Monday, September 15, 2008

Falling In Love

By David Horn, ThD
Director, The Ockenga Institute

This column originally appeared in the Summer 2006 edition of the Ockenga Connections.

Let’s call her Martha Kavinski. She was my first secretary at the first church I served as pastor just out of seminary. When they invented New Englanders, they carved her in New Hampshire granite and pointed to her thereafter as the model for the rest of us. She was tough as nails, she was utterly undiplomatic, and most of all, she did not like me. She met me at the stairways leading up to my office at the church on my first day, and right then and there, I felt like a first grader on the first day of class looking up at raw authority.

It did not take me long to realize that Martha was not the only one not immediately enthralled with my presence. The congregation was peppered with individuals who had been at the church a long, long time, and they wanted to make it clear to me early on that life had gone on reasonably well before I arrived and probably would go on just as well after I departed.

My experience, I am sure, is not unusual to most of you in ministry. Although my first years were not a disaster, they were not easy. Who would have thought that moving the church library to a more public location so that it actually could be used by the children of the congregation would provoke three meetings and an act of the full board of the church?

In hindsight, perhaps the only thing that saved me was what many would consider a grave liability on my part. I entered into the world of this three hundred year old church without a clear set of ambitions for the congregation. Perhaps too naïve for a clear plan, I fell back on something far more basic: Gradually, unconsciously, seemingly against my will, I found that I began to fall in love with this congregation, Martha and all.

In working with students and young pastors these past years at the seminary, I have noticed a growing trend that hints at good news and bad news. Perhaps buoyed by a cottage industry of church resources, pastors are entering their ministries with a growing awareness of the envisioning process required for healthy congregational life. That’s the good news. The bad news is that often time these well-intended visions of what a congregation should become comes with airtight, tone-death agendas.

A look at these agenda-driven processes from the inside looking out bears reflection. As a person who is now facing his mid-fifties, I can more readily fit into the skin of the long-time parishioner who has committed years of labor and well-intended, if often misguided, leadership in a church. The parishioner’s kids may have been born and nurtured in the church; he or she may have helped to develop and taken ownership of a program that at one time clearly met the needs of the congregation; he or she may have spent countless Saturday mornings toiling over the church lawn.

What does that parishioner see and feel when a pastor enters into the life of a church with a satchel full of good ideas on how his or her church needs to change. Change the worship service. Eliminate the hymnal. Get rid of a timeworn program. Re-organize the committee structure of the church. No doubt many of these things might benefit the church greatly and might be essential for new growth, both spiritually and numerically. But, on the face of it, what do these things say to those who, apparently, are in need of change?

I am convinced that churches are less in need of pastors’ well-designed agendas than their love. Falling in love with a congregation is an amazing legacy to give to a church. The measure of that love, like marriage, involves loving churches exactly as they are, with all their imperfections, before seeking more of them.

Martha died at 75 and I count one of the high moments of my ministry at that church the eulogizing of her at her funeral. We became fast friends in Christ. In the end, she saw what I saw in the subsequent six years of our ministry together. That creaky old church grew ten fold. I am convinced it changed and grew in large measure because the congregation genuinely felt loved by its pastoral staff. It is amazing what love can do when love comes without strings attached.

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