DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

All That Matters

Written by: on November 12, 2020

When I arrived at my present pastoral assignment 3½ years ago, one of my first endeavors was a series of small group meetings with members of the congregation. We called it a “Listening Tour” and over the course of two weeks, my wife and I met in over a dozen homes in gatherings of ten to twenty people, engaging with close to half of our church’s active constituency.

I asked each group the same five questions while my wife took careful notes. My goal was to get a sense of the pulse of the congregation, where they saw themselves and where they wanted to go, and unearth any potential sacred cows or landmines that might be in the way.

In one of the gatherings, an older woman, a woman who was well-known in the church for her faithful participation, as well as her deeply-held opinions, had a surprising response to one of my questions. My question was “What needs to change?” During the conversation around this question, she looked straight at me and said as matter-of-factly as anyone could, “John, you can change anything you want. Just wait until after I’m dead.”

Everyone in the room had a nice laugh. And I resisted the temptation to ask the obvious follow up question about a projected timeline for her demise. The truth was that her words represented the unexpressed thoughts of many of the people who attended our Listening Tour sessions. She just happened to be the most direct.

It is now over three years later and my friend is still very much alive and kicking. But something is different. In a year where everything has changed, including countless changes in and around our church, her tone and disposition has changed as well. She still has her strong opinions, but when she comes to worship, taking her usual seat while wearing her mask, she offers a genuine and pleasant “Good morning, John.” And when she leaves and we are waving our good-byes from across the church lawn, there are kind eyes and a smile and a heart-felt “thank you.”

Had it not been for Covid-19, she probably would have resisted every last one of the changes and adaptations we have been forced to make this year. She would have told me and anyone else who would listen how we were ruining the church with our new ideas and unorthodox approaches. It only took a pandemic for her to recognize that while we might have made more cosmetic and pragmatic changes this year than ordinarily would be desired, we are fundamentally the same. We have maintained our core identity and stayed true to who we are, even while adapting our approach, method, and appearance.

The church has continued to be a steady presence for her and many others. While the church’s activities calendar has been more bare than in anyone’s memory, the church is alive in the ways that really count. And that is powerful. D’Sousa and Renner write in “Not Doing,” “just being there seems so minimal, so small a gesture, that we underestimate its power, at the right time, to change others.”[1] In our day-to-day lives, this is about the impact of just showing up. In this case, it is also true about the church offering a faithful and visible witness to the enduring and abiding presence of God, even when we take a more minimalistic approach.

Someday on the other side of all this, my older friend may well again find things to fuss about. In the meantime, as long as our focus is on proclaiming good news and offering words of comfort, hope, mercy, and grace, will we have accomplished the only thing that ultimately matters.

[1] Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner, “Not Doing: The Art of Effortless Action,” (New York: LID Publishing, 2018,) 189.

About the Author

mm

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

9 responses to “All That Matters”

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    John, I wonder if one of the hidden blessings of Covid is that it’s forced us to reevaluate what’s really important. You said that the church calendar is more bare now than in anyone’s memory, but that the church is alive in the ways that matter.

    Looking ahead, where do you see the path leading you and your congregation? Do you think that when we’re on the other side of Covid the church will naturally slide back in to filling the days up with more and more activities again? Or do you think the focus will shift? How do you keep and cultivate the new life that’s been given? Just a few reflection questions your post sparked in me haha.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I anticipate that there will be a push in the church to restore as much of what was “lost” this past year. I’ve already been talking with staff about being intentional about what we bring back, what we keep from this season, and what we can put/leave on the shelves. Will Mancini said something once about how churches often mask their deficiencies in true discipleship by just filling the calendar with activities and programs to appear busy. If this season has taught me anything, it’s that the work of the church needs to get more focused on what it alone can do, rather than just try to offer a “church alternative” to what people can get elsewhere.

      • mm Darcy Hansen says:

        That last sentence… so much truth in that. I pray wisdom for you and your team as you discern what is yours to do and not do, be and not be, as the days continue to unfold.

  2. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    The spiritual director in me so wants to know all the internal disruption that has happened in your friend. Maybe one day you’ll have a chance to visit with her and ask her what God has done in her heart since Covid began? It takes time to get from cranky, set in our ways, to “kind eyes and a smile and a heart-felt “thank you.”” I imagine her testimony would be beautiful, and one that echoes that of others. Like Dylan, I wonder how you will maintain focus on what is really important post-covid? What do you keep? What do you shed?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      Those conversations have already started as I’ve talked to staff about being intentional about our ministry going forward. I answered some of your question in my response to Dylan. But I’ll also say that it’s now clear that this time of distancing has clearly changed how a church will need to operate. People have figured out that they can do their faith development “on demand” and don’t need programs that always have to happen at set time and set places. This was already trending- it’s now a paradigm shift. Our conversations are moving toward how we can help equip and empower people to take ownership of their spiritual formation, creating opportunities to learn and to practice, while attending to the very specific (and few) things that the church is uniquely able to do.

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    John,
    Isn’t it interesting that crisis makes us pliable. I think we all get in a rut and comfortable in routine. When the routine is disrupted by an individual we get angry and resist but when the disruption is beyond one’s control we eventually become pliable and are willing to accept change. An abiding presence of love an acceptance can go a long way. As the pastor how has this abiding presence changed your leadership style? How has it effected you as an individual?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I think between what we’re experiencing in the world and what we’ve been exploring in class, this has made me a more patient leader. I’ve always been adaptable and strategic, but when confronted with the stark reality of just how much is out of our hands, I’ve learned to take more things as they come, rather than plan too far out. Personally, I’m worn out and tired as hell.

  4. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Gosh, I wish more leaders started with a listening tour.

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