What is your best advice for a preacher — beyond “be concise and be seated”? One of the pieces of advice I often give is to read widely, especially good fiction. It helps to encourage the creation of vivid images and sometimes you run into a metaphor or an image that becomes the heart of a sermon or a meditation for your session meeting.
Currently, I am immersing myself in the Inspector Gamache books by Louise Penny. Set in Quebec, they revolve around a central cast of characters and those who come into their lives. Bury Your Dead takes place mostly in Quebec City and at the center of one of the mysteries is a small group of English speakers who see themselves as among the last survivors of their kind in their increasingly French city and province. They are attempting to preserve their ways at almost all costs. One of the characters reflects upon their situation by saying, “No one wants to rock the lifeboat.”
That phrase jumped off of the page for me. It seemed to define so well the situation in congregations and councils of our church.
I have spent the last two years – the years since my retirement as the executive presbyter of Chicago Presbytery – as a bridge presbytery leader in five different presbyteries of various sizes and complexities. Earlier in my ministry, I was the general presbyter and stated clerk of the Presbytery of Great Rivers, once the largest non-urban presbytery, and worked with presbytery leaders across the country in my role at the Office of the General Assembly. This has given me a glance across the denomination, a denomination that is dear to my heart.
There is a lifeboat aspect to so many congregations and councils now. The money that was once so plentiful in many places has been used or is designated for a purpose that no longer makes sense. When we worship on Sunday, we are now in the minority rather than the majority. Presbyteries cannot fill pulpits or committee tables and for the most part, have not found creative ways to stay within our Reformed theology and carry on ministry.
Compromise as a way to appease people is a fiction.
In many places, those who are left in the pews and at the decision-making tables or Zoom screens often choose the path of least resistance, trying to keep the peace. They work at finding a compromise that will keep everyone happy — trying not to rock the boat. But compromise as a way to appease people is a fiction. The definition of a compromise is that everyone has to give up something. Everyone leaves the negotiation disappointed. Usually, it is also the “scariest” person who comes closest to getting their way — you know, the person who threatens to leave the church, withhold their money or tell tales. We give in because we do not want to rock the lifeboat.
Think about the purpose of a lifeboat. It is not a world unto itself. It is there for a short time to preserve life. It is to keep the lost mariner alive until the Coast Guard lowers the rope ladder. It is the place you are shown at the beginning of the cruise that you hope to never have to use, not the place you expect to live the rest of your life.
Are we stuck in our lifeboats, doing everything we can to keep them from rocking?
Are we stuck in our lifeboats, doing everything we can to keep them from rocking? In so doing, are we making them into something they were never intended to be? I have seen congregations that keep doing the same things according to the same calendar year after year. These rituals once served them well but do not speak to our current moment. I have seen presbyteries that accommodate people who are unwilling to adopt modern modes of communication instead of helping them to become fluent in a way that will help them across their lives. I have seen bullies in congregations and presbyteries who have been given power and will end up killing the organization of which they are a part.
How can we get out of these lifeboats and move on to what God has in store for the future?
How can we get out of these lifeboats and move on to what God has in store for the future? I wonder if we can identify the traditions and people who hold us back by asking “Why?” Why do we not have a vibrant website that shares the gospel with the world? Why do we put the most crotchety member of our congregation on the Pastor Nominating Committee? Why do we insist upon continuing to keep the presbytery boundaries created in the 1970s when there is a different configuration that could better support congregational leaders and share the good news in this region?
We need to keep asking “Why?” like a four-year-old until we get to the center of the fear and grief that may be driving our decisions. Only then can we build back up our hope. Only then can we climb the rope ladder out of the lifeboat. We can do more than worry about rocking the boat — God means for us to live fully.
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