On Churches and Change

A little over 10 years ago, I was working for the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, and preaching at a different church every week.  I realized that I wanted my kids to have a regular church family to grow up in, just like I had at Foundry UMC, so I asked Bishop Schol if he could appoint me to a church.  It’s hard to believe that it was ten years ago this week that I preached my first sermon at Metropolitan Memorial UMC, and my family was embraced by this wonderful church family.

As I've reflected on this anniversary over the past few weeks, what strikes me most powerfully is the tremendous amount of change we have been through as a parish.  We started a new American University ministry, we became a reconciling congregation, we were yoked and merged with St. Luke’s UMC, we were yoked and merged with Wesley UMC, we reorganized our program and administrative structures (several times!), we initiated a wide variety of learning programs including Wednesday night Food for Thought and Youth for the DC Cause, we re-birthed Vacation Bible School, we initiated a variety of nurturing ministries like Blue Zones and Trust Circles, we incorporated a second shelter into our homelessness ministries, we began an expansive new hunger ministry in the Campus Kitchen DC program, we built partnerships with churches in Wards 7 and 8 that continue to shape our life.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that change is the one constant in life, opining that "you can't step in the same river twice."  And as true as that is, churches -- largely -- seem uniquely resistant to change.  From the Children of Israel wandering in the desert and longing for the “good life” when they were slaves in Egypt, we have a deep and abiding tendency to romanticize our past (even when it wasn’t really that good!).

On one level, that’s easy to understand.  The Church is an institution that is steeped in tradition, and we -- appropriately – value those traditions as a great gift.  But, living in a world that changes at an ever-increasing rate, we also need to be in a constant process of discerning how those traditions engage our changing culture and world.  As Darwin observed, an ability to adapt is the key to a species -- or an institution -- surviving.

For the church, adaptation begins with the process of planning.  It is easy for any organization to fall into the rut of doing what it has always done.  It is profoundly easy for a church that has had the same mission for two thousand years to simply do the same thing this year as last year – or fifty years ago.  Over the past ten years, many of the positive changes at Metropolitan have grown out of times when we stepped back to do some intentional discerning about where we felt the Holy Spirit leading us.  We need to be in an ongoing process of deciding what are our goals for this year? For next year? Where are we being led at this point in our life as a community?

That planning process, of course, does not mean that all of those plans will come to successful fruition.  All good planning involves taking some risks, and genuine risks mean that we may fail.   Churches often feel to me significantly risk adverse, as though one more failure might break them.  My general sense, however, is that not taking risks is what usually breaks churches.  We have failed a lot at Metropolitan over the past ten years, and my overall belief is that if we are not failing regularly, we are not doing enough new things.

As important as planning and risk-taking have been over the past ten years, it also occurs to me that many of the places where our church has grown have been complete gifts of the Holy Spirit – opportunities that interrupted our well-thought out plans and took us in an entirely unexpected direction.  One might ask, then, what is the purpose of planning?  There is something compelling about the process of discerning specific goals, combined with an openness to embrace unexpected opportunities, that allows churches to respond to the movement of the Spirit in their midst and engage in the process of change in life-giving ways.

I am so deeply grateful for the past ten years at Metropolitan.  I am grateful for the ways that you have embraced me and my family.  And I am grateful for the ways in which the Holy Spirit is calling us into an unknown, but promising, future.