I have learned a lot in the two and a half years since I was called as pastor of Grinnell United Church of Christ in Grinnell, Iowa. When I arrived in 2014, just a few years out of seminary, I thought of myself as something of an expert. Formed by my education and training, I knew things about the Bible, liturgical arts and human psychology that others in my community did not, and my task, clearly, was to share my hard-earned wisdom and knowledge.
But as I said, I’ve learned a lot since then -- mostly about my own limitations and the resourcefulness of others. I’ve discovered that my expertise is of little value to a congregation anxious about its future. Much more important is the strength of our relationships as members of a common body.
I’ve concluded that my primary role has little to do with my “expertise.” Actually, my job is to call the congregation together and nurture our collective identity. Many pastors have a guiding image that sustains them in their work -- perhaps “herald,” “midwife” or “wounded healer.” But I’ve come to see the pastoral vocation this way: I am the church’s principal “convener.”
I accepted the call knowing it wouldn’t be an easy job. For many years, a much-beloved pastor led the church, continuing to do so long after a traumatic injury in 1997 left him confined to a wheelchair. After he left in 2005, the church was served by five successive pastors before I was called in 2014, with some leaving under difficult and contentious circumstances.
By the time I arrived, it had been almost a decade since the congregation had experienced strong pastoral leadership. Worship attendance had dropped from about 120 to 60 or so. Offerings were anemic, but a large endowment and one family’s extravagantly generous annual pledge made it possible for the ministry to continue.
More concerning than the finances was the culture. Before I was even hired, on the day I preached my tryout sermon, a member lobbied me to support her favorite community initiative. She was not pleased when I confessed that I knew nothing about it. Similarly, when I arrived on my first day, another member was waiting for me in my office not to welcome me but to ask my opinion on another pet program.
Those first few months, worship announcements sometimes took longer than the sermon. One Sunday, a man determined to share news of his event grabbed the microphone out of my hand before I had finished speaking. Our church council meetings featured endless disjointed reports from more than a dozen boards and committees.
We never discussed our organizing purpose, strategic priorities or vision for the future. Instead, we regularly lamented lapses of “communication” -- which to me always sounded like, “Why can’t you fix this, pastor?”
Basically, we didn’t seem to trust each other. The church’s many programs and initiatives competed for attention, money and an ever-dwindling membership. Once upon a time, the church’s boards and committees served a ministry that our community held in common. But now it seemed that the church existed to serve the varied interests of its many boards and committees. Were we really a church or just a crowded ring of hobbyhorses?
I was lost. I’d studied at a fine seminary and even had the advantage of a two-year pastoral residency with a strong and vibrant congregation. But nothing had prepared me for the lonely challenges of ministry with a small-town congregation whose best days were in the past. I was living under the illusion that my formation had supplied me with the answers I would need.
The turning point came late in my first year, when I discovered the Art of Hosting, a leadership approach that views leadership primarily as a practice of hospitality. With the help of a consultant and ardent proponent of the Art of Hosting philosophy, our church focused on re-connecting with each other and “re-humanizing” our relationships. We spent time together, sharing meals, telling stories and reviewing our community’s history.
Soon, we held a series of retreats to engage church members outside our ordinary structure of boards and committees. Instead of recruiting people to existing bodies, we invited people to follow their energy and work on needs they had identified.
Gradually, I accepted that I was powerless to direct our ministry toward my own ideas of what a church should be. I began to think of myself primarily not as a preacher, teacher, healer or administrator but as a host -- a convener. My greatest asset was not my knowledge but my position in our community. So I started creating a space for church members to have more genuine encounters with one another. I learned not to look within myself for answers but to summon the gifts of others.
As it turned out, our congregation discovered that we have considerable resources for ministry when our relationships are strong. Effective community organizers know this, which is why they meet people one-on-one over coffee and conduct house meetings. They’re building relational power.
Our problem wasn’t that we had different ideas about the church’s mission. It was that our relationships had frayed through the stress and turmoil of our recent history.
As I began practicing a ministry of convening, our congregation came together and identified several areas in which we share a collective passion, including children’s ministries and social and environmental justice. Since then, after months of dialogue about our values and strengths, we’ve developed a Godly Play classroom for teaching Bible stories, which now boasts more than 30 children and a dedicated cohort of teachers. Working with faculty from Grinnell College, we’ve offered community workshops on climate change and launched an annual Earth Day worship. And in an effort to foster opportunities for spiritual growth, we’re piloting a small group program focused on fellowship over a shared meal, Scripture study and prayer.
As our relationships have deepened, our congregation has been transformed, and much of my work now focuses on bringing people together, building and strengthening those relationships.
When a staff position opened recently at our church, we were tempted to fill it with another seminary-trained expert. But we’ve learned that we don’t need more hermeneutics. We need deeper connections with one another. So we hired a community organizer to help our emerging ministry teams.
Our church and its ministry came alive when I finally decided to get off my own hobbyhorse. The power of our church does not lie in my expertise as pastor. It’s in the wisdom of Christ revealed through the faithful discernment of the whole body. I am an instrument God uses to bring the body together. That’s not what I thought I was being prepared for back in seminary, but it is a high and holy calling.