Friday, July 27, 2007

it's not really that big

i was a minister in a worldwide denomination for six years, and then for three years i worked at a large church that's connected to another worldwide denomination.
i don't know what i was thinking, but anyway.
i hadn't been at the large church for long when i was hanging around the front office one morning with some folks. we were talking about this and that. i asked how many people the church had on its rolls; the receptionist told me that the church had about 8,000 members. the others all smiled and breathed the air of the proud and satisfied.
i asked, "How many people attend a UT football game?"
as it turns out,the ut football stadium holds over 80,000 people.
i said, without realizing that i was about to blaspheme one of the sacred icons of this particular fellowship, "8,000 people isn't really that many, then, is it."
i immediately felt surrounded by the stifled breathing of the terrified and embarrassed.

a church can well be proud of having 8,000 members. that's a lot of people.
especially if that church's focus is on the american idea of success - numbers, income, programs, ministries, people in classes, pews full of asses. so, if that's the kind of church you're part of, just know that that's a sacred thing. if you're on staff, it's best to know what the real sacred objects of this church or denomination are. and i don't mean what it says it sees as sacred - i mean, what it truly values.

churches' sacred objects and ideas might include a particular ritual (baptism, eucharist/ communion/ lord's supper, how they visit the sick, what kind of pot-luck lunches they have, how they sing, how they speak creeds or other words in worship, whether they use pianos or organs or guitars or zithers or harps or horns), or a shared priority (we are all nice; we are all believers; we are all white or black or brown; we are all not going to hell; we are all bible-readers), or a goal (we will increase membership by this percentage; our church has the most beautiful cathedral/ sanctuary/ buildings in town; we will send this many missionaries this year).
this is no different from any other organization, business, family.
all organizations, businesses, families, and churches have stated priorities and rules, and unstated ones. the trick is to figure out which ones are the unstated ones. those are the dangerous places. find out how to listen to what is unsaid. said behind the scenes.
no one told me that morning that being proud of having 8,000 members - even though that's not that many people - was one of the most sacred totems in that church. when i was a methodist, the great unspoken-but-known sacred idea was that it was our job as clergy to make the people behave according to methodist doctrine and systems. we acted like that wasn't that important, but that's the ultimate value paradigm in that culture.
good to know.

if an organization, business, family, or church says that it values some things, but it really values and serves something else, that makes everyone sick and crazy. angry. self-doubting. disconnected. weird. unhealthy.

if what you want is to be big, or rich, or fancy, or smart, or hip, just say so. don't act like you're following jesus if you want to be any of those things; jesus is the opposite of those things. so, don't blame him or thank him either way.
but don't say you want to follow and serve jesus and say jesus is your lord, if you are serving something else.
that makes all of us feel crazy. angry. sick. self-doubting. disconnected. weird. unhealthy. it turns people away from god. or maybe just from the church - in which case, god's at work and present in the whole universe, so it's all good. anyone loooking for god will find god.
but come on, church, can't you see this? just be honest with yourself. you want to look good - to traditional churchgoers, or under-30's in jeans, or baby boomers with money? just say so. you want to be powerful in politics? just say so. you want to be big, because numbers equal success? just say so.
be real. have the balls.
but don't say it's because of jesus.

the ridiculously high rate of clergy burnout reflects this schizophrenia. know why i think ministers crash? it's not because ministry is a demanding job, although it is demanding. it's not because holding the spiritual space for people is difficult; when it's done well, it's energizing, not exhausting.
i believe it's because almost all clergy live in a split-personality church culture. we say we're following jesus, when in reality we're serving a corporation. and we are afraid if we call it like it is, the corporation will see that we're not "on board" and kill us. that's a realistic fear. it's like the people who worked at Enron, where the motto was "ask why," but the reality was that since they were cooking the books, everyone knew not to ask why, even if they didn't realize that they knew it. they could feel it.
fuck that!

oh, and, by the way, for more perspective:
austin has 680,000 people.
8 million people watch every episode of the sopranos.
80 million people at least watch the super bowl.
there are 8 million methodists in america, 8 million southern baptists active in their churches in america, and 8,500 jehovah's witnesses congregations in america.
so, what's 80 people or 800 people or 8,000 people or 80,000 people? what difference
does it make how many people are part of a church? didn't jesus say 2 would be fine?

or perhaps the right question is, What do you think success is?

(and, yes, i liked finding numbers so that i could have 8 as a number in each of the statistics. it's cooler that way.)


nonprofitprophet said...

well geeezus, you can't say real stuff like that in the church! you must be Your OCD is kicking in their with all those 8s...
I loved the post. yes. the priorities are screwed by the intent. Heck, If you got 8,000 members good for you. If you got 8...good for you. the underlying reason behind the numbers is what? status or are you actually reaching that many people, that many are getting healthy, and that many times that much are reaching out to others. I love a big church. It feels like I am part of something much larger than myself. But if its just "nice" or a good show and the intent isn't good, then its like going to the SuperBowl.
You will always have your core 10% that does anything and everything in whatever size church you 10% of 8,000 is 800 folks.. my math probably sucks.
okay, anyway, loved the post brother.
The one really BIG point you missed about the positives of large numbers: BIGGER VARIETY OF FOOD AT THE POT LUNCH DINNERS! ;)

Anonymous said...

Success is ultimately achievement of want or desire or an acceptable or good outcome.

SO I want to know

1. What do the worldwide denominations say they want? What do the worldwide denominations really want? What does their leadership want?

2. What do the mega-churches want? What do their leadership want?

3. What does your Journey want, what do yo want? What's your measure of success? How will you ever now you achieved success? Is it Joel Olsteen type money. Is it Pat Robertson type power and influence? Is it Pope-like reverence? Is it reaching the one million saved mark on your golden arches? Don't give us some easy pastor-like (political) answer either? Why are you a pastor and why have you traveled the you are on?

writeright007 said...

I am in AGREEMENT with all you said rev.R. Its so TRUE TRUE TRUE..
but your lucky they didn't kick
you out the back door and stone you to death... you were a talkn' about there sacred cash cow.

i think the truth stung them pretty good that day.

Hey mr. Rain Rain Rain ... wow i just watched the weather channel. you must be livin' right so the good lord gave Austin about 7 times more rain this than normal. cause you like rainy days:)

i guess umbrellas are in this summer in texas. that sounds weird.. but true!

Anonymous said...


My favorite definition comes from a line in the script of the "Godfellas" Futurama episode:

God: "When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all."


Rick Diamond said...

in reverse order:
1. wow, christine. that's a beautiful comment. i'm for putting that up on the journey walls.
2. nancy, they did end up kicking me out the door. best thing that ever happened to me. yippee.
and, it did stop raining finally. crap.
3. curious - i'm going to use your questions for a post of its own.
4. prophet - yeah, the whole point is the pot luck dinners! that's what the church is all about! love them green bean salads and fried chicken!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!