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Posts Tagged ‘relationships’

As the church moves into a new paradigm, ordered ministry personnel find themselves confronting questions about their identity and role.

Many different models and metaphors have been used to describe the role and identity of ordered ministers. When the Church existed in Christendom, the ordered minister often operated as a chaplain — tending to the pastoral and spiritual needs of people who lived in a culture that helped the church shape and form Christians and a culture that saw itself as  operating on Christian ethical principles. We live in a very different culture now.

A model or metaphor for ordered ministers that is being reclaimed is that of equipper — one who equips the culture of the congregation such that all the baptized know that they are ministers both in the church gathered (ekklesia) and in the church scattered into the world (diaspora). The ordered minister is a ‘ministry developer’ who mentors, guides and educates the ministers of the congregation for their ministries. S/he is the team leader, the overseer of the joint work of the people.

This model requires different kinds of leadership from the chaplaincy model. Among other things, it requires leadership that is willing to upset the status quo that prevails in the environment of most congregations. Major shifts need to be made in the ways congregations govern themselves and in their delivery of pastoral care, faith formation, worship and proclamation. They must be structured for relationships instead of programmes: relationships of trust, of truth-telling, of forgiveness, of compassion. That work of re-shaping congregations will require ministers who are cultivating a deep identity in Christ rather than in the work that they do or in the acclaim of the congregation.

Leaders need different metrics for measuring what they are doing. Rather than counting bodies, buildings, and budgets, churches could count how many people have had their gifts identified and their vocation made clear. How many people in the congregation are equipped for ministry? How many lives have been transformed? What is the depth of community? Where are there signs of mutual love and support? Those metrics are relationship-based. They are developed through different skills and capacities than most clergy received in their formal theological training. They operate out of a different imagination than functions in most congregations. William Willimon suggests that the test for pastoral ministry is not, “How much have I been able to accomplish at my church?” but rather, “How much have I enabled the laity to accomplish at their church.” (William Willimon, “The Point of Pastoral Ministry: Lay Ministry”  March 26, 2007).

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Growing the Church when people get in the Way

One of the tests of leadership comes when you have to decide: “Who am I willing to sacrifice in order to reach my goals? Who am I willing to shove out of my way in order to achieve success? Who am I prepared to step over on my way to the top?”

In the scriptures, one of the pivotal stories of David’s leadership is his sacrifice of Uriah while trying to protect his reputation (2 Samuel 11 -12). He had had sex with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, while Uriah was away fighting one of Israel’s battles. When Bathsheba told David that she was pregnant, he arranged for Uriah to come home on a month’s leave. David hoped that Uriah’s visit home would lead to Uriah believing that he was responsible for Bathsheba’s pregnancy. However, Uriah spends his leave sleeping on David’s porch, unwilling to enjoy relations with his wife while his fellow soldiers are on the battlefield. When Uriah returns to battle, David arranges for him to serve on the front line where he is almost certain to be killed.

Sometimes people are willing to sacrifice others in order to save their own skin. We encounter a greater test and greater danger when we convince ourselves that our goal is more noble than mere self-protection.

I have seen this happen when a community sets its goal as growing the church. They want to be part of a success story. They want to pass the faith on to more people. They want to serve God well. Then, some people stand in the way of achieving those goals. Sometimes people resist the changes that must be made. Some people raise uncomfortable questions. Sometimes, like Uriah, their commitments and character make them appear to be obstacles to success.

How a faith community deals with such people reveals its true character. Are people who stand in the way of ‘success’ to be thrown aside? bulldozed? bullied into submission? Does the end justify the means?

The problem for a community of faith is that the ‘end’ is a community of love shaped by the Holy Spirit into maturity in Christ. You cannot cultivate a community that reflects the love of Christ by trampling over people and treating relationships as disposable. Our ends and our means must be consistent. The way we get to our goals must reflect the Way of Christ.

Recently I was in a workshop where people were talking about the ways in which they were trying to grow their churches: updating the music in worship; offering entertaining programmes; issuing more invitations. Then, one woman spoke out: It is about relationships. Those young people see the way we treat one another and then decide that they don’t want any part of the church.”

Cultivating loving relationships that reflect the grace of Jesus Christ is long, slow, hard work. Such work requires patience, forgiveness, humility, courage. As Jesus was gathering his community of disciples he asked, “What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? (Mark 8:36)”.  That would be a good question for churches to ask as they work toward their goals.

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, Ontario, Canada on July 28, 2013.

Scriptures: Colossians 2: 6-19

Christian life is always lived in community. When you are baptized, you are baptized into a community of faith. As you live out your faith, you live it out in a community with other Christians. Christianity is a way of life that affects your relationships with other Christians and with people outside the church.

The communal nature of Christianity is clear in the New Testament, although it is not always clear in English translations. In English, we have one word for both ‘you’ singular and ‘you’ plural. Most the ‘you’s in the New Testament are plural. If we were in the southern United States, we would read ‘y’all’ — ‘all of you’.

