I just concluded a three month sabbatical graciously and generously offered by my elders. Half way thru I realized how refreshing and odd it was to be outside my church bubble. As pastors we live, breathe and breathe-more the life of our faith community. We get so sucked in to our own echo-chamber and perspective, we miss a great deal while also making less-strategic decisions. Here are 7 risks for pastors living in the bubble of their church that God taught me.
#1 You think you are a bigger deal than you really are.
You watch, many of your staff and committee meetings make assumptions about how the various communities, audiences, and community partners will interpret, react or understand some of your church decisions. The truth is fewer of them are as interested as you are, and are likely not watching as closely. Certainly, prospective members, the spiritually curious, and your top 20% of active members watch and care, but that isn’t as big a crowd as you and your team may think. Avoid the sin of pride. Get outside the bubble.
#2 You waste time and money pursuing evangelism strategies in an echo chamber.
See #1. The echo-chamber repeats the same truths or untruths, and then resources are committed to activities and programs based on such conversations. Rather, what if you took a three week pause and ran ideas and initiatives by a focus group, members at another church in town, those of another faith group, politicians, or even another socioeconomic or racial group as your own? Getting outside the bubble’s echo-chamber will allow church leaders to shape their programs for greater effectiveness, identify blind spots, and create better ministry.
#3 You miss what God is doing in other communities.
Each summer I return to Georgia for Salem Camp Meeting. I love the week. I get to connect with my United Methodist roots and interact with mostly Methodist clergy. It amazes me how little I know of some of their debates. And how little they care about some of my tribe’s debates. Yet, the Lord is alive and radically changing lives in the United Methodist church much to my ignorance. God is at work in the Roman Catholic Church. God is at work among Pentecostals. God is at work in Anglican and Episcopal churches. May we not miss what God is doing in other communities.
On sabbatical I hiked the Orthodox monasteries of Mt Athos in Greece. Not one monk had ever heard of a Presbyterian. Not one. My tribe isn’t as big a deal to many as we think we are.
#4 You miss how you are perceived by those on the periphery of your faith community.
During my sabbatical I realized that there are SO MANY CHURCHES in the US. Our family took a three week trip half-way up the east coast and back. I passed thousands of churches. After being out of the weekly worship routine for a while, I began to gawk, wonder and think differently about the number of churches I passed. My mind would flash into possibly thinking I could feel what someone on the edge of the church or without faith at all might feel. Cynicism emerged, and I had thoughts like, “That church just wants to be separated according to its race.” “That banner out front makes no sense if you don’t know the lingo…what is Jesus saving me from anyway?” “Why would I want to come to your fellowship dinner (what is fellowship, anyhow?) as a complete stranger?”
Bottom line: we are way too inside the bubble. We need strategic professionals outside the bubble for corrective AND we need to pray for outsiders to become honest-enough personal friends that we will listen.
#5 You navel gaze.
There you go.
#6 The little things matter more than they should.
Oh, but where is the line between what is little and what should matter? I’m not sure. And neither do I think we affirm the Christian commonalities to the negligence of good theology and responsible Biblical exegesis. Yet, I do hope to explore some more which aspects of my culture, not my faith, lead me to focus on the small stuff. A west coast Presbyterian, in reference to denominational debates, once said, “Oh, Case, you Southerners never change. Always trying to secede from something!” That has always rattled in my head causing me to be cautious that I’m more faithful than patriotic or culturally conditioned. It isn’t easy.
#7 Life is way more controlled, and way more stale.
Ride the roller coasting. Get out of the box. Risk being found a fraud and completely misunderstood in order to hear deeply the cry of our culture and they longing of our creation.