I was having a conversation with a group of thoughtful and creative clergy recently. “It can be hard to talk about success in the church,” one of my colleagues noted with some dismay. “Nobody wants to hear about it.”
I could feel my stomach clench as she said these words. We had been talking and sharing in our group about the amazing and successful things that people were doing in their churches. Their accounts were hopeful, exciting, inspiring. And also, that clench in the pit of my stomach affirmed in a visceral way for me the truth of her words. It’s hard to talk about success in church ministry, because it’s hard to hear about it.
I try to be someone who follows my gut. When I have that kind of reaction in my stomach, I know I need to pay attention. I can relate to my colleague’s comment. I have been part of a lot of interesting and life-giving initiatives and some traditional markers of growth in congregational development, and she is right, it can be lonely and quiet when those things are happening. Colleagues who are struggling don’t want to hear about the challenges, excitements, and discoveries of growth. It can feel like bragging when we insist on naming success out loud.
But here’s the thing: I have also tried things that don’t work, or don’t work the way I had hoped and dreamed. The last few years have been challenging and rebuilding has been slow. And all of this is hard to talk about too. “Failure,” however we may experience that in ministry, is lonely and quiet as well.
Silence in these matters is not okay. The world is changing so fast, and the place of the church in that world is on shaky and constantly shifting ground as a result. We can take very little for granted in terms of what parts of our institutional life are going to exist going forward. We know that Christ builds the church, that the Body of Christ will continue to be alive and that the community of faith will be renewed by the hand of the living God. But we don’t know exactly what that is going to look like. We can’t be faithful to the Spirit’s work or to the church that we have been asked to steward without being a people ready to learn. And we can’t learn without talking about both success and failure.
So what is holding us back from being able to do so? What is the clench in my stomach— and I would hazard to guess in others’ stomachs as well—what is it about?
It’s about competition. And competition is not unrelated to the sweep of secularism that is so changing the church’s place in society. A recent review in the Atlantic Daily of the new book, The Great DeChurching, analyzes the reasons for the ongoing exodus of North Americans from organized religion and reaches an interesting conclusion. Most haven’t left because their beliefs have changed or because of harm they have experienced at the hands of the church.
“The book suggests that the defining problem driving out most people who leave is… just how American life works in the 21st century. Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success.”
It is instead, the article claims, that we have “adopted a way of life that has left us lonely, anxious, and uncertain of how to live in community with other people.”
This societal change has a significant shrinking effect on the slice of the population interested in any way in participating in organized religion. It has an effect across churches as we essentially compete for a smaller and smaller share of the “market.” And it certainly has an effect on our being able to lay down our defenses to be able to talk honestly about what is working and what isn’t in our individual faith communities.
I find that the best way of addressing that clench in my stomach is to acknowledge that it’s there. The squeeze is declawed in a significant way by realizing why I feel this way, that I’m not alone, and that we can collectively make a choice not to stay silent. We can support and learn from one another by being clear about the context in which we find ourselves: that secularism is on the rise, institutional religion is on the decline, and we are caught up in societal changes that are not within our control. And also, we are not left powerless or orphaned. We can listen. We can learn. We can be honest. We can lean into the gift of community and the collective wisdom God has entrusted to us to share. We can lean into the gift of community as the life-giving response that it is to a world that has been left “lonely, anxious, uncertain” and driven to maximize individual accomplishment over and against common life.
The lie of thinking that we are alone in either our success or failure is in imagining that what I do, or what an individual community does, is just about me or it. None of us is meant to figure this out alone, and none of it is ultimately about building up any individual unit—person or congregation. It’s about us and what God is doing in us, what God is doing in us for the sake of the world. It matters that we listen to one another so that we can be faithful to that calling and identity. It’s in the gift of community that we can unclench our stomachs, talk about what it really going on, and bring our successes