Getting Ready

  • The pastor’s left!  What shall we do?
  • We’ve got an interim, and he/she’s great!
  • Hmm….isn’t it time for us to start to search for our next pastor?

Everyone goes through the cycle.  And every step is important.  The steps are most important when a church has been through great trauma — whether that trauma is the death of a pastor, misconduct of one or another sort, or some other kind of disaster.  This is particularly true, however, when the cumulative affects of trauma have affected the way the church deals with its pastor, with one another, with its world.

Trauma affects how we deal with the world around us.  Men and women come back from war zones and their way of living in our world has changed – they’ve experienced trauma and it has changed them.  The same is true of a church – no matter how seriously, how intentionally, the church names what has happened — those experiences will cause the church to react differently.

A church that has worked through an experience of sexual misconduct will have more clearly named guidelines for working with children and increased sensitivity to the implications of adults who “want to work with children”.

A church which has had an untrustworthy relationship with one pastor will find it difficult to build a trusting relationship with their next pastor.  If this isn’t named, isn’t recognized as a “sore spot”, it is entirely possible for the difficulty to last through succeeding pastorates.

As a church begins the process of writing a profile (the formal prospectus for candidates), the temptation is for us to put the best face on everything, to breeze right on by those “sore spots.”  So, a church which knows it wants to grow, and knows there is potential for growth in its area, positions itself as that very kind of church, and ignores the parts of its history which make it difficult to trust any leader, much less one who is going to propose the kinds of wholesale change which church growth requires.

This is particularly so if the church in question has been rolling along for fifteen or more years with very little innovation, with things staying pretty much the same, and the pastor confining himself to preaching.  Any church finds it difficult to move abruptly from a laid-back, hands-off pastor to one who is entirely hands-on.  But a church with trust issues is likely to meet that kind of change with a reaction that reminds me of teen-aged oppositional-defiant behavior.  Everything is wrong, unless and until it’s proven right.  Every change is evil, until it isn’t.

The worst of it is, that traumatized church most likely doesn’t think there’s anything wrong.  Folks there simply do not know that in healthy, trusting churches, they expect their pastors will try things out, expect the pastor to be responsive to their concerns, expects that new things will happen and some of them will fail, even as most of the succeed.  The default setting in a healthy church is “how can we make this happen”, while in traumatized churches, the default setting is “I don’t think that will work, let’s say no”.

So — getting back to that profile… which option is likely to get our traumatized church the best fit as pastor:  “Hi, we’re “GreatChurch”, everything’s fine here, but we want to grow.” or “Hi, we’re working church, we’ve had some problems, and sometimes we struggle to understand what’s happening… and we think God wants us to thrive.”

Go with the first option, whitewash over all your history, and your next pastor will be really disappointed, will lose faith in you, and if he/she is really good, will be gone within three years.

Go with the second option, tell the truth, be open about your problems, and the level of your willingness to work, and the pastor you call will be equipped with the knowledge and skill set to lead you into the future.

Preparing a profile is not just about putting something together, but about drawing as accurate a picture of who we are, where we are, and where we think God is calling us — as is absolutely possible.  In that way, we do our part in the search for the next,  right, settled pastor.

An Unexpected Gift

A Meditation offered at the Congregational Church of Grafton (MA) UCC on January 1, 2017

Matthew 1:18-25   Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

I cannot begin to imagine how disappointed Joseph must have been. Engaged, looking forward to beginning a life together, making plans, anticipating the joy of companionship, and then. . . the news that his fiance, the woman he had planned to marry, the heart of his life, was pregnant.

An unplanned, unexpected pregnancy is always stressful, even when it’s a gift of joy, but not so much when the parents-to-be are not yet married – and hardly ever, when the father is someone else. It would be a disaster in the here-and-now. Back then it was even worse – even life-threatening for Mary. The news, it’s fair to say, shattered Joseph’s hopes for the future.

And somehow I find it hard to believe that the idea that God was the father of the child was any more believeable or acceptable or comforting when Mary offered her story, back in those pre-scientific days, than it would be today.

We don’t often talk about disappointment and the Christmas season in the same breath, but all too often this is a time of the year when the disappointments of the last twelve months come more readily to mind, and so it’s worth remembering that, at least for Joseph, Mary and their families, this story begins with deep, unremitting disappointment. It is for us a sign that even in the best of families – and what family could be better than Joseph’s and Mary’s? – even there, things do not play out the way they were expected or planned; even there, there is disappointment.

Have you ever been disappointed? Has there been a time in your life when things didn’t play out the way you wanted, expected, hoped? Have there been times when you felt like Joseph?

Has it ever turned around?

It did for Joseph. Now, you know and I know there are realities that can’t be changed. And the facts didn’t change for Joseph either. Mary was still pregnant. He was still not the father of the coming child. He still couldn’t see how he could marry her.

In the midst of all that, however, Joseph made a choice which changed everything. He chose to treat Mary with grace. He could have condemned her publicly. He could have destroyed her. Instead, as the story goes, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace”, he planned to dismiss her quietly. That quiet choice of grace changed Joseph; changed Joseph’s world.

With that choice, Joseph made it clear that he was a man of love, and not a man of hate. He made it clear that in the midst of the deepest disappointment, even disgrace, he would not turn away from grace. And his openness to grace, opened him to God’s grace, to the rest of the story. His choice of grace made everything else possible.

If Joseph had chosen anger, had chosen revenge, what would have happened when the angel came to him in a dream? Would an angel even come to a hate-filled Joseph? But Joseph chose grace, and an angel told him the rest of the story.

The rest of the story – that Mary was telling the truth, that he could still marry her, raise the child – that his hopes were not destroyed – well, we know how that turned out. They married, raised Jesus and their other children, made a home filled with love, grace and a sense of purpose and laid the foundation for a new way of living.

Let’s not forget, in the joy of Christmas, that the birth of that child began in disappointment.

Let’s not forget, because it helps us understand the disappointments of our own lives.

Let’s not forget, because it helps us remember that we don’t yet know the rest of the story.

God gives us the choice; we can live in our disappointments, we can continue to be frustrated, angry, distrustful about the things which haven’t worked out the way we wanted or hoped. Or we can look ahead with the grace of Joseph, seeking the best way, God’s way, trusting that there’s more story to come, that we don’t know the rest of the story.

This is the first day of a new year, and with the new year, comes the opportunity to step beyond the disappointments of 2016. In this new year comes the opportunity to be unexpected gifts of grace to our world, to step away from the stuckness of pain and anger, and to step out into the world.

How may we be unexpected gifts to our world?

How can we be good? How can we model grace? How can we show love and trust, in the face of disappointment, discouragement? It won’t be easy, it never is, to move beyond that bad stuff, but Joseph tells us it is possible, with grace and determination. Joseph tells us there’s more story yet to come, when we determine to follow God’s way, to live in hope.

Come forward this morning to the table of the Lord, and there dedicate yourself to be, in this new year of 2017, a person of hope, a person of determination, a person who will seek to follow the way of Jesus Christ, not just today, but throughout the year. Then take away with you the everylasting love of God, to be with you and guide you, each and every day.

Amen.

© 2017, Virginia H. Child