Last week, the Central States Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America held its annual Bishop's Convocation, which is your typical professional leaders' conference. The bishop chooses a topic, invites speakers, and we learn and worship and play for three days.
I love the Bishop's Convo, for a whole bunch of reasons. There are often very good speakers; it's a pretty laid-back affair; there's the Area 7 "hospitality" room (that's church speak for food and drink of the most delightful kinds); you get to go to the Lake of the Ozarks in the middle of fall, which is nice; and I like seeing everyone.
It's always a little scary to go to Convo, since I know everyone isn't always glad to see me. Inevitably there will be someone who stands up on the floor and expounds upon our call to hold people's sinful feet (and other parts) to the fire. The year we talked about "sexuality" (which is church speak for "homosexuality"), I couldn't quite make it through the last session. My dear friend and colleague Tim--who is currently on internship in Oregon--came with me that year, and we made it until the last day, when we felt that our dignity had been attacked quite enough, thank you very much. So we left an hour early and had a fabulous ride home, complete with show tunes and a wrong turn through Gravois Mills, Missouri, where the Baptist Church had on its sign out front: "Homosexuality is an abomination." We stopped and took a picture of Tim by the sign, looking as gay as possible, and another picture of the wrought iron words along the stair rail: "All are welcome."
Yeah, sometimes churches are bad at irony. Or really good at it, but unaware they're practicing it.
Case in point: The people who lead the church of Jesus Christ are pretty cynical about the church and the world. I know some cynicism is going to be the order of the day when you're in a profession that asks you to be equal parts fundraiser, counselor, volunteer coordinator, community leader and proclaimer of the gospel. Most of our pastors are underpaid and overworked. And when we get together all by ourselves, there's gonna be some whining.
But, hello? Were there people who went to seminary thinking they were going to work a standard forty hour week and make a barrel of money? We joked about weird hours and bad pay for four years, even as we borrowed money we could ill afford to pay back. That's what you sign up for. As Niki's friend Lisa P would say, "Build a bridge. Get over it."
What is more troubling to me, though, is listening to people talk about "The Church" as the place where people just want to be spoon-fed "feel-good" messages and not asked to do much.
I don't find that to be the case. At least not in my parish. I'm willing to bet that it isn't the case in most of our parishes. I think most of our parishoners want to be challenged by the gospel, to hear the call of Jesus as a mission for their lives. I know the folks I preach to each week do. I know the folks in most of the churches in town with which I'm acquainted do.
I think there's a kind of fatalism creeping across the church today. We're struggling--financially and spiritually--and folks are growing weary. To hear some of them talk, the sky is falling on us. People are chasing after the idols of money and cable television, and soccer is played Sunday mornings on suburban fields across the U. S. The church is no longer at the center of community life. It's no longer a given that people will be in church on Sunday morning.
Unless we give them a reason to be there. Unless we offer them something they can't get on a soccer field or a television. The church has something no other institution or pursuit has: it has Jesus. It has the witness of the apostles. It has the ability to create communities of the gospel. You can't get that anywhere else. You can't get someone to love you as neighbor, the way Jesus taught us to love each other, anywhere else.
I think it's pretty important for the people who lead Christ's church to practice that kind of love for their people. Both their parishoners and the people who walk by their doors. I think it's pretty important for us to speak and act lovingly, even when we're in the safe space of a professional leaders' conference.
Doubtless it could be said, "physician heal thyself." Some of the cynical words I heard at the Convo were coming out of my own mouth. My cynicism tends to be directed primarily at the world, okay, the world of Washington DC, mainly, but still it is probably counter-productive. I'm going to work on that. And I'm going to pray for us all, that we'll find the courage to lead with love, to practice the kind of acceptance we see modeled by our Lord. That we'll be a little less anxious about the future, and a little more trusting in God's promise.
Feel free to call me on it, too. I don't mind my feet being held to that particular fire.