Is this the end of church as we know it? From the Reformation to the first congregations, Michele (Schrock) ’81 Hershberger and Jessica (Schrock) ’02 Schrock-Ringenberg of Hesston College’s Center for Anabaptist Leadership and Learning (CALL) talk through what a resilient church might look like in an age of polarization and pandemic.
It gives us permission to be helpless, and it’s in that state of helplessness that beautiful new things emerge.
What do we mean when we talk about the “resilient church”?
Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg (JSR): This is one of my favorite topics. As a pastor, I remember having this incredible sense of hope and excitement about what was happening on an individual and collective level, seeing people in our congregation just blossom. But hovering over the top of all of that was this sense that the structure of what we called “the church”—the building and the programs and the budgets and the attendance, the ways we’ve always defined success of the church—that’s where I despaired. I see all these good things happening in the people who are here, but what we believed to be the successful version of this church is no more. I really struggled with that. So what does it mean to be the resilient church? It’s the people, not the programs or the budgets or the buildings.
Michele Hershberger (MH): It’s been a tough year for the church. Well, shoot, it’s been a tough couple years. We’re talking about how people aren’t going to church, we’re talking about climate change, we’re talking about political division, and then—surprise, surprise—here comes COVID. But in the midst of really tough times lies a great opportunity for church leaders (and leaders in higher education, as well) to get permission to try new, out-of-the-box, crazy things. And those new things will bring renewal! Sometimes we don’t want to make difficult changes. But we have this wonderful opportunity with COVID and all these other disruptive elements, which in a sense gives us permission to try. It gives us permission to be helpless, and it’s in that state of helplessness that beautiful new things emerge.
What “difficult changes” must the church make in order to become more resilient?
MH: In the last 100 years we have become a consumeristic church. (I actually think in some ways this is also true of higher education.) So the church gets a hired gun called a “church leader,” and he or she does ministry for us on our behalf, and then we wonder why we’re disinterested, dissatisfied and feel lifeless.
COVID is forcing us as church members to take responsibility for our own faith formation and the faith formation of others. It’s more biblical to understand that everyone is a minister in their own right. I’m not saying, “Get rid of paid professionals.” (I mean, CALL helps to train people for that!) But we’ve forgotten that the primary job of those trained professionals is to equip everyone to do their ministry. We say those words, but we’ve long ago lost the passion to actually follow through.
We also need to talk about converting our concept of “church.” I hear people say, “Oh my goodness, COVID is taking away church!” I’m like, “Are you kidding me? You and I are both Christians, we’re here sitting outside at Lincoln Perk, we just prayed for each other three minutes ago! What are you talking about? COVID can’t take away real church! We’re in church right now!”
JSR: You know, Michele, it’s funny you say that. I remember learning in your Anabaptist History class about the Reformation and how priests were paid to be holy on behalf of the people. We learned that the Reformation reclaimed the believer’s identity as a disciple. That meant going back to church as those in Scripture did it: the priesthood of all believers, doing church the way Jesus did church. As a church we’ve returned to the place where one voice in the front of the church tells everybody what to do and what to believe. They’re the only one that reads their Bible and they’re only one that’s supposed to be faithful, which is really just a return to the space we were in before the Reformation.
So it’s exciting to see how during the pandemic house churches are springing up everywhere. People are like, “Okay, we can’t meet en masse, so we’re just going to have church in our home. We’re all going to read our Bibles together. We’re all going to pray for each other.” The ministry has been put back in the hands of the people. It’s almost as if COVID made it necessary, and honestly it’s so incredibly exciting to see that happen. I like the saying that “the pain of not changing must become greater than the pain of change.” I actually don’t think we’re there yet. I think we’re in the wilderness and we’re longing to go back to Egypt. I almost wonder if the church needs to stay in this painful space a little longer!
MH: That’s exactly right, Jessica. We’re not creating something new or hoping for something new; we are hoping for something that is more biblical. Every time the church is under threat, it blossoms. Every time the church looks like it’s ending, God intervenes. That’s the big story: God makes a way where there is no way.
What does leadership look like in the resilient church?
MH: A key both in the church and in higher education is that leaders must be willing to step into the chaos. We have to embrace the mess. We need to give up some of our perceived power so that we can learn and do new things. I think one of the beautiful gifts CALL offers is that we try to help our pastors and our future pastors not see themselves as sages on the stage. It can’t be about us anymore. While that can seem really scary and awful and threatening, there is a gift in being helpless. It seems counterintuitive.
JSR: Kansas Leadership Center defines leadership as an activity, not a position. That’s similar to what I was being taught about the body of Christ, in which people who are gifted in different ways work together for the benefit of the body. The authority is in the body, not necessarily in a democratic system but more through spiritual discernment. Not everybody should have an equal voice in spiritual leadership. If you walk in off the street and become a church member after a year, you don’t necessarily have as strong of a voice as the church member who has been working at deep discipleship for years and is a part of leadership. There has to be a discernment process and intentional discipleship. When I say intentional discipleship I mean creating intentional practices on a regular basis that really work at spiritual growth, self-awareness, introspection and holding each other accountable to look more and more like Jesus. Once the church adopts an intentional discipleship process, I believe leadership will blossom. More and more people will say, “I thought it was going to be a lot harder than that, but it turns out even I can grow in my spiritual discipleship. Even I can be a leader in the church.” That’s really what we’re looking at trying to develop: the capacity for discipleship in everyday people. Those disciples make up the body that leads together.
