This post comes after having several conversations with pastors both within and outside of our presbytery in recent weeks. It seems that pastors are very aware that whatever it is that is coming is going to call them to deepen their skills, shift their focus, and learn to be a new kind of pastor. Quite honestly, this is delighting some and making others more than a little anxious.
First to those who are delighted.
The pattern seems to be that pastors whose sense of call extends beyond Sunday morning worship are almost giddy with enthusiasm at the prospect of the “reinvention of the church.” In recent years, NEXT Church and church consultants have hinted that the pastors of the future will be as much community organizers as preachers/teachers. In a denomination that is in a membership free fall this makes sense. Community organizing takes pastors out into the community, whereas preaching and teaching (especially in a denomination not known for evangelizing) largely assumes the community will come to them.
Now to those who are anxious.
But for every pastor who seems delighted by what is coming, there are at least two or three who are anxious, to put it mildly. One pastor, who retired a few years ago, confided in me, “It looks like I got out just in time.” He shared with me how the prospect of trying to lead a church through a structural shift puts the fear of God into him, so to speak. His gift was always his deep scholarship and he wondered aloud if his gifts were now too dated for the church.
A number of other pastors have expressed nervousness as they have peered over the horizon of what the church will need post-pandemic. More than once I have heard, “I don’t think I am the right person to lead the church through this time.” A common theme seems to be emerging. Those of us trained in the seminary at a time when preaching and teaching was the central focus are feeling increasingly sidelined. Many of us were educated when the pastor expected to be the “theologian in residence.” Now that often feels like a luxury.
The world has shifted. The church has changed.
My bookshelf reflects this shift. During the first decade of my ministry my books primarily centered on theology, preaching, Bible commentaries, and historical reference books. But those books looked increasingly lonely as I had to build new shelves for books on family systems theory, adaptive change, organizational development, church growth, generational theory, American religious trends, cultural studies, and demographic studies.
Believe me this was not necessarily by choice. It felt imposed on me as I realized that my love of preaching and teaching would have no place if there was no church. Increasingly, issues related to institutional survival took as much or more time than the time I focused on the actual mission of the church. Simply put, the vehicle for sharing the gospel begged for more attention than the gospel itself.
I write all of this to you because the conversations I am having are telling me that we are at a threshold moment. The looming portent of the post-pandemic church is holding a mirror up to the presbytery and the calling of its pastors. Quite honestly, we have some who are discerning whether they have the skills and the energy to lead the church into a new time and new form. We have others who are relieved that we are finally at this moment. We have still others who are tired, but trusting that God will give them what they need when they need it.
My message to the presbytery is this: Trust the shifting that is taking place in our churches and our leadership. Each pastor and each church will need to be honest with themselves about their sense of call, their energy and the resources they have available to live into the post-pandemic church.
Some pastors and churches will bow out. Other pastors and churches will step up. Still others will show less intentionality and neither bow out or step up, but will allow God to transform them one important decision at a time.
But, together, as a body, we will survive.
We will thrive.
We will look different.
We will be different.
And Easter will have worked her magic once again!
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades