I don’t know why it took so long, but finally the U.S. wealth gap has become a topic of political discussion. The conversation is not easy, in part because most of us rarely talk with people outside our economic group. Churches and synagogues—though most draw only from a small slice of the total spectrum—are still potentially places where richer and poorer people meet as equals. By handling these meetings well, we can help create support for public policies and private actions that promote equality.
Some of the congregations I interact with are growing, but most are in decline. Membership, attendance, energy, enthusiasm, and financial support shrink slowly over time. Some of these declining congregations—the ones who think they can’t be a church without their building, for example, or who want to keep doing exactly what they’ve always done but hope that someone else will step up to take over the work—leave me praying for a quick end. But others—the easygoing ones that are adaptable, kind to each other, and generous with their neighbors—are a delight.
Meaning-making and belonging are core human needs. For parents and others who care about children’s future, another urgent need is to pass along our values to the young. While not every congregation excels at meeting all three of these needs, nearly every congregation tries. How can congregations respond to those needs both for their members and for those who are now looking elsewhere?
Chaos is a natural by-product of innovation. Innovation happens best in conditions of upheaval, disturbance, and dissonance. However, people expect their leaders to keep things calm, predictable, and orderly. How do we coax order out of chaos without squelching innovation?
We live in a culture that trains us to think of problems as “our problems.” As pastors, too often, we think that we must figure out how to grow the church, make sure the budget is balanced, and ensure that programs are well attended. I certainly did. Many of my colleagues feel the same way. It is a heavy burden to bear.
We’re all familiar with the universal symbol for “pause.” It’s those two parallel lines we tap when we want the music or the video to stop playing. But there are also times when individuals and organizations need to hit pause and take time to consider what comes next.
Years ago a bright Yale student asked me how I would describe the difference between a church and any other charitable group. I gave the sort of answer I imagine many of us might give. I emphasized the church’s unique life-transforming mission and its special responsibility to transmit precious traditions across generations.
It was a good answer, but today I am afraid I’d have to add that of all nonprofits, congregations—and especially mainstream, relatively liberal ones—are among the most cautious and least willing to accept risk in order to fulfill their mission. We’re not alone. Many sleepy charities, government agencies, and old-line businesses also avoid risk. But where risk is concerned, many congregations fall into the slow group.