What Do You Think You’re Doing?
God, apparently, is not a fan of solo artists.
Moses is over-functioning—hearing all manner of complaints from the people of Israel, solving their problems, planning a youth group mission trip, and all while creating the perfect, orthodox yet contemporary, lively and exciting but also contemplative, worship service that will satisfy everyone. That’s when Jethro, his father-in-law, asks him, “What do you think you’re doing?”
Moses has a perfectly logical answer. His answer is the answer I’ve heard for decades in the church: “Well, because stuff needs to be done and I have to do it. If I don’t do it, no one will.”
Jethro is not convinced, and neither is God. Jethro tells Moses, “The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”
The work of God is joint effort
We are part of a community, a group, brought together in life and love to do the work of God in the world. While we all have our individual gifts, the work of the church, the assembly of the people of God, is ours together.
Our culture, however, has a different image. The enduring myth of the solitary cowboy who tangles with the Wild West and saves the day might make for entertaining movies, but it is unhelpful and even dangerous for our faith communities.
And yet, how often do we in our churches look to someone, or a group of someones, to save us from our challenges and conflicts. We look to someone to grow our church, balance our budgets, bring in more young families, energize outreach—to do whatever we’re convinced will fix the thing about which we’re anxious.
And often enough, a ‘someone’ shows up to try. We call a new rector or we hire a new staff member. Or we elect a new, energetic person or persons to vestry.
Yay! Now all shall be well, and we can go about our business while that person saves the day.
“Not so fast,” the voice of God catches us before we get out the door and into the parking lot.
Living our faith is not about delegating the work to someone else, but about joining together—all of us together—to do the work of God in the world, in our communities, and in our churches. We are responsible for the work.
Moses is not the only leader to over-function
Vestries are the elected leaders of a congregation with stated responsibilities to oversee the church’s financial and property matters, but also, along with the clergy, to be the congregation’s leaders. Many vestries pick up the mantle of Moses, and not in the great leader way, but like the Moses confronted by Jethro, who was trying to do everything. These vestries try to do it all, from worrying about the budget to planning the music for Sundays to taking out the trash.
This is called over-functioning, an attempt to do everything for everybody and be all things to all people. When I’ve worked with church vestries, I’ve often seen this pattern of vestry behavior in congregations where attendance and leadership fall into the category of family or pastoral sized churches. Many of these vestries serve churches with a part-time or volunteer clergy leader. To meet expectations, they find themselves responsible for more of the day-to-day operations of the church. After all, we have to have Sunday worship and do outreach and have a children’s ministry and a youth ministry and a full choir and eight Bible studies and Vacation Bible School, and...
And I always ask, “Do you?”
Over-functioning is a response to anxiety, and as our churches shift and change, we can become anxious. The church of our childhood is not the church of the here and now. Our faith has changed from its inception. We follow a living God. Trying to hold together a church modeled on yesteryear inevitably produces anxiety, because we often find ourselves responding to the needs of ghosts of the past instead of engaging the disciples of the present.
Figure out God’s call for today—and then share responsibility
A reality for the church of the present is that we are not called to do everything and we are not called to keep every ministry the church has ever done on life support. We are called to do the things God is calling us to do as disciples, where we are now. And we are called to share the responsibility.
What are your church’s responsibilities? As a vestry member, answering this question means (inspired by a wonderful insight from Twelve Step Spirituality) making a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves as a faith community as we are now instead of who we were in the past. Some questions a vestry can ask to make this fearless inventory include:
- Identifying the community in which your church is located. Has the population shifted? What are the demographics? What are the needs of a community? What outreach ministries are other churches in the area doing that likely don’t need to be duplicated?
- Assessing the resources of the church as they are now. Has church attendance increased or decreased? What about clergy leadership? What about the budget—how has it changed over the last decade? What are the needs of the people who are worshipping with us now, not those who worshipped with us in the past?
- Taking a fearless look at ministries. How long have they been in existence? Are the same people involved or are new people invested in them? Are we continuing to do these ministries because we’ve always done it this way?
Jethro and God realize something Moses doesn’t. If he’s the only one doing everything, he’s not allowing anyone else to engage in ministry. And when the vestry of a church does everything, they aren’t allowing the wider congregation to be disciples. Their over-functioning is preventing disciples from living out their own Baptismal Covenant, and that is not a role of the vestry.
God is not a fan of solo artists. God wants all of us to be engaged and active in ministry. Vestries, as elected leaders of a congregation, are in a good position to recognize that the task of discipleship is not to be done alone, but with all who have promised to share the Gospel.
The Rev. Laurie Brock serves as the rector of St. Michael the Archangel Episcopal Church in Lexington, Kentucky and is delighted to serve in a diocese and parish where she can cheer for the Alabama Crimson Tide in football and the Kentucky Wildcats in basketball. She blogs at Dirty Sexy Ministry and is the co-author of Where God Hides Holiness: Thoughts on Grief, Joy and the Search for Fabulous Heels (Church Publishing). She frequently shares her quirky, snarky views on faith and popular culture on Twitter at @drtysxyministry, but don’t follow unless you can laugh at yourself and your religion. Otherwise, you’ll just be offended. When she’s not doing priest things, she is riding horses or texting other fabulous women priests about which True Blood character would be the perfect clergy spouse.
- Giving Up Sabotage for Lent - for a more in-depth reflection on group and individual responses to anxiety, including overfunctioning.
- Moving Back into the Neighborhood - a workbook with ways to discover how God is present in your neighborhoods and how you can join your neighbors.
- Studying Your Congregation and Community - the Episcopal Church’s demographic information about dioceses, churches, and communities. A worthwhile site to visit.