Chuck Queen: Let Dry Bones Live: Some Reflections on Reviving the Congregation





Reviving the Congregation: Pastoral Leadership in a Changing Context, by Michael W. Foss, is the kind of book that should be read by every seminary student on a pastoral ministry track or lay leader/minister in a local congregation in need of some ministry training. It's as much about maintaining and nurturing congregational vitality, health, and vision as it is about "reviving" - so I'm not sure the title is accurate. Foss offers much sound, seasoned, practical wisdom for pastors and congregations.

I particularly found helpful his chapter on pastoral vision - a vision which obviously must also be owned by the people - where the people are set free "to grow" the vision "larger than the leader's vision" and to "embrace more people to accomplish more than expected." In other words, once the people adopt the vision they must have the freedom to help shape and expand the vision. Great advice.

I pastor a small Baptist congregation that has become over my tenure a distinctively progressive church theologically and socially in a very conservative Bible-belt context. We emphasize works of mercy and social justice in a theological climate that encourages questions and spiritual growth. But I have discovered that such an emphasis alone, at least in my context (every church culture and context is different), is not enough to sustain congregational health and vitality. It has been frustrating.

Foss offers hope to frustrated leaders. In fact,  he contends that frustration is the necessary soil in which the vision germinates and takes root.  He writes,

"Vision requires dissatisfaction with the status quo and, therefore, is always a call to change. Satisfaction resists change and sees no need for a new future, but frustration is God's doorway to the future. Frustration creates the desire for a new possibility that, in turn, opens the heart and mind to vision."

Even greater advice. Out of my frustration, as well as from prayer, study, reflection, experience, and particularly my recent involvement in a local fairness campaign to pass a fairness ordinance guaranteeing LGBT people fair and equal treatment under the law regarding work and housing, a new vision is emerging.  It is a vision to publicly and intentionally invite LGBT people to our church and incorporate them into the life of our congregation.

We are a welcoming and affirming church, though we have not intentionally went public with this. We have a lesbian couple, recently married in another state (still not legal in Kentucky), who have served in all areas of church life, including deacon chair. But this is not something we have actually talked much about. Now, I am sensing is the time to talk about it, preach and teach about it, write about it, and inspire my congregation to talk about it too - to become enthusiastic about the possibility, focused on its implementation, and actively engaged in creating and sustaining momentum for its realization. These three components (enthusiasm, focus, and momentum) are elements that Foss emphasizes as essential - "three keys to effective ministry."

In his opening chapter, Foss describes what he believes to be two necessary convictions that must guide congregational leaders as the church "in the twenty first century faces new opportunities and challenges,"

"The first is that, as the revealed truth of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the single most hope-filled, joy-producing, and faith-enriching message in the world. The second is that, apart from the basic faith tenets outlined in the Apostles Creed, we no longer have all the questions, let alone answers, for effective ministry."

Actually, I think it is much simpler than that.

Minister and popular author Philip Gulley tells a wonderful story about accepting a call to be the pastor of a Quaker meeting in Indianapolis when he was a young minister. The small congregation was deeply loving and compassionate, primarily due to Lyman and Harriet Combs, who had helped to start the congregation years before. Both were retired when Gulley came as pastor.

Lyman volunteered each day at a homeless shelter, and Harriet made it her practice to be available to anyone in need. She babysat, transported people to appointments, tended the sick, visited the lonely, and did so with such transparent joy and good humor that to be in her presence was a redemptive experience. And over the years the fellowship took on their demeanor. The church was incredibly generous and because of its close proximity to several resources for the homeless, was often visited by mentally ill persons, all of whom were warmly welcomed and made to feel at home in their church.

As gracious as the people were in that congregation it frustrated Gulley that for the most part they seemed to be indifferent toward numerical growth. Then one frustrating day Gulley asked Harriet why that was. She said, "I guess it was never our goal to have a large church." Gulley responded, "Then why are we here?" Harriet smiled and said, "To love." That's why we are here: To love.

I believe it really is as simple as that, and it is reflected in the vision statement of the church I pastor: To experience and express God's unconditional love. I also believe, however, that  this general vision must give birth to a specific vision that moves and motivates the faith community to incarnate God's unconditional love in concrete, tangible ways.  Foss says it must be "clear and specific." I agree.

This book by Foss has been one important link in a chain of events and experiences that is leading to the emergence of this specific vision - that of publicly inviting, welcoming, affirming, and incorporating LGBT people into the life of our congregation. So, maybe,Reviving the Congregation is an appropriate title after all.

Reviving the Congregation is now featured at the Patheos Book Club. For more about the book, an excerpt, or to join the conversation, click here.