My first call in ordained ministry was to a congregation that was planning on going multisite a few months after my arrival. Part of my portfolio was to create, implement, and evaluate a small group ministry from the ground up. To create a ministry where one previously didn’t exist was both a dream and a challenge. I researched every single small group ministry model available at the time; reading books, calling other pastors, doing site visits, and cruising blogs. Every model seemed to have some value and some drawbacks. Since the church was entrepreneurial and permission giving I tried them all. Much to the chagrin of probably every successor who has inherited that hodgepodge of dozens of small groups in every formation possible, I learned and tweaked and adjusted to try and meet the needs of the people God had sent us. I learned which models worked well and which ones needed more tweaking than the others. I learned what model gave the best support to leaders and what model formed groups that stuck longest. And I learned that no model is perfect. I learned that the right one for your community is the one you create from who you are and who God is calling you to be. In other words, there is no right model.
10 years later, I have been consulting with congregations and church leaders for a little over two years now. This unexpected ministry has given me deep joy. I have journeyed alongside traditional churches in established neighborhoods and historic buildings, scrappy new church starts in rental spaces and a hunch that they were entering a new season, and big steeple churches experiencing a transition in leadership and vision. Each of them I have grown to love dearly and pray for fiercely long after our formal agreements end. To butcher ee cummings I carry them in my heart.
What I love, beside the relationship I build with each of these communities, is that not one challenge or one congregation is the same. Each of them are uniquely gifted, called and challenged to bring the good news of God’s love to their specific community. So I don’t practice a “one size fits all” or a specific approach out of a specific school of thought when I work with congregations. For me, the heart of consulting is a sense of deep listening, not fixing.
Listening, instead of fixing as the loci for doing the work of community building, runs counter to a culture that wants fast fixes and certainty of a future we cannot possibly know.
Sometimes it is hard to listen. My own experiences and expertises bang around in my head loudly demanding attention or judgement. The challenges and potential solutions a congregation faces are so obvious (except to the congregation itself) that its standing in the room practically shouting. And then there is the distraction factor because very often the problem present is not the problem at all–it is a cheap preoccupation to keep an organization distracted from the much deeper issue. All of these impulses need to be silenced–my ego and presuppositions, the communal challenges both presented and perceived–to practice listening that is Spirit led. People want things done quickly, with ease. The Spirit wants things done with care and time.
So, I listen to church leaders describe their challenges and questions. I listen to their space. Where they meet, worship, their physical and digital spaces reflect the values and energy of their hearts. I listen to staff members and church leaders that are not in the meetings with leadership. I do this because Jesus said that often wisdom lies on the fringe of community, not its center. Paul describes God’s treasure hidden in earthen vessels. So, I listen for what beautiful thing God has buried in these leaders and communities treasures they are looking for or have found but don’t know how to handle just yet. And then I pray. I pray for the congregation and its leaders. I pray for the pastors. And I pray for knowledge and insight to be composted into holy wisdom.
Then I listen.
I listen to what God is saying in this space and to these people. I listen for what God wants me to say, which if I am honest is always an exercise in humility and patience I do not want to practice. But I listen anyway.
Consulting and the life of faith in general is about listening not just to what is going on and what God is doing, but listening to the timing, the kairos. Kairos as our Biblical ancestors understood it referred not to chronological time (chronos) but the right timing, discerning the most opportune time or season. Sometimes churches determine the chronos for change is right, the liturgical timing may line up for a change or there’s a new pastor being called. On the calendar it looks good. On paper things add up. But the kairos, the timing of the Spirit isn’t there. The wisdom and knowledge of leadership comes when we listen to God and discern what wisdom is made for this season of ministry and what wisdom is made for another time. Just like all the small group models don’t work and all the good ideas aren’t actually good, some wisdom is wiser in another time or moment.
This season that the church finds itself in is harried with new models, trial, error and quick fixes. But it is also a time to practice deep listening to this season of church life. God is calling us to be attentive listeners as well as practical doers, rooted in prayer as we tend to the changes taking place in our communities and take a deep breath that comes from handing our timelines over to the work and wisdom of the Spirit.