This fall I began studying pottery-making. Every Thursday night I drive to a studio about 30 miles from the town where I serve as a United Methodist pastor to sit at a pottery wheel and learn how to throw pieces of art.
It all begins with a lump of formless clay that gets worse before it will get better. After cutting it off of a block, I have to knead the clay for a while in order to eliminate any air that may be trapped inside. This goes a long way toward reducing the chances of a piece exploding or cracking when it’s fired in the kiln.
Still without shape, the next step is to take the ball of clay and forcefully place it on the pottery wheel. Centering the clay itself is part art, part sport. With larger lumps of clay, it can involve slamming the clay in the center of wheel kind of aggressively before centering is possible. If the clay isn’t properly centered, the pot will not be able to be trimmed correctly.
Though much of what a potter does, including centering, can be reasoned out technically—you could stop to measure the width or height of a side —it really all comes down to how it feels. Most of the time, the safest thing to do is to trust your gut and the way the clay feels between your fingers.
This process of turning lumps of clay into beautiful and useful objects is of course an important metaphor in the Christian tradition. The prophet Isaiah’s famous verse, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand,” is a familiar text for personal formation. But last night, as I scraped a lump of clay from the wheel, after the beer stein I was making fell, it seemed to apply to the challenge of ongoing formation in the church as well.
I had more than enough clay when I started. It was properly centered, I was sure. Most importantly, I had a clear vision of what I was attempting to make—a hearty beer stein I would enjoy on lively evenings with friends, who of course would be impressed with my skill and artistry.
But a small slip of my right hand, clumsily, resulted in a mistake. The would-be stein extended its base and, with the additional help of gravity and centrifugal force, the clay collapsed on itself.
The metaphor here is a painful one for those of us in religious leadership: the local church structure is beginning to collapse on itself, it seems. The conversation in local churches in New England—and across the country, as far as I can tell from religion news and social media chatter—has been on growth. How can we expand the ministries of the local church so they’ll draw in more people? When visitors come to us for the first time we jump on them as if they are the answer to all of our problems—and if they have children, we act like a bunch of pre-teen girls at a Justin Beiber concert.
Many people think that having just the right combination of programs will increase numbers and will create the next mega boom of Christianity in their local context. Many of us—clergy and laypeople alike—hold on to hope that a Sunday School program with two children week after week (a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old, at that) will explode to 10 or 20 children if we just work harder at getting our grandchildren or our neighbor’s children to come to church with us. Soon, the men and women who faithfully commit themselves to teaching Sunday School burn themselves out trying to revive a program designed 50 years ago—an eternity, it seems, from the world in which we live and minister today.
It is up to the leaders in a particular ministry context to discern how God is shaping their community. In a day when congregations are shrinking rapidly and the cost of doing ministry is rising, the next flashy curriculum or the inclusion of an 80s hair band in worship won’t necessarily grow the church (though, I bet seeing the 75-year-old organist laying it down on an electric base would be a pretty “worshipful” experience). Chasing after the “next big thing” won’t lead to a more enriching experience of God. It only leads to exhaustion and broken heartedness.
Just like there is no magic trick to forming a ball of clay into a mug for morning coffee, there is no magic trick to turn around every local church. Both take persistence, the right amount of pressure, centering, and a whole lot of faith—you just have to trust the feel of it—while the Holy Spirit does its work. Sometimes that work results in a collapse, but there’s a lesson even in these seeming failures.
The gift that the clay gives to the potter is the option to always begin again.
When my pot fell, I took a wire tool and cut the pot from the wheel, then scraped the remaining clay up and formed it back into a ball. I placed it on a table to dry out a little, before putting it back in a bag with other balls of clay.
Another pot a few weeks ago cracked before the first firing. There is no sure way to seal a crack and ensure the integrity of the bowl, so the entire bowl got added to a bucket of clay scraps that will be reformed into a 25 pound block of clay.
These failures have happened early in my training as potter, well, let’s say, more than twice. We are all broken vessels, one way or another.
The thing is, until the final glazing and firing, it is possible to return, again and again, to a formless lump of clay. We have what we started with to work with again, even if it didn’t turn out the way we’d envisioned originally. And that means there’s an opportunity to envision something new, too.
In much the same way that clay can be reformed, so can the church. The church has over extended its base and is beginning to fall. But all hope is of course not lost. The Potter shaping us continues to move the clay, guiding us, even very slightly, back to the center and envisioning some new form for us.
For those churches with two children in Sunday School, perhaps that means reaching out to older adults in their pews and in their communities. Maybe the church with a booming Sunday School is being formed into a new community that proclaims the Good News to families with young children instead of excelling at an older adult ministry. Congregations can’t be all things to all people any more than a beer stein is a bowl. Our purpose, and our beauty, depends a great deal on our form.
For me, and the congregation I serve, the most angst-provoking thing about the future is the unknown. But it is also the most exciting thing. Last week, I made a beautiful mug that I was sure was going to stick around for a while. Then I looked at the bottom of it. On the outside it was this almost perfectly-shaped cylinder that had been formed into a beautiful vessel for water. But on the inside, I had managed to put my finger through the clay, removing the clay that would make the base of the mug. As I scraped that off the wheel and picked up a piece of clay, again, I was reminded that it’s not all in my hands. God is the potter, reshaping the Body of Christ that is the clay with every turn of the wheel. Even our failures are part of that, our uncertainties, our fears.
The trick, it seems to me week after week as I try to master this ancient art of turning earth into objects of beauty and usefulness, is to keep coming back to the work we are called to and to have faith as we feel our way back to center.