From the Depths
I finished the Christmas Eve service here in Northern California, zipped over to our small airport and hopped a plane to Seattle (our hometown) to join Anne, all our kids and both families for a celebratory week. Oops. Didn’t happen. Covid struck. So did a rare Seattle snowstorm, for that matter. But covid kept most family gatherings from happening and meant that we took a LOT of snow walks. In masks. I’ve talked to enough of you to know that ours is just one of many similar experiences.
Now the next explosive surge of the pandemic is upon us. Numbers are bad. Ministry is challenging, particularly for someone like me who relishes in-person contact.
So many questions. How long will this last? Will we wear masks forever? Will I ever be able to visit people, see someone smile or strike up a new relationship? I’m not sure about you, but I’m sometimes feeling out of my depth. By that I don’t mean I have no ideas, tools or talents to operate with in these circumstances, only that the ground of ministry feels wobbly. My strengths and joys are not being played to.
This morning I read that statistic you’ve all heard by now from Barna Research–which for Presbyterians seem to be only slightly below Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And Lilly, of course. Here’s the stat: 38% of pastors are giving serious consideration to leaving the ministry for another profession. For mainline denominations, that goes up to 62%. I’m not in either statistic, but I guess I’m not the only one feeling out of my depth. Two things have happened recently which reminded me of my calling.
The first involved something I’ve been thinking about lately. Depth. Spiritual depth. I’m growing weary of shallow voices from the Christian community that sound more like politics with a spiritual veneer than someone committed to follow Jesus no matter what it costs. Spiritual depth. Going deeper with Jesus. That topic actually turned out to be the theme of a leadership renewal program retreat I was on recently. What if every situation we faced had the potential to draw us closer to Jesus? Good things, mundane ones, tragedies–what if all of it could potentially deepen our faith? It’s not rocket science, of course, not a new idea. And I presume it’s one which all of us would nod our heads affirmatively on, and sort of mentally move on. That’s what I was doing at the retreat. Then I watched it become personal.
One of the program members gave a very brief testimony. He’s retired, and his wife of many decades was diagnosed with a serious illness in May last year. She died in December, unexpectedly fast. The raw pain and loss were etched on his face and resonant in his voice as he shared. Grief. To hear him talk haltingly about almost anything would have been powerful. But to listen as he affirmed that God was not only with him but had given him a longing to see how this great loss might also draw him closer to Jesus…put a lump in my throat. Am I looking at the circumstances and far easier situations of my life with that kind of wonder and faith? Going deeper.
The second event was less dramatic. Our small church decided, rather spontaneously, to have a prayer time on January 6th since it was the first week of a new year, the anniversary of the Washington DC insurrection, and also Epiphany. So we quickly publicized it, and made sure we had livestream capabilities. We spread a circle of chairs wide in the sanctuary to have safe distances, opened the doors, turned on the fans and people came masked. About 15 people showed up, with maybe another dozen listening in by livestream. We had a few scriptures and a bit of structure, but mostly it was people praying. Lament, praises, prayers for the nation, and requests. It lasted an hour.
Halfway through, as I was meditating on my sense of being out of my depth, not sure how to lead in time of pandemic, doubtful of what churches should really be doing…it hit me. This. This is what God’s people do when times are difficult. We pray. When there’s fear or loss or uncertainty, we come together and pray. It’s not glamorous, nor will anyone include it in a book on growing your church. It’s just what we do.
As we prayed, I thought about our little group of 15, in a small church on the northern edge of Santa Rosa, CA. What good was it, really? Then I thought, “There’s probably a home group from some other church across town meeting right now, and praying. And up in Windsor, the next town north, and Healdsburg after that. There are couples or small groups or churches meeting tonight, praying.” And on and on through Northern California, up the coast into Oregon and Washington, and out across the country. People praying. Why? Because this is what God’s people do in hard times. We pray. When the final “Amen” was spoken in the sanctuary, I realized that I was on familiar and firm ground again. I didn’t feel out of my depth. And I’m pretty sure I went a little step deeper with Jesus.
So if you are in the 62%…or even the 38%. Or if your pastor, or anyone you know is feeling shaky in ministry…encourage them. We need leaders more than ever. Good ones. Not to give us shiny new techniques, but to give us raw and fresh and faithful words, and remind us to pray. That’s what God’s people do in hard times.
Peace of Christ,
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as a member of The Fellowship Community Board.