Transition: What to Do and How to Do It
The Holy Spirit works in mysterious and very helpful ways, for I could not have found two better scriptures for our transition reflection today than our epistle and gospel. They are perfect for where we are and what we need to talk about today.
The gospel tells us what to do, and the epistle tells us how to do it.
A priest who supervised me when I first got ordained told me that families are more who they are than ever at weddings and funerals.
What he meant was that in moments of life and death, all of their best qualities are exaggerated, but so too are all of their worst.
In times of transition, old fights and grudges reemerge, but so too do forgotten depths of courage and insight and grace.
I have found that this dynamic is true for church families as well.
So don’t be surprised if in the next few weeks and months, the fight about taking down the old stained glass window above the altar at St. Luke’s comes back, or the question of who exactly had the idea of taking down the altar rail at St. Thomas and moving the font up to the front.
As anxiety levels rise in transition, we start to get territorial.
This is my ministry, my area, my pet project, my meeting, my idea about how our church should go forward.
We start to take ownership, false ownership, over things and ideas and people.
It may help to damp down our anxiety, but it will not help our church at all, in the short term or in the long run.
A man in the gospel falls right into this trap.
“Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’”
When we love our church, and when we are faithful to our church, it is very easy to start acting like we own our church.
No one in this room owns St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
Not me, not the senior or junior wardens, not the Vestry, not the people who’ve attended here for forty years and not the people who’ve attended for four months.
We all have an equal share in talking about how this church moves forward, and we have to actively pursue making every voice heard and every person’s discernment valued.
And if we enter into transition with the idea that we as individuals know what’s best for the church and we just need to convince everyone else, or enough powerful leaders, of our plan, Jesus will not participate in that. He said so in our gospel.
When we start acting in these negative ways, acting like we own the church and we’re the only ones with the right answers, rarely is that behavior driven by malice.
It’s almost always driven by anxiety, by fear and uncertainty about what’s going to happen next.
We don’t know what’s going to happen next, so we try to exert control over our surroundings.
It’s a very human response—the man in our gospel does it himself.
He plans to build bigger barns to house his crops so he can relax and quit worrying about the future.
“Bigger barns are the solution!” he cried.
“A full-time priest is the solution!” we might cry.
“Breaking up with St. Thomas is the solution!” someone says.
“No, staying with St. Thomas is the solution!” someone else says.
“No, breaking away from the diocese and starting a commune together is the solution!” someone else says.
One of those options might indeed be the solution, but not because you or I as individuals think it is and insist it is.
(Although I hope if you choose the commune option, you take lots of pictures and send them to me in Zionsville.)
We will come to good solutions together, by spending time in prayer and discernment, by remembering our true priorities.
Because here’s one of the most important lessons of transition: it’s not what you choose to do that will ultimately matter the most for the future of St. Luke’s. It’s how you choose to do it.
Any and all of those options could help you share the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is your call and your purpose.
But if you push through the “right” ministry model without regard for how you treat each other in the process, your spiritual integrity will be deeply compromised, and sooner or later this church will fall apart.
What is the church, after all, but a collection of people in relationship with Jesus Christ and one another?
Your call in the midst of transition is to tend to your relationships with each other with tenderness, patience, forbearance, and love.
If you do that, it really doesn’t matter what ministry model you end up with, because you will enter into it with deeper faith and a stronger life together.
Paul speaks to this directly in our letter to the Colossians.
“Now you must get rid of all such things– anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
Right now in the thick of the transition, the only thing that seems to matter is what we do next.
What ministry model should we choose, should we have an interim or not, should we break up or stay together, how much money should we spend?
Paul tells us that it is not what we do that matters, it is who we are.
And who we are is expressed by how we treat each other.
In these moments when our future is uncertain, the rubber really hits the road in our discipleship.
As you talk about what to do next, and later on, which priest to bring on board as you get candidates, remind yourself over and over again that what you do is not as important as who you are.
