Anyone who’s ever served on a church search committee knows what I’m talking about. There’s such a gulf between our hopes, our expectations and the real qualities of real people who put their names forward. As Americans, we deal with the swell of expectation and inevitable dissapointment regularly — every four years, in fact. But we know in another four years we get to make a choice again. Churches are harder places for leadership shifts. In the church, we know we’ll be living with the consequence of our choice and, to be honest, living with what we didn’t know or expect at the time for a long, long time.
We don’t like to feel powerless. That’s why search committees worry about things which are so far beyond anyone’s capacity or comprehension, unless they actually have a crystal ball. It’s impossible to know how in the particular person of the Rev’d Mrs. Right or the Rev’d Mr. Wonderful (or, in the conclave, Cardinal So-and-so) our future hopes, past experience, and projected expectations will merge and find meaning. And which I should quickly add “…find meaning, for me.”
That’s just it. We like to be in control. We are in control of a whole lot of things: what words we use, whether we tell our children we love them, what groceries we buy, whether we go the gym, how we spend our money, and who we associate with.
And yet we are decidedly not in control of a number of other things: why bad things happen or, for that matter, why good things happen, why other people act the way they do, whatever happens in the stock market, and why we are unable to resist impulse buys in a checkout line.
The question is how we deal. Some among us, the Type A’s, exert such profound control over the things they can manage they never have to deal with the things they can’t. Others write poetry or songs. Some drink, others buy things. Still others, most notably youngest children such as myself, don’t really give a hoot because we actually suspect someone else is in charge. And still others are brilliant conspiracy theorists, and here I’m thinking not only of Oliver Stone but the folks who produce FoxNews and MSNBC.
We want to be in control and yet we know we’re not. We want to manage the big things and, to add insult to injury, we’re afraid we don’t know who’s in the back office and, even if we knew, we still couldn’t trust them. We are walking, talking contradictions. Our Lutheran friends have a great phrase for this: paradox, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.” That concept doesn’t solve anything (not for the Type A’s, at least) but it makes the conflict feel a bit more palatably holy. To me, it’s always seemed the healthiest, least dysfunctional, most honest stance to do what 12-steppers call Step One: admit it. Admit your human-ness, your frailty, powerlessness, lack of imagination, inability to control the future, and general anxiety about what’s coming next.
There’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that most of those who work in the institutional church, by and large, get this. Over the past several decades, we’ve started becoming honest. We’ve started to be unafraid of claiming our numerical decline, brokenness and powerlessness and laying that mess before God. A seminary professor once pointed out the irony that most churches house AA groups but treat them like tenants or, in some cases, nuisances. Too many churches, he remarked, fail to connect the transformative potential of 12-step spirituality to their actual functioning. Too many fail to see AA as a mission partner, maybe mission builder, not just a renter. (To be honest, the second “A” does have something to do with this.) Fortunately, over time, the institutional Christian church has become increasingly comfortable with admitting our powerlessness. Maybe being honest about, say, numerical decline is the first step towards actually seeking wisdom from a Higher Power.
Bad news: this still comes as a shock to lots of people. It vexes search committees and stymies personnel decisions in too many churches. Too often, we call institutional managers instead of pastors or, at least, expect those we call to be patient managers even though we might actually need what William Willimon called in a recent Christian Century article “impatient instigators”. The 2005 papal transition highlighted this gulf, as well. When the veritable definition of “institutional-manager”, Cardinal Ratzinger, became Benedict XVI, taking over after John Paul II, he not only followed a genuinely gregarious leader but — and this is no small point — took the reigns after his predecessor’s 27-year reign, over which time most of the world either became so comfortable with the ways J.P.2 filled the red shoes or, rather, never knew another Supreme Pontiff.
That’s why Benedict is, today, Benedicto!, a true blessing not only to the church but to the world. He’s handing off leadership in a public way without the, um, advantage of dying in office — a quick trip to sainthood for anyone in the church. It is a blessing — benedicto! — to finally be honest, and not only that but publicly so.
So let’s keep the spirit alive. Here’s the honest truth made public, church: most of those whom you call to lead these institutions have, through a long process of discernment, had to undergo fairly intense spiritual, emotional, psychological and, add to that, physical inspection and introspection, and we’re really serious about working on the inner life. We think there’s real value to doing that, and we also think it’s a blessing that people aren’t joining churches to get a job connection or “see and be seen”. Rather, we actually expect people who come to church to also want or at least want to want some intense spiritual and emotional introspection and hear a message about changing the way we live our lives.
Now that we’re being honest, we also want to admit we’ve been afraid of a lot of you who want us to act as managers and fit your prototypes and expectations. We’re afraid of rocking the boat too much because (a) we don’t want to come across as meanies — though we have spiritual directors who help us deal with that — and (b) we’re all too painfully aware that no small number of folks think of church as nothing more than a voluntary organization, no different than the Elks Lodge, so if things change too much too quickly a number of you might just revoke your pledge. We’ve been unsteadily trying to re-frame the conversation and talk more about God’s mission. We’ve been afraid and sheepish.
We haven’t been as clear as we need to be, but I think it’s time. I sense that it’s time.
In my experience, I’m touched by the ways in which the yearning for honesty spills across generational lines. I’ve been pleased that most people genuinely come to church for spiritual, life-changing reasons. I also think we’ve sold ourselves short. For me, it’s been argued too often that Baby Boomers have an inability to talk about the stuff of real life — stuff which may involve brokenness or powerlessness — because they remember with fondness the stable institutions of their youth, and they’re trying to recreate their childhood. That’s just not true. Most members of the Baby Boom generation I know have watched their children and, now, grandchildren grow up in an changed world and they’ve come to terms with uncertainty, disorder, and suffering. It’s also the case that the Boomers who wish for the 1950s all over again have already left churches because they sense we’re serious about steering into the wind, and those who’ve remained in our congregations are already doing that profound inner work. It’s also been said too much that young people, today, don’t have a moral bone in their body or they’ve just put their faith in Apple products — not Jesus like previous generations did. Youth and young adults have quite penetrating faith in God, and they also have a great ability to see what’s really there. Many young adults are looking for congregations to take that Lord who turned over tables in the Temple quite seriously, and act in their lives and in our society as a voice of change — a voice which gets its power because it comes from the margins, not the center. They just don’t find as much meaning in potlucks and old-fashioned dinners as did previous generations. This gulf is being bridged day after day in most parish churches across our nation. It’s refreshing to see someone in her 80s sit down over coffee with someone in his 20s and talk openly, truthfully, and meaningfully about life’s ups and downs, a conversation in which neither party is offering advice or trying to fix anything, both there as companions on the way.
This is good news, church. And it’s time to be honest, publicly honest, and celebrate the work we’ve been doing and which previous leaders have envisioned. It’s time to be a lot more bold about it, in fact, for if the Christian church can’t be the place in society in which people come from all walks of life and form community grounded in honesty and truth-telling, who will be?
Benedicto!, Benedict XVI or Pope Emeritus or Cardinal Ratzinger or whatever we’re supposed to call you these days. Maybe, in the spirit of all this refreshing honesty, we’ll just get back to basics, and remember the only name God knows you by – Joseph. Well done.