The Cost of Community

For the last 48 hours life has been an out-of-control roller-coaster ride for my wife, our two cats, and me.  All our worldly possessions are currently somewhere between Nashville, Tennessee and Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.  We are sitting in our new (new to us, anyway) condo, preparing to launch/create a whole new life in a whole new place with a whole new cast of characters.  When did life become so transitory and disposable?  For the past fifteen years — good or ill — Nashville has been home base, where almost all of my professional contacts, colleagues, and community exists.  My wife, former editor at the United Methodist Publishing House, made not only working relationships through her office, but many friendships as well.  When our professional relationships were severed, our community suffered for it.  Our networks of friends, co-workers, and partners stay behind.  We move on.  What a strange way to live.

I think of one of my “community” members from Vanderbilt who told me a few months ago that I “was crazy.”  “Community,” he said, “is a false construct, created to make something out of nothing.  Informal ties define social networks that are advantageous to a number of people.  Without advantage, there is no need for community.  You aren’t really losing anything,” he said, “but a figment of your imagination.  You were fired eleven months ago and most of the people who were deeply bothered at the time don’t even remember that you’re gone.”  My friend may be right, but even if he is, I still feel sad.  Relationships should mean something, and the severing of relationships should matter as well.  Community lost can never be regained.

Even a new community doesn’t replace an old community.  I have no doubt that Barbara and I will be forming new strong relationships and that meaningful community will emerge.  But, sadly, to think that relationships are interchangeable isn’t much of a step in the right direction.

In the cynical age of the modern corporate environment — which pretty well describes the current reality of most of our general church agencies and boards — relationships and community are simply non-issues.  Fiscal bottom lines and pandering to the latest UM slogan drive the “visioning” of much of the church.  We don’t have time to build lasting relationships and create effective community.  This is so out of step with who we are called to be — who we ought to be — but virtually no one is challenging this trend.

I spoke with a pastor a few weeks ago who is leaving our denomination — actually leaving the church.  His own personal reason is that he can no longer accept the way church people treat each other.  He experiences deep concern and caring, great compassion and acts of mercy, exceptional sacrifice and service outside the church more often than inside. 

A young woman pastor comes to mind who made a decision to leave the process toward professional ministry in order to maintain community with people she respects, admires, and wants to stay connected to.  When the threat of appointment away from meaningful ministry and service in authentic Christian community became imminent, this courageous woman made a career change choice because community was simply too important to frivolously toss away.

What is the power of a strong community?  Our scriptures are filled with stories of the importance of community.  In Christian community, the commitments of the body supersede those of family, friends, and tribe.  The working, serving, worshiping community becomes the new family, fostering lasting friendships, and recreating the tribe.  Christian identity is identity in community.  Together we are stronger and better than we are individually.  And when we align our efforts and resources on creating strong community, we create the necessary conditions by which to change the world.  Community matters.

Which makes me all the sadder.  When community is stripped away — when the church devalues relationships for budgets, community for popularity, and networks for soundbites — we lose more than a good feeling, we lose the very essence of who we are as a people of God and the body of Christ.  It is a sign of the times that leadership in the church is just another job, and it is going to take some real visionary pioneers to make turn things around.

I am so happy to be going into a situation where relationships are so important — the leadership in Wisconsin really like, respect, and support each other, not just in the work they do, but as fellow pilgrims on the spiritual journey.  It takes time and energy.  It calls for sacrifice and at times discomfort.  And it is well worth it.  Because people who work together may try unsuccessfully for a long time to like one another, but people who truly like one another can join together to achieve almost anything.  Where relationships are strong, great things can happen.  Where relationships are secondary, a lot of wasted effort results.

One of the highest priorities of our Christian church should be to create strong, meaningful, authentic community, where people know, respect, honor, and support each other.  When community becomes disposable, it is a very short path to failure — and it is not a path our church can afford to take.

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9 replies

  1. Within the system we Methodists have, the pastors get to experience what you’re going through every 4-6 years when they move from congregation to congregation. They are also supposed to cut any ties they have with members of their previous appointment for a period of at least 1 year.

    Imagine being in their shoes. They move to a new location, are told to ignore any friendships they have made during that appointment, make the effort to connect with a new community, and after a short period of time are uprooted once more, moved away again, told to ignore any friendships they may have made during that appointment, and on and on over their career.

