Individuals Kill Community – 2 of 20 Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Surely it scared her to death. The news could not have been more surprising. Plans for what lay ahead did not include what I sprung on her than night.

Patty took the news of my sense of a call to preach as a shattered dream. Make no mistake; she was not a spiritually insensitive person. She was a realist. Talks we had about the future did not entail living in a fish bowl, a glass house, or in proverbial ministerial poverty. Her flare and openness only comes with the safety of friendship. Otherwise, you might not hear a peep.

The summer of ’79 we broke up, for a night. After thinking and praying we talked the next morning. Though still getting used to the idea, she thought that if we had a future and it included ministry, she would be all in.

Maybe what scared her was my drive. Back in those days we felt a bit more weight to decide our vocation before high school graduation. Plans needed to be mapped. Goals needed to be set. Patty knew I had plunged myself into another vocation, a different interest. When she saw me standing on the stage of that open air tabernacle, it surely felt like, “What just happened?”

I remember standing behind the big desk, the pulpit, at the largest Christian youth camp I knew anything about. The venue was empty. I stood there and thought to myself, “Man if I could preach here one day, I would be willing to pastor the smallest church in the Country.” Fools talk.

Reflection brings clarity. What I thought then could never be possible. Long before we knew what mega-churches were, we still had our celebrities. No one was invited to preach at camp that was not a celebrity pastor or evangelist in our denomination. A look back at those summer lineups would testify to this truth. Subtly I had to know that were I ever to preach at camp, like no doubt hundreds of other preacher boys hoped to do, I would have to make it big in our denomination. No small feat for the largest non-Catholic denomination in the United States.

It does not take long to learn that while we ascribe Divine Providence to these moves, it is as much who you know and how one is perceived in the often-political context of denominational life that leads to ascent. There are those who set out to make their fastest way to the top and indeed have arrived there. No sour grapes here. I simply encountered Divine Providence a bit differently.

An early lesson about place . . .

Fortunately I learned about the value of place from my mentors. More important than aiming high, like for an opportunity to preach at camp before thousands, a person needs to know their place. Yes, there is a bit of double entendre. First, and most obviously, a young minister needs to learn that despite his or her individual acumen, he or she is not the community.

We learn a language game early that we should soon forget. Young ministers hear those they look up to talk about “my church.” Forget the theological problems with equating the Church Jesus established with “my church.” Think for a moment of the unintended consequences when we talk of the place we serve in the possessive. Even when Christians respond with a reference to their church as “mine,” it undercuts community in favor of the individual. It is always our church.

If we never learn, pastors that is, that we are part of the community and not the community we will kill any hope for what a local congregation may become. When we learn this place for ourselves we are able to help others, who prefer to be individuals, find their place as community members. Otherwise, we create a place for competing individuals rather than an interdependent community.

Dietrich Bonheoffer joined a small community for a period of time. He reflected on that experience in Life Together. The experience of community, he noted, requires those who want to participate to set aside what he referred to as their “wish dreams.” Left in tact these individualistic dreams disrupt life together. Individuals kill community.

Second, a young minister needs to learn his place, that is, where he is. And, he will need to learn where he is not. I knew little about agricultural life and small church dynamics when, after seminary graduation, we moved to Southwest Oklahoma for our first role as pastor. We had more students in my high school graduating class than the population of that small town. That was 1989. I have written about it elsewhere. We told the congregation we wanted to learn what life was like in our new place. We were interested in sharing the experiences of that life in our new place.

It did not take long for us to learn where we were not. Gould, Oklahoma would be very different than Dallas, Texas. The local grocery store in Gould closed at 6 p.m. We could shop for groceries 24 hours a day at Kroger. We dreamed of seeing the stars in Dallas. The sky was full of them in Gould.

We moved from Gould back to Texas. Milford would be different than Gould. Each place is its own place and must be give space to be so. If your next church is different, rest assured that you next place will be different too.

When we saw the possibility of moving back to Oklahoma twenty years ago, I did my homework. Armed with an education that included demographic and psychographic studies, I contacted a couple of agencies to learn more about Tuttle, Oklahoma. I admitted to the Pastor Search Committee that I would know as much about the church and the town as they would seek to know about me. Some call it due diligence.

Rick helped me understand the need to know about your place, where you lived. He did so with an emphasis on how to be connected in the community rather than amassing data in order to rattle off statistics. The information I requested would help me make more sense of who lived in Tuttle than how many. You also learn how the community in which the church is located understands itself, or not.

If it is important to know where you are, where you live, then it is equally important to remember where you are not living. You would think that would be an easy one. But, how many times have you thought how great it would be to live near the beach? The mountains? A warmer climate? There are always certain features that leave us thinking about another place.

Ed Stetzer once remarked that some ministers suffer from community, context, lust and demographic envy. Some want to bend their place to their vision. Forget that transformation runs bi-directional. People become a means for the pastor to affect his individual wish dream; always running the risk that what gets shattered is the community not the dream. The consequence means the individual, the pastor, kills the community for the sake of his dream.

It would be wrong to think this discounts vision or dreaming. Instead visions and dreams are shaped in interdependent relationships. Some may contend this results in weak leadership. After all, people are in search of a leader, they want to be told where we are going. That is true if the community hires the pastor to do the work of the church. But, the Sacred Text suggests the pastoral role is to equip people to do the work of the church.

My friend Mark gave words for those thoughts when we invited him to consult with us regarding our Youth Ministry. We were between Youth Ministers and Mark and I had become friends. He observed the mental shift that is evident in many churches. Staff members are hired to perform the work the Church is to do. When ministers live into this way of thinking, they do both themselves and the Church a disservice. Ministers become overworked and disillusioned and members become observers, and incidentally critics when the performance does not match their hiring expectations, rather than participants.

One more thing . . .

At some point, no matter how the locals feel about those who move from somewhere else, the new place must become your place. Not just the church, but also the community in which the church is located. The vocabulary of our tribe places a great deal of emphasis on knowing you are God’s called man for this church at this time. It is equally important that the pastor and his family learn, and quickly, that their new place must become just that, their place.

New staff members help illustrate how words shape our self-understanding. Early on new staff members will talk about methods and habits as, “What do you do?” You know the transition has been made when they assert, “This is what we do.” Time must be given for this to develop. If it never comes, you may be sure the tenure will be short.

Brief excursus . . .

Individuals kill community regardless to what sort of community you point. Small towns, cities, and even large ones, will suffer proportionately to the number of individuals that demand the community bend to their wish dream. For more than a year I have served on our City Council. It is easy to see how individual demands take precedence over community improvement when conflict arises.

Maybe we should think about the way this works in the polis and find a way to work toward what is better for the community, whatever expression community takes.

I should quickly note this does not mean the collective is always choosing what is best for itself. But, that is for another reflection.

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About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.