In the words of one of our team members, “This is going to be an absolute hailstorm of disaster.”
Well, I thought to myself, if no one else has written a manual on how to do this, maybe I should get started on one.
(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)
An early morning start is not the way I usually operate. When I turned off the lights last night, I expected to be woken up by a gentle tap on the shoulder from my fourteen-year-old daughter, reminding me to roll out of bed to drive her and a teammate to school so they could board the bus for an out-of-town volleyball tournament. That’s how most days start for me: a gentle waking to the sounds of my kids getting up and ready for school, much later than 4:45 am.
It’s cold this morning, with winter finally digging in its heels here in Southwestern Ontario. I turned up the thermostat and made myself a cup of tea before sitting down to type these first few words. I’ve never been a coffee drinker, so a typical morning for me starts with a cup of tea, Twinings Earl Grey being my cup of choice. But today I reached to the back of our cupboard for an herbal tea that goes by the creative name of Stress Buster. It even has a catchy tagline: “For the cool cucumber inside of you.” That’s where I’m at today.
When our board meeting came to an end, I encouraged the team to spend some time looking for stories of churches that had walked down this path to see what we could learn from them. What problems had they discovered along the way? What lessons did they learn? And how did they avoid blowing things up in the process? Or maybe things did blow up, and if so, what advice would they give to a church like ours that was about to wander into similar territory?
I gave in to the idea of writing after a restless night’s sleep where a flurry of stories, personal encounters and mind-bending problems were swirling around in my pastoral mind, fighting to make their way out, perhaps onto the pages of a book that could help people like me navigate the tricky waters we are about to enter.
A number of years ago, I was leading a campus church in our city. It had grown rapidly in its early years to the point where, every Monday night, we would see between 700-800 students and young adults stream into the campus nightclub where our church met. That is an entirely different story altogether, but the reason I bring it up is to say that in one particularly bad week, our thriving church was suddenly pushed off the University campus through some ‘creative’ policy changes, starting a long, slow unraveling of the dream that our committed team of young leaders had put so much of our heart and soul into.
In recent years, though, I have become more comfortable admitting that my leadership was at or near the centre of the conflict we had with the university. Had I known then what I know now, I honestly believe that much of what we went through could have been avoided. I’m not being dramatic about this, either. It’s a simple fact: my failure to understand the reality of our situation led me to make decisions that caused unnecessary harm to our student church and, ultimately, to the vision that God had called us to.
As we’re about to enter another challenging season, if at all possible, I’d like to avoid repeating the same mistakes. I’m going to try my best to pay close attention to what’s happening around me—and within me—and I think that a commitment to writing like this will help keep me honest.
What I hope to do in telling our story is to provide an example of how one pastor in one church in one city led his congregation through waters that, in the words of an email I received from a friend just yesterday, “will soon be the norm in so many churches.”
It’s important to say as well that I am going to write our story live. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t sleep last night. It wasn’t that I was tossing and turning over what I’m going to do or how we’re going to figure this out. I was tossing and turning over the pressing need to get up and start telling the story in real time. I don’t want to reflect back on what we’ve experienced through the lens of our destination, whatever that ends up being. I want to record things as we go, with all of the raw emotions, mistakes, and—hopefully, prayerfully—successes we experience along the way.
The board member who referred to this as a ‘hailstorm’ emailed me late last night and I’m just reading it now: “I suspect after tonight that it would be helpful for you and I to sit down and discuss some thoughts?”
At last night’s meeting, I half-jokingly suggested that the best chance our church has to survive this with minimal casualties might be for me to sit down one-on-one with each of the several hundred people who call Elevation home and have a good, long, pastoral conversation. My point was that everyone who dares navigate the questions that are raised in these kinds of conversations will need something different.
I have no illusions that our story will somehow flatten out the complexities of the issues that you may be facing in your own situation, but I am optimistic that, by reading this one, singular story, you might just find the encouragement you need to get out of bed on a cold winter morning and start writing your own story or at least to start living it.
I’m currently reading through the most recent book from Eugene Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire. It’s a collection of sermons from his years as pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. In the introduction, he explains that he left the manuscripts as close to their original as possible, to give his readers a true sense of how he was pastoring his congregation during that season of its life together. That is what I’d like to try and do here with you.
I expect that I will write things along the way that I will want to edit out, so I’m saying here at the outset that I will make a serious effort to avoid doing that. Certainly, I will forget things and will want to go back and fill in some gaps to help tell our story better, and I’m sure that anything written at an early hour like this will require some grammatical touch-ups! But I’m committed from the outset to providing a genuine window into what it’s like to work through one of the North American Church’s most challenging issues of the day.
I don’t expect this will be easy. I expect there will be all kinds of emotions I’ll experience personally and that I’ll encounter in others along the way, but that’s real life, and who on earth wants to read a story with the life cut out of it? Not me.
So let’s get going, and may the grace of God be with us as we walk this path together.