I am on vacation this month, and as always, extremely grateful for a vocation that allows me to take a large chunk of time away. I find myself so refreshed and rested when I get back to my regular life - I have a new perspective on a lot of things, and can look at old problems in new ways upon my return. Also, being really gone helps me remember that I am not actually that important. I am dedicated to my work, and I believe I have gifts to give, but really, the world still turns in my absence. I remember that God is in charge.That's a good feeling. Sometimes I wonder if stalwart church leaders ever really get that feeling when it comes to their ministry. When I ask members of congregations about their ministry, I often hear variations on these themes: 'if I don't do it, nobody will'; 'it is hard to find new leadership, everyone is busy'; 'I am dedicated, but I am tired.' In addition, in these congregations, I often get the impression that church members have little or no idea what is going on in other churches around them - other congregations of the same denomination in the same town, or neighboring churches of other denominations. It is as if we are all hunkered down, doing our own work, never looking up or taking a break. Because what would happen if we stopped?
I think this is an excellent question to ask. I even think this is an invitation for all of us, on occasion, to get out of our churches. And I don't mean just taking some time at the beach (although that is nice) or having an outdoor service (ditto). Instead, I am wondering what would happen if we all took the time, occasionally, to sit in someone else's pews. To worship with another denomination. To visit that cute chapel that we drive by every Sunday and have always wondered about. To be the stranger instead of the one offering hospitality.
In fact, I am starting to wonder if everyone who is part of any congregation shouldn't, as part of their ministry, take 3 months of sabbatical for every five years they have been members. Spend 12 Sundays as part of another worshiping community. Or several others. How might it effect our own individual ministry, and the ministry of our community?
It might give us a new perspective. One of the things that has surprised me most about my own ministry of traveling to different churches every Sunday is that most congregations think they are both unique and alone, when they are, in fact, neither. Yes, they are special - they are filled with individuals who each have their own stories and they each, as a community, have their own ways of worshiping God. But the challenges, and the joys, of everyday ministry in each place are often very much the same. I have found that the size or location of a congregation doesn't even matter that much. We have more in common than we realize, especially in our concerns about buildings, money, new ministry, bringing new people in, etc. When I share this in churches, they are usually both surprised and relieved, and they often express that they feel less alone. We really are the Body of Christ, and we really cannot say to the eye, 'I have no need of you,' or, 'I do not know you,' if we are the ear. Finding this out for ourselves can change us, in wonderful ways.
Things would get done without us. One of the most common challenges that parishioners share with me is the lack of leadership turnover in congregations. Some people will say, 'no one new will step up into leadership roles,' while others, often in the same place, will say, 'the older leaders will not give up their positions'! Both statements are undoubtedly true, and that is the difficulty. Established leaders do an enormous amount of work in most congregations. AND they are tired and wish for more help. AND they can have a hard time letting go of 'the way we have always done things.' Taking a bit of a break from their own congregation can give leaders a clear sense of who is willing to step up in their absence, which is a good way to realize that we are each beloved children of God for who we are, not what we do.
Some things won't get done without us. And, of course, inevitably, some things will not get done in the absence of the leader who has always made sure that it would. This is also, probably, good news. We are a resurrection people in the Resurrection business. Resurrection assumes death. And yet, as members of established congregations, we can get extremely attached to certain things happening in certain ways - the pancake supper every year, Lessons & Carols with certain hymns and on a certain night, etc. - that it can be hard to let them go, even if it turns out there is little energy anymore for this one specific thing. Or one person who exhausts themselves making it happen. Maybe if it didn't happen just this one year, because the leader was away learning about other congregations, a deeper conversation could occur about which ministries are truly life-giving and Gospel-sharing, and which may be ready for elimination or transformation.
There could be 'cross-pollination.' In the meantime, while tired leaders are checking out other churches, they may well learn some new things. We are not unique but we are different. I am amazed at the array of possibilities for presenting our offerings, as each church seems to do this a bit differently. Or announcements. Or other customs before and after worship. Or new ministries in the world. People sitting in unfamiliar pews learn about these things. They also learn, maybe for the first time in a long time, what it feels like to come in blind to a new place - how they are greeted, whether the service starts on time, how easy it is to follow worship, whether they can find things or feel like coming back. All of these things have an effect on us and follow us back to our own communities. This is a great way to turn a lovingly critical eye on our regular worshiping community, and also to share new ideas, with both our 'home' and 'visiting' congregations.
Everyone comes back 'home'. When I suggest to congregations that there should be a sabbatical for longtime members and leaders, I am often met with an underlying anxiety and resistance, either overtly or covertly: 'What if they don't come back?' I think that congregations, especially in the same denomination and in the same community have a deep, unspoken sense of competition - that we will 'lose' or 'gain' members from each other. I have even heard people, usually jokingly, say, 'we won one from the Roman Catholics' or, 'we scored a Methodist'. But the sentiment underneath this is not really funny, especially not today. It really is time, with so much universal struggle for identity and mission in the institutional church, for us to realize we are all on the same team. We all have the same mission to follow Jesus. That being said, the chances are truly excellent that any given long-term member of a congregation who spends a few weeks with the church down the block will come back to the place they have considered 'family' for years.
Except the ones who stay away. Having said that, of course, some folks will inevitably visit other congregations and decide that another one suits them better. But is this not also excellent news? Since we are all missioners of the same Gospel, should we not each find a place that stirs us in worship and ministry? That energizes us in our faith? I see far too many congregations where unhappy people continue to worship in a place that makes them more unhappy, out of inertia or ignorance of other communities or fear of disappointing others. Taking some structured time away, and having that lead to more productive ministry, seems like the ultimate win-win for the church.
So often, I challenge congregations to get outside of the doors of their churches, and they seem perplexed about how to do this. There are lots of ways, of course, but one extremely simple one is to walk in the door of someone else's church for a little while. And, of course, welcome those from other congregations who might be taking their 'sabbatical' with you. This may seem like a small thing, but I believe it could have a huge impact on the life, energy, and mission of our congregations. Summer is an excellent time to try this, but of course it works anytime. Sometimes the best work we do for the Lord is not work at all, it is worship and rest. What better time to discover this than now?