By the Rev. Paul Perez, this month’s blog is part two of a series reflecting on the Michigan Conference’s Strategic Directions. It focuses on the missional and connectional challenges facing the conference.
Director of Connectional Ministry, Michigan Conference
This blog was supposed to be posted in last week’s MIconnect. But a random eye irritation, which is now much better, and several days without internet, thanks to severe weather and massive power outages, really derailed my work week. It was frustrating! For hours, I was unable to focus on my laptop screen and remained offline. As a result, I felt myself falling further and further behind and my to-do list growing.
Even now, back up to speed, I feel rushed to “put this puppy to bed” and move on thinking through the implications of the recent COVID-19 surge for fall conference programming, working on the details of about a dozen major projects about to launch, and feeling behind on all of them. I wondered, “what more should we be doing” as Michigan United Methodists for people affected by flooding in Metro-Detroit, an earthquake in Haiti, unrest in Afghanistan, in response to the recent U.N. report on climate change, not to mention the looming untying of United Methodism, all while worrying about the new school year and its impact on my kids. I could continue; the list goes on and on.
I know I am not alone. A simple scroll on social media reveals as much. Conversations with colleagues, friends, and family members confirm it. To say “we are living in challenging times” is to grossly understate living through the past 18 months.
The strategy document I shared in last month’s blog sorted these challenges into two categories, missional and connectional.
- Long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic
- Struggle to dismantle systemic racism
- Declining religious participation, growth of “no religious affiliation”
- Outdated organizational models
- Michigan Conference’s financial situation
- Denominational restructuring and split
For this blog, I will not rehash the document’s description of these challenges. Instead, I want to use this digital space to reflect on their impact. To do this, I turn to a trilogy of the theological, not the cinematic, kind.
I spent the summer working through Andrew Root’s “Ministry in a Secular Age” trilogy. Root, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, spends three volumes engaging Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s influential work on secularism and authenticity and German sociologist Hartmut Rosa’s concepts of acceleration and relevance. Focusing on “faith formation,” “the pastor,” and “the congregation,” Root offers an insightful and, for me, convicting analysis of predominately white, middle-class mainline Christianity. In his view, the immense social pressures of the contemporary moment pressure faith formation into an obsession with youthfulness as an idea and young people as resources, the pastor to become a curator of self-help resources, and the congregation to stabilize and justify itself through constant “growth” and “busyness.” The impact: alienation, burnout, and an overall despondency for clergy and congregations. Most, if not all, of us, simply can’t keep up with the unsustainable pace of constant change valued and demanded in the 21st century. Root offers theological, not technical, suggestions to address these profound pressures and challenges. Specifically, leaning into life’s difficult and painful moments with an openness to encountering God’s presence and action. Root, I think by design, is light on practicalities but, as a recipient of a recent round of Lily grants, is launching a research project to explore and experiment with putting theory into practice.
While I have some quibbles with his analysis and theologizing, I think Root is on to something. His trilogy captures the “feeling” of mainline Protestantism. “Languishing” is the term my colleague, Kathy Pittenger, uses to describe this communal sentiment. It is the impact of the challenges named above. The result of the confusion, anger, and shame “we can’t keep up” and “nothing we do seems to work anyway.”
While I am a self-described “glass half empty” kind of person, I don’t mean to be a “downer.” However, I do hope to be honest about the realities we face and their impact on us, both personally and collectively. I also believe Methodism was born in such a feeling, in such a moment.
In his younger days, John Wesley was known among his friends as “Mr. Primitive Christianity.” He earnestly longed for a return to what he imagined to be a pristine and primordial form of Christianity. So when John Oglethorpe, the governor of Georgia and man with his own utopian dreams, invited Wesley to pastor the fledgling community in Savanah, Wesley jumped at the chance, dreaming of recreating primitive Christianity among the Yamacraw and Creek peoples, who he viewed as “primitive.” Unfortunately, Wesley’s patronizing, paternalistic, and colonizing dream failed miserably. In fact, his entire pastorate was a bit of a “hot mess.” Returning to England depressed, dejected, and drifting, Wesley fell in with a group of Moravians. Searching for what was next in his life, the young Oxford don with God-sized dreams found himself sitting in a Moravian meeting listening to Luther’s Preface to the Romans. There, having been pushed beyond his limits, perhaps filled with confusion, anger, and shame, he encountered God’s grace and love in a life-changing way. Namely, Wesley knew himself as loved and saved by God, despite his failure. Justified by God even though nothing worked.
To find ourselves at a point of being “unable to keep up” when “nothing works” is to join a multitude of saints. We cannot repeat what John Wesley did at the turn of the 19th century. But we can fail well with him. To admit nothing works is to find ourselves at the end of our finite efforts and the beginning of God’s infinite grace.
There is more to be said, but it will have to wait until next month when I focus on the vision, “re-founding a Methodist movement in Michigan through new ministries in new communities.” I have some emails to write and calls to return.
A personal note: Stepping into the Director of Connectional Ministry role last October, in the midst of these global, national, and denominational challenges, has been, to say the least, difficult. On most days, the pathway forward is not clear. Doubt and uncertainty seem to always be at the edges. I’ve questioned myself, doubted my skills and decisions, wondered if all the hours of work were even making a difference.
Three things have helped me get through the last nine months: God, a coach, and a therapist. I needed help. I could not do it alone.
As I said above, I imagine I am not alone in feeling this way. I imagine most of you reading this blog have felt or are feeling overwhelmed. Please know, you are not alone. It is ok to ask for help.
Especially for my clergy and church staff colleagues, I encourage you to consider getting a coach to help you process and think through the many challenges facing contemporary ministry. I suggest beginning with the Michigan Conference’s coaching program led by Naomi García. Naomi connected me with my coach.
I also encourage you to consider reaching out to a therapist or mental health professional. We are all moving through a traumatic event that is impacting us in different ways. As leaders, we’ve also been burdened with ensuring the safety of our staff and members and attending to the short and long-term impact on our churches and organizations. Not sure where to start — if you participate in the Conference health plan, consider beginning with the Employee Assistance Program.