A church in New Orleans wants to move beyond rebuilding to educating for mission. They, and we, should bless dissent, failure, story, and blessing.
I recently led a workshop with the pastoral and lay leadership of St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church, a grand and historic congregation in the Uptown area of New Orleans. Though this part of the city largely escaped the worst of Hurricane Katrina (the church’s sanctuary was badly damaged but has been restored), this congregation has experienced a rebirth of a sense of mission in the wake of the storm. In the weeks following the hurricane, the congregation mobilized its membership and resources; it assembled, coordinated, and housed volunteers from around the country to rebuild ravaged homes and neighborhoods.
As the leadership of the church reflected on the church’s future, some wondered what it would mean to re-envision their whole mission program yet again. Beyond the re-building, what would it mean to include in their mission work an educational opportunity? Those who come to the city would not only rebuild structures, but would gain deeper understandings of Christian mission that might transform their congregations and communities back home. St. Charles Avenue would become a mission-education center, as well as a coordinator of mission itself.
In closing my portion of the retreat I described four beatitudes that may be worthwhile for all of us to rethink, adapt and transform the ministries of our own congregations.
Bless dissent. A theme emerged at St. Charles Avenue: No single one of us knows where our church needs to go next, but together we will. To discover the shape of our future mission we must bless dissent. The church is the Body of Christ, St. Paul tells us, and a body has many organs, each with its own distinctive functions. Not only does a heart have a different function from a foot, it has a whole different perspective on the body. Variety of perspective isn’t always pretty, but differences need not lead to divisions. We must learn to bless our differences, even (maybe especially) our dissent, because we simply do not know where the key insights are coming from that will transform us.
Bless failure. Samuel Becket once wrote a line of sheer poetry that also represents a fundamental insight into good leadership. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” Becket wrote. Notice: there are no question marks in these six short sentences. The hinge on which maturity and health turn is in that third small sentence, with its gracious shrug of the shoulders: “No matter.” It transforms a bare fact of life (We try. We fail), making possible the marvelous closing sentence, “Fail better.” The education we all need waits for us in our failures.
Bless story. Someone once observed, “Do you know why I believe that ideas can change the world? Because nothing else ever has.” The statement is almost true. But there are times when even great ideas don’t win the day. The thing that sometimes beats them is a story. The power of stories, myths and fairy tales is the greatest power for transformation known to humanity. Don Hewitt, the creator of “Sixty Minutes,” credited that program’s durability to the fact that they always answered a basic human request: “Tell me a story.” A church needs to cast its big ideas (including its mission) in stories.
Bless blessing. The power to bless is the greatest power the church possesses.
We live in a culture of cursing. Cable television and talk radio are driven by the power to curse. And if we simply curse too, we will fail to live up to the call of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who came into this world that we might have life in abundance. The Bible reminds us again and again that the end of the curse’s power is always a grave, and the power to bless raises us to new life. The author of the original beatitudes chose to end his list with this one, reminding us to “rejoice and be glad.” It’s when we bless that people notice a family resemblance between us and the God who created us.
Michael Jinkins is dean and professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.