The Paradox of Congregations Becoming: Discerning 21st Century Ministries

Engaging the challenges and opportunities of 21st century ministry means navigating the paradox of continuity and change. You can see this paradox in phrases like “ancient-future church,” the Kingdom “now and not yet,” and so on. While this paradox is part of Christian faith for anyone, for 21st century church leaders it is essential to hold both sides of the paradox well.

I’ve struggled with this for my whole pastoral ministry, because everything in me leans toward the “change” side. Seminary and a business education trained me to support organizational and congregational change through constantly evaluating and improving. I’m always seeking ways for our community to be bolder or more compassionate or more faithful to our calling, make a greater impact on our community, and adapt to shifting generations and communications. I always want to “tweak” (if not overhaul) what we did last school year or last Easter. Besides that, personal transformation and lifelong learning are part of what we sign up for as disciples of Jesus.

It’s really hard to love people well when you’re always trying to change the way they do things.

Doing things differently is certainly a big part of 21st century ministry. However, early in ministry I discovered a problem with this orientation to change: As a Christian and as a pastor my call to love people is primary. It’s really hard to love people well when you’re always trying to change the way they do things.

I recognize this more clearly from the other direction: When I encounter people who want to improve me, “loved” is not how I feel. As a child, I understood that Jesus wanted to teach me and help me grow, but feeling that God really wanted me to “be a better person,” led me away from God’s unconditional love, not toward it. My call to love is foundational. I would hate for a congregation to understand my efforts for change as a way of saying they’re “not good enough.” I want for them the same thing I want for myself: to be loved just the way they are.

At the same time, as a pastor I am called to lead a congregation in vibrant, sustainable ministry relevant to new generations. That is also a kind of love, and there’s the paradox. The congregation I have served for six months now has been loved and shepherded very well by one pastor for 17 years. Six months ago, I was called to serve as three-quarter time lead pastor while she continues to serve one-quarter time. People have told us they are ready and eager for some changes, even as her ongoing ministry embodies a strong continuity with the congregation’s past. I’ve been pondering how to love this congregation well in the midst of that paradox.

I blogged about this love vs. change dynamic early in my ministry, with a conclusion I find pretty unsatisfying now, eight years later. In the meantime, I’ve learned that people and communities are essentially embodied processes rather than fixed entities. There is really no such thing as “loving people as they are,” because “who they are” will be different tomorrow and next month and next year.

I’ve learned that people and communities are essentially embodied processes rather than fixed entities.

Becoming a parent has taught me this and has hinted at a way to love a changing congregation well, too. Loving my toddler just the way he is requires supporting his constant learning and changing. A parent can’t very well enshrine a particular developmental phase as “the way she or he is,” because he or she will be different next month, if not tomorrow. To love the baby more than the toddler, or the toddler more than the teenager, is not love; it could even be a kind of idolatry.

With my son I’ve had to find a more nuanced way to “love people the way they are.” When I look for ways to attend to, support, and guide his constant change, the best resource I’ve found is the spiritual practice of discernment. In discernment, one pays attention to the movements of the Spirit in the past, present, and future. We consider our own thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, but we set them in the bigger context of God’s loving work—God’s hopes and dreams, so to speak, which, even if we are able to glimpse them, are ultimately beyond our control. Still, the glimpses are for us meaningful clues to new possibilities, opportunities for stability and tradition, or essential characteristics or practices.

With my son, discernment reveals clues about the person he is and might become. Those clues help my husband and me decide what skills and opportunities to support, what help or boundaries he might need, whom he might spend time with—and when to just back off and let him explore his own desires. The specific questions will change as he grows up, but I’m pretty sure the need for discernment will not go away. Loving him the way he is will always encompass loving the person he is about to become, too.

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In a previous ministry at a Jesuit university, I explored discernment with college students making decisions for their future. For that purpose we learned practices from many Christian and other traditions, with an emphasis on the school’s traditional Ignatian spirituality. Discernment offered clues to future possibilities beginning to take shape in the present. It didn’t reveal The Answer to their lives, but it helped them figure out the next right step on their journeys: what class to take, what job to apply for, how to spend their weekends, what conversations to have with their parents or friends or mentors. With their help I came to describe (and write a book about) discerning one’s calling as a treasure hunt—an adventure with clues to explore, rather than a burden to carry or a puzzle to solve.

That call to support college students in their vocation discernment meant loving them on their journeys, and teaching them to pay attention to the Holy Spirit’s movements in their own “embodied process.” Loving them the way they were meant attending with them to their own unique journey in the context of God’s hopes and dreams for them. What students and I practiced together most was a gentle kind of paying attention over time to what drew them closer to God and love, and what pushed them away.

I believe that can also work to support the “embodied process” that is a congregation. I’m still discovering ways of accompanying a congregation on their communal treasure hunt, but this simple idea is always at the core: what draws us toward God’s love and hopes and dreams for us, and what pushes us away? When that is the primary question, the label of “continuity” or “change” becomes less important than our collective faithfulness to the journey we’re traveling together.

Photo credits:
“Change?” by Arthur John Picton, 2010. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 / Desaturated from original.
“Untitled,” by Wellington Sanipe, via Unsplash. Licensed under CC0.

Rebecca Schlatter Liberty

Rebecca Schlatter Liberty has served as lead pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Bangor, Maine, since early 2014. Previously she served Lutheran congregations in Hong Kong, northern California, and Nevada. Following her experience as Campus Minister of Vocation Discernment at Santa Clara University, she published a book on discerning vocation with young adults, The Treasure Hunt of Your Life: Seeking Your Calling, Encountering God, Finding Yourself (Redwood Visions Press, 2009). Her own treasure hunt has brought her to Maine, where she lives with her husband, son, and daughter. Connect with Rebecca on Facebook.

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