I feel that the mainline church is experiencing its own wide-open-spaces moment. The terrain feels unfamiliar. Our pews that once were packed like an Atlanta highway at rush hour are less trafficked. Our leaders are driving through a sense of the unknown, cruising on fumes and wondering when the next filling station will come along. Many of our congregational leaders feel exposed in their ignorance over how to navigate this post-Christian cultural shift, with pandemic ministry as a fresh, mind-bending detour. We (our pastors, our churches) are vulnerable, but we are also unhemmed — freed to a creativity many of us have never know in our ministry lifetime.
[We] needs wide open spaces
Room to make [our] big mistakes
[We need] new faces
[We] knows the highest stakes
When you’re cruising a wide-open landscape on a terrain you’ve never navigated before, you see God’s world and your place in it in fresh ways. Maybe you’re smaller than you’d like, but you may also be more nimble. On the wide-open highway, I can sing at the top of my lungs without embarrassment. In our often scarcity-focused ministries, we suddenly find ourselves flush with opportunity, with the freedom and courage to try things we’ve never tried — like Zoom worship or commissioned pastor training. Sure, we’ve made mistakes, but we’ve also shaken off some chains to days of yore that long have limited us. I have visited four presbyteries over the last few weeks (in Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Kansas). All have fifty percent or more of their churches without installed pastors (some seeking pastors, others with pulpit supply, commissioned pastors, etc.) Two of the presbyteries have installed pastors in only one-third of their churches (about 15/50). The terrain that may at times feel barren has both forced and freed us to think about church vocation in fresh ways.
I am excited to zip the highways and byways into Utah and Minnesota, Montana and the Dakotas (and all the places OPSF serves). I know that the landscape won’t always be so wide open. I know the plains will curl up into mountains and dress themselves in forests and carve themselves into valleys. But I want to remember these first days when I could see the horizon, and sing at the top of my lungs without embarrassment, and feel bold and pioneering as I step into God’s fresh calling. I hope and pray the same for each of you, that in the barren uncertainty of these days you may feel a blank-canvas freedom, that the opportunity to make mistakes frees you to fresh attention to the never-stagnant Spirit.
I am holding God’s words to the prophet Isaiah as an intention for my first year of my OPSF presidency. It is my benediction for today’s blog as well:
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?
There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,
rivers in the badlands. (Isaiah 43: 19, The Message)
May you trust that when our hemming-in is fraying, God is already out there, welcoming us into the unknown. Amen.