In defense of resting on your laurels

June 19th, 2016

“We’re always on to the next thing,” one pastor friend confided to me. “At least that’s how the people in my annual conference see it. We’re ever on to the latest, greatest solution for church growth.”

“Do you ever pause and celebrate what you have accomplished?” I asked.


That got me thinking. These initiatives may seem like passing fads which annual conferences mindlessly chase after. But I doubt that’s what’s actually happening. In my experience, denominational executives are working on several fronts at the same time. After all, different kinds of congregations and leaders need different kinds of approaches. Congregational renewal is not one size fits all. My work with emotional intelligence demonstrates that.

I have often wondered, though, if people would respond more favorably to the myriad processes their annual conferences offer, if only they were aware of how much had actually been accomplished with each one.

There’s no way of knowing what’s been accomplished if we don’t pause, communicate and celebrate. That’s why I’m defending the oft neglected practice of resting on your laurels.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with savoring our successes. When the Romans borrowed the Greek idea of presenting a wreath of laurel leaves to victorious military commanders, there was no implication that “resting” on them was bad. That negative connotation didn’t come for another 10 centuries.

Getting back to my friend’s annual conference — I wonder how many new ministries they have launched since focusing on processes for renewal? Harder to measure but equally important — how many fights have been avoided, how many members and volunteers have been re-energized? How many callings to the ministry have been reclaimed?

We can’t know these things unless we make space for collecting and telling these stories. That means taking time to rest on our laurels. Not forever. Not even for a long time. But long enough to actually soak up and celebrate all that has been gained.

As the semi-frenetic pastor of an active congregation, I had habitually pushed on to the next thing. And the next. And the next. Driven by both the joy of accomplishment and the fear of boredom.

“Rev. Rebekah,” my active lay leader sheepishly confessed to me one day, “we’re tired. We need a rest. Can’t we just stop for a bit and see how far we have actually come?”

When Jesus went into the wilderness to pray, we have no idea what he prayed. But we do know this: he paused. Surely something good and life-giving happened during that time.

Year-end reports are a statistical attempt to pause and to reflect on what has been done. But we have to look beyond our own particular congregations to get the big picture. Sure, worship attendance or membership may be down in your setting. But other numbers may be trending upward. In one annual conference I work with, church attendance is down, but baptisms are up! Not bad. In another, average worship attendance itself is actually up.

There’s no way of knowing this stuff unless we, as a body, actually stop and reflect. Then take it one step further: Celebrate.

What could you celebrate in your annual conference? Look for what you are doing doing well, and then emphasize it. Perspectives shift when we focus on what is going well.

Recently, I listened to a panel of General Conference delegates report on what happened in Portland last month. I expected a reprisal of the tougher issues that emerged at GC including painful disagreements over how to address human sexuality. I was not disappointed.

What most captured my attention, though, was the report of a first-time laywoman delegate. “This was my first time at General Conference,” she smiled. “I didn’t even begin to think about it until about a week or two before I went. I arrived with an open mind.”

She went on to relate her delight about the milestones celebrated: the 250th anniversary of John Street Church in New York City, the 200th anniversary of Bishop Francis Asbury’s death, the 60th anniversary of full clergy rights for women, the 30th anniversary of Disciple Bible Study, the upcoming 25th anniversary of Africa University and 150th anniversary of the United Methodist Women. She was amazed at all the church had accomplished in such a short period of time.

Now I’m the last person to whitewash history. Much of my work has been about empowering the church to embrace a truly Jewish Jesus, unlearn anti-Semitism, deal with what our Scriptures say about environmental stewardship and creatively address the reality of church decline.

But still! What a breath of fresh air to listen to her celebrate our accomplishments. For a moment, we all rested on our laurels.

I wonder what would happen if we insisted on these breaths of fresh air more often? If we purposefully paused and savored our successes more than once every four years?

No, it wouldn’t resolve all our challenges or erase our differences. But it might just energize us to carry on creatively — conscious of the positive impact we are having on the world around us, and proud of the gains we are making.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at She is the author of The Jew Named Jesus and Green Church.

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