    And we wonder why pastors experience burnout, stray from their marriage vows, become addicted to drugs, alcohol, porn, etc. With no real support system (community) they find themselves alone, dealing with the needs of their flock, and worrying about their D.S. making demands on church growth and apportionment payments.

    What’s the average length of a new pastor staying in ministry today? I’ve heard the number may be as low as 2 years in some places. How can we create community amongst the flock when we continue to destroy the shepherds?

    • I couldn’t agree more, David. When I did the Vital Signs study, the strongest churches and the most effective pastors (by far) were those who served in one place between 7-10 years — and they credit much of their effectiveness on the ability to lay a foundation of strong relationships. We seriously need to reevaluate the itineracy system for the 21st century. We’ve got to start caring more about the lives of our leaders in community with others. But, maybe this is just me — I think community is essential and we aren’t doing a very good job supporting it. Anyway, thank you so much for your thoughts.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with your statement that “Community matters”. I can’t see how you can be Christian without it. Your new community will be very lucky to have you be part of it.

    David is also correct. As a denomination we need to foster a greater sense of community and the first step is having pastoral appointments that foster that development.

    • It is astonding to me that the whole concept of solid, enduring community has become “counter-cultural.” Many of our current songregations are stuck — or even torn apart — by individuals who refuse to put their personal demands, needs, and desires aside for the good of the group. I spoke with a young woman in Nashville who actually said to me, “I can’t find a church to join. Everywhere I go there are people I don’t like and things that annoy me. I guess the perfect church doesn’t exist, so I’m on my own.”

  3. I agree that relationships are important. But when you pick up the yoke of a pastor, it means that you live a different life. Personal relationship are good and should be continued in an appropriate manner, but it’s important that congregations don’t become attached to pastors, but instead to their church family. Pastors have to be servants.
    That being said, my wife has been serving her church for 5 years now and not only is it her first assignment, AND our first home together. The thought of leaving here is not an easy one.
    Regardless, there will come a time when God calls us away from here, we will go to a new community and form new relationships. It will hurt, but that’s part of what we signed up for. I think that anyone serving a church has to leave behind the old relationships to give your all to the new.
    Though I’ll second the nod to longer stays for pastors.

    • It’s a bit of a paradox, and I may sound like I am talking out of both sides of my mouth, but while I think longer pastorates are healthier all around, and it is so vital for pastors to fully enter community, I also think one of the most important roles of appointed clergy is to help the congregation form a strong, healthy community that isn’t significantly damaged by pastoral changes. “Pastor-proofing” congregations sounds harsh, but the greatest legacy a pastor can leave a church is to make him- or herself virtually expendable — to help the congregation stay strong as a community of faith no matter who the appointed leader is. Many pastors tell me that a key to their leaving feeling good about the change is how healthy the congregation is being left behind. It is an odd idea that we can “plug-and-play” different clergy in different contexts at different times, yet that is a central feature of United Methodism. It is, in my estimation, one of the greatest differences between the modern and the pre-modern (1st-15th century) church, that what was once so grounded in community (sometimes lifelong) now is so transitory and treated like a service industry. You do raise an excellent point that to enter servant ministry means you commit yourself to go wherever your are needed, when you are needed, and one significant sacrifice you make is (often) long-term relationships. It’s hard, but it is what we say ‘yes’ to when we accept the mantle of leadership in the church.

  4. Welcome to the Wisconsin Annual Conference
    It will be good to have you and your talents “on board”
    Todd Anderson
    Racine, Wisc.,

  5. Dan & blogosphere,

    Thanks for this thread. Of course we are known by the community we keep–and challenged by it. I believe the thread has much I would not add to, except to recommend a book by Peter Block entitled simply, “Community: the Strcuture of Belonging.” There is a good deal about diagnosing elements of community that need support, or paths toward transformation, but there is more. There is the social entrepreneurial conversation we need to have. In the course of ministry we create safe spaces and relationships where the liberation of Christ can be known and made known–and extend this liberation outward. I am committed to learning and practicing coaching Christian community whereever I can. I guess that will be your adventure, Dan, as you and Barbara reset your networks, and we join you. Good luck.

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