The history of exploration is punctuated by accounts of those who sought to forge a new path, only to find that what they thought was the endpoint turned out to be just a stop along the way. Scaling one of the world’s highest peaks for the first time, climbers would reach the summit, only to find that the “real peak” had been hidden from view and still lay ahead.
Most ministry leaders today can relate to that experience. For sanity’s sake, we’ve stopped counting how many times we’ve had to use the word “pivot.”
But there are reasons why the names of so many explorers are remembered years after their exploits. These are the ones that kept going. These are the women and men who figured out that “transition and adjustment” were constant conditions, not episodes to get through and put behind them.
In ministry circles, there is a lot of talk today about hardships and challenges. Not getting enough attention are all the churches – of diverse sizes and locations – that are thriving. One size never fits all, so we won’t try to summarize what is feeding the health of these congregations. But, looking at places of vital ministry, there are some shared signs. Vital congregations have found a way to align. They are seeing clearly and keenly the needs of this moment and aligning their resources with those needs. In many cases, these are needs that were unnoticed before the pandemic. They include the need for online worship (often more than just “filmed sanctuary worship”); for a renewed focus on the plight of children in their communities; for far greater vulnerability in talking openly about loneliness, mental health, and the challenges of aging among those in their congregation; for re-engaging faith formation by ending inherited Sunday School models and instead deploying intergenerational formation models throughout the week, both online and in person; and more.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and a scribe have a conversation:
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”
29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘God is one, and besides God there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. (Mark 12:28-34)
“You are not far from the kingdom of God,” Jesus tells the scribe. The Gospels are full of moments in which Jesus is out of alignment with others. But here, there is a tender moment of alignment between Jesus and this one scribe. The scribe realizes that loving God and neighbor is “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.” This is a good measure for church boards to use as well. What if each discussion item on your agenda includes the question: how will this decision align us with God’s work in the world?
Could your church board say today that “loving God and neighbor” is much more important than … maintaining the building for the status quo, propping up programs that have passed the point of vitality, clinging to traditions that some in church may love but that those who are new – or those looking in from the outside – find perplexing at best and off-putting at worst?
Aligning your church’s resources with the needs of those you seek to serve is one key to thriving today. This means holding those resources lightly. It means exploring the needs of those you seek to serve, with full knowledge that you may not get there quickly. And above all, it means developing your collective sense for when, as a church board and congregation, you are not far from the Kingdom of God.
What a terrific exercise for your next church board meeting!
When in your life has a journey to a destination turned into just one stop on the way to somewhere else? (When has it not?)
Why do you think the scribe in Mark 12:28-34 brings up burnt-offerings and sacrifices?
Why does Jesus’ exchange with the scribe silence everyone else, such that “after that, no one dared to ask him any question”?
When have you especially felt that your church board work was “not far from the Kingdom of God?”
What on your agenda today feels furthest from—and closest to—the Kingdom of God?