”  But I do keep hammering on the system we’re in, hoping to trigger some new thinking about how to BE better within a broken system.  No pastor or local lay person has the power, influence, or position to fix (or greatly change) the system.  All they can do is adapt within the system to maximize their impact and effectiveness.

One significant way to positively impact the current system is through our leadership development — at all levels, both clergy and laity.  Two recent encounters make me reflect on the ways we prepare clergy to lead our congregations.

I met with a seminary professor a few weeks ago who observed that with each passing year, what is taught in seminary has less and less to do with the day-to-day demands of parish ministry.  Word, order, and sacrament — those aspects of pastoral ministry requiring ordained leadership are no longer driving issues in local churches.  Pastors spend as much time interpreting culture as they do scripture.  They preach to entertain and sheepinspire more than to educate and guide.  Evangelism is less about spreading the gospel as it is growing the church.  Ethics is about fueling battles rather than grounding an identity.  In short, pastoral ministry is framed as a shepherd tending a flock rather than a change agent empowering people to pursue a vision.  My friend laments that more and more students leave seminary unable to think theologically, but they know all the best practices of the mega-church.  They graduate unable to interpret scripture, but they are adept at using the Bible to say what they want it to.  They have little interest in knowing what the Bible actually says, but they paraphrase English translations to make it more attractive to more people.  The seminary is trying to create theologians, the local church wants sheep-herders, and the world needs change agents.  My friend is deeply troubled by a basic disconnect.

One problem is the age-old and beloved image of the shepherd (pastor) and the flock.  Not only is this no longer a common metaphor that speaks to the general population, but it is an incredibly dis-empowering image.  A much more appropriate metaphor is teacher-disciple for the simple reason that a student may one day graduate to become a teacher, but a sheep never becomes a shepherd. 

A second conversation, this one by email, presents another limitation in the current educational system.  A third year seminarian writes:

I have been taught to be an authority on Bible and Theology and Polity and Rhetoric and Church History.  I have been told that I should use all this learning to Lead.  I have been instructed to take what is in my head and make it Practical.  My Success or Failure depends on how well I motivate a congregation to learn what I know.  But I find they are not all that interested in what I know.  They are interested in me telling them what they already know, and nothing else.

Forgive me for being harsh, but my experience of pastoral ministry (I have been pastoring a congregation for four months) is that of running a Christian Day Care Center for Adults:  I tell stories, we sing songs, I tell them to put their heads down and close their eyes (and some of them take nap time without my even asking).  We play a form of Simon Says — stand up, sit down, stand up, shake hands, sing, clap, sit down, give money, sing, pray…  I pass out crackers and juice.  I tell them to play nice with each other and with new friends they meet.  Every time I try to treat them like thinking adults — challenge them to “grow up into Christ” — they tell me I am being mean to them.

I feel called to ministry.  Others have encouraged me and affirmed my call.  I have breezed through seminary and the ordination process thus far… and now I am already asking myself, “How long can I do this?”  You know the advice I received from my D.S.?  “Lower your expectations and love them where they are.”

The system is designed for the results it is getting.  It took us year’s to create this system, and it is going to take more than a few weeks or months to create something new.  There is no quick fix.  Behaviors and expectations allowed to form over decades are not easily changed.  But as with any habit, transformation can occur.  But it takes time.

I asked my professor friend, if he is so disillusioned, why does he keep doing what he’s doing?  His answer? 

signs_of_hope_39193038Every year, there are two or three students that give me hope.  Two or three who get IT.  Two or three who see the connections and understand how it all fits together.  They learn the course work, but not just in their head.  They see how history, theology, scripture, and practice go together, have integrity, to serve the present and build the future.  They GET IT.  I love that.  It gives me hope and it makes it all worthwhile.

A similar response comes from my seminary-buddy.  I asked her if there were any glimmers of hope, and she immediately responded:

There are two people in my little congregation — one older (60ish), one about my age (30ish) — who are starving for meaning and purpose.  If they could live at the church, they would.  They have so many questions about the Bible and God and what it all means.  They want to organize their lives around what they believe.  They want to understand God’s Will and do it.  They want the church to be great because God is great.  Every time I am about to give up on the church, one of these two wonderful women get me excited all over again with their own excitement.  If I am here just for them, it is enough.  Out of the multitudes, Jesus found 12.  Out of my congregation of 80, I have found 2.  I get discouraged sometimes, but for now I will keep fighting for these 2 brave souls who really want to be disciples.

We can spend a lot of time fretting over what we don’t have, over what people don’t want, or what they’re not willing to do, but this is poor stewardship.  Much better to focus on what we have instead of lamenting what we lack.  Transformation is much more likely to occur working with those who desire to be disciples rather than trying to convince those who don’t that they ought to.  Many who followed Jesus decided that discipleship was too hard and they turned away — a Jesus let them.  He focused his energy and attention on those who did follow, he didn’t chase those who didn’t want to.  Perhaps there’s a lesson there.

For the majority of the participants in our congregations, pastors will be nothing more than shepherds.  But for a select few, the pastor needs to be the change agent who will honor their discipleship and do all in his or her power to prepare them to become agents of change themselves.

3 replies

  1. Message to pastors and my young seminary friends: Inspire lay leaders! One way is to send people on Walk to Emmaus or for us college students, Chrysallis Journey. Be innovative and youthful in spirit. To fellow young adults: let’s create Wesleyan communities in the local church and not wait for the church to say yes.

  2. Thanks Dan, for giving me hope. BTW, Bishop Goodpaster sends his regards. He thinks highly of you. Our session with him (local pastors school) was also a message of hope, but we didn’t really address my concerns about being taught the same status quo material. Perhaps it’s just too soon . . . the vision that he cast is still a very new vision. If the Bishops have their way, the next 10 to 20 years will be an exciting and tumultuous time!!

    I hope that the “crisis” of this recession will be the catalyst for change that the church needs to make fundamental changes to the way we do church.

    I can’t wait to get home and get started!


    • Tracey, glad to hear hope in your response. There are a lot of good hearts and minds wanting to see things get better. Turning an institution the size of The United Methodist Church around is a monumental task. I’m glad there are folks like you asking the questions and pushing the system to improve. Blessings on all you do!

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