“Seminary didn’t prepare me for this.”
I hear this sort of statement all the time, from senior pastors to newly minted MDiv grads. These are really talented folks who have gone to great seminaries and who care deeply about the church and the world.
Yet they are coming to terms with the fact that what they are facing in ministry isn’t what they were trained for.
To use the evocative metaphor that Tod Bolsinger gives us in Canoeing the Mountains, we’ve been trained to be really good canoe-ers, we were taught how to handle the paddle, read the flow of the river, steer, roll, and even bail water. We graduated from seminary ready to conquer whatever Class V rapids God called us to. And yet many of us are at the end of the river – it’s dry, rugged mountains as far as the eye can see.
How do we learn to hike the mountains when we’ve been trained to paddle the rivers?
Near the top of the list is learning the limits of technical solutions.
According to Bolsinger, a technical solution is one that looks to past successes as a blueprint for solving the complex, adaptive challenges facing the church today. Through technical solutions, we fall back on best practices learned at seminary or elsewhere as we seek to improve that which we’ve always done. We make a better website, remodel a building, rebrand the church logo, add a worship service at a different time, or create a new program for youth, singles, families, or ___ (fill in the blank with the demographic you most fear not coming to church).
Technical solutions sometimes work. Sometimes a slight course-correction can go a long way towards breathing new life into our ministries. But increasingly, the challenges we face are too big for technical solutions.
No new sermon series or staffing structure or ministry program can adequately address what we’re facing: a bitter political divide; the open wounds of racial injustice; a global pandemic; the growing number of people who distrust institutional religion; the sheer exhaustion that drives amazing pastors to leave the ministry.
It’s not just that these challenges are too big and too complex for technical solutions to be effective. It’s that technical solutions, theologically speaking, aren’t what ministry is about in the first place.
First, technical solutions often are aimed at tamping down fears of uncertainty and anxieties about change. They try to maintain the status quo in ministry, keeping the same systems running through minor adjustments. But as the Gospels remind us, the kingdom of God is not about institutional management. This is nowhere clearer than in Mary’s prayer in Luke 1:46-55. In the midst of unthinkable fear and uncertainty, this young and unexpectedly expecting woman rejoices that the child in her would disrupt systems and dismantle hierarchies, creating wholeness in a way that would have been unimaginable in 1st c. Roman-controlled Palestine.
Second, technical solutions often are overly reliant on the opinions of experts who, due to the letters behind their names or the price tag on their services are considered unquestioned sources of competency and authority. There’s definitely value in listening to the experts, but that’s not the only place wisdom and insight can be gained. We must also listen to those on the margins – the non-experts, young ones, the elderly, and all those who have been historically left out of the conversation due to their gender, race, or sexual orientation. For it’s in these margins that Jesus spent his ministry and that we today find God’s Spirit at work.
Third, technical solutions often are built around compromises intended to hold different parts of the church together. Sometimes the compromise involves arriving at a middle position; at other times, it involves agreeing to not talk about our disagreements in the hopes of remaining united. Our world and our churches would benefit from more unity, but only a form of unity forged out of deeply held shared convictions.
In Acts 15, the early church is about to split over whether Gentile believers had to be circumcised in order to be saved. What keeps the church together is not a compromise position (such is difficult when it comes to circumcision) or a plea to be more polite, or less passionate, about the underlying issue. Rather, the “solution” is an unwavering affirmation of a core theological commitment: namely, the Jewish and Gentile believers alike are saved through the grace of Jesus Christ (v. 11). If we want true unity in our churches, we have to double down on the theological commitments that are at the heart of the Gospel. Anything else will result in a fragile unity that is really no unity at all.
Finally, technical solutions often try to solve problems through addition. The false promise of technical solutions is that adding just one more program, just one more staff position, just one more service will fix the problem. To the contrary, Bolsinger reminders us that the challenges of ministry demand leaders who will “make hard choices about what to preserve and to let go” (Canoeing the Mountains, p. 19). The letting go part will inevitably involve loss, grief, and disappointing others. May we have the confidence in God’s sustaining grace to dare to be more and do less, and to lead others through the grief of change. It’s the only way we’ll find a path through the unchartered territory of ministry.