July 7, 2014

Ask For Help

Telling the truth and asking for help have been the best and hardest things I have learned in ministry.

I was ordained into a highly consumerist moment in the church. Watching suburban megachurches boom, the struggling mainline was under pressure to put out a more attractive product. The message to my generation of clergy and the lay leaders of our congregations was that it was our job to turn out programs and worship that would attract more paying customers. People, we were told, were church-shopping. They would evaluate us on the breadth and depth of our menu, the gracious welcome we were able to provide, and the polish of our website. We might get only one chance to make a winning impression, so we had better be ready.

The problem is that my call is to scrappy, historic churches. Try as we might, the parishes I have served can’t hope to compete with the suburbs and the well-heeled on convenience, facilities, programming, options for kids and families, and so on. Our websites are chronically out of date, and our menus are limited.

A few years ago, I stopped trying to put out a product and started asking for help. I started sharing my own and my parish’s hopes and dreams with total strangers. I told neighbors that we wanted to be a neighborhood church again, and I confessed how hard it was to turn around years of disconnection between church and neighborhood. I told my parishioners that I was going to generate a lot of ideas about things we might try, and that I really didn’t know which things would work. I told anyone who would listen what we did have to offer, without apologizing for what we didn’t have.

Telling the truth about my and the church’s inadequacies and of letting go of seeking after customer satisfaction has been amazing. I’m happier, less stressed, more faithful, and better able to weather the inevitable ups and downs of parish ministry. People help. They come up with ideas I never would have thought of. Because they are their ideas and not just mine or the vestry’s, they are willing and able to make them happen. They take our ideas and run them in new directions. All of us feel less pressure to present a facade of perfection. We’re more real with each other, which leads to real friendships.

If you struggle with the pressure to offer a better product, take a break. Try just being who you are. Try telling other people the truth, and inviting them to dream and hope with you. If you don’t know what to do next, just say so. If you don’t have a Sunday school, or a great website, or a parking lot, or good coffee, just ‘fess up. Be more of a friend and less of a service provider. Offer up what you’ve got, and see what comes of it.