By Kristine Blaess
Back in 2011, I was serving a small church in rural Idaho. We were two years into the 2009 recession with no end in sight in our small corner of the world. Our financial pledgers were retiring from their careers and our church budget, which was tiny to begin with, bottomed out. We all know that great ministry can be done on a shoestring, but how do you run a church on $33,000?
During these two years of pandemic, I’ve thought often about the struggle for life that my little congregation in Idaho fought. I think often, too, about our churches today who are facing the same struggle for survival.
The story I told in 2011 started like this:
By the end of this story, my job won’t exist anymore. This is a story about a congregation and its pastor finding life through death. This is a story about a congregation and a pastor discovering, inside a story about death, failure, and lack, the hidden seeds of renewal and rebirth [and] hope for the next generations. This is a story about a congregation and a pastor flourishing despite the death that pervades our reality, being brought to life through death. Even though this story involves death, it is ultimately about rejoicing in new life.
For the last 18 months of my 11-year tenure at this little church, I labored alongside our lay leaders knowing that my final labor of love would be to leave. This church will likely never have an on-site ordained minister again. My labor during those 18 months was to equip the lay leaders to lead their church into the future. We believed that the call upon this church was just as lively as the call made upon it when it was birthed in 1902. The call upon this church continues to be to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, into a community that is mostly Mormon. So we labored together to birth a lay-led church that is in love with Jesus.
During these 18 months of formation, our method was simple. Our small group of leaders and their spouses met weekly in homes for Bible study. We used a variation of the African Bible Study method, reading Scripture each week to listen for God speaking to us and discerning together how God might be asking us to respond.
Periodically I gathered these leaders together with leaders of other small churches in the same situation for prayer, fellowship, and leadership training. We learned about leading ourselves from Peter Senge, leading organizations from Ronal Heifetz, and leading profound change from Otto Scharmer.
We spent months learning how the polity of the church might flex to allow a team of three lay preachers to lead the church.
Most profoundly in this labor of love together, we learned about willingly following Jesus into loss that felt like failure. We learned about entering into a crucible of suffering as we tried to follow Jesus’ call. We learned about planning for a future where a leadership hand-off would be made, where the congregation would enter a season being led by ministers raised up from their own community. We learned how this path must be walked, both in solitary and unspoken suffering, but also in the joy of a new vision being held before all our eyes. We learned the Christlike character of dying to ourselves for the sake of renewal and new life for others.
The Sunday after I was awarded my doctorate was my last Sunday with the people of this church. It was a poignant day for me as I said goodbye to people who had been my family for eleven years. But it was also a day of great joy, because the next Sunday our team of newly-minted lay pastors would step into their own, into the ministry we had worked with God to prepare for them. In God’s providence, the day after that door closed for me, I was introduced to the rector of the church where my husband and I would soon be called and would flourish for the next seven years.
A decade later, the team of lay pastors is still leading this small church. I suspect the church has grown, and I’ve enjoyed seeing them alive and active as they have begun streaming services on Facebook during the pandemic. I still love them like crazy and am fiercely proud of them.
I look back, and I wonder about the formation we did together. Who was forming whom? Without the 18 months we spent together in intentional formation, these lay leaders would probably have still stepped successfully into their leadership roles. But they invested in me during those months, giving space and grace to grow in my trust in the Lord, to grow in humility, and to grow in courage to follow Christ no matter the cost. In the end, I was probably the one most profoundly given the gift of death and rebirth.
I wonder if there are encouragements we can draw for the many congregations and clergy who are facing the same sorts of challenges these days? Perhaps an encouragement is to keep moving forward, trusting that life lived in Christ draws us into deep relationships and vulnerability with those whom we serve. Our vocation calls us into suffering as we suffer along with, and sometimes on behalf of, those we serve. And often, the kingdom of God is found in the small and quiet things, where along with people we love and serve, we take courage to die to ourselves and be reborn into resurrection life. This is where renewal starts. Even though our stories involve death, they are ultimately about rejoicing in new life. And this is why with the psalmist we can cry, “Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name; make known his deeds among the peoples. Sing to him, sing praises to him, and speak of all his marvelous works” (Ps. 105:1-2).