Where I live, we enjoy convenient access to lakes, ponds, and the Chattahoochee River. Especially as my oldest daughter becomes just old enough to go out in the canoe with me, I am increasingly drawn to the water. I even started fishing again, which I haven’t done in years. Over the past few weeks, I have both been out on the lake in a canoe and out on the Chattahoochee River in a kayak. Both experiences are enjoyable, relaxing, and indeed therapeutic.
But there are also some instructive differences between lakes and rivers that are not lost on me. Metaphorically speaking, we all need both lakes and rivers, a place to be still, as well as a place to be on the move. What is problematic for many congregations, however, is that we’re quite addicted to the lake, and afraid of the river.
Lake ministry means that, except for the occasional disruption, we are rather still, quite happy to be still, and will do what we can to keep things still. We avoid disequilibrium, conflict, and tension at all costs, calling it “peace.” Lake ministry is taking stock of how many people are in the lake and wonders how to get more people in the lake, and has little interest in ever getting out of the lake. It’s being moderately concerned with how deep and wide the lake is and when to let water in and out, all in an effort to control the lake and keep it where we like it, where its comfortable. Lake ministry is knowing where the boundaries of the lake are and spending an excessive amount of time and energy maintaining the lake and its shoreline, in order to keep it looking “nice.”
River ministry is ministry on the move. River ministry means adapting and changing as you go, not stopping to the point of paralysis as you develop an elaborate “plan” for everything (Mark 3 comes to mind, in which Jesus immediately sends the disciples out after calling them). It’s navigating obstruction and obstacle, forging new paths where necessary. It’s keeping an eye on what may lie ahead, joyfully anticipating the unknown. It’s going to places we never imagined or asked for, but which God has prepared for us. Healthy rivers have all sorts of natural debris, obstruction, and vast ecological diversity. So do healthy ministries, as they don’t obsess about every little obstacle in the way, embracing the “mess” and allowing such obstacles to prompt new paths of creative exploration. River ministry, while always on the “move,” doesn’t confuse this movement with impulsiveness and busyness; rather, river ministry patiently digs deep and wide over very long periods of time, shaping the landscape all around. River ministry is a long-arc ministry, seeking to participate in the ongoing movement of God in the world to reconcile, restore, and redeem (Christian scripture is of course replete with images of God’s life-giving rivers and streams, including those which are to flow freely from our hearts into the world). Even when we are necessarily “still,” the river keeps moving us and shaping us, apart from any effort of our own. In this way, it’s not the lake, but the river that forms us into a more patient, deliberate, steadfast, and Spirit-led people.
Is your congregation paddling in circles around a lake?
Maybe it’s time to jump in God’s river and see where it takes us.