Jesus said something about saving one's life.
Some have heard me say, many times, that the way forward for spiritual health and vitality in a long-established congregation necessarily requires a working priority on increasing mission to those in their immediate context (not just to those far away). They've always heard me say that with very few exceptions, this mission includes the ongoing intention of creating new communities of disciples outside themselves.
But during my last pastorate, I was surprised to see how much that conviction deepened. I become persuaded that increasing local mission and creating new communities should be considered no more optional for the budget and attention of rectors and vestries than tending to roofs and heating systems. On the contrary -- roofs and heating systems are optional; while mission is integral to the identity of church qua church.
Because this conviction deepened so much, I began to feel the need for an extended time for research. I wanted to know whether these convictions were true or misguided, confirmed or disconfirmed by others, and even whether others perceived and recognized what I was seeing.
So I took an unofficial leave of absence from being a pastor/rector. Stepping away would provide some space to experiment (in ways that I really could not as rector of my parish) as well as some time to think. After a year and a half of research, testing, and reflecting (lots of opportunity to "sleep on it"!), I'm now satisfied that those convictions were on target.
P.D. James, the Anglican, Prayerbook patron novelist, wrote Children of Men -- which can be seen as a useful parable for many things, including the life of congregations. Her cautionary tale describes the resulting dysfunction, despair, and total collapse of a world in which the norm was for families to stop making new families through child bearing and raising.
Or, more simply, consider the Christmas tree as a metaphor for what happens when a rector/vestry/congregation ignores certain realities. No matter how much we love the shape and smell of our trees when we bring them into our lives in December, no matter how we decorate them, once the cutters separate trees from their roots, their futures are already determined. In vain we water and mist them daily; Yet inexorably they they become increasingly brittle. Slowly at first, and then more rapidly, their needles fall away, dry and lifeless. By the time we finally toss them out, they've been long dead, -- leaving nothing behind but memories and random needles scattered here and there in the carpet.
But unlike Christmas trees, which have no hope, there is a way forward for the future of congregations. Congregations can be restored to their roots -- if they don't wait too long.
Sadly, congregations can and usually do wait too long.
Denominations avoid publishing the names of parishes that collapse, close their doors, or are merged into others. I've been told that my own diocese numbers something like 10 fewer congregations than when I first came to the diocese. Recently, one of our diocesan deacons said we expect to lose another 20 during our current leadership cycle -- the same rate of decline for denominations and dioceses across the country.
What is crucial to remember is this:
1) Unlike Christmas trees, congregations can be restored to their roots -- if they don't wait too long.
2) But congregations cannot be restored to their roots by luck. It can only be done intentionally -- and that intentional restoration will not be easy, nor universally welcomed.
3) A priority on increasing mission to those in our immediate context (not just to those far away), is NOT the serving of the needs of others at the expense of the needs of the parish. It is the serving of our own needs. It is the way forward for our own spiritual health and vitality. Jesus didn't tell us to give our lives for others so that they would live and we would die... he told us that giving our lives for others is the way forward so that we could live. Congregations who don't want to be cast out after Christmas, with brittle, barren branches, will intentionally reconnect to their roots. With very few exceptions, this will include the ongoing intention of creating new communities of disciples outside themselves.