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COMMENTARY: Pastors called to lead during times of change David Mosser, Sep 22, 2011
By David Mosser Special Contributor
People occasionally ask me, “How has being a minister changed over the last three decades?” It is a question that might be asked of any calling or profession, but from the vantage point of ministry the question offers an engrossing perspective on modern life.
A perceptive mentor remarked that pastors probably have more experience with life-change than any other profession. The work compels ministers to be specialists in transitions. As I recently edited a book called Transitions: Leading Churches Through Change (John Knox Press, 2011), I must admit this mentor clearly recognized a virtually certain truth. As those who work with individuals and congregations, pastors eat and breathe change within the world parishioners face.
North Americans have witnessed massive changes in the function of our public institutional leaders. When I was 25 years old and straight from seminary, “I knew nothing,” as Sergeant Schultz used to say on Hogan’s Heroes. Yet my congregation said, “You are our pastor, and we will do what you say—so lead us.” Uncomfortable as I was with directing folks who were 50 years my senior, I soon realized that by virtue of position, those I led granted me authority.
After 32 years of experience and oodles of education, novice church members today hardly hesitate to tell me how to “do it” better. A doctor tells me she spends half of office visits notifying patients that the Internet cannot diagnose as well as she can with an in-person exam. A core issue for leading in the 21st century is how to guide without the built-in authority assumed in previous generations.
The “information highway” gives everyone access to data, statistics and facts. Yet although we know “stuff,” maybe we don’t understand what it means. Wisdom differs from information and facts.
A great change emerged during the recent economic downsizing. It was the readiness of scrambling businesses to swap people who comprised the institution’s memory and wisdom for reduced salaries. This trend assumes that knowledge of facts can trump the wisdom of experience. But in Judeo-Christian heritage, we covet wise persons among us. It is good to be smart—better to be wise. Have we as a postmodern culture substituted knowing facts for using them wisely?
Transitions is a book in which 32 well-respected thinkers take readers on a tour of their peculiar disciplines and address issues of change. Two insights are particularly helpful for our day.
First, change has its dangers. Substantive change raises an authentic possibility of failure. Bishop Robert Schnase’s introduction to the book notes, “In Francis Bacon’s The New Organon (Novum Organum), Bacon writes in 1620 about the reality that change is dangerous.” Imagine a scenario in which 15th-century farmers in a particular region each used a new method of agriculture in hopes of producing better crops. If the farmer’s enterprise failed, then the price could be starvation. Thus this kind of change is more than an inconvenience. It has the potential to put survival in peril.
Second, as Bishop Schnase writes, “Change asks people to suffer loss, experience uncertainty, and to redefine aspects of their identity.” Not only is consequential change dangerous, it also triggers a type of grief process. Change means embracing something else while letting go of what is familiar. It is a human emotional transaction that calls on clergy to assist people with both fear of the new and loss of the old.
The biggest transition for me in ministry is helping more people who stumble through change and addressing this change with less built-in pastoral authority than previous generations.
People I try to help are disillusioned because they want something they do not have, or have something they do not want. My job is to shine a little light of faith on their circumstance and remind them that nothing happens at once. The journey gives us the desires of our hearts. There is no guru, magician, or wizard that can give you what you want. Only you can do that and not all at once. Fulfillment is found on the journey of life, usually when you least expect it.
Dr. Mosser is senior minister at First United Methodist Church in Arlington, Texas.