Thursday, August 19, 2010


Years ago, as I would drop in to visit with the pastor who mentored me during my seminary internship, there were several warning signs that told me things were not well with him and his ministry work. Bruce could be a warm, cheerful, and ebullient guy, but an ongoing struggle with obesity-related health issues and a resultant propensity to intermittent depression meant that sometimes he'd just completely check out. When he was down, he was barely there at all, distant and muted. That was hard to miss. When his health issues finally took him, I wish I could say I was surprised.

But then there were those times when I'd pop in, and he'd be fine, and we'd chat about life. I'd ask him what was new or interesting or exciting in the church community he served. And he would talk about the facility. About building renovations and new bathrooms. About carpet. About trees that needed to be removed. At the time, this struck me as another sign that things were off. It wasn't as in-your-face as the depression and the health issues, but it seemed symptomatic of where the energy and focus of his work lay. And that work...not ministry, but work...was largely about building maintenance, about the structure in which his community met and worshiped. What I didn't hear was about classes that were inspiring or energizing, or about new or ongoing mission projects in the community, or anything that spoke to vision or to purpose or to the Gospel. Not hearing those things from someone whose primary purpose is spiritual leadership raised flags. It concerned me.

As I've worked in my own ministry context over the last seven years, I've felt that same strong gravitic pull into the administrative and the structural. The nature of my community...small in numbers, with a large and demanding facility...has meant that even with the diligent work of some amazingly committed and stalwart volunteers, I've had to step in to do things that aren't exactly Ministry of Word and Sacrament. I've done budgeting. I've done HR. I've slopped out downspouts and wetvac'd floors and dug ditches and chopped wood and painted and even done some rudimentary carpentry. That's the reality of pastoring a teensy tinesy congregation. I anticipated this, and I'm cool with it.

Up to a point. So long as that work facilitates the stuff that matters, it's fine. But then there are times when I realize that the structural demands on me seem to be...spreading. Extending tendrils. Sometimes I notice that dealing with the latest building emergency seems to consume a greater and greater proportion of my time. I'll listen to the conversations I'm having with church folk outside of that blessed hour of Sunday Bible Study, and they're all about structure. Or when someone asks me what's new at my church, and the first thing that pops into my head is asbestos abatement. And whenever that happens, it raises flags. It's a sign I need to make course corrections.

The relationships we forge as communities of Christ-followers are by nature multifaceted. They include many of the same elements that one might find in a fraternal organization or a secular nonprofit. But when the dynamics of facilities and process grow to the point at which they...and not our faith...are the thing we always talk about, then we've wandered off track.

I feel this strongly whenever I look at the vast overabundance of governance structures in my denomination. They may not be a bricks and mortar building, but they can be even more consuming. The ease with which we fall into a tight-chatter orbit around issues of polity and organizational dynamics reflects, I think, that it is the place we're most comfortable. It's the idol of choice for we highly educated folks who feel somewhat awkward speaking about the things that really touch us.

Shaking ourselves loose from those professional and busy-seeming distractions's something we need to attend to.