Saturday, September 10, 2011

Risky Business

It was really risky. Because the congregation had reached somewhat of a plateau in its redevelopment and because of the serious financial pressure created by the economic downturn of the last three years indicated the congregation would not be able to sustain all three full-time ministry staff, I threw my hat in the ring with the other staff. The “ring” I threw it into was an ad hoc group of lay leaders who were scheduled to meet with a human resources consultant to pray and deliberate about future staffing for the mission and ministry of our congregation. I threw my hat in the ring because I knew I had came to this congregation with a call to turn their self-absorption outward and help them to do mission and ministry so that they would grow to reflect the changed and continuing-to-change community they were in. From 1990 to 2010 the community demographics have completely flipped. Once 70 percent Anglo and 30 percent Latino, the 2010 Census revealed the reversal. It is now over 70 percent Latino and less than 20 percent Anglo!

By the power of God and with the partnership of two other ministers who are Latino and lay leaders willing to take great risks, the congregation has been transformed. A third of its members were over eighty, 98 percent were Anglo, and most were middle and upper middle class. Eight years later we are over 50 percent non-Anglo, 60 percent under fifty and as diverse socioeconomically as anyone can imagine. The congregation has been transformed and much more accurately reflects the surrounding community. But now it needs to be taken to another level of transformation. Though my heart longs for stability and job security, my heart longs even more for this ministry to thrive and make a difference for the kingdom of heaven. I wanted the congregation—very well represented by this lay ad hoc group meeting with the consultant—to be able to openly and honestly deliberate about what kind of leadership the next level of development would need. So I threw my hat in the ring.

I really expected them to thank me for my years of service and the critical role I played in the transformation of the congregation up until now, but to say they needed a very different leader for the future. It was scary. But I determined to practice what I have preached and to trust the Spirit of God working in these lay leaders to discern together what leadership they needed for the future. This is one of the distinctive of reformed theology and significantly shaped the polity of the Presbyterian form of government. We believe God speaks most clearly through his gathered, praying, studying, worshiping people. It is not easy to trust God in times like these when both your professional and personal future is at stake. But I knew that Christ cares for this ministry even more than I do and that he cares for me too. And I had seen the spiritual growth of these lay leaders and their engagement with the tremendous changes that had taken place in the congregation. I had to trust the Spirit of God would lead them. I had to trust that the Spirit would provide for me and my family as had always been the case in the past.

After several meetings with the consultant they asked me to join them in order to inform me about their process and to get my input. What a surprise! I was actually left speechless at first. I am hardly ever speechless! The ad hoc group had determined unanimously—Latino and Anglo members alike—that my particular leadership was still necessary for the next phase of redevelopment. I was stunned. I had already begun to work on networking for other employment. When I regained my speech, I questioned them. I challenged them. My main concern is my very limited Spanish. They remained steadfast in their determination.

A few days later I was in flight to Pittsburgh for a conference and some study leave time, and I read A Future for the Latino Church by Daniel A. Rodriguez. Holy cow! It is full of the affirmation of this group’s decision. The U.S. Latino population is increasingly bilingual and increasingly English dominant. According to Rodriguez the most rapidly growing Latino churches have Spanish-speaking ministries, but they are predominantly English-speaking congregations.

I am so grateful that I trusted these lay leaders. I am grateful to God for their risk-taking spirit and for their dedication to the ministry and mission of our church. I have renewed energy and commitment for what lies ahead. I have very little idea what it is going to look like, but that is exactly where I found myself eight years ago. God was faithful through it all. He will continue to be faithful. That completely changes the risk factor.

For anyone in ministry facing cultural shifts of any kind I would highly recommend Rodriguez’s book. The principles are transcultural and really helpful in understanding the current changing demographics of the United States. If you have other recommendations for a good read on the subject please share that with the readers in your comments.

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