The Traveling Companion: final episode
Posted by bret
I just started my next to last class for my D.Min at Perkins – Spiritual Leadership in Missional Churches. One of our assignments is to keep a journal during the 2 weeks of class. I decided to blog mine…
After two great weeks, my time in class is over (until my FINAL class in January!), so this will be my final installment of “the traveling companion.” Processing through these ideas with other leaders has been enriching. It has been particularly helpful to listen in on the comments between folks in more established contexts as they have begun to wrestle with how to help their congregation cultivate a missional identity. I often think through these concepts from the perspective of a someone forming new communities and planting new churches. However, the reality is that even when dealing with people with no background in church attendance there is still baggage to address and an intimidating process of change to undergo. The concerns and struggles that my friends and colleagues expressed has been extremely helpful as I think about our context…which is different, but perhaps not so different.
Today we engaged in an exercise meant to help us think through the emotional response a congregation has when deep level change is being considered. We were split into teams and blindfolded and then given a tent to set up. If you’ve ever had to set up a tent in the dark, which I have on several occasions (mostly due to my own poor planning and goofing off), you know that it is not always an easy task.
I’ve set up many tents in my life and have a good idea of the different types that are out there. I knew, as soon as we were told what we’d be doing that I had the information and experience to get this job done – maybe even blindfolded. There was a moment, when I first pulled the tent out of the bag (blindfolded) that I was nervous about being able to identify all the pieces and get them lined up correctly. I can imagine this response in a congregation that has been being prepared to shift toward a missional identity.
There is usually a period of instruction, through classes, book studies and a sermon series that takes place before any actual changes are suggested. In addition, churches may also conduct experiments and pilot programs to begin introducing people to the actual practice and to determine contextual nuances that must be considered.
However, as changes begin to be implemented on a larger scale, anxiety is common. There is that moment when you realize that, even with prior knowledge and preparation, we can’t always see how everything is playing out or even know our final destination as we begin.
After that initial fear subsided in our little tent-making activity, a new anxiety began to threaten to settle in. My teammates knew that I’ve done a lot of camping and were expecting (in my mind anyway) for me to give them clear direction and an accurate information. What if the thing I thought was the tent’s footprint (a piece of material shaped like the bottom of the tent to protect it from rocks and whatnot) was actually something else? What if we got halfway “finished” and we discovered that I’d been steering us wrong? How foolish would I look if Dr. Heath, who was observing the teams could see that the thing I was confidently describing was something entirely different?
From a leadership perspective, I know this feeling all to well. Whether we want it to be so or not, often people look to leaders to have a clear understanding of the change they’re undertaking – especially if that leader has spent time cultivating in their own life what they’re attempting to do with others. But the reality is, when we start congregational change (or a new endeavor with any group), we’re all blindfolded to one degree or another. We are all experiencing many of the same limitations, regardless of prior learning or preparation.
Thankfully something my friend Dwight Robarts taught me several years ago was ringing in my head. “If you are going to be an effective leader, you need to strive to be a non-anxious presence.” Each of us on the team played important roles in laying the tent out and lining everything up appropriately. My job wasn’t to do all the work, it was to help the other teammates succeed in their respective tasks and not do anything to add to the anxiety of the situation. Over time our tent came together and, though it took a little longer, ended up pretty much the way it would have if we’d started without blindfolds.
We don’t have to eliminate all the obstacles to our progress. If we will work together as a team, showing grace and patience with each other along the way, we can sort through our shortcomings in process.
The reality was that we weren’t setting up camp for the night, it wasn’t about to rain…it didn’t really matter that the tent came together perfectly in quick fashion. The value and purpose for our class was found in the actual process of setting up the tent together.
Alan Hirsch refers to this as communitas – the process of journey through a shared struggle – and it is quite powerful. Perhaps, as leaders we need to remember this truth above many others. It isn’t JUST our transition into a more missionally minded people that is important, the process itself – though sometimes painful and terrifying – can be a formative and transformative experience.
I pray that God will grant me the wisdom to resist the temptation to let the end result become more important to me than the experience of shared life with my community along the way.
Thank you Elaine, Develous, Sandy, Marci, Bev, John and Todd for being my community of co-teachers and co-learners these past two weeks. May God continue to richly bless you all.