Jason Byassee: Eventually you have to do something

In the transition to a new place of leadership, it’s difficult to sort through all the advice about starting something new. Change everything? Change nothing?

Editor's note: This is the second of two posts by Jason Byassee on scriptural interpretation and leadership.

One of the most frustrating things about transitioning into the parish is trying to square all the advice one gets on starting something new. “Change everything!” some counsel. This seems wise. You’ll never have as much capital as you have right now. What do you have to save it for? If you change things now you’ll get them used to it, and the community will continue to grow and deepen in mission. “Change nothing!” some counsel. This seems wise. It’ll take a year at least to figure out who they are before you have the authority, or know-how, to change anything (or heck, to figure out where the bathrooms are!). I even heard recently an addendum to the one-year rule: don’t change anything for two years, an expert said. It’ll take them that long to feel comfortable with you as their pastor at all, let alone to listen when you want to alter something dear to them.

One pastor friend changed things right off. Everything right off, actually. His was a church mired in dysfunction and general gloom. It would have been irresponsible for him to leave things as-is. So he ripped up the order of service on day one and put it back together. He told them repeatedly exactly how beloved they are by God, and wouldn’t let them back into their old pattern of feeling sorry for themselves. And this change I like best: he and the church’s oldest member repaired the nursery together. The church hadn’t had a child attend in years. So they refurbished the whole thing, overruling objections (why do that when no kids come? And we don’t have the money!) and they prayed. The new pastor and old Anna in Israel asked God to send them children. I’ll let you guess whether God did.

Others suggest changing nothing and they stand by that. One friend studied sociology of religion in college and learned about treating a new culture like an anthropologist treats a new people group. Study, say as little as possible, ask question after question after question. Nobody thinks you can avoid having some effect -- anthropologists are aware they are changing what they’re studying, but you minimize that. My friend says she made no “I” statements her first year, or two, or maybe three if she thinks of it. No “In my ministry I find that . . .” or “One thing I think about that is . . .”. Only permit questions. That way you’re slowly drawing into their life, not some idealized version of what their life should be, imported from elsewhere and dropped on their heads.

I’ve worried about this discrepancy especially as I’ve read about the first 100 days. I’ve heard this way of squaring the circle: listen intently for 100 days and then announce something, do something, spend that capital. They expect you to lead after all, and now it’s time.

This worries me not only because it sounds like the first 100 days of a presidency (in which a president is definitely not listening!), but for this reason: what if, 100 days in, I have no idea what to do?

In my last post I spoke of the way Scripture is first meant to astound us, silence us, make us kneel and stammer before the one who gives us life, saves us, will raise us. We too quickly turn Scripture into how-to lessons for getting along in life, but it’s first meant to strike us dumb. But then eventually Isaiah has to go say something (even if that doesn’t go all that well! See Is 6:9-10).

I wonder whether worship is the key to resolving this tension between doing everything or doing nothing? Or maybe to not resolving it -- but holding both options in-hand opposably at the same time? In some places worship will show that something must change post-haste. In others worship will show we should be much more cautious. In either case it’s the rhythm, the energy, of their life together that will make what to do next obvious. Or so I hope.

Seems like the trick here with treating a church with appropriate regard is the same as that of treating a human being well: they are a mystery. You cannot fathom the depth of their experience, their loves, their reflection of the beauty and mercy of God. So change in one day, 100 days, always or never, is perhaps less important than regarding the other as an endless source of grace.

Maybe then they can show us what we ought to do together.