United Methodist congregations seem to regularly get “stuck” in one (or more) of three places. Annual Conferences, too, share this affliction. Instead of channeling energy positively, it dissipates in non-productive — and sometimes damaging ways. Conversations tend to focus on problems to solve rather than possibilties. People get bogged down in what has already happened instead of what could happen. What we used to be becomes more important than who we are and who we might be. Time after time we end up stuck. The three stuck places are ReDo — doing the same things over and over with limited results, UnDo — trying to change the present by changing (or wishing to change) the past, and DoDo — confusing business and activity with effectiveness and health.
There is only one thing worse than failure in The United Methodist Church, and that’s success. Heaven help the poor church that hosts a popular program or holds a successful fund-raiser, for once successful the congregation will be burdened with replaying the event over and over. HOw many of our churches are “known” for their annual “insert delicacy here” dinner. Everyone remembers the time in 1978 when over 800 people attended. Ignore the fact that today it takes more people in the kitchen to prepare and serve the dinner than actually attend the dinner, and that the $8,000 it used to raise has dwindled to $732.16 (but only if you count the donations church members made, then it only brings in $327.49…). Many of us live in the glory days when “we had a Sunday school bursting at the seams with children” and we still prepare the same way, even though we only have nine kids — eleven if Mildred’s grandkids come to visit. ReDo-ism is the fertile soil that “we’ve always done it that way” grows in. But just like a car or a comfortable coat, there comes a time when it has served its purpose and it has to be replaced. New times call for new experiences. Now, I am not saying we should throw out what is working and effective, but let’s be honest. Much of what we love doing we love because it is easy and familiar, not because it works. Recently, I visited a church where the long-time, older members held a fund-raising dinner and made almost $3,000. Not bad. They had eighteen people working all of two days to prepare, but had been planning and advertising for weeks. The same day as the dinner, three boys from the youth group took coolers of Red Bull to a college campus and each sold over 200 cans at $4.00. They were there for about four hours and raised over $2,500. Now, this was not a large church, so it is a good tale of fund-raising for ministry, but that’s not the point. The point is that the dinner — a tradition — raises very little for all the time, effort, and energy it requires. But the fellowship, you say? Well, most of the participants did enjoy being together — so they could complain about how none of the younger people pitch in and how they wouldn’t be able to do this forever and how they weren’t as spry as they once were and what a shame more people didn’t come out… like they used to.
The problem with ReDo is that it looks for the future in the past. It tries to go back to something once possessed rather than creating something new. It holds us stuck because we are attempting to be something we’re not. Just as I cannot attempt the same things I did when I was a teenager (before a heart attack, a broken back and two broken legs…), a congregation isn’t today what it was twenty-five or fifty years ago. Being honest about who we are NOW and aligning our energy and activity to become all that we can in the future is much more productive and transformative work.
Another way we get stuck is in the UNDo mode — either actively or passively. Actively, the past still holds us “stuck” by an event or era that we simply can’t escape. An old hurt, slight, crisis or betrayal governs everything that happens in the present moment. One group of church leaders shared with me recently that they haven’t really “done much in the community since their church split.” Their church split in 1956. Another church is still reeling from a situation of clergy sexual misconduct that happened in the 1990s, but the trust is so fragile in the church that they can’t move forward. They are expending all their energy trying to “undo” the damage, but by dwelling on the event, they are “stuck.” There is no healing, only an obsessive remembrance that offers nothing more than shame and grief. For many churches, this leads to the passive mode of UnDo — pretending it never happened and that in time everything will go back to “normal.” The tragedy here is that “normal” is gone forever. The only possibility is to move on — there is no return to a time where the crisis event never happened. We cannot UnDo the past, no matter how creatively we try to rewrite history, and refusing to address the feelings and resolve the unresolved can only hold a community or group stuck in place. There are many things in our personal lives we wish had never happened — but once they happened we must make peace with them and move on. Our future does not have to be dictated by our past. We can waste time and energy trying to UnDo what happened in the past or we can learn from it, grow from it, and work together to build the kind of future that guards against it ever happening again.
UnDo is also grounded in the past. Our future does not lie in our past, it can only be held captive there. Ours is a redemption-based faith. We confess, we repent, we ask forgiveness, we receive mercy and grace, we heal, we move on. It is a sublime process of affirmation and second chances that touches our fundamental human need. What is true for us individually must extend to our communities of faith as well.
DoDo stuckness is at least grounded in the present rather than the past. It is the work harder not smarter mentality that confuses busy-ness with effectiveness. Churches create a whirlwind program of services, studies, small groups, projects, classes, trips, seminars, trainings, meetings that keep people spinning. We determine our success based on numbers of activities, numbers of people working to deliver these activities, numbers of people attending these activities, and how full our calendars are. We are up to our necks in “doing.” But to what end? How are lives changed? How is the kingdom of God stronger for all the flurry of activity? How are people growing as disciples? These are questions we cannot answer because we’re too busy. We cannot evaluate the impact of what we do, because we’re must get busy doing the next thing. A person is considered an “active” church member, not because she is engaged in transformative ministry, but because she shows up at the church five nights and week and Sunday morning. Church becomes a moving sidewalk where people are whisked along, but with no clear destination in sight. Where we’re going isn’t as important as that we’re active. Wasted motion = wasted energy.
What we do should align with what we are trying to become. Being and doing should be tightly integrated, but as a means to becoming, not as an end in themselves. We often believe that being a Christian is all about doing Christian things, but we seldom reflect on the corollary: becoming a disciple requires doing disciple things. The Christian life is a life moving toward something, it isn’t just a perpetual motion machine. While we often speak of the Christian life in terms of “journey” we live out that Christian life on a treadmill — the same number of steps, but at the end we find we never got anywhere.
Ultimately, church really isn’t something we “do.” Church, at its best is who we are, in communion and in connection. I cannot be the church by myself. Church is a set of relationships — with God and the Christ, with the Holy Spirit, with our history and tradition, with each other, and with the world. Being the church is an immense challenge and privilege. What we “do” should be a faithful expression of who we are and who we are striving to become. Our future lies in the future, and it is through a co-creative act with God that we create the future in which we most want to live. What we have been matters, but it doesn’t have to limit what we can be. We don’t have time, energy, or resources to waste redoing what has already been done, attempting to undo what cannot be undone, or wading waste deep in dodo, keeping so busy that we fail to notice that we have stopped growing. We need to heal and let go, to remember and celebrate and move forward. This takes time, but it is the only way we can ever hope to reach the Promised Land, the future with hope, that God lays out before us.