Mark 3:13-15; 6:6b-13
Rev. Kit Billings
August 22, 2004
Given that it is late August and most congregations in America are thoroughly gearing themselves up for a new church year, so to speak, I'd like to talk with you today about one of the most important subjects there is for people who choose to organize ourselves into spiritual communities, which is that God calls us to take the risk of making time for intentional conversations in order to do strategic planning.
Now, you may be suddenly thinking to yourself, “Oh my goodness! Strategic planning?! You must be kidding pastor Kit! How could you choose to preach about such an immensely SNOOZE-LADEN subject as this on a Sunday Sabbath?”
And my reply, before you write off this theme this morning, I would argue that you need to give it a chance…a serious chance. For if or when any kind of congregation, be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever, chooses to ignore its opportunities to carefully organize itself, then be aware of the repercussions that follow, all of which tend to greatly negatively impact the group. The negative impact of choosing not to enter into conversation to strategically plan our year ahead opens the door for a sense of being lost in a fog of uncertainty, feeling more disconnected from the Divine, which tends to create what I would call spiritual malaise.
While on the contrary, congregations who choose to follow the Lord's calling as we see it in His Holy Word to increase strategic planning allow the Lord to reveal an inspiring and clear sense of identity, of open and surprising dialogue with God and His will for our church, and a greater feeling of communal bondedness as we grow in developing the deeper purposes of living in this world God has made.
I'll be honest with you, when someone brings up the subject to me of STRAGIC PLANNING for the year to come, not to mention the next five years to come, I typically have a simple, recognizable reaction inside—YIPES! There is some natural (as opposed to spiritual) part of me that instantly reacts to the subject of congregational organizing, and that part of me may easily reel against the invitation to do such activity. If you find yourself having such a reaction, then I sympathize with it, but at the same time I heartily challenge it.
Why? Because first of all we see in the story of the Bible, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament Scriptures that God sees a lot of meaning in people getting more organized, in creating plans together. Well, what possibly could be God's wisdom in people taking precious time in life to sit and discuss, and do research for, religious organizing and planning? And you know what, I've discovered the secret answer (for me at least), which is that when human beings choose to engage such planning it draws us into conversations…….discussions that typically wind up taking on a very special quality of holiness about them, due to the awesome subject matter they are centered upon.
When groups of people choose to embrace strategic planning, we find ourselves dealing with the terrific experience of discerning and clarifying who we are as a unique and special group of people with certain unique talents and histories, unlike any other group on the face of this planet! Also, by delving together into the spiritual substance of planning out the year or next five years to come we therefore open ourselves through prayer to actually feeling and discerning God's Divine will for us—and boy there is nothing more awesome than getting in touch with the will and direction of Infinite Love and Power moving through one's own unique group of spiritual seekers. In so doing, we become led to want to learn about who our neighbors are around us and to see how we may be able to help God bless their lives in new ways. These things create very deep and joyful perceptions of purpose in life. They help us move out of the darkness and into the Light! And we get opened up deep within to one of life's most delightful experiences—which is simply being involved in God's direct work of saving human beings from gross selfishness, and moving them more into spiritual love, compassion and faith.
The ancient Hebrews were once God's primary chosen people. Their story contains important wisdom for all religious communities throughout time. It is no accident that after Yahweh, their Lord, brought them out of slavery in Egypt to that holy and stark mountain, Mt. Sinai, that God began His work of helping them to organize themselves and to begin to discover their own unique identity and purpose in life. Thus, we read about God giving them the awesome Ten Commandments, which if embraced led the Hebrews to love and worship the Lord more than anything else in life. They led them to become more honest people, making lying a sin. They led them to discover the great meaning of not becoming workaholics, and instead making time each week to relax and enjoy involvement in spiritual things and purposes, which really makes life a joy to live. The Ten Commandments led them into the peace of trying to honor their mothers and fathers, and to avoiding chaos-producing things like adultery. They led them into the great meaning of trying to love and have respect for my neighbor, instead of coveting the things that others own, and avoiding the horrors of killing and the sin of stealing.
But then, after the Ten Commandments were given by the Divine, then what happened? Did God lead Moses into directly guiding the Hebrews straight into the Promised Land? No. He didn't. God didn't do that. Why is that do you think?
I believe because first of all the Lord knew how good and meaningful it is for people to gain a thorough sense of identity—of what we believe is goodness and righteousness, and what we believe to be unholy and dangerous to our soul's well-being. And so, we read in Exodus and Leviticus about how God spent years helping the Hebrews to gain a lot of clarity about who they were and what their purpose in life was. Also, we read in their story about how God led Moses to keep the ancient Hebrews wandering in the hot, barren desert together, where their character and spiritual muscle would be tested. Do you think that those ancient Israelites would have really learned how to deeply trust in God without taking them first through the wilderness regions of Sinai? Where they had to trust each day of their existence to receive the manna and quail in the desert?
