Monday, March 14, 2005

"Without Spot or Wrinkle or Any Kind of Blemish"

I'm here in wild and musical Austin, Texas, attending an intensive, week-long training course for pastors doing or thinking of doing intentional interim ministry. The word "intentional" is intentional. The idea is that one comes in after the departure of an installed pastor and helps the congregation come to terms with its history, its identity, its mission and goals, its conflict points, and so forth. In short, helps them redd up the place so a) they go looking for the right kind of new installed pastor, and b) the new installed pastor has a better chance at making a go of his or her ministry.

That's the idea. But after one afternoon and evening of class discussions, I'm already discovering that some people here think that isn't really possible. That congregations' issues and problems are so ingrained, that no amount of work will ever change anything. That unhealthy systems are unhealthy systems, and there is no cure.

My immediate response to that was, what are we here on this course for, then? If we'd just be wasting our efforts trying to bring light and hope and self-awareness to church situations, let's just lead Sunday services and visit Aunt Tilly in the hospital while the pulpit committee's doing their work, and then hand the stinking filthy baby to the new installed pastor for him or her to cope with.

Of course, my immediate response really "should" be is that Jesus transforms all. That He's in the business of changing lives, and that includes (she said ironically) lives in the church. But it's true-- some of the most resistant characters are sitting in the pews, and the holy church of our Lord Jesus Christ can attract some of the most unholy behavior. (Do I hear a word beginning with "Phar . . . "?) It's almost enough to make a pastor flee in frustration and take up real estate selling instead.

Almost, but not quite. It helps to remember what St. Augustine said about the church being a corpus mixtus-- a mixed body of the good and the bad and the in-between. And except in the case of flagrant, scandalous sin, it isn't usually our job as pastors to sort everyone out. God could do it right now if He wanted to, but for some reason He hasn't chosen to disclose to us, He doesn't. But while we can't order the Almighty to change our churches on demand, we can ask Him to change us, to help us be the sort of people who can make healthy change possible. That goes for lay men and women as well as for pastors.

Most of all, it helps me to remember what St. Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, that someday Christ is going to present His Church to Himself as a pure bride, without spot or wrinkle or any kind of blemish. Can I forecast how that is going to happen? No, I can not. Do I think it will be Christ's greatest miracle since the Resurrection? Yes, I do. But the Holy Spirit says it's going to happen, and therefore I believe that happen it will.

And that perhaps, my participating in this course this week will make me better equipped to be one who in some small way will help bring that miracle to pass.

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