MH: Well said! I just want to add that I think we’re living in a paradox. First, we’re living in a postmodern world. The authority of the office no longer means anything to anybody. You earn your authority through your integrity and who you actually are. That’s a good thing! Somehow we need to understand that all people are called. One special calling would be a pastoral or a professional calling, but that calling starts to look different when you think about leadership as an activity. In that sense, anyone can be a leader.
Leadership and authority is gained from one’s integrity and from one’s ability to help people do difficult things that they don’t really want to do. Anabaptists 500 years ago understood that the greatest power is the power of submission to God, the power of love, the power of nonviolence. The Mennonite Church of the last 50 years has become a vanilla mishmash of servant leaders. We do everything for people but we never just speak our mind and help people do tough stuff. I used to be all for servant leadership. I’m not anymore. We have trained our Mennonite leaders in the past 50 years to be great servants. We have not trained them to be real leaders. I’m working on training people who are leaders and not just managers. There’s a huge difference.
JSR: We are trying to train people who see their job is to equip other leaders. Leaders who make leaders. I’m not successful if I’m doing it all by myself and everybody’s watching me. But if I am able to grow the capacity of leadership in the people around me, then I’m a good leader. It’s not a one-person show. The voice of the church has to be multifaceted. It has to include every gift, every walk of life. It needs leaders who are able to read the scripture, interpret the scripture, preach, minister, be present in their communities. It’s really about being able to develop the capacity of what we would call “the people in the pew.” But hopefully they’re not going to be in the pew! Hopefully they’re going to be out and about, serving their communities and making disciples as they go. COVID is going to create a vacuum and the true leaders have got to step up.
We need to learn to say, “You know what? We don’t know what we’re doing, but it’s okay if we fail. Jesus still sticks with us.” A resilient church keeps at it.
What does the resilient church look like in the real world?
MH: As it was 500 years ago, we might see a lot of our own empty cathedrals as the church finds its way elsewhere. We need to help people to see that church is Thursday afternoon, Tuesday morning, Saturday night. There are those appropriate times where we gather just as Christians in small groups to work on our own faith formation, but that’s only a small part of church. I have my neighbors over and we just talk about the Kansas City Royals, but I’m building a relationship so that they know that if they get sick I’m going to come bring food even though I’m half scared of COVID, and that somehow everybody in the church is doing that. I’m in Dillons and the person in front of me can’t pay her food bill, and I pay it forward—literally!—and then never see the person again. We can give up Sunday school and some of the other things so dear to us, we can start to understand that what happened at Dillons was church, too! That means that pastors need to do some retraining. I don’t think anybody’s hardly good enough of a leader to do this without some emergency like COVID, but now? We’re going to start to do it.
JSR: It really does have a lot to do with getting back to the basics. In Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton talks about how Moses had to go into the wilderness first by himself before he could lead the children of Israel out. He went out into the wilderness to discover who he was. Was he Hebrew? Was he Egyptian? For the children of Israel, going out into the wilderness is a deep identity search, too. I think that this is our wilderness. The church needs to do a deep identity search to say, “Okay, what is the church? Who are we? Why are we here?” Then we need to begin to remove the pieces that we have set in stone that we don’t need anymore.
MH: I use the analogy of cancer. When cells that are supposed to die, don’t die, and then continue to clump on top of each other, that’s where the tumor forms. Now you have this mass that shouldn’t be there. We have all these extra parts we added to the church for a moment in time, but we can’t let them die. We’re too afraid to let them go, and now they’ve entombed us and we can’t move. We’re stuck in what has been and we don’t know what else is there for us. So we really have to be able to do that deep identity search in the wilderness and say, “Okay, what is unnecessary? Can we let it go? Can we have a memorial service for all of those things that we’re trying to keep alive when there’s no life left, and then see what happens?” What’s left after that is the resilient church. We pastors have to repent of our need for our identity in the church to stay the same. Yes, we want control. Our egos get stroked. It’s about us. And it’s never supposed to have been about us. It’s God’s mission, not ours. It just goes to show, we can do really good things for really lousy reasons.
JSR: That’s one of the things I love about CALL: we really do focus on helping people accept their belovedness and their identity in God, because that’s the only way that you can do the hard change. We need to reframe our minds. We need to risk failure. Our CALL class just finished up yesterday. We read through Mark, which is my favorite gospel. I love it because the disciples fail and fail and fail and fail. Even to the very end they look like absolute failures. But Jesus still believes in them. He gives them a lot of latitude to figure out who they are in ministry, and they still fail. I think that’s a very important book for us in this time and space. We need to learn to say, “You know what? We don’t know what we’re doing, but it’s okay if we fail. Jesus still sticks with us.” A resilient church keeps at it.
We need to remember that Jesus had 12 disciples and somehow he made a movement out of that. For some reason we have this idea that we need the masses in order to be the church. The Tampa Underground Movement has this saying that, “As long as the missionary lives then you still have a church.” So we may close the door of this building, but as long as the people that were still attending there are still alive you still have a church. We need to get out of the scarcity mindset. There might only be 15 people attending, but those are 15 people. That’s more than Jesus had! So how do we start seeing the potential in the people that are here with us and then investing ourselves into developing their gifts? If you do that, you have not just 15 attenders but 15 equipped ministers of the gospel. It’s just a mentality shift.