I’ve been thinking a lot about Ryan Woods the last few days. Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of his death. His life, like a huge rock thrown from a great height into a big lake, is still making ripples through mine.
One thing that Ryan said (and that I’ve heard Jess say as well) is that when you’re doing ministry you’re bringing two of the most mysterious and unpredictable elements together–God and people. This is the beginning of wisdom.
And that’s made me think about leading in congregations. The most powerful things that have happened in my ministry experience are not things that I planned. Let me be clear here, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t plan. I’m not saying that you should just wait around for something big to happen. I absolutely think that the most effective leaders are people who are working a plan. So, it seems again that I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth–AGAIN!
But let’s start with Ryan’s premise, the mystery of God and people. I had a therapist once tell me that people only change when they are ready to. They can understand the need for change and agree that they should make changes, but they won’t until they are ready. And that is a tough thing to predict. I am convinced that the same is true for congregations. They change, if at all, when they are ready. And because of this, we can’t engineer the change. We can’t strategic plan it or think it will come inevitably when we’ve made the case for change plain and laid out the steps to get there.
I consult with groups of congregations that are interested in missional innovation. We put them through a three-year process called Partnership for Missional Church. I believe in the process. I think its about as good as you can design. But the fact is, doing the process is no guarantee of change. The better you are in the process makes change more likely, but still does not guarantee it. Congregations change when they’re ready.
Walter Brueggemann, in Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism, says that our children come to faith partly because of us and partly in spite of us. The transfer of the blessing from one generation to the next is always something of a mystery. What we must do, he says, is establish the categories so that when our children are ready, they have something to appropriate.
I think this is true for ministry. We can’t make the wind blow. That’s a mystery. But we can have the sail ready for when it does. Ministry is diligence about the sail, or like Brueggemann said, maintaining the categories so that when the congregation is ready they have something to appropriate or live into.
Ministry as sail craft is about spiritually forming people. Keeping their focus on God. Ironically, the thing that often diverts attention from God is a focus on the church, especially when that focus is anxiety about its size, programs, or effectiveness. I am convinced that when the wind blows, the determining factor for catching the wind is not the quality of our programs, but the quality of our life together.