In the recent podcast series, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, the pastor who caused the abuse and turmoil was recorded saying, “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.” This dangerous sentiment reflects the tragic state of many organizations, and the unhealth that permeates many churches and ministries.
The longer I’ve served in ministry, the greater the number of stories I hear of former pastors and other ministry leaders who are burned out by the experiences. They are disillusioned by toxic systems and unrealistic expectations. They are turned away by increasing news stories of sexual and spiritual abuse that seems to be rampant in our systems.
For many of us, our answer to a question such as “How are we?” is not a positive response.
How are we?
As we’ve journeyed through this blog series outlining the Trellis content, we’ve explored the concept of identity. Over the next few posts, we’ll be shifting the focus to participation; essentially exploring how we can be joining God in our neighbourhoods.
Michael Gorman writes extensively about participation, and details how as Christians, we are invited to participate in the life of Jesus, our living Lord. This is not something that just happens at the individual level, but happens in community. We are to be “a community, the body of Christ, that ‘re-incarnates’ the Messiah in the world.” We don’t merely believe in Jesus, but our churches and organizations should exist to be good news to the world. As we participate with Jesus, we are transformed. The practice of joining God in our neighbourhoods shapes us to become more like Jesus.
It can be tempting to just jump into our neighbourhood, and take on service projects. Events and resources such as Undercurrent and Tidal Impact are designed so that any church could join in these events. Expending some positive energy seems like a good way to participate in God’s mission.
However, to really experience the transformation that comes in participation, I’m convinced that we need to first ask ourselves the question, “How are we?”
Throughout my ministry career, I’ve had the privilege to work in a variety of roles, from camps to post-secondary to churches, and now within the denomination. I’ve had a number of supervisors, and worked in various ministry cultures. The perfect ministry culture does not exist on this side of eternity, but some have been much healthier than others.
Every church, every ministry, has its own culture, and this culture is formed by leaders and congregations together. And, this culture then shapes everyone who is a part of the organization.
Much has been spoken and written about the abuses that happen in church and ministry cultures. Podcasts, such as The Rise and Fall of Mars Hills, and documentaries, such as Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed, shine spotlights on the toxic cultures that can happen. Toxic systems are not unique to megachurches, and are prevalent in our own Atlantic context.
It is important to not simply ignore our culture, but to take stock of it, address its weaknesses, and move towards systems of better health; cultures of goodness as highlighted by writers Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, in their A Church Called Tov, written in the aftermath of Willow Creek.
- Consider why you gather
What is the purpose of your weekly Sunday morning gathering? For many of us, this is our most significant form of community. For church leaders, all of our ministries flow out of our Sunday morning gatherings. Is their primarily to listen to a (your) sermon? McKnight and Barringer write: “Preaching is part of the purpose (of Sunday mornings), but when it becomes the central or all-encompassing purpose, Sunday mornings become little more than ‘come hear me preach.’” Our Sunday morning gatherings must be more than simply sliding into a pew to hear a great or mediocre message. What are we doing to foster community and relationships?
- Establish shared guidelines and values
Within a ministry team, consider the shared norms. What are the acceptable behaviours and expectations of team members? How should volunteers within a children’s ministry treat one another? How will youth leaders be expected to handle difficult topics? Are all leaders given equal voice into decision making? In “Another Way,” the authors note that “establishing the norms of a gathering at the beginning of its work together can completely transform an individual’s ability to disarm, engage, and lean into a conversation.” Develop the norms of your ministry, and re-evaluate them with your team members on a regular basis. Check out a resource like this Covenants of Presence to begin.
- Emphasize gratitude over growth
Too often, our ministries have taken on a mindset from wider culture that emphasizes progress and growth; we prioritize striving for excellence, and this can come at the expense of the humans we are ministering with. In writing of this tension between growth and gratitude, Christine Pohl notes, “when our lives are shaped by gratitude, we’re more likely to notice the goodness and beauty in everyday things.” It can be frustrating when we experience a loss of vision, but after the upheaval of the last two years, who hasn’t experienced that? The pandemic has been a reminder that the best planned vision can be derailed. But God has also been faithful, and there are opportunities to grow in gratitude. Let’s lead our teams in such ways that gratitude is emphasized.
Our friends, our students, our children need us to work on guiding our systems to greater health. We need our systems to be healthier. Let’s stop hiding conflict and enabling poor leadership. The answer to a question such as “How are we?” may be painful to some of us, but we’re not likely to see good change until we begin to ask the questions. Healthier cultures will lead to better participation in God’s mission.
 Michael Gorman. Participating in Christ: explorations in Paul’s theology and spirituality. Baker Academic (2019), p. 24.
 Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer. A Church Called Tov: forming a goodness culture. Tyndale (2020), p. 213.
 Stephen Lewis, Matthew Wesley Williams, and Dori Grinenko Baker. Another Way: living and leading change on purpose. Chalice Press (2020), p. 36.
 Christine D. Pohl. Living Into Community: cultivating practices that sustain us. Eerdmans (2012), p. 22.