“What you are writing is helpful – it is something for us to aspire to – but this is too hard, too challenging right now.”
“I’d love to have my church board spend a generous amount of time talking of larger topics of God’s imagination, but do you know how long it took us to just figure out hybrid worship going forward?”
Yes, we do know. We understand just how difficult this time is for your church board – and for the roles and duties of pastors – as the pandemic begins to wind down. It winds down, and scores of hard new questions wind up.
And yes, good process and healthy systems do require you to work through all those questions carefully and pay attention to all voices.
And yet, how long do you think your church board can keep doing all the complex, seemingly endless work before you without joy, without passion, without a strong sense of God’s presence and the Spirit’s wind at your back?
One of Frederick Buechner’s most important teachers and mentors was James Muilenberg, his Old Testament professor at Union Theological Seminary. Muilenberg was a force who embodied the very scripture he was teaching to his students. Buechner remembers him thus:
“Every morning when you wake up,” he used to say, “before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of humankind and then see if you can honestly say it again.”
Muilenberg was a fool in the sense that he didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t resolve, intellectualize, evade, the tensions of his faith but lived those tensions out, torn almost in two by them at times. His faith was not a seamless garment but a ragged garment with the seams showing, the tears showing, a garment that he clutched about him like someone in a storm.
(From Buechner’s book, Now and Then)
That memory of Buechner’s brings to mind one of Flannery O’Connor’s letters, in which she wrote:
I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.
(From The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor)
When your board’s earnest, faithful work toward crafting a seamless garment of best practices and wise policies feels, instead, like a “ragged garment with the seams showing, the tears showing” – a garment that you clutch about you like someone in a storm – take heart! Keep open to faith. Keep open in your searching together, keep honest in your accounting of the cost of faith, and truly, leave the rest to God.
Perhaps the only thing worse than failing to produce a “seamless garment” of leadership in this moment, is to fail to see the sustaining presence of God right in the midst of this storm.
This is very hard work for your board – especially right now. God knows where you are and who you are. And God will see you safe from here.
How are you, as a board, talking about your faith as part of your work together?
Is your faith brought into the conversation as a big electric blanket or a cross? Can you take time to talk together about what religion costs, about the suffering of belief, using O’Connor’s reflections as a starting point?
Can you take time to reflect on the tears and rips and ragged edges in your faith, using Muilenberg’s guidance as a starting point?
How are you keeping yourselves open to faith? What are you leaving to God?