Change in the borderlands

When it comes to theological leadership, we are in borderland, writes Teri McDowell Ott. How do we address change in this space?

“Feel free to make changes.”

I’d just started a new call as the pastor of Cameron Presbyterian Church in Cameron, North Carolina, and a member of the search committee pulled me aside to say this.

My eyebrows shot up in surprise and doubt. “Really?”

“Really,” she confirmed.

In seminary, I had been given the sage advice,

“Don’t change anything during your first year in a new call.” In some churches, the advice could be extended to the first three years. Same hymns. Same missions. Same color of carpet. This holding pattern was always hard for me. I don’t enjoy being in a ministry context where I can’t be creative, try new things, or risk following Jesus into uncharted waters.

I’m not alone in this desire. Most of the pastors I know want to make changes, and they hope for ministry contexts where they are afforded the freedom to innovate and experiment. But pastors always have to weigh the desire to create change with their congregation’s readiness for new experiences. The consequences of congregational pushback and resistance are real. Change is hard. Changing the culture of a congregation is even harder. In general, we’re a people who prefer the comfortable way we’ve always done things.

But we – you – are more aware of the church’s need to change than ever before. Our May issue of the Outlook’s magazine on “Innovation” sold out. People are hungry for ideas and inspiration, especially in light of Presbyterian statistics of decline. But those who are ready to lead us into this new church reality need support.

In his article “Leading at the Borders,” Austin Seminary President José Irizarry reflects on this moment in the life of the church as a borderland “where more than one reality and multiple visions of the world collide.” This borderland provides us the opportunity to “imagine ourselves anew,” but only if we are willing to embrace and support change.

In her book Borderlands: La Frontera, The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa uses the metaphor of a dry birth: our experience of this border space is a painful place, but generative. Something is about to be born … and that something begins with the awareness that change is required in order to move forward, in order to have a future. This awareness of our need to change, this conscious knowing, is painful, because “after ‘it’ happens,” Anzaldúa writes, “we can’t stay in the same place and be comfortable.”

In North Carolina, I served as the pastor of Cameron Presbyterian Church for five years, from 2005 to 2010. When that member of the search committee gave me permission to do things differently, I eagerly accepted the green light. Not every pastor knows the freedom I knew in that church to be creative, to try new ways of worshipping, to explore new needs that the church might meet in the community. Honestly, my changes weren’t all good. I made mistakes. Lots of them. And we made mistakes trying new things together. But we loved each other as a community, and we learned, together, about the doors God opens for a body of believers who are willing to give something new a try.

“Feel free to make some changes.”

I hope every pastoral leader hears these permission-giving, faith-filled words at some point during their ministry. I also hope we, as the church, will love and support each other through the inevitable changes that lie ahead. We may be in a borderland. But we are here together. And God is here to guide us across.