Thursday, January 19, 2012

Pitfalls Of Survival

I want to write more posts about my own present church context.  That is potentially risky; but it will help me to process things, and to engage with others in similar contexts, which may be useful for them too.

St Peter’s is a parish church that hasn’t had a vicar for some eleven years and counting.  Since then, and until a year ago, there was a house-for-duty priest (a post usually geared for keeping things turning over).  Over time, the church has retreated from being a community that was quite experimental and even pioneering, to being a community focused on survival – which, ironically and counter-intuitively, offers the best chance of extinction.  We are there for only two years, and I do not have the mandate or authority of a priest-in-charge.  Having spent six months in observation and (attempting some) reflection and (initial) discussion, our role over the next eighteen months will not be to lead the church into the future (as, I think, many are hoping) but to help the church make the shift from being passively shaped by and for survival to being intentionally positioned to be able to follow wherever God may lead.

Jo and I have been drawn to these verses in Hebrews:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.  And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”  (Hebrews 12:1, 2a, TNIV)

The writer distinguishes between two things that prevent us from being able to run after Jesus.  There is sin, from which we need to be disentangled; but the implication is that there are many things that hinder us that are not, in-and-of-themselves, sinful, but which nonetheless need to be thrown off.  Churches are much better at starting things than stopping things, than intentionally throwing off things that were and even are good but which are hindering us.

Some of the key survival-paradigm baggage hindering us – and many other churches – includes:

Investing (people) in our resources over investing (our resources) in people
By this I mean where the structures of ‘greater’ involvement or oversight responsibility – often piece-meal, often unconnected – focus on servicing what currently exists (e.g. services, buildings, cells), rather than on helping people identify the part they are called to play and investing in them to do so well, in creative collaboration with others.  One consequence of this is that individuals find their own disconnected ways to run with projects that, while not necessarily bad projects, are neither owned by (in the participatory, not proprietary, sense) the church as a whole nor integrated as parts of a bigger picture...and this, in turn, generates more and more that needs to be maintained and greater complexity to somehow manage.  Another consequence is turn-over in roles, rather than handing-on of roles; a regular starting-from-scratch (or endless referring back to the ‘expert’) rather than raising-up successors who, building on what we have done, can go beyond us.

Short-term over long-term
In most churches you will find a few very committed people who do a lot, faithfully, to keep things turning over.  Some of these things need doing.  But the survival paradigm always reverts to what appears to be the most efficient (short-term) use of energy, rather than the most strategic (long-term): in this case, to do a job yourself instead of train someone up to take it on – which, in turn, over time, blinds us to who else might do the job.  Our most committed people get tied-up doing things that do not necessarily require their attention, or are missed opportunities to invest in others.

Willingness over gifting
In survival-mode, where unfilled roles have been identified as needed, these have a tendency to be filled – whether by approved appointment or assumed self-appointment – on the basis of willingness, without reference to gifting.  Willingness is not a bad thing in itself: but it can be cheerful, or pressed-into-service; can be self-serving, or other-serving; can release us into our created-for role, or allow us to be diverted into the wrong role.  By ‘gifting,’ I mean both God-given passion (you are a gift from God), and learnt skills that are submitted to God’s training and deployment.  The default to willingness happens where those with the appropriate passion and skills are already over-committed; or over-looked; or fear being further sucked-into a grinding survival-focus.  Almost inevitably in this paradigm, where no-one from within the church is found to take on key roles these have been given to people who are not part of the church, usually to a friend of a friend as the need is passed on by word of mouth: lovely people, willing people; not necessarily possessing the relevant passion or skills, or the necessary support; and not sharing the values of the church – except to the extent that those values are not distinctively fixed-on and running-after Jesus, as will increasingly be the case in a survival mode.  I want to see those outside of the church drawn in to the life of the church as we serve the wider community; but not given key roles where they do not choose to identify themselves with the church, beyond the role in question.

Past over future
This is where we continue to serve the wider community in ways which met needs and contributed something distinctive in the past, but which either no longer meet needs or are significantly duplicated elsewhere today.  Having finite resources (people, building, finance, etc.), present out-dated priorities mean that we have limited capacity to participate, as servant members, in the wider community as it is now, and as it is becoming.  While there is, inevitably, emotional attachment to long-established and appreciated activities, there is very likely also fresh vision for today and tomorrow, which needs to be released.  Some of the things that need to be thrown-off will cost us: simply throwing-off things no one values anymore will not suffice.

Focus on lack over provision
This is where, in a number of areas of our corporate life, we struggle to identify people who can take ownership.  This is not because the people aren’t there – which often results in those who ‘carry more than their fair share’ resenting those who ‘don’t pull their weight,’ as we focus on the lack rather than the people God has provided.  This raises the question: is that because this area - ‘a’ – is one of the things that hinder, that we need to throw off; or is it because people need to be released from other things in the life of the church – ‘x,’ ‘y,’ or ‘z’ – that need to be thrown off?  It also highlights the importance of re-structuring for identifying, investing in, releasing and supporting leaders.

This may seem like a lot of areas that need addressing in our churches!  But my conviction is that they are aspects of one thing that needs to be addressed (and symptoms of one thing that has been neglected): discipleshipBy committing to help one another fix our eyes on Jesus, discerning and running with perseverance the race marked out for us – both at the macro- and the micro-level; as the body of Christ in our neighbourhood and as differentiated member-parts of that one body – I believe that communities trapped in survival mode can be released to rediscover their true calling.

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