Have your ambitions for your congregation changed over the past few years? If so, you are not alone. Among the many things that the pandemic has altered is our sense of ambition for ourselves and for our institutions.
Signs of the change are everywhere, from last year’s “Great Resignation” to this year’s “Quiet Quitting.” Axios explains: “At least half of American workers say they’re ‘quiet quitting’ – performing only the tasks they’re required to, giving up on going ‘above and beyond,’ according to a new Gallup survey.”
The title of one article sums it all up: “How the COVID pandemic redefined ambition: Long-term goals? How?”
For many years the old kind of ambition, defined as a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work, served pastoral leaders and their church boards well. Seeking to create a strong and growing church, these leaders focused their ‘determination and hard work’ on strengthening worship, preaching, music, children’s ministries and youth programs, along with mission outreach and pastoral care. These were the assured elements of a strong and growing congregation. Put in the work, grow the church. Build it programmatically and they will come.
That was before patterns of life were disrupted by forces beyond our control. That was before rising tides of institutional distrust led younger people, and soon people of every generation, to seek meaning and purpose outside institutions altogether. And that was most definitely before the pandemic, and the discovery by the remaining young families that getting everyone to church and then spending three hours there was adding stress! … when it would be so much easier to stream the service over breakfast.
So, long-term goals … how? How does a board even think about long-term goals in this environment?
In the Gospel of John, right before Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, the writer observes:
Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
This passage puts forward a different ambition for a faith community: to love those in front of you to the end, whatever that end may be. In this case, the end may not be a programmatic church. But there will be plenty of ‘determination and hard work’ involved.
God’s presence endures forever. There is no place we can go where God does not seek to dwell with us. That is the promise of scripture, and the assurance of Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
What if our ambition were one of experiencing the promise of God’s enduring presence and offering that promise to others? What if our ‘determination and hard work’ were put in the service of utterly relying on God to find us, to lead us, and to nurture and sustain our ministry? That is an ambition for today’s church – and for your church board.
How have your ambitions for your own life changed in the last two years?
What do you make of the line in Psalm 139, “Where can I go from your spirit?”
How can your church leadership ‘love your people to the end,’ and how can you begin to talk about that?
What is your church board’s ambition for your congregation, and how does that line up with what you understand about the cultural shifts that have taken place in the last couple of years?