Leading simply

February 6th, 2023

From pandemic to polemics, few are exempt from the current challenges that impact local congregations. Ironically, the difficulty of the current storms may be one thing on which we can agree. To compound the difficulties, once reliable strategies and techniques no longer address the complexities faced. 

Undergirding the churning storms is a default to the individual, or even a small group of individuals, rather than the body of Christ in the local community of faith.  

Protestant Christianity in the United States defaults to the individual. Our heritage of revivalism and democracy contributes to this self-understanding. When we think of grace, faith, discipleship, vocation, leadership it is most often within the category of the individual. 

However, Paul calls us to see ourselves in community. From Romans 12.1-2 (NRSV): 

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, on the basis of God’s mercy, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable act of worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

What can we learn from these verses?

Two things: (1) God does not just call an individual, but bodies and minds—plural. God calls us into community with God and one another. (2) Another important aspect is the emphasis on the renewing of our minds. Our faithfulness is spiritual and physical—as well as intellectual. According to Paul in Romans, God calls us into community to learn together how to participate in God’s reign. 

So, what can we do? Like the complexities faced, one tendency is to accumulate, ‘learn,’ more and more complicated techniques. However, another is to simplify.

In Matthew Jesus teaches a distilled version of the Ten Commandments, ‘love God, and love neighbors’ (Matthew 22: 36-40). How does this translate into navigating the complexity of current storms? We may need to let go of our vision of how we expect things to be, and experiment to learn from God’s vision. 

The following are two examples of Methodist communities reflecting on their identity, purpose, and practices to learn how to participate in God’s work in and through them. 

Learning Together: An Early Methodist Experiment—Field Preaching and/or Class Meetings?

The early Methodist renewal movement embarked on an experiment in response to competing opportunities, accompanied by some complexity and conflict. Early Methodists experimented with field preaching and class meetings. The practice at the time was to accept invitations to preach only where class meetings were established. The purpose of this practice was to facilitate faith formation of those hearing the message preached. Understandably, many more invitations were received than class meetings established. 

The Methodist Conference decided to conduct an experiment in 1745 allowing acceptance of field preaching invitations without requiring class meetings nearby. After a sufficient period, the conference revisited the question, reflecting on what was learned, and made a decision based on that learning (not persuasive tactics, etc.). 

Based on the aim, “to spread Scriptural holiness,” in the spirit of Jesus’ commandment ‘to love God and neighbor,’ after three years it was decided to remain with the original practice. 

The evidence demonstrated those moved by field preaching in areas with no class meetings did not continue to grow in faith. While those responding to preaching in areas with class meetings did grow in faith as a result of the support and encouragement of class meetings. Field preaching did not result in ‘spreading Scriptural holiness’ on its own. Field preaching needed the class meetings to participate fully in God’s work. 

This early Methodist experiment demonstrates the simple, yet essential, importance of learning together in community to continuously discern our shared purpose in God’s reign. 

Loving Together: A Later Methodist ExperimentTo Grow and Close or Close and Grow?

A British Methodist congregation was facing a looming challenge. They had dwindled over the years until merely eight people participated in worship—and those were the Sundays when everyone could make it. They had done all they knew to do to “reach out to young people” and grow the church, but to no avail.

A time finally came when the matriarch, and heart of the church, reached an age and situation when she could no longer live alone. She moved into a care facility some distance from the church. The congregation was heartbroken that she would no longer participate in worship. 

The members discussed the ever pressing question of closure. They finally decided, after all they were a dying church anyway, to close the dilapidated building. On the brighter side, folks planned to gather for worship every fourth Sunday at the care facility with their friend. 

The first month seventy people participated in worship at the care facilitate. The second twice as many. It was not long before the congregation decided to meet regularly at the facility. 

The small remnant of the congregation, after deciding to close their long-time historic building, found growth through reaching out to their neighbors. Ironically, they found vitality and love not among the young, whom they assumed they needed to survive, but the lonely, infirm, and elderly. There they met Jesus and the surprising and simple unfolding of God’s reign.

Leading Simply

Facilitating ministries in the mildest of climates takes considerable effort. Navigating in the midst of churning storms takes even more commitment, energy, and focus. Sustaining the energy to follow God’s call depends upon relationship in community with the Triune God and one another. Focusing upon God’s call in Jesus Christ’s commandment to ‘love God and neighbor’ in community offers a lens through which to experiment and learn about ministry sustained by the Holy Spirit. 

This focus, while much deeper and more profound, shares characteristics with thoughtful leadership strategies. These do not replace relationships, vocation, and mission with the Triune God. However, these may help to reorient communities battered by the storms of this world to regain focus, to learn while loving God and neighbor. 

These are unprecedented and difficult times. Layers of grief and loss pervade our communities and neighborhoods. Often how we engage one another is as, if not more, important, than what decisions are reached. Simplifying the agendas in local congregations to sustain vocations characterized by love and learning can help us navigate in the midst of the storms. 

comments powered by Disqus