I have often thought about what it means to be a Minister in 2017. I know many of my colleagues think about serving in the most effective and authentic way possible, but I wonder if they understand the context the church finds itself in today. Yesterday I ran into a recently retired Minister who asked about how things were going in the churches I serve now. I explained that attendance was up, givings were up and the committee structure of the church was full of eager volunteers. The retired Minister looked at me and replied, “Be careful you don’t set up your successor for failure, not all Ministers are going to do all the things you do.” My response shocked him. I said, “Who says there is going to be a replacement for me.” “Do you mean you plan to stay until you retire”, he asked. “Yes I do”, I said, “But it is more than that. I retired in 8 years, look around you at the mainline churches you know, several have closed already, many are moving to 75%, 60% and 50% time, some are merging, who says the churches I serve will be exempt from this trend?” There was a sobering silence as what I said washed over my older colleague. He had never stopped to consider the possibility that the church as he knew it, as he had served, would cease to exist in such a short period of time.
Why is this relevant? Ask anyone who has been given serious and challenging news by their doctor as it relates to their physical or mental health and see if that has affected their outlook on what they do? I can tell you any such news changes you and changes how you live. Likewise if you know the church as we know it could have a shelf life of 10 to 20 years (if we are lucky) how would you serve such an institution? I suppose the cynical and lazy would simply run out the clock, put in their 40 hours a week, serve their 35 years, and retire. Funny thing, those are the same people who seem to be complaining that the pension we receive is not going up as they expected. It’s certainly no surprise to me. And my eyes were wide open when I was ordained, I could see the demographics in front of me and the church closings even then. My motivation was such that, like someone who gets challenging news from her/his doctor, it is time to focus on what matters most and leave behind the stuff that will soon be forgotten.
When I ask people in neighbourhoods and communities where churches have closed “what do you miss about that church” they don’t answer the colour of paint they used, or how the Elders served Communion, or the gowns the clergy and choir wore, or the liturgy they used, or about the plaques on the wall… No, the words used by people who remember the church are “friendly, warm, set an example, made a difference, helped the poor, sponsored a refugee family, or made my kids feel special, or had beautiful music, or the preaching really spoke to me, or the studies were really interesting and opened my eyes”. If you look at church with these news eyes it immediately changes the way you look at the contents of the church building, at the programming of the church, at the use of the Minister’s time, at the time volunteers are asked to offer and what tasks they carry out and most importantly, at the parts of Jesus’ life and words the church chooses to lift up.
If you knew your church was not guaranteed to be around a long time how would you change what you did in that church, where would you put more effort and what would you let go? I work harder and harder every year of my Ministry but how I work and on what I work changes as I see what is happening to the institutional church. One day there may be no paid Ordained Ministers in the churches, no buildings like we have now, but Jesus’ church will go on. And serving that church will push us to further consider what is essential to being Jesus’ church and what is not.