Saturday, December 26, 2009

Small church thoughts on The Feast of Stephen.

The morning's New Testament lesson for December 26th, the Feast of Saint Stephen (you know, the guy on whose day GKW looked out) my emphasis added:

"Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, 'It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.' What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith." Acts 6:1-7

  1. If you are in the Episcopal Church, or on the Northern Plains, or simply a pastor in America, the statistical odds are that you are the spiritual leader of a small church. This means you deal with all of the institution with less of the help. As SD's Bishop John Tarrant rightly observes, "If the copy machine goes down on Christmas Eve, you are the one who's supposed to 'fix it'." Contrast our small church reality with the lesson. The apostles recognize the need for spiritual leaders, devoted to the work of prayer and preaching. Diluting their work, which is what religion tends to do through institutional demands, is "neglect" and will hurt the church in the long run. Notice that the lesson starts out with the church in a period of growth - and that the decision is for spiritual leaders to be more narrowly focused rather than broadly scattered in their efforts.
  2. The only authoritative act of the apostles in this lesson is to affirm their role as ministers of the word of God. The rest of the decisions and work are entrusted to the people of the church: "Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves..." In today's small church, we invert this. "Pastor" is rewarded for dabbling in and often running almost every aspect of the congregation's life while the congregation sets the boundaries for preaching - "We like it when you talk about... we don't like it when you..." I know a couple of clergy who've dealt with this head on in their initial interviews with a congregation, by saying, "OK, if you call me here I will preach and teach. What will the rest of you do?" That's the healthy clarity and boundary-setting we see in the lesson, and congregations asked that question often find the discussion fruitful. This assumption that each person in the church has a gift and a role is Biblical and is the foundation for "Mutual Ministry" models employed in many small churches - but the model often breaks down because institutional maintenance roles are assigned without providing a leader truly "devoted to prayer and serving the word."
  3. Notice that when the healthy model is in place, with spiritual leaders praying and preaching and the rest of the church developing and carrying out applications of the word, the church gains vitality. "The word spread... the numbers grew...many became obedient to the faith." The traditional American small church, with its inward focus, managerial pastor, aging building and fading membership, is breaking down because it devotes too much of its time, talent and treasure to organizational complexity while neglecting its core mission: The proclamation of Christ by preaching and works done in his name.


Charlie Sutton said...

I just retired, largely because I could no longer stomach the theological idiocy of ECUSA - but partly because of the very thing this blog entry notes. My energy was being nibbled to death by a thousand small needs that others could have handled, and handled better.

TLF+ said...

Charlie, you might think about blogging your experience when ready... I would certainly be glad to share it here. You never know... there might be a small church's priest or laity who are helped by what you underwent.

May your retirement be blessed... but my guess is that God will put you to "work" in wonderful and unexpected ways.