“What keeps you up at night?”
I was listening to a leadership podcast from Luther Seminary in St. Paul that asked this question. (Find the podcast here)
“What keeps you up at night?”
Once I get past Ukraine, the Pandemic, inflation and economic inequality the thing that keeps me up at night is the present and future of the church. Sherwood Park, the MNO Synod, the ELCIC and Christianity around the world.
But lately, it has been on my mind about how pivotal this moment in history is for us. It is a moment that I have been anticipating for quite some time and a moment that I expect to be looking back at in 15 years and reflecting on the choices made and courses of action followed now.
I say this often, so excuse me if I have written it before: In my first few weeks of being pastor, it hit me like a ton of bricks, the overwhelming sense that I would be spending my entire career in ministry helping congregations navigating change. In fact, at that time my exact thoughts were “I am going to be cleaning up the messes of predecessors for the next 40 years.”
Of course by now, I know that things aren’t that cut and dry. The “messes” have really more to do with a rapidly changing world and church than the failures of those who have served before me.
In the same podcast, the main theme of the episode was on challenges. I talked with council this week about this idea. We usually think that we have a pretty good idea of what the challenges we face are, whether at home, in the neighbourhood, at work, at church, in our country and in our world. I asked council to quickly identify the challenges facing Sherwood Park.
We immediately came up with financial challenges, declining and aging membership challenges, building and maintenance challenges, transition out of pandemic (or into the next phase) challenges. I named that the MNO Synod is looking at clergy shortage challenge (we have to call from outside Manitoba to fill vacancies and have few or no candidates of our own – even Courtenay and I are not original Manitoba clergy).
But the podcast episode pushed back at the idea that we actually do know the challenges we face. We are very good at identifying surface challenges, we know what our presenting issues are. But often our deep challenges are not that clear to us.
For Sherwood Park and Lutherans in the MNO Synod, financial problems and declining membership is the story everywhere. And we have all been chasing after these problems for a long time. The church I grew up in, with 250 attending on Sundays, 50 to 100 kids in Sunday School, 75 college and careers that also attended every Sunday…. They too in the mid-90s were convinced that they had a finances and declining membership problem!
The deeper issue we face is about our identity as a community of faith. It was getting hard to continue being a community in 2019. Today, it is just that much harder.
The deeper challenge is whether the way we choose to be a church and do ministry still makes sense. Does Winnipeg need 14 Lutheran churches (and more than twice that in Anglican churches) all working mostly independently from one another? Our shared youth program, which is certainly the largest in Winnipeg, if not the ELCIC, suggests that there is a significant benefit to working together.
The deeper question is how committed are we to continuing to be a community of faith, followers of Jesus together in the longer term?
When I think about our challenges in this way, finances and people stop really being concerns in my mind. Yes, the budget is tight and it is going to take work to remember how to come together again.
But as I sat at our council meeting, I was struck by just how committed the 9 of us were to the ministry of Sherwood Park. And know there are so many others beyond council who feel the same. I know that we have the capacity within our community to meet our budget this year, to fill our volunteer roles, and to continue to provide all the different kinds of ministry and community opportunities that have been central for us.
Our deeper challenges, about understanding and knowing who we are and what we are about as a community is the more difficult question. But it is a question that comes with an opportunity. A survey came out this week saying that overwhelmingly Canadians feel more disconnected and divided than ever. Our sense of belonging and community has been degraded during these past 2 years.
Well, hold on! Isn’t that exactly what we as the church are best at? Being a place where people can find community? Being a place where people can belong?
As we find ourselves in the pivotal moment for the future of the church, there ARE deep challenges that we face. But challenges also bring opportunities. And I think God is calling us to step into these new places: To explore who and what we are as a community of faith; to invite the world around us into that community of hope and promise, that community of belonging.
I thought at first that discerning our challenges would be scary. But taking the time to unpack what the challenges are that we actually face, reveals whole new ways to approach our common life together as people of faith. Things stop being scary and start becoming exciting.
God is calling us into the challenging but exciting world, with an unknown but promise-filled future.