to change things…
After 60+ weeks of lockdowns, quarantines, and uncertainties, things are re-opening at a speed few of us would have guessed even a month ago. Church boards can be forgiven for being caught both exhausted and unprepared. We are already hearing from some boards a response that deserves all our attention. There is disappointment that the “joy of return” isn’t that, well, joyful, and that the unknowns and high challenges that plagued churches 60 weeks ago haven’t gone away. In this light, meetings that focus a majority of time on “how we do this now” are causing impatience and a palpable feeling of unfulfillment.
Church boards have several decision points, both about what to spend time on and about what to try to do for the faith community entrusted to their care. Is the item they are discussing likely to have a high chance of success or a low chance of success? Low hanging fruit isn’t necessarily bad just because it is easy picking. But then, there is another consideration. Does that item have potential to produce a small positive outcome or a big positive outcome? A board that spends all its time on quixotic if well-intentioned endeavors may feel noble but have little to show for its work. Likewise, it’s great to take on something that is almost sure to succeed, but if it will have low impact, is it worth the effort?
This is something for your board to think about afresh in this moment. The opening sentence of this piece – big goals…to change things…working together – is not a failed haiku. It is a word offered to your board right now. The nature and purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ in the world is to work, subject to God’s leading and God’s empowering spirit, to build up a community of faith, trust, compassion, service, justice, and love. “Slam dunk” initiatives don’t match the call we have to live out God’s love and justice.
Another way to say this: please don’t just manage your “re-opening.” Now is the time to renew our attention, obedience, and trust in God’s new heaven and new earth.
Big goals…to change things…working together.
In her blog post last week, Heather Cox Richardson lifted up the expansive story of Frederick Douglass.
Douglass escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1838. In his twenty years of life, he had had a series of masters, some kind, some harsh, and one who almost killed him. But by 1838, he was a skilled worker in the local shipyards, earning good money for his master and enjoying a measure of freedom, as well as protection.
His relatively safe position would have been enough for a lot of people. In 1838, Frederick Douglass was no different than they were: an unknown slave, hoping to get through each day. Like them, he might have accepted his conditions and disappeared into the past, leaving the status quo unchanged.
But he refused.
In the days of slavery, free black sailors carried documents with them to prove to southern authorities that they were free. These were the days before photos, so officials described the man listed on the free papers as they saw him: his color, distinguishing marks, scars. Douglass had met a sailor whose free papers might cover Douglass. Risking his own freedom, that sailor lent Douglass his papers.
To escape from slavery, all Douglass had to do was board a train. That’s it: he just had to step on a train. If he were lucky, and the railroad conductor didn’t catch him, and no one recognized him and called him out, he could be free. But if he were caught, he would be sold down river, almost certainly to his death.
How many of us would have taken that risk, especially knowing that even in the best case, success would mean trying to build a new life, far away from everyone we had ever known?
I’m often asked to give advice to my students about what lesson for life I can draw from my study of history. Here’s what I tell them: When the day comes that you have to choose between what is just good enough and what is right… find the courage to step on the train.
Now, the challenges facing your church board surely do not match the oppression and injustice faced by enslaved persons, nor is the way forward for your congregation likely to carry the life and death stakes that Douglass’ did. But somewhere between Douglass’ astonishing course and most church boards’ incremental agendas, there is wisdom for all of us in leadership today.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus offers his “farewell discourses” – kind of a crash course for the disciples – before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me[a] for anything, I will do it. (John 14:12-14)
“Will do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…” That is not cautious management post-pandemic. It is a description of audacious, trusting faith, following Jesus in serving and loving those in our hurting world – and feeding those who are hungry to experience God’s justice and peace.
It sounds like a call to get on the train – or any other mode of moving fast – to catch up with God in the places where God’s work of love and justice is thriving.
to change things…
Looking back on things your church board has done in recent years, which would you describe as low impact or high impact?
Was the effort put into these things proportionate to the impact they achieved?
How do you understand Jesus’ call in John 14 to “do greater works” than he did? What might those greater works be for your congregation?
Is there a get-on-the train moment of decision for your church board right now?