Perhaps the biggest surprise I received at “Charm School” (the denominational training for District Superintendents and Directors of Connectional Ministry) was a widespread sense of burden and sacrifice that presenter after presenter lifted up and focused on. (Not all of them, but many… our plenary speakers on Poverty and Global Health were very upbeat…) It was fascinating to hear how our work is being framed – “people are difficult,” “you will not be appreciated,” “you will be exhausted,” “you will be insulted if not assaulted,” “this job will not be kind to you,” “we will be misunderstood.” There was very little focus on the joy, the satisfaction, or the blessing of our work. While the work was framed as important, we were repeatedly reminded of the sacrifice, the cost, and the pain. What’s this all about? When I first taught at one of these events thirteen years ago, the main messages were, “you are doing critically important work,” “you have been selected because of the incredible gifts you bring,” “this work is deeply gratifying,” and “you can make a real difference in the church.” What’s changed? Is it the cynicism of the age? Our incessant focus on decline and the need for more? Or have we simply lost focus?
One of the reflection questions sums up the week for me: “How will you expect to manage the conflicting expectations, the disappointments and frustrations, and the tiredness that comes naturally in a time of great paradigm shifts?” This question is freighted with all kinds of meaning. The lecture on leadership that preceded this question was all about unrealistic expectations, broken systems, the unreliability of people to follow through, and the inability of people to focus on the right things. We were told that we didn’t have to be “problem solvers,” but that advice came in context of the “fact” that we will be living in an unending cascade of things needing to be fixed. Someone made the comment that “we need to do our job so that others can do ministry.” What, our jobs aren’t ministry? How did they get separated? A third question offers further challenge, “How will you protect yourself from this job?”
I came seeking a more hopeful message. (But let me be clear: there were hopeful messages, just not as many as I expected.) I am so excited to be in Wisconsin serving as the DCM yet people keep asking me how I “ended up” here — as if I have somehow taken a demotion or am being punished. I think this is an exciting time of ferment and change in the church, but what I hear others talk about is our decline and threats to our future. I believe we have great opportunity to do good in the world, but I keep hearing that the “system” won’t allow it. I feel great passion and energy for the work, but keep hearing how draining and exhausting it is. With the exception of George Howard from West Ohio Conference, I rarely hear excitement and joy coming from DCMs. (But George possesses “Woo,” which none of the rest of us DCMs have. Check out Strengths-Based Leadership or Strength-Finder 2.0 to figure out what Woo is…)
There is a jarring whiplash of messages — we worship with messages of hope, then we hear strategies to ensure our survival. We sing songs of faith, then question our ability to make a difference in the current system. We are challenged to lead, but are warned that much of our work is management. We are admonished to start new churches, but we lament the fact that 80% of our churches are plateaued or in decline. We talk about the need to spread the gospel, then hear that we must have new churches to do that since the existing churches are failing. We work inwardlyto sustain a system that needs to focus outwardly. My favorite Freudian slip of the week has been, “what we do really isn’t about Christ, but all about the church.” (The person meant to say, “what we do really isn’t about ‘the church,’ but all about Christ…”)
What’s wrong with this picture? I haven’t had nearly as much contact with the new District Superintendents as the DCMs, but it has been interesting the number who have said, “I really didn’t want this job…” There is worry, concern, fear, anxiety, a sense of being overwhelmed and being inadequate to the task — these things are normal. But what is lacking is that sense of conviction and vision that this is meaningful work that needs to be done well andthat can bring great joy and satisfaction. I have heard numerous comments about “being able to do this for a few years and retire” — before the job is even begun, some are looking forward to it being over. One person a few year’s back said to me, “I came here year’s ago with all kinds of concerns and anxieties, but left proud to be a DS. This year I came excited to be a DCM, but left with concerns and anxieties.”
I don’t mean to sound unfairly critical, nor am I breaking confidence — these comments are made freely in the open. I feel for people who aren’t thrilled by their jobs and who feel burdened by the drudgery of their tasks. I also feel bad for the church that may end up receiving less than the best from such leaders who are tired and despairing. Yet again, I am angry at a system that chews good people up and spits them out — that makes people take on tasks from a sense of duty (because the bishop calls) rather than from a sense of passionate call. Ours is a great God and a great church and a people with a great potential. This should be some of the most exciting and energizing work on the planet. As the old saying goes, “Jesus came and died for us so that we don’t have to kill ourselves for the church.”
We have been told some helpful things — keep community, protect relationships, don’t let the work consume you, don’t do it alone, don’t expect to have all the answers — but almost always as cautions, not strengths. The underlying sense is that this work — DS or DCM — will eat you up and leave little behind. How very sad. The gospel isn’t a burden, and being church should not be a problem to solve. The time has come to find a better way. For me, I think the church needs to start thinking about how to live instead of spending so much time trying not to die. I think we need to focus on the pockets of vitality instead of spending so much time trying to revive corpses. I think we need to get back to basics and simplify instead of pursuing more-more-more with zombie-like intensity. I think we need to divest ourselves of a lot of property that drains our resources from mission to support maintenance and expansion. I think we need to get off the pews and into the streets, away from the committee tables and into the community. But that’s just me. Here the majority of the talk is about conference structures, org charts, supervision, numeric decline, buying MORE property and building MORE buildings, budgets, personnel, and the latest business & church growth books. We hear inspiring challenges to change the world (John Edgar, from West Ohio, Church For All People, was phenomenal) but then conversation turns to administration, organization, and “running around putting out fires.” I actually believe DCMs have more capacity to focus on creative work than DSs, but the urgency demands for both positions push the truly important work to the back burner.
I don’t need any help being cynical. I’m good at that all by myself. I think we need to step back and ask, “what needs to change to make this a healthier system?” How can we focus on the positives — those practices that bring health and vitality? How do we build networks of encouragement? How do we get the kind of counseling and coaching we need? It is very hopeful that coaching is being offered now. There is an open acknowledgement that this system is broken, and people are taking steps to fix it. But even with coaching, the focus needs to stay positive, visionary, and hopeful; less on warning, caution, and pointing out the dangers.
The image that keeps coming to my mind is the Exodus. I came with the naive and idealistic hope that the focus here would be on the Promised Land. What I have found is a focus on the wilderness — dealing with the problems and stresses and “stiff-necked” people on the way. Getting through the hostile territory has become our focus. Running away from captivity is motivating, but it is a negative motivation (escaping pain). Wilderness is indeed difficult and raises many challenges, but survival isn’t the end of the story. There is a land flowing with milk and honey — a brighter future — and we would benefit from spending more time turning our attention there. The presentations with vision and hope have been wonderful — but the darn wilderness still stands in our way.
It comes down to a choice. We need to focus on the Promised Land — bask in the rare privilege and honor of serving our church in such a significant way. We will need to fight hard — together — to forestall the forces of darkness. Yes, the wilderness is a strange and dangerous place, but there is safety and strength in numbers. The most valuable part of Charm School is the network and community of people on this journey together. I hope we stay connected, and that will take commitment and intention. Alone, this work could easily destroy a person. But together? It doesn’t stand a chance.
Postscript: after wrestling with this for a few days, I wonder how much our morale is tied to the trends of the past decade? When I came here in 1996, most of our annual conferences had not yet downsized. Conference staffs were larger. More people took care of the ministries of our conferences. Now, a decade later, the demands for time, energy, and resources are as great as ever, but there are fewer people to care for everything. The system is designed for the results it is getting. It may well be that the system is reaching its limits, and the stresses and strains are beginning to show through our spirits.