From fail-safe to safe-fail

Texts: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 (like a thief in the night), Matthew 25:14-30 (the parable of the landowner and three workers)

This week, I’ve been thinking about ministry even more than usual. Last Sunday evening, I preached at a covenanting service between Trinity United Church, Edmonton Presbytery, and Trinity’s new minister, Rev. Heather Landry. My theme was ministry in the context of the Comprehensive Review of the United Church of Canada, a process which is now in its third and final year.

This weekend, the Comprehensive Review Task Group is presenting its final report to the General Council Executive in Toronto. After this meeting, the report and its recommendations will be published for all of us to read and discuss in the lead up to next year’s General Council meeting in Corner Brook, Newfoundland.

Then on Wednesday and Thursday, I sat in a circle with nine other ministers in St. Albert at an orientation event for United Church ministers new to Alberta. There are many reasons why I appreciated this event. One was the presence of Monica Rossborough who was ordained into ministry at Athabasca United Church last May after discerning a call to ministry here at Mill Woods United. I am delighted to have had a chance to get to know Monica better.

Both in St. Albert and at Trinity, I argued that this as exciting time to be in ministry. Most churches are shrinking, which distresses us. But the decline of church also points to big shifts and new possibilities. God’s Grace can be found in our decline, I believe. Today, I reflect on how our two readings from the Bible might point to this good news.

As on many Sundays over the past 12 months, we just heard Jesus tell a parable that ends with much wailing and the grinding of teeth. In this Church Year, we focus on the Gospel of Matthew; and God’s punishment is much more evident in Matthew than in the other three accounts of Jesus’ ministry. Next Sunday the Church Year ends, which means that it will then be two years before we hear again Matthew’s version of one of Jesus’ parables, to which I say, thanks be to God!

Next week, I will try to tackle the judgement and punishment so prevalent in Matthew. This week, I focus on the tension between our desire to risk everything for love and our desire for security.

St. Paul writes about people who say that “there is peace and security” but who are overwhelmed by destruction when God comes to judge. And Jesus’ Parable of the Landowner and Three Workers heaps scorn upon the one who treats his master’s wealth with caution.

Like so many of Jesus’ parables, the meaning of this one is not perfectly clear to me. I am surprised that it suggests that the cautious worker should have at least invested the money in a bank to earn interest. Many people during the time of Jesus considered bank interest to be a sin.

Does the Parable mean that maximizing return on investment is what the realm of heaven is like? Does it really mean that the one who has the most will be given the little owned by the poorest?

One commentary I read suggested that the parable shows how our image of God matters. If we are like the third worker and imagine that God [slash] The Landowner is ruthless and angry, we will be afraid and paralyzed. But if we imagine that God is merciful and joyous, we will not fear taking risks.

Both Paul and Jesus tells us to abandon normal notions of safety. As Jesus says in other places, those who try to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose or spend their lives for the sake of the good news will gain eternal life.

In the context of church, this could be rewritten as follows: a church that tries to preserve itself will die, but a church that spends itself with wild abandon will help people taste eternal life even if the church itself dies.

Jesus tells this parable in Jerusalem just before his arrest and execution. He has risked everything to bring his message of God’s mercy and healing to the seat of Roman power in Palestine and in opposition to the fearful religious leaders who collaborate with the Empire.

Jesus has put his friends in danger as well. And by calling us to take up our cross and follow him, Jesus calls us to risk everything today as well.

Clinging to our lives is a distraction, Jesus says. No matter what we do, we will eventually lose our lives along with attachment to power, wealth or prestige. Those who try to save their lives will lose them.

But when, with the help of God’s Grace, we let go of our egos and their attachments, we die to an old way of life and rise to a new one within the heart of God’s Love . . .

In St. Albert, one of the topics we discussed was professional ethics. Ministers maintain certain boundaries with the members of a congregation. While we strive to be friendly and open, we try to not become attached to people in the church in the same way that one usually does with good friends or spouses.

But then someone wondered about Jesus and his disciples. Surely the passionate engagement between Jesus and his friends in Galilee and on the road to Jerusalem does not model this kind of professional boundaries.

I liked the discussion that ensued. My sense is that Jesus’ shows us a life that has transcended ego. Jesus was able to care deeply for his friends and be loved by them while not becoming caught in those friendships.

This is the kind of deep engagement we hope for in pastoral care – praying with a family around the bed of a loved one who is dying, for instance. At their best, such moments have nothing to do with the ego of the pastor or the glory of the church. They are about the presence of God’s Spirit and nothing else.

Of course, stumbling into a deep engagement beyond ego is often not possible for us mere mortals. But we always rely on God in Christ through the power of the Spirit. When we falter, we know that God forgives us and offers us many other chances to be grasped by the Grace that reveals that our lives are not really about us. Life is about a Love that is greater than any individual or human institution.

On the path to the cross with Jesus, we have faced up to our losses and so are free to risk anything and everything. This gracious truth doesn’t give us specific instructions as to how to spend our time or how to run our churches. But it does give us license to fail.