Well, I don't. I can see quite beautifully how in God's infinite wisdom He knew how crucial and meaningful it would be to those Israelite people to learn what it means to trust in Him every day, and to let the Lord lead my life every day, no matter what happens to me in external circumstances. There is SO MUCH peace and strength we gain in learning to trust in the Lord and let Him lead us through His Holy Word and through prayer. These awesome, wonderful spiritual graces are not something that God simply can bestow inside of us as adults—they are qualities and strengths that need to be developed, discovered, and wanted. AND, they are graces that we were born to discover and experience more deeply and powerfully by means of having holy conversations together about who we are, what we prayerfully and thoughtfully discern God's purpose for us to be, and who our neighbor is that the Lord needs us to serve and care for.
Congregational planning, strategic planning within a church, draws people into claiming their identity, which is an invigorating experience. Also, it enables people to identify just how they connect with some aspect of the Bible's themes and characters. Typically, when congregations do this kind of thing they need to take time to identify what they see as their own internal/congregational strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of their neighborhood and city or town community. This can be a rather eye-opening experience, as well as a difficult one at times.
One congregation discovered, for example, that they were afraid to be and do what they perceived God was calling them to achieve, which of course is nothing new really. The ancient Hebrew people were often found to be afraid and grumbling with God—complainers in the biggest of ways.
Well, this one church in our country realized through several weeks of biblical reflection and prayer and conversation that in truth they felt that God was calling them to do what Isaiah heard the Lord saying to the Israelite people: to “mount up with wings like eagles.” (40:31) However, this congregation had spent many years getting thoroughly inundated with the new ethos growing in our country since the mid-1960's.
You see, being a member of and committed to a church congregation used to be the “in thing” in the United States, up until the mid-1960's, and then gradually across the board people in our country began turning away from the organized church, in favor of dropping out of religion, sleeping in on Sundays, and choosing certain teenage sporting activities over and above learning about God and how we can help and support those in need, and those in trouble. Way back when nearly every business owner kept her or his store closed on Sundays, honoring it as a day of devotion to God. Now today Sunday is but another special shopping day and a day to perhaps buy that new car I've had my eye on for days. Eventually, as the decades have passed, active, committed Christian church involvement became the minority thing to do in our society and the new mission fields are now not only those in Guatemala and Russia, but also in every American city and township.
The challenges within organized religious life and growing such spiritual communities has gotten pretty frightening for some. And that is why a certain congregation in our country realized that instead of being and behaving like eagles, they were more like chickens. Instead of addressing and challenging the problems in their neighborhood, then ran from them like chickens going somewhere to lay an egg. And so, during their strategic planning process, they chose to change their church logo to that of a flying chicken. As a way of being honest about their fears, and not denying them nor running from them, they chose to have some serious fun with it and see themselves for what they really were—chickens. But they were not just any chicken, they were going to be flying chickens, with the Lord's great courage and support! So it was through their good planning activities and taking the time together to discuss things as they really are, they learned how to overcome their weakness and turn it into a strength.
Current literature on congregational strategic planning reveals that there is no one, set approach to church life and outreach that works for every church, every board, nor every pastor. The experts in church planning have learned that every person, every minister, every lay leader and every area in which a particular church exists is unique. The truth is, that only those special individuals that are a part of any one church community are the people who can (with God's Divine help and leading) discern not only who we are, but also what we understand God calling us to do. Also, each church must have at least a handful of dedicated folks willing to stand up and be leaders, and ministers are included in this grouping. For indeed, there are certain tasks and responsibilities that every pastor faces that bring out the chicken in us too, and we must be willing within God's presence and support to do our part in both planning and implementing what we feel the Lord calls us to do.
Jesus Christ our Lord once said, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Mtt. 9:37-38) Every person's commitment and involvement, therefore, is critical for the Lord's church to thrive and grow. Clearly, our Lord Jesus saw the wisdom of calling people into serving the church, since we read this morning about Him calling the twelve into their collective relationship. And, Christ gave them assignments that forced the twelve to go out without a lot of material support, but still to trust in the Lord's love and power that was with them, bringing healing forces to bear upon their society, being active agents for the Kingdom of Heaven and fighting the demonic spirits who work to destroy and tear people down. The Lord's disciples went out, therefore, and preached a gospel of repentance. They drove out demonic spirits and anointed many people with oil and healed them of their diseases.
I believe that this year, both our congregation here in St. Louis, and our sister church up in Royal Oak, Michigan (whose pastor and parishioners are here with us today), have vital work to do for God and for the good angels and healing forces within the Lord's New Church on earth. I'm thankful to the Lord that He has placed me in the wonderful role of minister to help in every way I can in carefully planning out how we here in St. Louis can serve God's interests, together in a special and unique way, which fits within our time, talent and capabilities.
May we all be open to the good and appropriate and inspiring directions that the Lord has in store for us in this upcoming year ahead. Amen.