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I’ve just read a great article for an online collegiality group I’m part of (and thanks to Julie Lepp in Eau Claire for suggesting it). It’s by Mark Miller-McLemore, and it’s called “Revaluing ‘Self-Care’as a Practice of Ministry.” Miller-McLemore has a lot of good things to say, but here’s a long quote that really caught my attention. It’s from a unpublished essay delivered by Neill Grimes to the Association of Disciple Pastors for Theological Discussion. The essay, called “Reflections on ‘The Pastoral Life’: ‘I Am a Stranger and Foreigner on the Earth,’” begins this way:
In four pastorates across 28 years, I have not entered a pastoral setting that was not in severe need of redemptive work. I followed clergy problems, entered spiritually and emotionally bankrupt lay populations, moved among grave arguments about programming, faced power blocks older than my age, danced my way through issues of gender and sexuality, along with any number of other maladies that might plague a community of faith in the past three decades. These pastorates were all set into a greater context of decline and conflict. The mainline was becoming the sideline and the Disciples were declining faster than most.
…Our numbers are shrinking and our presence is greatly diminished and continuing to decline.
People, lay and clergy, are working diligently but the decline continues. Imaginations and faithfulness have been harnessed for new work and dreams, but the decline continues. My fear is whether there will be a Disciple church for my grandchildren.
It is difficult to be one of the many who by the dice roll of history are presiding over this decline. We can do wonderful analyses and point out all sorts of reasons from culture wars to paradigm shifts, but it is still not fun to be in the captain’s seat at this point in time.
I might add that it’s not a joyride for the passengers, either. And while what Grimes has to say may not describe the situation in Unitarian Universalist congregations exactly, it’s pretty darn close. Our numbers, too, are declining. Good people are working diligently, but to no avail. And for many ministers, it’s “not fun to be in the captain’s seat at this point in time.” I have to confess, if I were a active parish minister right now, I’d be at a bit of a loss. My seminary training never really broached the subject of how to pastor a church in decline. And now we’re experiencing the same feeling on the regional and national level. Numbers continue to go down, and although we are also harnessing our “imaginations and faithfulness…for new work and dreams,” nothing seems to be altering the inevitable trajectory of our decline. So my questions: How do we face this future? What must we do to remain faithful to our call? Where do we find the strength to go on? (Hint: It will take more than holding hands and singing Jeannie Gagné’s “I Know I Can,” although that can help.)