Our Moderator Gary Paterson promotes a concept in this regard. He wants the United Church to stop being a Fail-Safe Church and become a Safe Fail Church.

Ministers, lay people and churches will often fail. But that is OK. We prefer trying and failing than hanging back in fear. God’s call is for us to spend our hearts, time, and treasure with abandon and without fear in family, church and community.

Is this path risky? Viewed from the standpoint of ego, yes. Viewed from the standpoint of eternal life beyond ego, no.

Preaching reminds me of this tension. I sometimes feel nervous before preaching because the good news involves disillusionment, death, and rebirth. Rebirth is what we hope for — joy amid the amazing Grace of God’s Love. But rebirth is preceded by disillusionment and death, and nothing scares us more than disillusionment and death. So ministry, just like parenting or marriage, can feel scary. But then a wide vista of Grace opens up beyond a particular moment’s crisis, our fears dissolve, and we feel solid ground beneath our feet.

When we try to play it safe, we lose everything. But when we join the scary journey to Jerusalem with Jesus, God gives us a deeper kind of safety. This Grace helps us to stay awake to sacred values despite our attachments or addictions.

None of us meet God perfectly in every moment. None of us can always resist the siren call of worldly values. No church can always be uninterested about its own institutional survival.

But despite our failures, God continually calls to us. It is a call to take up our cross and follow Jesus on a risky but life-giving path on which we lose our lives again and again only to rise to a new life in God through Christ.

Thanks be to God.


Ministry and the Comprehensive Review

Text: Matthew 23:1-12 (servant leadership)

A sermon I offered at a covenanting service between Rev. Heather Landry, Trinity United Church, and Edmonton Presbytery, Nov. 9, 2014

What an exciting time to be in ministry! Big cultural shifts continually emerge and surprise us. Demographic change transforms the context in which we work. Scientific and technological developments present us with new wonders and perils on almost a daily basis.

Here are a few of the notable changes that have occurred in my lifetime: increased social rights for women and LGBTQ people; the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago today and the end of the Cold War; independence for all the former colonies of the European empires; the development and spread of the Internet; an increase in Canada’s population from 15 million to 35 million and world population from 3 billion to 7.5 billion; the burning of enormous quantities of fossil fuels, enough to alter the world’s climate – I could go on.

One change in particular that has captured my interest since I returned to church 13 years is the disappearance of the church beneath our feet.

The decline of church distresses us, of course. But I am also excited about what might lie behind the shrinking numbers in congregations in the United Church of Canada and in many other denominations and about the possibilities it might create for those of us who follow the Way of Jesus.

Later this month, the United Church’s Comprehensive Review Task Group will present its draft final recommendations to General Council Executive. The Task Group was created by General Council in August 2012 to help deal with our decline. Once the recommendations have been refined by the Executive, the Group will publish a final report, which will be debated before the next General Council meeting in August in Newfoundland and voted on there.

The Comprehensive Review process was mandated to “put everything on the table.” In my observation, however, the Group has ignored the main thing that should have been its starting point – the unadorned statistics published each year in the United Church’s Statistical Yearbook.

The number of people worshipping on a typical Sunday in November in the United Church has declined from 600,000 people in 1964 to 150,000 today, a 75% decline. In 1961, 40,000 teenagers were confirmed in the United Church versus 2,000 in 2001, a 95% decline. The average age of those who gathered at a United Church worship service in 1964 was about 30 while today it is about 70.

These statistics show that the United Church of Canada is mortally wounded and will soon disappear entirely. Sometime in the next few decades, the United Church of Canada will close its doors and cease to exist as a distinct denomination.

This is the clear prognosis that Rev. David Ewart brings to our attention each month in his column “Reality Check” in the United Church Observer. But it is a prognosis that the Task Group seems to have ignored.

Why churches are in a relentless free fall is more difficult question. I think it flows from a shift made by our imperial rulers almost 100 years ago. After the disaster of World War One, empires abandoned monarchy as the main ideological prop of their rule in favour of nationalism, electoral politics, and consumerism. Given that the Western Church had been the established church of caesars, kings, and kaisers since the Fourth Century, this shift left us marooned.

Others will disagree with this diagnosis; and many other reasons for our decline can be brought to mind. But an incorrect diagnosis does not change the prognosis. We are dying.

The good news is that abundant Grace can be found in our imminent demise. God’s Grace is always available, I believe, not matter how dire reality might appear. But Grace can also be obscured from our vision when we deny reality.

Now I am not suggesting that Heather Landry seek a motion at Trinity United’s next Council meeting to disband as a pastoral charge! Despite the decline of denominations like ours and of individual congregations like Mill Woods United or Trinity, there is a lot of life left in the United Church.

At the October Council meeting at Mill Woods, I expressed concerns about how to connect the church’s Business Plan to the spiritual needs of our members and community in the current context. One member responded, partly in jest I think, that all I had to do was “pack the pews.”

