The other day I was speaking about the Five Practices to pastors and laypersons from the GateWay North District of the Greater New Jersey Conference. (This is the most diverse district of the United Methodist Church in the US, offering ministries with eleven language and ethnic groups!). A woman raised her hand and said, ìYouíre responsible for making me lose a whole nightís sleep. When I read the first chapter, I couldnít keep my mind from spinning late into the night about new ideas for how our church could invite people and offer greater hospitality.î A layperson came up after the discussion and asked me to sign his copy of the book. He handed me a book that was underlined, dog-eared, and full of little stick-it page markers. He told me I had cost him many nights sleep thinking up new possibilities for his church. How cool!
One pastor told about a leadership team that took the challenge to walk through their church to look at everything through the eyes of visitors. They saw many things theyíd never noticed before. For instance, in the foyer they looked with new eyes at the large Memorial Book with long-ago entries and at the Guest Book that visitors never used. These had been in the entry-way for years as among the first things visitors would see. The leadership team suggested moving these out and putting in rocking chairs for Moms and Dads with babies. They were enthusiastic about these and other minor changes about signs, pictures, and posters. Then reality struck – how would they convince the Trustees? What about the formal decision-makers, the meetings, the approval, the discussions and votes to make this possible?
Wow! Can you feel the dulling and deadening of hope, creativity, and initiative in those questions? How do new ideas and new voices shape old structures and long-established pasterns? Sometimes the formal leaders and systems foster positive change, and sometimes they stifle it.
I donít want to get any pastors or enthusiastic laity in trouble. But I can say this: When Five Practices stimulates new ideas – whether late into the night or at group leadership sessions – the ideas are not acted upon, fed, fostered, supported and moved forward very soon, then the window of opportunity slams shut. Inspired and creative ideas for new ministry seldom survive the deadening and lengthy processes of excessive permission-seeking within rigid and tightly controlled organizations. If the Memorial and Guest books are not replaced by rockers in the next few weeks, then itís unlikely to happen in the next few years. Sorry, but thatís reality. Inspiration, like a newly budding plant emerging from the soil, is vulnerable and fragile unless itís watered, protected and nurtured with light.
How do new ideas from new sources take root and bear fruit? The way forward requires extraordinary care and communication. In cases like this, one suggestion is to invite the Trustees themselves into the creative conversation. Have them read and discuss the book on their own or with other leaders. If they help suggest the changes, then change will happen with greater support and enthusiasm. The same is true for other permission-givers in the system. Second, it might help to discuss among the leadership team (made up of a mixture of long-term members and newer, younger members) about moving toward a more ìpermission-givingî form of administration that gives teams and leaders more flexibility and agility to follow through with new initiatives. Growing, fruitful congregations almost always have nimble organizational systems that give greater authority to wider numbers of task forces and work teams. Most minor changes donít require several layers of discussion and approval. Third, the laity in these discussions must realize that for real change to take place, they cannot allow the pastor to go it alone. The conversation with the Trustees or Church Council may need to be led and initiated by laypersons who understand the purpose of the church and the need for change, and who can communicate passionately and with a reconciling and invitational spirit. Finally, itís extraordinarily important that the pastor and the lay leadership keep the focus of the conversation on the mission of the church. The reason for changing things is not fad, control, or criticism of past practices; it is about fulfilling the ministry of Jesus Christ in todayís world. Itís about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Itís about reaching new people and younger people.
Sometimes, by the grace of God, these discussions and initiatives are successfully proposed and come to wonderful fruition. The purpose of moving out the books and putting in the rockers is to help young adult families. Sometimes the Trustees or long-time members that start out suspicious and resistant to the change experience a radical change of heart themselves when they see how young families respond positively to the innovations. Suddenly the Trustees are proud to tell their own young adult children that the rockers were added when they were serving as Trustees! Super cool.
When the inspiration strikes and the idea is good and serves the mission of the church, move forward with grace, persistence, timeliness, and great communication. Turn the ìsleepless nightî ideas into fruitful ministry while the passion is deep and the enthusiasm is high. Do it before the window of opportunity closes. Do it for Christís sake, and to the glory of God!
Yours in Christ,