Thursday, March 31, 2016

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want, but If You Try Sometimes…” – Part Two: Some Thoughts on the Assets and Liabilities of Small-Church Spirituality (Part One Examined the Parallel Issues in Small-Town Medicine)

In part one, we explored some of the issues affecting the quality and availability of healthcare in low density population areas like the Intermountain Area of northern California. These include the following: (1) An inattention to detail that can result in patients receiving less than, other than, or simply none of the care they require to be restored to physical health. (2) The attraction of lower-priced alternatives to shopping locally for pharmacy services, leaving communities without the availability of occasionally necessary medications like antibiotics and other temporary symptom-relief measures. (3) The tendency of healthcare staff members to see patients more as a commodity that provides employees with job security, rather than being at least paying customers with distinct needs for quality service. (4) An amazing dedication displayed by individuals within the system whose thoughtfulness, creativity, persistence, and awareness of the human personhood of their patients manages to bring about the right results in the midst of an untrustworthy, and sometimes dangerously dysfunctional system.

As I suggested earlier, each of these traits finds a parallel in small-church spirituality, and I find a strong correlation to both the assets and liabilities they represent. Here are some thoughts about that.

The Lone-Ranger’s Ministry: Small-Church Spirituality and an Insufficient Focus
I am not the only solo pastor who sees the irony in being asked to devote twenty percent of our time to each of the six to ten elements of our position descriptions. Neither am I alone in feeling very alone when just one or two of the elements require our attention for a majority of the 168 hours we are allotted in a given week. The frequent result that costs us what little of that schedule would otherwise allow restful sleep is this: in our best-managed weeks, there are far many more details in need of attention than there is attention available to devote to them. Unless, of course, some of those essential details are effectively delegated. Ironically, it is by allowing others to participate in ministry responsibilities that provides greater growth and health in the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-16) But just as misfiled medical records can be deadly, local congregations, extended families, and individual human persons find their spiritual health declining for no other reason than they are missing certain basic elements necessary to barely sustaining, much less strengthening them.

One-Stop Shopping: Small-Church Spirituality and Mesmerizing Mega-Churches
For some, it is the occasional trek to a larger community and the larger churches to be found there. I cannot deny that there are several worship bands that perform far more professionally than any available in our remote rural area. The focus of a multi-staff church’s “teaching pastor” whose primary job description is to prepare and present sermons will almost always provide more polished preaching than the jack-of-all-trades general practitioner filling all pastoral roles in a small rural congregation. The economy of scale in larger religious organizations means that there are enough potential attendees to justify narrow, niche-marketed ministries to those with characteristics or affinities that guarantee that everyone else in their gatherings will be very much like them (and thus very likely to like them). But just as shopping elsewhere for routine medical services threatens to leave patients without the immediate and personalized care they will almost certainly require, a similar pattern befalls those in smaller churches and communities who find themselves in sudden need. Mega-Church pastors seldom make housecalls and hospital visits, even within the immediate neighborhood of their church’s location. Ministry to the bereaved, the substance-abuser, the traumatized, or even the recently engaged is most often requested of the pastors serving churches that are closest geographically, but who are not at all close relationally to those they have never seen in a Sunday morning pew. (And this viewpoint ignores entirely the impossibility of one-on-one ministry with pastors known only through their broadcast personality.)

Budding Beginners and Experienced Elders: Small-Church Spirituality and the Horrors of Hirelings
It is not, of course, only those in the pews (or not) whose habits are devastating to small churches. Those called to pastor in rural parishes, especially, tend to fall into two categories. First, chronologically speaking, are those with wet ink on their diplomas, degrees, licenses, or ordination papers. Denominations with insufficient multi-staff church positions for the newest, freshest, most inexperienced ministers use a variety of disparaging terms for both these pastors and the congregations they serve. Likewise, most of those younger pastors have heard not only the disparaging terms, but the pattern expected of them, if they are to survive long in the ranks of professional career pastors. But at the other end of the longevity spectrum, there are many pastors who have served for decades without retirement plans, sufficient wages to build-up savings accounts, or even the equity of home ownership as they have moved from parsonage to parsonage, or been consigned to a rotations of rentals by their lack of employment stability. Those well beyond retirement age can sometimes rely on their wisdom and experience to make up for a lack of energy, or a perceived lack of relevance to “today’s young families.” But both the “whippersnappers and fogeys” who fill many rural pulpits share one critical characteristic that dooms their congregations to constant recycling through the pastoral-search process. The shared trait is this: they will be moving on soon. Those in their first pastorate will soon be lured away to the next rung on the corporate career ladder. Those with decades of experience will soon be called home to Jesus, or at least away from effective ministry by some combination of infirmity, illness, or injury. In either case, and too many others in between, the focus is not on serving the congregation and community, but on the ongoing development of the minister, the growing needs of their family, the enticements of the next available opportunities, or their desire to comfortably finish their final chapter.

Exceptions to the Rule: Small-Church Spirituality and the Idealism of Interconnected Individuals
In part one, we celebrated individuals within the healthcare system who looked beyond their official job descriptions, their personal inconvenience, and “reasonably competent service” in order to focus on the needs of patients. Here, I want to acknowledge that my preference for small-church spirituality is based on similar observations. Where there are not seminary-trained specialists in narrow fields of ministry to specifically-segregated groups of consumers, there is a greater reliance on other resources. Among these, the Holy Spirit is most trustworthy. But a broader scripture knowledge is also in evidence, and quite helpful among those seeking what Jesus would have them to do…when there is not a staff member already assigned to the responsibilities in that area. Third, beyond the work of the Holy Spirit and the trustworthiness of scripture, there is the interrelated workings of members within the body of Christ that is necessitated by the utter lack of paid professionals on-scene in most circumstances. Last in this list, for several reasons, but still of great importance to the health and strength of small churches, especially in remote, rural, low density population areas, is the willingness of committed shepherds to stand firm and stay put, doing whatever is necessary to overcome the dangers and damage that accrues from the horrible rotation of hirelings that has destroyed not only individual congregations (the list of extinct churches in our area continues to grow) but devastated the testimony of the gospel.

So, to those members of the body of Christ who choose to attend, participate, and serve in the local communities to which God has called them, and to those pastors who resist the temptations to build careers rather than congregations: May God bless you by allowing you to see an effective fellowship in which every good thing in each of us is shared fully with all of us. (Philemon 6)

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