Listen To Article
In my first year of mental health counselor training, she called me out. My supervisor – a wily veteran whose style was a mashup of Yoda and Jason Bourne – grabbed me by the shoulder after a counseling session with a sex addict and said, “What the hell were you doing in there?” Stunned and stuttering, I replied, “Helping him see how bad his choices are.” My supervisor said, “The poor guy is drowning. Let him drown, or with all your effort he’s bound to take you down with him.”
Let him drown.
I was a student of a cruciform theology, but in theory only. I still thought people got fixed with the facts, that any problem could be solved with more data. I still believed that if I was right and said it loudly and clearly enough, the person listening would hear and be transformed.
My supervisor knew the pattern and process of transformation – death to resurrection. For me, it was a theological box about a one-time event to be checked on an ordination exam. For this mentor, it was the cruciform spiritual journey each of us must take.
In the many years since, I’ve become a witness to slow transformation. I’ve seen it in fits and starts in me and in dazzling metamorphosis in clients and parishioners. But I’ve also learned this – we humans resist change! The trees permit a transformation process each year. The land seems to know. We don’t. There are reasons for this – we’re traumatized, we’re stubborn, we’re narcissistic, we’re anxious, we’re scared. The dying is painful. If we permit it, we’ll succumb like the caterpillar to the chrysalis tomb.
When I wear my therapist hat, I steward this dying for individuals and married couples. That’s hard enough. Can you imagine stewarding a congregation? An institution? I rarely see leaders steward organizations well through change processes. Many who resist this cruciform journey the most are likely on the narcissistic spectrum, I’d suggest, and thus convinced that their decisions and dictates ought to be followed unwaveringly, their success strategies employed without hesitation.
I’ve seen many pastors with big, bold visions for the future, but lacking any capacity to navigate the death journey(s) to get there. It’s sad how ‘up-and-to-the-right-Americanized’ our leadership strategies and church assessment tools are. They won’t help us through this coming drowning.
Recently, I’ve been telling my students that there is a coming ecclesial drowning, a dying we’ll be prone to resist, but a dying that is in our midst. Translate that – it’s already here. Mike Regele predicted it 25 years ago in his prophetic book The Death of the Church. Phyllis Tickle mused about it in The Great Emergence. A student texted me a few months ago and said to me, “I’ve been hired by a dying church.” She meant a local congregation, but I heard it as a larger cultural/ecclesial observation. Years ago, Regele foresaw shifting economic and demographic and technological realities contributing to a seismic shift in American ecclesial life. We’re living it now, friends.
Depending on your theological inclinations, you may think the proper survival response is to hunker down or to open the gates wide, to get more active or to get more precise. No matter, you can’t deny the dying.
In times like this, anxiety reigns. Our instinct to protect and preserve kicks in. Reactive inclinations like scapegoating and polarizing trump unhurried, reflective processes and careful thinking. In our social media age, we take to tactics that resemble mine from a long time ago (and today sometimes!) – efforts to correct and fix and convince – but in a depersonalized, sound-byte fashion.
Our anxiety is mitigated by the cheap drug of certainty. Our strategies become hostile, invasive, and (if you think you’re right, no matter your “side”) justified assholery (you won’t find the word in a theological dictionary, so don’t bother looking.) It seems that if you think you’re right, being a bully is permissible.
I don’t know exactly how this dying will play out. I’m anxious about it. It impacts my longtime call, my livelihood, even my daily mood. I’m trying to resist the urge to fix it or to propose some “this is how we’ll save the church” recipe. I’m learning to attend what I can control in my little sphere and surrender the rest.
I teach seminary students, and I can offer them some of the inner resources to navigate their own dying and the deaths they encounter. I can offer them some hope of chrysalis transformation. Right now, seminary is my small world of influence and I’ll do my best to steward the process. Plus, it takes enough energy each day to navigate my own anxious reactivity and arrogant certainty. I still have plenty of my own dying to do.
My clients will tell you that my frequent mantra is “Trust the process.” Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Jesus was both a bearer and a steward of the dying. Jesus didn’t seem anxious as the religious structures were falling apart around him. He witnessed the anxious strategies of those who wanted to forge the “right” future – the urgency-addicted Zealots and the precision-addicted Pharisees and the manipulatively-addicted Sadducees and the self-protectively addicted Essenes. He didn’t feel the urge to correct everyone at every turn, even save everyone at every turn! Instead, he told cryptic stories they’d need to chew on for years to really get. In the end, he didn’t resist when they crushed him. Jesus played the long game. What extraordinary trust in God’s generous and generative economy of things, an economy of dying and rising.
I’m anxious right now. I wonder if the churches of New York and Chicago and Los Angeles will become nostalgic stories told like the stories we tell of Smyrna, Pergamum, and Thyatira. I’m certainly not going to give up. The work is before us.
But if the transformation I’ve seen in people who’ve permitted the dying is any sign of what’s to come, I’m also deeply hopeful. The chrysalis will open and reveal something new. We’re already seeing signs of the rising. I may not be here to see it in its full fruition, but I trust the One who stewards the Great Dying and the Great Rising, the One who is in all things and holds all things in the Great Unfolding of that hidden-yet-emerging reality we call Kingdom.
Trust the process. Steward the dying and rising, friends. Most of all, trust the Risen One.
And in the meantime, I’d love your thoughts on this. Here are some questions I’m wrestling with. I invite you into the conversation.
– What does it mean to permit this dying, not just in ourselves or in people we care for, but in the church and in institutions?
– Where does permitting this simply become an excuse for being lazy and disconnected from urgent matters of justice and mercy?
– If Jesus healed some but also walked past many urgent needs he could have immediately solved, how do we choose where to engage and when?
– How do we begin to acknowledge and repent of our up-and-to-the-right self-preservation and success strategies?
– Who are the modern day Zealots? Pharisees? etc. And does our tribalistic behavior keep us from the dying and rising personally and communally?
– How do I steward this dying in a seminary institution we’re fighting to keep alive and relevant?
– How does stewarding a dying-to-rising process contribute to the revitalization of churches, of cities?
– How do we celebrate the living/growing of ethnic minority churches while we (white churches) are shrinking and dying?
– What does a cruciform leader look like amidst this new reality?
Thanks for reading. Be in touch with your musings.