Seven Lessons I've Learned as a Pastor of a Congregation That "Gets It"
Eleven years ago today, I walked back into a church as a pastor—an identity I thought I’d successfully left behind. The ending of my previous ministry left such a bad taste in my mouth that I vowed never to work in the church again.
But then Douglass Blvd. Christian Church called.
I had two reasons for returning to work in a congregation: 1) I had done a short interim for DBCC previously, and they were incredibly kind and supportive, and 2) I needed the money. (I know that sounds mercenary, but I’m committed to being honest.)
At the time, I’d just finished my coursework for my Ph.D. in humanities at the University of Louisville, and I was in the midst of mapping out my future as a professor. DBCC asked me to come hold the fort as they searched for a new pastor. The timing couldn’t have worked out better.
I never intended to stay beyond 12-18 months, which I figured would be enough time for them to find someone else and for me to complete my comprehensive exams and get a start on my dissertation.
As it turned out, DBCC proved to be so interesting that within six months, I decided I didn’t want to leave. They were unlike any congregation I’d ever worked with. Perhaps the best way for me to describe the people is to say that they weren’t afraid of trying new things (sometimes outlandishly improbable new things)—which is a way of saying, they weren’t afraid to fail—which, itself, is another way of saying, they weren’t afraid to die.
They didn’t *want* to die, necessarily. But they had made peace with it.
In my experience, institutions—especially 165 year-old institutions—are acutely risk-averse. They tend to make decisions based more on what will piss off the fewest number of people. DBCC, while never setting out to make anyone angry, has refused to balk at a decision because someone might be. They have always struck me as the kind of community prepared to make choices based less on the potential negative consequences than on whether any particular decision was the right thing to do.
I’d always thought such a congregation was (at least theoretically) possible—indeed preferable—I’d just never encountered one in the wild. DBCC convinced me that the church isn’t destined to find its purpose in institutional preservation, but can be a community recklessly devoted to the prospect that following Jesus and loving the people he loved is the only way the church is able to be faithful to Jesus and the radical reign of God he announced.
I grew up believing that church was the place people went to get their personal lives in order in an attempt to ensure their eternal safety. I thought of it as a place one tried to persuade people to come to to find God. The outlandish Jesus I found at DBCC, however, convinced me that the church is a community of people looking to go out and be where everyone else already is—and then embody the revolutionary impulse of Jesus to prepare the way for a new creation in which everyone who’s been left behind will be escorted to the front of the line.
Being a pastor again has shown me that church isn’t a place to “make people right,” as much as it’s a launching pad into the world to help realize a new way of living together with everyone as children of God.
I’ve discovered that our job isn’t to make the world a little bit more like the church, since the church, in many ways, is just as broken. Our job is to be the good news that God wants both the church and the world to conform to God’s vision of new realm—a realm where the rich and the powerful no longer occupy the center, but sit on the periphery celebrating a new order, where the poor and the powerless may finally find their place at the very heart of God’s attention.
I’ve learned over the last eleven years that the reason many people have given up on the church has less to do with Jesus than with the fact that his most publicly pious followers seem so assiduously to avoid acting like him.
I've become convinced that the measure of the church’s success has more to do with the expanse of its hospitality than with the narrowness of its cost-accounting.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the building in which we gather is a tool, a means for helping us live out our mission, instead of a museum whose best work is no longer overseen by practitioners but by memory curators.
I’ve seen that my job as pastor isn’t about dreaming up new things for people to do, and then convincing them to do them, but to help people find the voice, the resources, the courage to do that which God has challenged them to do.
It’s become clear to me that the outlandish Jesus I read about in the Gospels announces a salvation that starts now in the often grim reality of everyday life—not just in some diaphanous future to be enjoyed only after death.
The whole thing has left me in awe of the goodness of the brave and gentle people who call themselves by Jesus’ name, and grateful for the good work still in front of us.