Recalculating

9/19/11
by Bill Wilson

It comes in a variety of accents. It can be a man’s voice or a woman’s (my favorite is the female Australian). It can break your heart or serve as a warning. It will mock you. It will scold you. When I am behind the wheel, to hear it makes me cringe. If you have a GPS in your vehicle, you know the word “recalculating”. It means you have taken a wrong turn, you might be lost, or at the very least you have wandered off the path your GPS prefers that you take. The unspoken message is “way to go dummy, now wait patiently while I figure out how to get us out of this mess.”

Every generation comes up with words that aptly describe their era. From “groovy” to “whatever”, the English language has an amazing ability to morph and shape itself to fit an ever-changing population. Could it be that “recalculating” is a word that describes congregational life early in the 21st century?

Every healthy minister and congregation I know is doing some form of recalculating. Most ministers come out of their theological training only semi-prepared for what they find when they go to work in a local church. No surprise there, that is the prevailing model of higher education in most specialties. Why do you think Medical School graduates go from Medical School to a Residency, rather than straight into practice? For most clergy, our theological education is the background for the ongoing education that begins at graduation. Every sensible minister understands that recalculating is the normative way of life for us. To be described as relevant is one of the greatest compliments one can receive as a minister or as a congregation.

While we serve an unchanging God and represent eternal truth, the methods by which we do so change daily. Recalculating is the standard operating stance for effective ministers. Every day, our antennae are up and sensitive to the ebb and flow of the world we live in. We must read, think, pray, and experience our culture constantly if we are to be able to link the Good News of Christ with those around us. We cannot assume that what we knew five years ago about our community or those we serve holds true today.

Likewise, congregations are awakening to the fact that recalculating is an essential skill that we must master. Some things do not change about us, and those unchanging eternal truths are the values at our very core. Everything else, however, is changeable. Whether it be worship times, styles, music, structure, facilities, VBS schedule, ministry partners, or staff job descriptions, the operative word must be “recalculating”. Everything that is not eternal is temporal, and should be regarded as open to recalculation.

Healthy congregations and clergy invest significant money, time and effort in this regard. They engage in proactive thinking, rather than reactive. This means they actually schedule time to think, brainstorm and project into the future. Most of us are so busy trying to do all that has to be done this week, that the idea of taking time away to think and reflect, in the spirit of Jesus, is laughable. Actually, it is laughable to imagine that we can do the work of the Kingdom without time devoted to recalculating.

To embrace “recalculating” as an essential ingredient in our congregational life will mean sending staff and key leaders away on retreats, to conferences, and insisting that they leave day-to-day operations to others in order to recalculate. It will mean we invite clergy to think more and do less, to pray more and perform less, to reflect more and talk less.

The new reality of congregational and clergy health includes a healthy dose of what the corporate world calls “R and D”: research and development. How are you going to make such thinking part of your daily and weekly diet of responsibilities? What you are going to do to encourage your ministerial staff members to recalculate regularly?

Occasionally, I get fed up with my GPS and it’s insistence on recalculating. I turn it off and launch out on my own, choosing to ignore the fact that I am hopelessly lost. Such journeys seldom end well, either for me, your staff or your congregation.

Perhaps we need a female Australian voice over our loudspeakers at church inviting us to stop, admit we are a bit lost, and “recalculate.” Would we be so wise as to cultivate a congregational culture that encourages recalculating among its leadership? If we do, we may find ourselves squarely on the path God has envisioned for us as we move into the future.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health (www.healthychurch.org).

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