by the Rev. Susan Smith
Once again I ask myself, “What did I come in here for?” (Or on my more grammatically correct days, “For what did I come in here?”) Probably you’ve had these so-called Senior Moments, too. Research suggests that most people do not have more of them when we age; we simply dwell on them more. We know we had a plan and a purpose when we headed into this room, down this aisle or toward this closet – probably a good one – but the thread is lost. Often I find myself doing something else altogether -- sometimes for a long time -- before I recall that I was on my way to accomplish something entirely different and much more important.
When I do this, there aren’t many serious consequences. When your congregation does it, the just and loving community that we are striving to create may be in jeopardy. A significant source of conflict and malaise in congregations is this loss of where we were going, what we were going to do when we got there and why. It can cause the wrong people to get elected to office or appointed to taskforces. It can be the source of our inability to pay for the new facility that we just built. It can generate those parking lot meetings about how the current minister/director of faith development/music director cannot take the congregation “to the next level.” When the thread is lost in a group enterprise, something in our human nature causes us to spend more time looking for the reason we lost it than trying to reclaim the thread itself.
When a congregational leader calls me for help, I always begin with the same request: “Send me a copy of your current long-range plan.” Usually they respond in one of these ways:
- We had a long-range plan about 10 years ago, but it’s expired;
- We did that mission/vision work with that facilitator 3 years ago, but I don’t know what became of all that; or
- I don’t think we have a long-range plan.
If it’s my lucky day and we can locate a long-range plan (which should be the end result of community studies, visioning and research), it will usually be expired with no final evaluation of progress much less a successor plan in the works. Whatever you might think is the cause of your current congregational problem, I assure you that this lack of agreement about where you are going and why is that illusive first cause.
When a congregation cannot envision the compelling and life-saving work that it must do right now for the community around it and the world at large, no one can lead it. Over-functioning eldest children like me will jump into the vacuum and try to drag the congregation in one direction or another. Occasionally, more than one of us tug it between us with such force and carelessness that it ends up in tatters. It is hard to repair tatters, I can tell you, and the result is never really whole again.
When a congregation has a plan that is only made up of building projects or governance changes or staff additions without knowing of what use these things will be to what great purpose, the effort of time, treasure and talent is largely wasted. “The earth made fair and all her people one” is not too high a bar to set. Neither is no poverty in our town or 100% graduation rates or the rebirth of the part of the planet in our care. Without this purpose, we quickly grow disenchanted with the new building, new committee configuration or new minister. We can even believe that our personal happiness with everything was the original purpose, and that is much too low a bar for the blood, sweat and tears of generations when the need is so great and the stakes are so high.
If you are a congregational leader who does not know where your congregation as a body has chosen to go and what is to be transformed when they have finally arrived there, your first job is to lead the congregation in developing a vision and the plan to get there. If you head a taskforce but you do not know what role in the master plan your taskforce plays, your job is to get clear about this and lead your team accordingly. If you know that your congregation had a five-year plan five years ago or if your congregation has not done significant visioning since your were last in search for a minister, you must urge your leaders to refresh this vision and relight that chalice of inspiration and determination which can make all things possible.
Your entire regional staff will be meeting January 6-10 to refresh this work for ourselves. Please hold us in your thoughts and prayers as we meet. Surely one of our goals will be that the great congregations large and small of the Southern Region will dream a big enough dream to transform this world as well as the human heart and that we staff members can serve our faith alongside you to make these dreams come true.