Now, I am not opposed to filling the sanctuary. And truth be told, our numbers are trending upward, and there seems to be a lot of ferment and outreach happening at Mill Woods United, especially compared to my Settlement charge.

Perhaps my views on church decline are jaundiced by my Settlement experience in southern Saskatchewan. I was ordained in May 2011, and settled in Borderlands Charge south of Moose Jaw along the Saskatchewan-Montana border in July 2011.

There were many things that surprised me about this beautiful and remote area. Perhaps the biggest one was to learn that I was the only paid clergy person in the town where I lived. Coronach Saskatchewan has about 800 people and is sustained by a coal mine and electrical generating plant that were built in the 1970s. But the surrounding countryside is now almost completely empty of people because of the enormous size of today’s ranches and farms.

In 1950 when Coronach had only 300 people, there were six paid clergy people living in it. Today, there are none. The Anglican Church building is now a private family dwelling. The German and Norwegian Lutheran churches merged into one church 30 years ago, but it can no longer afford a pastor. The Roman Catholic parish has a priest from the Philippines, but he drives in from another town. The Alliance Church can still afford a pastor, but it can’t convince anyone to move to a town where the nearest doctor is an hour’s drive away. The three-point United Church charge cannot afford to replace me. So it may be that I am the last clergy person of any denomination or religion to live along this part of the Montana border.

Other ministers have similar tales to tell – how they were part of a two-person ministry team that became one-person; how they led a merger with a neighboring charge; how they helped to close a church.

These declines can be painful. But there is good news. In tonight’s Gospel reading, Jesus says “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The United Church has not consciously tried to humble itself. Time and cultural shifts are doing this work for us. But the important question is, can we accept our humiliations and so achieve a measure of humility?

25 years ago, one of the luminaries of the United Church, Douglas John Hall, published a pamphlet called “The Future of the Church.” As an epigraph, he used a quote from a 1967 SCM book by Albert van den Heuvel that read, “The real humiliation of the church is that we refuse to be humiliated.”

Such a conclusion is hardly surprising. Humiliation is a common experience for individuals and institutions. But accepting the humble conditions that flow from those humiliations is much rarer. Think Rob Ford. Think of the German military that clung to the Kaiser until the last few days before the Armistice in 1918.

But when with pain an individual or institution does accept their humble status — when we confront our mortality and so take up our cross – new life always beckons. The new life for our churches will not look like the glory days of the 50s and 60s. Nevertheless, we trust the Way of the Cross, which assures us that that it will be new life within the eternal heart of God.

Out of our humiliation, could flow humility. Out of pain could come re-birth. Out of death could come new life.

Organizing our own demise would be fitting for a church on the Way of the Cross. This is my hope for the Comprehensive Review Task Group: that it will recommend the United Church spend the next 10 years preparing to disband at our Centennial on June 10, 2025.

During this period, we could reach out to other declining denominations as we groped together for what might be next.

We could work with reform currents in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Pentecostal churches to confront leaders there who still preach second class status for women, who oppose reproductive freedom, and who denounce sexual minorities.

We could live out a faith founded on the efforts of oppressed people to unite from below and who try to understand reality through science.

We could work towards worship services of thanksgiving, praise and mourning in June of 2025 that would celebrate 100 years of the work of our church, and then close. We could pray and work for communities of faith that were post-denominational, possibly post-Christian, and perhaps post-religious.

Now, it could be that I am wrong. Perhaps I have misread the statistics. Perhaps the next Yearbook will tell us that numbers and revenues are sharply up. It could be that the United Church of Canada will be leading spiritual revivals in Canada long into in the 22nd Century. I doubt it, but I have often been wrong in the past.

But if I am not wrong and if more and more of us accept the terminal decline of our church, this will not mean an end to our worship life, our mutual care, our service to the needy and broken-hearted, and our social-justice work.

I don’t know Trinity United well, but I was pleased to meet Debbie Hubbard at Epiphany Explorations in Victoria last January. I was grateful for the leadership she gave to Presbytery around the Truth and Reconciliation Event. I was glad to be invited here when the Moderator sat in circle with us last winter as we discussed your visioning process. I am impressed by your work on food issues, which has influenced the work of many at Mill Woods United. I am glad to have spent a bit of time talking with Heather, and I look forward to getting to know her and others at Trinity better in the months and years ahead.

I wish Heather, Trinity and Presbytery nothing but joy as you continue to work together to follow Christ on a path of faith, hope and love. You have responded to a call deep within and far beyond you, the call of God in Christ. Nothing beats it.

We are doing a lot of work. We have a lot of work to do. We are blessed by the ministry and passion of everyone who walks through our doors and who shares their heart and soul in worship, mission, and outreach.

We are also dying. The United Church is dying. I am dying. All of us are dying. What could be more humbling than an awareness of our mortality and the nearness of our own deaths? But as we accept the grace to accept our humble status, we become freed from old preoccupations and more open to the eternal love that is here for us in any moment.

When we remember that we are dying, we are freed to live into the ecstatic newness of the God whose Love will never die.

What an exciting time to be in ministry!


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