It's the ministry over-functioner's theme song. Here's how to stop singing it...
Recently, I was listening to a clergy colleague as she unloaded her stress. She was trying to get her congregation to be more engaged - with the community, with their own spiritual lives, with the life of faith.
“They are lovely people,” she said, “and eager to learn. But only if I plan every meeting and find every resource. I am constantly coming up with new things: coffee shop Bible study, a knitting and theology group, packing backpacks for school kids in need.
Everyone thinks this is great - but it’s me doing all the work to plan and coordinate each step. Then when it happens, it is so fun … the first time. Maybe the second. Then people start to drift away and I start again trying to get them more interested and active. I don’t know how much harder I can try.”
“Why don’t you stop?” I asked. She looked at me like I was crazy.
“I can’t stop! The church needs to grow, people need to know more about the love of God, we need to reach people outside of the church. I need to teach my congregation how to do this.
If I don’t do it, who will?”
This is the most important question in ministry today. And not for the reasons we usually think.
This can be seen as the rallying cry, the driving force behind congregational ministry - it’s our job to introduce and encourage the life of faith in those we serve. But if we are doing everything, and we see ourselves as responsible for everyone’s faith life, then we are doing work that truly belongs to others (and this goes double and triple if we're doing work like building maintenance and financial planning).
Rabbi Edwin Friedman once said, “Burnout does not come from working too much. Burnout comes from doing work that belongs to someone else.” It is crucial - especially in today’s church - for clergy to NOT do all the work for our congregations, or anyone else we serve.
And here’s why:
It's time to face our fears.
This is the crux of it, really. We're afraid of the church decline that we can't really figure out how to stop. We're afraid there is too much work and not enough people to do it. We're afraid we can’t afford our buildings and salaries (and therefore we're afraid for our jobs). We're afraid that maybe nobody cares enough to continue doing church as it has been done, or coming to worship on Sundays.
This is the biggest reason to do less. It's time to admit these fears, and admit they are not entirely irrational.
We know things are falling apart in so many ways - and we have to be willing to let them.
Why? Because what's emerging next is important. Letting go of some of 'the way we've always done it' will give us the energy and insight to devote to what comes next.
Sabbaticals are meant as time away from our normal routines of work so that we can listen to where God's voice is calling us next. We can take a sabbatical together as a congregation and just put some things down. And wait. And listen.
We need to leave room.
It’s a tricky balance between functioning and over-functioning. One of the strangest things I’ve noticed working with churches is clergy who say, ‘I do everything’, while members say, ‘no one asks me to do anything.’
The truth is, they are BOTH right!
Clergy often believe it's our job to make sure everything is done, from administration to worship to education to pastoral care.
We put this pressure on ourselves, often by saying ‘my community expects this of me’, often without really checking if this is true.
At the same time, church members aren’t sure where to start, but with guidance and invitation, they are very willing to devote more energy to growing in their own faith, and sharing that with others.
The trick is to notice the dynamic that makes the clergy ‘in charge’, rather than professional faith practitioners, there to offer guidance to disciples. We need to leave room for others. And we need to leave room for God. We need to be ok with a little bit of slack in between - a little bit of silence. And to see what emerges from this.
Our most powerful job is witness.
The church is undergoing gigantic change right now. We can't stop it, and none of us really knows where it's leading us.
This is a moment for faith.
It is a moment to remember that our job is not to make our congregation larger, or more financially sound.
It is to share the love of God, and to bear the sacraments, traditions, and Scripture of the Christian faith to others. It is to meet people where they are with this. It is to trust God in this process, and to leave ourselves - and others - the energy to feel God’s presence in this.
It's time to do less, and believe more.
Yes, it is possible that if we don’t do it, it won’t get done. But then we have to ask ourselves, ‘Was it something that really needed to be done?’ Is it possible that by letting go of some things, other things will grow?
Are we willing to put our faith before our fear and find out?
When I finished talking with my clergy colleague, I'm not sure I changed her mind, but I do think I helped her change her thinking.
'If you find yourself thinking: "if I don't do it, it won't get done", then that's a pretty good sign that you shouldn't do it," I told her. Because it's a pretty good sign that you don't want to do it!
Start with the work that you dread the most. Why is that? Do you think it's unnecessary? Are you just going through the motions? Do you think it matters to others? Do you feel like it has to happen, but you don't know why?
This is an invitation. It's a portal to stepping out of a dying cycle and into a creative space where the future of church is emerging. Even if the dreaded task seems small and insignificant.
Let it go.
Pay devoted attention to what happens next.
This is the first article in the 'Do LESS' issue of 'Notes from the Future of Church', coming October 15. Get this issue, last month's issue ('Ministry and Money') and all future issues by subscribing.
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