Since entering seminary, my classmates and I have changed. Our views of self, God, Scripture, and the world in which we live are no longer the same as they were before. Additionally, that world, the one in which we live and are called to do ministry, is not the same. It too has changed, and in some respects, drastically so. Even if history is destined to repeat itself, for many of us, we were not present that last time the world looked as it does now. For us, it has changed, and its change has necessitated our change. Given the prevalence and inescapable nature of the world and humankind as being ever-changing, the question for many of us is this: how does change become an opportunity for ministry, and what is the role and mission of the Church in such a diverse, ever-changing, increasingly complex world.
In Connection and Complexity: The Challenge of the New Commons, Sharon Parks Daloz addresses ways in which the world has changed over the past several decades. No longer do we live in a black and white, Pleasantville-esque kind of world where questions are few, answers are easy, and relationships are simple. This was the world of the old “commons” — a shared public place where diverse parts of the community could come together and hold a conversation, with a shared sense of participation and responsibility.
The old world where towns and communities circled around a pristine white gazebo no longer exists. Instead, we are faced with a new commons, a new world:
The new commons is global in scope, diverse in character, and dauntingly complex. A radically interdependent world economy has dissolved old boundaries, loosed waves of migrant labor, triggered smoldering cultural conflicts, and forced profound social and political reorganization at all levels. We are simultaneously fragmented into loose and shifting associations of individuals, interest groups, and tribes, yet drawn more closely into a larger web of life (p.3).
A new world, a new way to engage
In an age where much of our communication, much of our community, happens via technological means, where friendships span across the world, where local news covers more than just a few square miles and now includes the entire global community, those of us in ministry of any sort are faced with exciting opportunities as well as daunting, sometimes overwhelming challenges, both of which require us to change how we deal with change, how we engage, how we serve.
…throughout our society and in the wider world, there is a wide variety of people who, aware of the new and complex connections among us, are neither simply overwhelmed nor retreating to safe, manageable havens. Rather, wading into the complexity, they are able to work in concrete, particular ways on behalf of our common life. They practice the kind of citizenship that is needed as we enter the twenty-first century (p.5).
According to Parks Daloz, being well-equipped for living in, engaging, and serving amidst this “new commons” includes traits such as “commitment to the common good, perseverance and resilience, ethical congruence between life and work, engagement with diversity and complexity” (p.5-6). We have to think on our feet. We have to think outside of the box. Attention spans are shorter, questions are harder, and answers can seem scarce. No longer is ministry confined to a church’s physical building. It happens on street corners, in front of train stations, in bars and pubs. It happens in homes, parks, and “across the pond.”
For me personally, much of my ministry happens virtually, here on the blog. While I still have plenty of phone conversations and in-person meetings, interactions now include emails, responding to comments, Skyping/Facetiming, and other forms of digital communication. It happens with people I’ve never met in person (some of whom I like may never meet). But if this is where I am, and this is where my engagement happens, then this is where my ministry starts, at least for the moment. It starts with me writing words and you reading them. Through the exchange, we are connected, albeit ever so slightly. Whether my ministry happens in person or in writing, I still need to have and embody the traits Parks Daloz lists above, not only to ensure that my ministry is fruitful, but also that I am intentional about caring for myself so that I can provide care for others.
In No Surprises Please: Engaging Natural Resistance, Beverly Thompson and George Thompson, Jr. address the fact that change (in ministry settings) is often coupled with resistance from both those in leadership and those being lead. Using the story of post-exodus Moses and the Israelites, Thompson looks at why resistance happens how to manage it. “Sometimes people don’t want to change; at other times, people don’t know how to change” (p.100).
Sometimes people don’t want to change; at other times, people don’t know how to change.
Resistance can happen when people perceive change as being forced to abandon the comfortable, let go of the familiar, or abandoning deeply held beliefs. Resistance to change is natural in any setting and should not be condemned or shamed. For those of us in leadership, facilitating change requires empathy, creativity, humility, and patience. When we ask those we serve to change, we must make it clear that we, too, will undergo change. When an individual changes, a community changes, and vice versa.
Margaret Wheatley, in Change: The Capacity of Life, writes about chaos theory. Systems are made up of parts, but the system cannot be wholly understood just by looking at its individual parts. You have to look at the whole. That being said, it is also important to address and understand what role the parts play in the system. The two are irrefutably interconnected. When we just look at the parts, all we see is chaos, disorder. It isn’t until we look at the whole that the chaos begins to make sense. As far as ministry is concerned, this is also true.
When we look at organizations or congregations, we must seek to understand and function within these systems as a whole while still understanding more about their individual components—their people, their politics, and their place. When a church is facing change, not only must we address the needs of its individual members, but we must also address the needs of the body as a whole. In my partner’s religious order, there is a time during ritual where leaders walk around to individuals and, placing their hands on the members’ chests, say “I am thee, and thou art me.” A system is dependent upon its parts, and the parts are dependent upon the system. Without one, the other makes no sense.
Looking for God in the change
As far as I’m concerned, where change is, there God is also. In my Pneumatology class, we talk about God’s Spirit as the one who “does a new thing.” The Spirit facilitates changes. Sometimes we know it’s her. Other times we don’t, either because we can’t see her working, or because we choose not to see her working. As inevitable as change is, it’s hard. It’s painful, disorienting, and sometimes heartbreaking. Sometimes change is for the better, and other times it’s for the worse. Change can be minute, or it can be drastic. For me personally, when I see change happening, or when I’m undergoing change, I ask myself where God is, and if I discover God to be nearby, I ask whether God’s the one causing the change or trying to stop it.
We live in a world that is constantly changing, and not always for good. But the reality, the inevitability of change, gives me hope that someday, our world can be transformed into what it can be, what it should be, and what it needs to be for us to see God’s kingdom fulfilled and made wholly manifest.
I want to be a part of change, not just sit by and watch it walk past me unnoticed. I want to facilitate it, and I recognize my inability to do this alone. We need change. Our world needs change. And we need each other to make it happen.
MICHAEL OVERMAN is a seminarian at Garrett-Evangelical in Evanston, IL. As a self-admitted “old soul”, Michael is more than comfortable asking the tough questions and not having immediate answers. Michael is passionate about all things interfaith, challenging the religious status quo — and baking whenever possible. A graduate from Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL with a BA in psychology, Michael believes Emma Thompson in Angels in America when she says, “In the new century, I think we will all be insane.” Find Michael on Twitter @irishremix8406 or catch up on his blog at www.FindingTheBalance.net.