When that Bishop’s Committee/Vestry member makes the case that our budget is totally unsustainable and you think that’s bogus, will you lash out, or will you see underneath that person’s bluster and high-handedness to the true love of the church driving her?
When a fellow parishioner starts badmouthing a priest or diocesan canon, will you join in or will you find something positive to say?
When someone storms off and isn’t seen at the church for weeks, will you say, “serves them right, let them stew in their own juice,” or will you reach out and tell that person he’s loved and he’s missed?
When someone acts like a bully and dominates the discussion, will you allow the behavior to continue while you silently seethe and withdraw, or will you calmly and lovingly speak with that person in private and ask to think together about how you all could speak and act more helpfully?
In times of change, our feelings and emotions are heightened. That’s okay.
What we have to remember is that while we can’t choose our feelings, we can always choose our behaviors, and if we choose wrongly, we can always apologize and makes amends.
Here’s what I’m really driving at and what I hope you take away from this.
The most natural thing in the world for us as a church in transition is to feel driven to ensure our security, and if we don’t pay attention, that drive for security will cause us to treat one another badly.
That fear and anxiety rise up, and suddenly we’re acting out Paul’s list of bad practices: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.
The reason that happens is that we do exactly as the man in our gospel does: we put our hope for security in the wrong place.
He believes bigger barns will bring him security.
We believe a full-time priest will bring us security, or just finding a priest who’s better at pastoral care, or just finding a different church to partner with, or just having a different diocesan canon to work with, or just having a different senior or junior warden, or just spending more money, or just spending less money, or just having more young families, or just having different music…you get the picture.
These options are not where you should place your faith, and getting enough people to agree to which one of them you personally like best will not ensure the future of St. Luke’s or alleviate your anxiety for anything but the very short term.
All of these plans and fighting over these plans is storing up treasure on earth rather than treasure in heaven.
As I said, you will have to settle on one or more of those options as a strictly practical fact.
But where I encourage you to focus your energy is not on what plan to adopt as a church, but how to treat one another and how to listen for the call to ministry God has placed in your hearts.
So we’ve talked a lot about how we can go wrong in transition, so now to the already intense anxiety of transition, we can add another layer of “turning out to be jerks in transition and wrecking the whole church.”
But after taking all of that into account, I am here with what I always try to bring you from the pulpit: the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Remember at the beginning when I said in that at funerals and weddings families are more who they are than ever?
Right now we are in the middle of the funeral of my time with you and the wedding of this church to its own bright future.
And as you watch for your own worst qualities and seek to navigate through them, watch for your own best qualities to come shining through as well, and make the most of them.
This church is so full of grace and potential.
I look around this nave and I see so many gifts. I see kindness, and I see hope. I see creativity and forgiveness and generosity. I see faithfulness and I see fellowship and I see love.
Take Paul’s words to heart: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
Think about your absolute worst fear for St. Luke’s going forward. It’s probably somewhere along the lines of the church closing its doors in the next few years and everyone leaving angrily and never talking to each other again.
First of all, I am quite certain that is not going to happen because you are a healthy, growing church.
But even if it did, it would not be the end of the story.
You will face smaller deaths, the death of our time together, the death of some possibilities or traditions or perhaps your personal plan for how the church should go forward, but as Christians, we need have no fear of death.
You are way ahead of the game. You already know death, and you know that resurrection is always the next step.
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
This is your task in the next weeks and months: to go bravely and faithfully into the future, knowing that you need not fear death of any kind, because your life is Christ, who is being revealed in you.
This is the truth. This is your strength.
When I tell you that who you are matters more than what you do, this is who you are: you are the Body of Christ, being revealed in glory to a world who needs you.
Stake yourselves on that, and you will be rich toward God, as Jesus says in our gospel.
Your fear will fade, your faith will rise, and you will do amazing things.
I will not be here to see it, but I will be giving thanks for it from a few counties away.
You will be more who you truly are than ever before, and you will bring joy to the heart of God.
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