Jul 10, 2015

Let’s Talk about Change

People occasionally ask me “how has being a minister changed over the last three decades?” It is a question that might be asked of any calling or profession, but from the vantage point of ministry the question offers an engrossing perspective on modern life.

A perceptive mentor remarked that pastors probably have more experience with life-change than any other profession. The work compels ministers to be specialists in transitions. As I recently edited a book called Transitions (John Knox Press, 2011) I must admit this mentor clearly recognized a virtually certain truth. As those who work with individuals and congregations, pastors eat and breathe change within the world parishioners face in life’s nickels and dimes.

For an example of change, typical North Americans have witnessed massive changes in the function of our public institutions leaders. When I began as a pastor and leader of a congregation I was twenty-five years old and straight from seminary. “I knew nothing,” as Sergeant Schultz used to say on “Hogan’s Heroes.” Yet my small congregation said, “You are our pastor and we will do what you say—so lead us.” As uncomfortable as I was with directing folks fifty years my senior, I soon realized that by virtue of position those I led granted me authority.

Today, after thirty-six years of experience and oodles of education, novice church members hardly hesitate to tell me how to “do it” better. A doctor tells me that she spends scores of office visits notifying patients that the internet cannot diagnose as well as she can with an in-person exam. Many simply do not believe her. If you have walked through a public school building, are you obligated to suggest policy to the Superintendent of schools or school board? Here is a core issue for leading in the 21st Century—how to guide without the built-in authority assumed in previous generations.

What access to “the information highway” which is not a term used much anymore reminds us is that everyone has access to information—data, statistics, and facts. Yet it seems although we know “stuff” maybe we don’t understand what it means. Wisdom differs from information and facts. Smart phones can do many things, but wise use of a phone is when it is appropriate.

A great change emerged during the recent economic downsizing. It was the readiness of scrambling businesses to swap people who comprised the institution’s memory and wisdom for reduced (with younger employees) salaries as an economic strategy. Not necessarily bad or good—depends where a person occupies the food-chain. Yet this phenomenon goes with the idea that knowledge of facts often trumps the wisdom of experience. A piece of biblical heritage is recognizing we covet wise persons among us. A Judeo-Christian heritage still speaks to wisdom’s place in human relations. It is good to be smart—better to be wise. Have we as a postmodern culture substituted knowing facts for using them wisely?

Transitions is a book in which thirty-two well-respected thinkers take readers on a tour of their peculiar disciplines and address issues of change. Two insights are particularly helpful for our day.

First while there are many people who advocate “change for change sake,” change does have its dangers. Substantive change always raises an authentic possibility of failure. As I pointed out in the book’s introduction: “In Francis Bacon’s The New Organon (Novum Organum), Bacon writes in 1620 about the reality that change is dangerous . . . [he uses the] illustration of an earlier time of risk taking that centers on a method farmers use to grow crops. We could without difficulty imagine a scenario in which 15th century farmers in a particular region each used a new method of agriculture in hopes of producing better crops. Yet, if the farmer’s enterprise fails, then the price could be starvation. Thus this kind of change is more than an inconvenience—the change itself has the potential to put survival in peril.

Second is the fact that, as Bishop Robert Schnase writes with insight, “Change asks people to suffer loss, experience uncertainty, and to redefine aspects of their identity.” Thus not only is consequential change dangerous, it also triggers a type of grief process for those involved. Change always means embracing something else while letting go of what may be familiar. This change is a human emotional transaction that often calls on clergy. Clergy persons are summoned to assist people with both fear of the new and loss of the old.

The biggest transition for me in ministry over the last three decades is helping more people who stumble through change and addressing this change with less built-in pastoral authority than previous generations.

As a pastor, I try to help people. Many people I try to help are disillusioned because they want something they do not have or they have something they do not want. Folks such as these visit doctors, lawyers, fortunetellers, psychologists, and other experts hoping that someone will tell them how to cope. My job to shine a little light of faith on their circumstance and remind them that nothing happens at once. It is the journey that gives us the desires of our hearts. There is no guru, magician, or wizard that can give you what you want. Only you can do that and not all at once. You will find it on the journey of life, usually when you least expected to find it.

Come, Worship
Stay, Learn
Go, Serve

PS. We hold our Testament Choir trip folks—both participants and fellow adult leaders in our prayers this next week as they venture to Albuquerque, New Mexico!


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