Now, change is inevitable as people get to know and work with each other. Different people have different gifts. And change is often desirable, to meet new conditions or attract new people. But all too often, the new pastor comes into town with a fantasy congregation in mind, which he or she is determined to replicate. “Surely, this time, I’ll get ‘er done.” Meanwhile, the actual congregation greets the new pastor and compares the actual person up front with the fantasy pastor they carry around in their collective head, to which Rev. Blatherwell is expected to measure up. “Surely, this time, the bishop will send us somebody who can do it right.” This is not a recipe for growth, or renewal, or revival, or whatever everybody says they want. This is a recipe for conflict. And both sides are responsible for the failure, or transitory success, that ensues.
Over the course of my career, I found myself trapped in that conflict more than once, particularly when I wasn’t a very good match for the congregation’s fantasy pastor. And yet, I never willfully tried to create my fantasy church in any particular location. I never mistook my tastes and preferences for the will of God. There were things I couldn’t help being and doing, whether they fit the congregation’s mold or not, but I tried to work with people as I found them. There were times when I could have pushed harder for what I liked, but I tried not to hog the show. I considered myself a cross-cultural missionary as I itinerated about our Annual Conference; it was for me to understand them and try to reach them where they were, without losing who I was in the process.
Toward that end, I constantly appealed to our official doctrines and our long denominational tradition. I tried to remind them of who we all agreed to be when we signed up for this cruise. In the long run, the only place where we could all meet and get along was in the one place we all belonged. So I eschewed fads and tried to appeal to commonalities. It didn’t always work, but at least when we collided with each other going after the ball, my feet were in bounds.
In addition to our denominational doctrines and history, I understood that each congregation is more than the people who show up on Sunday morning. There are the people who used to be active, and are still around. There are the people who are part of the families present in worship, for whom I must also function as pastor. There are the shut-ins, who can’t participate with the others. There are the people in our Scouting and other programs who have no church connection except what we offer to them. I was the pastor of those who liked me and those who didn’t. And I stood at the end of a long chain of pastors and other church leaders. I wasn’t the first to preach the gospel here. The church wasn’t mine to do with as I pleased; I held my office in trust.
Churches with a strong liturgical tradition have many of the same conflicts, but at least everybody understands what worship is supposed to look like. It seems at times that The United Methodist Church has as many worship styles as it has pastors. The same could be said for organizational matters. But without a consciousness of any kind of tradition, there’s only the person up front trying to make the people in the pews into what he or she thinks God wants, and the people in the pews (and those who aren’t), trying to stay who they think God has called them to be.
A couple of weeks ago, I was heading the kitchen team for a big Scout training weekend. By the time Saturday evening came, I was exhausted and needing to seek my bed, but I had planned to make Pecan-Caramel Rolls for breakfast, and that had to proof in the fridge overnight. So I bloomed my yeast in warm water and scalded my milk, and put together a double-sized batch of dough and started to knead it. It was particularly dry and tough, and I wondered if I had put too much flour in it, but finally it felt about the right texture. I put oil in a big bowl and plopped the doughball in it, then turned it. And then I saw the water and yeast mixture on the counter. I had forgotten to add it. Well, I tried to work it in from the outside. I kneaded and kneaded and finally got it in. Then I left it on the shelf above the stove to rise for an hour or so while I took a break. I came back, still very tired, but ready to make rolls, only to find that it had not risen. I had to throw it out and fall back on Plan B for breakfast.
The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, said Jesus, which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour. And from within, the yeast works its magic and the bread rises. We are all familiar with this metaphor for how God works to bring new life to people and whole congregations. But too many of us preachers are trying to work the yeast in from the outside, and we are getting frustrated at our lack of results. We think it is our job to make the bread rise. But only God can do that. The good news is that God can do that, and does, over and over, in the lives of individuals and congregations alike. That said, he doesn’t work to our program.
God is not the fantasy God of either pastors or congregations, but the only real and true God, and he does as he wills. We work for him, not he for us. The pastor’s task is not to make people into what they ought to be, individually or corporately – that’s God’s job — but rather to testify to the reality of what God can do. But what if the congregation doesn’t accept that? Well, then, they don’t accept it, and that may be a judgment on them. Trying to beat it into them is not only pointless, but abusive. Move on to the next opportunity. The Church belongs to God. We remind the congregation of that, from time to time, when they get possessive over "their" church. We pastors need to remember that it isn't "our" church, either.