Over the 30 years that I have been studying the scriptures for the purpose of preaching sermons, I have noticed how the communities of faith in North America are looking more and more like the community of faith to which Paul wrote the letters that make up much of the New Testament.

These letters were often written to small congregations that were struggling to survive in the midst of the Roman Empire. They existed in a religious marketplace that was at least as divers and as pluralistic as our own. There were multiple claims to truth; there were multiple convictions about what it took to live a ‘good life’. The Christian churches were competing for people’s loyalty and commitment. In addition, the surrounding culture was often hostile toward Christianity. In short, there were enormous pressures working against people being followers of Jesus Christ. All that meant that many congregations were hanging on by their fingertips — not unlike many congregations today.

When churches experience such pressures, they sometimes go into ‘survival mode’. Churches that go into survival mode tend to develop certain characteristics. Often, they will turn in on themselves. They will feel that, in order to survive, they have to concentrate on taking care of themselves. They forget that the purpose of the church is to be on mission — to bless others. They become pre-occupied with internal issues, worried about maintaining the institution.

They not only turn in on themselves; they can also start to turn on each other. The usual gossip that is part of community life becomes filled with criticizing others, putting them down, quarreling and bickering and back-biting. As hard as it may be to believe, sometimes a favourite pastime becomes attacking the minister — blaming him or her for the church’s problems.

In a church struggling to survive, some people will look for a new programme that will ‘turn things around’. Alternatively, some people think, “If everyone would just work hard, this church would thrive.” Then, they set about to do just that, taking on more responsibilities and commitments than are good for them or for the community.

The apostle Paul addresses some of those issues in his letters. In Colossians, he writes, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you.”

Elsewhere he writes, “Put away falsehood; let us speak truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up . . . so your words may give grace to those who hear . . . be kind to one another.”

Paul reminds the early church they are part of one body — the Body of Christ. If they attack one part of the body, the whole body suffers. They hurt themselves; they hurt the community.

Paul addresses some of the issues directly, but mostly what he does is talk about Jesus. He talks about what God is up to in Jesus Christ: “I want you woven into a tapestry of love, so . . . live your lives in Christ. Be deeply rooted in him; be carefully built up in him; be well-established in your trust in him.” (Colossians 2)

Read Paul and you realize that the church is not first of all something we create. It is not something we make work by our hard work or by our successful programmes. The church — this community of faith — is a gift from God. it is a gift from a creative, extravagant, gracious, living God.

Every time we forget that — every time we make the church about something we do, or something we achieve by our hard work, or about something someone else is doing or isn’t doing — every time we take God out of the centre, we lose touch with the source of our live, our strength, our energy and our purpose.

I was reminded of that several years ago when I read somewhere that, “Most ministers think that people come to worship to hear a good sermon. They don’t. They come to pray and to learn how to pray. They come to encounter God.” Sometimes, a good sermon will help them do that. Sometimes a ‘bad sermon’ will. There is a mystery at work here. There are times when I think I have a ‘good sermon’ but nobody else seems to think so. There are other times when I am not at all pleased with the sermon I have prepared for a Sunday morning; yet, it seems to touch people in deep and profound ways. The Holy Spirit is at work here in ways beyond our controlling.

It helps to keep that in mind. People don’t come to church because you and I are so wonderful. They don’t come because we have wonderful programmes. They come because the God who meets us in Jesus Christ is so wonderful and they are hoping to meet Christ here through us, through our relationships with each other, through the community that the Holy Spirit is crating among us.

In our relationships with each other, we carry a precious gift, a great treasure. In our relationships with each other, we carry the presence of Christ. The more deeply we have received that gift into our lives, the better able we shall be able to offer it to others.

We don’t need to run around looking for a better programme or a better minister or people who are more to our liking. Whatever the church is, it is first of all about God, about Jesus Christ, about the Holy Spirit gathering us and working in our lives, changing us, and flowing through us to others.

When you are reading Paul’s letters to the early church, pay attention to the way Paul is dazzled by Jesus Christ and by what God wants to do in and through us as we open our lives to him. “In Christ, the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily . . and you have come to that same fullness in him.” (Colossians 2). “God takes us to the high places of blessing in him . . . Saving is all God’s idea and God’s work. All we do is trust Christ enough to let him do it. It is God’s gift from start to finish — the inexhaustible riches and generosity of Christ. “ (Ephesians  1 & 3).

I suspect that this notion that the church is a gift leads to a radically different way of being the church than most of us are used to. It means less focus on programmes and external solutions and more attention paid to becoming the kind of people who are capable of being open to receiving God’s gifts. It means becoming people who are open to God’s unexpected and often surprising presence among us; living with open hands and open arms. It means being people who are deeply rooted in prayer, including prayers in which we spend much time listening for God’s Word. It means letting Christ’s words sink deeply into our lives so that they become the lens through which we see the world. We would be willing to let God change us until we become more and more channels of Christ’s grace and love.

The most important thing happening in this congregation is whatever God is up to in Christ. The promise is that that work is full of glory and truth and beauty and love. May God grant us grace to open ourselves more and more to Jesus. May this community be a place through which Christ is present in the world. And to God be the glory. Amen.

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