Leading in the In-between Time

“I feel both like a hospice chaplain and mid-wife.”

The pastor was responding to my question: “Your current ministry feels like, looks like a . . . . . what?” His answer resonated with our small group of clergy, so much so, we began to unpack his metaphors. Let’s continue the conversation.

Being a hospice chaplain meant to this pastor more than the standard, expected grief ministry — responding to personal losses (e.g. death of a loved one, marriage, house, job, reputation, etc.) That’s huge by itself. Grief work is at the core of what we offer, demanding attention, indeed, skillful and caring attention.

But this pastor was referring to other losses more characteristic of our time in history. You and I see and feel this truth: We serve a church losing social status. The mainline church, firmly established as a major institution for fifteen hundred years in Western civilization, is being disestablished and sidelined. A survivalist mentality, like a dark cloud, hovers over denominations, including many local churches. (Personally I welcome this disestablishment that brings us closer to the pre-Constantine Christian movement of the first centuries. A topic for another reflection.)

Some members lament, “With all these changes — in status . . . in membership . . . in worship . . . in structures . . . in programs . . . in communication — well, I feel less at home. Sometimes it seems like I’m losing my church.” Others decry changes, not only in form, but also in ideas. The familiar ways of speaking of faith are being reshaped or even displaced, as implied in one parishioner’s comment: “Pastor, it is not so much what you say in your sermons that bothers me. It is what you don’t say.”

Thus, on one hand this pastor defined himself as a hospice chaplain who honors and works with dying and death on multiple levels.

Yet, on the other hand, he sees himself as a shepherd of innovation, a midwife assisting in new birth here and there. There are new programs, new members (often with little religious background), new forms of mission, and new ways of understanding God’s movement in our time. He offers a steadying, supportive hand to these births, each carrying the promise of a new life.

Does this resonate with you as a leader in our time? Do you see yourself standing in this breach, offering leadership in a “transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born?” (Vaclav Havel) In what ways do these metaphors fit? In what ways do they not?

And, I am thinking, you are pastor or priest of one congregation. Where then is the source of oneness amid diverse pulls on time and energy? You must be asking where is the glue that holds us together? What convictions do we gather around regularly that we wager with our lives?

You seem to be in a position not unlike the one Jesus faced. He was revering and fulfilling the Torah, yet with interpretations that were like “new wine in old wineskins.” His respect for heritage that he expressed in new ways was confusing. No wonder the stewards of his tradition (in positions like ours) pressed him for clarity about essentials. Some sample responses we know like the back of our hand: “Love God and the other as yourself;” “Love as I have loved you;” “I have come that you might have life, life abundantly;” “I am the way, the truth, the life.”

Maybe there is this blessing in our time of chaotic transition. We are forced to keep clarifying the faith around which we circle. We are compelled to name our integrating core, knowing full well that the gracious Mystery we worship also defies precise definition. We are challenged to covenant and re-covenant around a Way of living, all the while resisting its codification into hardened beliefs.

I am suggesting that times of rapid change push us back to basics. They challenge us to live the essential questions: What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does faithfulness look like in our lives and life together?

How would you add to the conversation begun with the pastor’s self-understanding as hospice chaplain and midwife?

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