Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Them or us. . .

There was a time when I was growing up that folks hardly used the term "them" in relation to other congregations in the region, the district, or the Synod at large.  There was a commonality both of identity and purpose that encouraged people to see the various venues of the church's life as complementary and not competitive.  For example, the circuit of my home parish participated in an annual lay school of theology that had a week of classes annually to explore Scripture and theological topics in some depth.  The local clergy serving those congregations and a few experts brought in from outside served as the faculty.

Today we find fewer places where this brotherhood of parishes remains as vital.  In place of the complementary relationships, congregations have learned to compete with one another for what they often describe as a "shrinking" pool of people or, perhaps, an "aging" pool of existing Lutherans.  Maybe some of this is the inevitable result of some historical conflict (in the LCMS it dates back to the early 1970s).  Maybe some of it is due to the natural inclination to circle the wagons when one sees enemies or threats on the horizon.  Maybe some of it has filtered in from the increasingly self-centered nature of our lives as individuals.  I am sure there are many causes but the very times when we should be working together, we seem to more inclined to go solo.

For the medium to large size congregation, the desire is more to manage their own mission outreach than to partner with the national church body.  Congregations want to own their mission and this includes not only foreign missions but also everything from mission trips (within the US) to mission starts.  We have seen these congregations desire to begin satellite sites just down the block from an existing parish of their own denomination.  They believe that they can do better as an extension of their own identity and work than a partnership or sponsorship of such work.

For the smaller congregation, the medium to large size parish is a threat.  They often appear to be like a steam roller that will roll right over and swallow up the prospects of the smaller parish.  For example, I have heard folks lament that they cannot compete with a medium to large size congregation -- especially in the area of youth, young adults, singles, etc...

Both the smaller and larger parishes often share a suspicion about district judicatories and national church structures.  These folks are nearly always "them" to the folks in the pews.  Districts and Synods are entities always with their hands out in search of money that congregations of all sizes do not want to give OR entities with their hands out to control the local freedom of the parishes to do things the way they want to do them.  Perhaps there is some truth to this but it was not always so easy to characterize our life together as we and them.  This shows up in the area of finances and nearly every denomination reports income to national and district judicatories is down or, at best, flat.  People seem to value local projects and causes over those nationally or district wide  --  unless of course it is locally directed.

All I am saying is that this characterization of us and them is self-destructive.  It will tear down the good purposes of organizing and working together and it will eventually isolate and weaken the parishes themselves.  We need to figure out how to rekindle a common identity as congregations together in regions and even nationally.  I believe that this will be the fruit not of programs or even conversation (alone) but the renewal of our confessional identities as Lutherans (or Methodists, fill in the blank).  Renewing our identity with our confessional past is not the glorification of yesterday but the reminder of who we are, what we believe, and what bound us together in the first place.  Unfortunately, who we are, what we believe, confess, and teach, and what bound us together in the first place are far from the radar of the people and agendas of our congregations today.  It is also one reason why we find it easier to seek out and adapt the ideas of those whose theology conflicts with our own than to renew ourselves by working together.

It has become too easy to go our own way both theologically and in mission.  The result is that we are weaker as a church and are made up of weaker congregations.  We need to rediscover the joy of our common confession and our common mission.

1 comment:

Padre Dave said...

Father Peters, you make a very valid, though unfortunate point. I serve a small, in decline but not declined, parish in a large metro area in the Southwest. I've been advocating an "us" attitude in a group that has been very much into a "them" model. In 8 years it has been a truly uphill battle with some small amounts of progress evident.

The largest challenge for me has been the relationship with the District, who prior to my arrival sent a consultant that informed the congregation will surely die in 10 years unless they go to "Ministry Teams", putting the pipe organ into storage or sale and replace it with a praise band, etc. I came in with just the opposite pastoral counsel and we have stabilized as a parish that puts all of our effort into Liturgical Worship with excellent use of the very good pipe organ, thank you very much.

This caused deep resentment against the District, which we have gradually put behind us. When we began to give to the District on a regular basis, there was no "thank you" or recognition by them, but I insisted that we persist because it is our duty, not for the positive feedback that still has not come in 6 years.

We are in the process of doing something completely outside the box: we are merging with our association Lutheran High School which has been leasing our land on a 99 year lease for about 10 years now. By merging and becoming "a school with a church" we give our school the ability to borrow money from LCEF for much needed classrooms (we're living in trailers that have been patched together) as owners of the land. The school & church will Call my successor who will be a Theology teacher and Pastor of the Campus including the Church. As a faculty member, he will be compensated with a living salary and benefit package. All good stuff.

Long way of saying that moving from an us vs. them, be it the church vs the school, the church vs the District etc. By God's grace we are seeing more "us" and less "them".