Thursday, March 26, 2009

broken things

I’m flying home from a meeting of our General Board of Church and Society (more about this later), in Washington, DC. The flight has been long enough to read a book I’d been wanting to read, and it moved me.

Sara Miles’ Take This Bread honors the mysterious, transformative power of sharing in the body of Christ—communion, wherever it can be found, meeting the hungers of our world. Our faith us bodily—at the center of our worship is Christ’s broken body, giving us life. Church is real when we become the bread.

I’m looking forward to our congregation’s planned community family meals at the Normal Heights church just after Easter. I’m eager and hopeful that they will be communion, too. I’ve been frustrated and disappointed with myself that it’s taken us long to get to this place where we will host them.

But, I remind myself again, that mystery is really, quite completely, beyond our control. This past week, I was playfully and seriously advocating attempts at relinquishing control. (Really, that’s already a given; I just need help remembering not to waste my time seeking after the illusion of control…)

I struggle, though, at knowing what it looks like to press on and to organize, without ever believing I’m in control. I still remember deep frustration with a then-boyfriend who refused to work on things: “It’ll work out if it’s meant to be,” he said, shrugging off my attempts to negotiate real obstacles in our relationship. I don’t ever mean to abdicate responsibility, but I do mean to tap into a confidence, power and hope that doesn’t depend on abilities alone.

At the heart of the difference is my recognition that I’m a part of God’s mystery, and a part of an unfolding story of the Church that is better than I could think up on my own.

Which, it will not surprise some of you to hear, brings me to my frustration with strategic plans, measurable outcomes and annual assessments.

My UM church is anxious about its decline, and aware of the growing burden of maintaining the structures and commitments we have in place. “Ineffective” clergy are often blamed for our problems, as we continue to lose numbers of members, and struggle to employ those we have ordained. We all know folks who we judge to be ineffective, who seem to be doing just enough to get by and wish they could afford to retire. But, really, they’re not the folks around me. The clergy I know well are dedicated, hard-working, imaginative, often-frustrated innovators, doing the best of what they can to be in faithful ministry in a compliated world.

I have this sense that we’ve created a good part of the problem. And, I think our efforts to help clarify the problem have made it worse: I blame our systems of assessment.

Periodic evaluation of our effectiveness is a good thing—self-reflection and conversation with others to talk through the ways we’ve failed and succeeded helps us grow in ministry, and remain faithful to God’s call.

Mostly, though, I think we reduce our serious evaluation to things that are easier to count and further from the heart of what gives us life. We chart changes in attendance and membership, count hours spent in continuing education opportunities, and ask what measurable objectives we have pursued.

Ministry has never seemed to me to be something I could measure in a quantitative sense: the most wondrous, transformative bits defy objective analysis. Like the oft-celebrated heart-warming experience of John Wesley, the best stuff exists just beyond our reach. Sometimes, it takes years to take root. Other times, I get to step into someone’s life just in time to see a dramatic conversion that was years and many earlier communities in the making.

To be asked to reflect on those interactions and then to fill in rather trivial, fact-like details makes me feel like the church doesn’t trust me, and also like the body of Christ has missed the point.

In the end, we have to trust each other—that what we’re doing is a part of something impossible to measure, made real in relationships and lives that cannot be quantified in objective terms. The pressure to “factify”—to reduce the unquantifiable into something that can be carefully and seemingly objectively measured—is constraining us by keeping us focused on things that don’t really matter.

Besides, I’m still on my soapbox about our distraction with anxiety over death of the United Methodist Church, all while we’re preaching freedom from our slavery to sin and death in our communion liturgy and in Christ’s resurrection.  

It's almost Holy Week.  As good a time as I know to think about brokenness, to reflect on what is at the core of our faith and practice and to make a change.  Thoughts?


karen said...

My first thought is that I think it's time for another sacramental peach, but I yearn for it before August!

eshams said...

Amen to the destructive power of assessments. In my local church, this part of the church's "care" is experienced as abuse or neglect; I'm not sure what's worse. There are definitely those who blame the decline of the church on UM bureaucracy. Smart, invested lay leadership can't even understand what's being asked of them, let alone meet it.

Coconutbug said...

take this bread is the best theological work i've read in a long time, maybe ever. right now, i'm working on proverbs of ashes, which is also really wonderful. if you haven't read it, i think you would appreciate it. :)