Written by Gradye Parsons
Each month the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Moderator or Vice Moderator of the 220th General Assembly write a column of general interest for the church-at-large.
Sustainability is a word that is used in many contexts. We talk about it with farms that have found the balance between what the soil can give up and what the soil needs to be healthy. It is used to refer to communities who have the resources they need to maintain a healthy economic life. Energy sources that are renewable also are viewed in terms of their sustainability.
We also use this word to talk about the church. A congregation is viewed as sustainable when it has enough resources to support its ministry and, frankly, its ministers. I would like to offer a slightly different definition. A congregation is sustainable when it is nurturing people in discipleship that motivates them to participate in God’s mission in the world.
In the Gospels, Jesus uses different images about sustainability. We are asked to consider the lilies that are beautiful without benefit of a Singer sewing machine. On the other hand, we should build our houses on stone not sand. There would seem to be some confusion as to whether we should not worry or we should plan carefully.
Sustainable ministry happens because of people who have sustainable souls. Souls nourished by good preaching and teaching, genuine fellowship, and honest reflection on the life of their communities. Souls that expect challenge from the Gospel to care about people. Souls following the law of physics to be bodies in motion.
With this definition, a twenty-member congregation of motivated souls who minister in their community is a sustainable congregation. Will they last forever? Probably not. But they are filling up their Kairos time with what God wants them to do. They are both following the lily example and building on the rock.
John Adams said, “If we take a survey of the greatest actions … in the world … we shall find the authors of them all to have been persons whose Brains had been shaken out of their natural position” (Old Family Letters, p. 9). May your soul be shaken into sustainable discipleship and into sustainable ministry.
There were many of us who went to see the new Stars Wars movie, The Force Awakens. Kathy and I always think back on our first Stars Wars movie when we took our six-week-old son to the $2 theater in Saugus, Massachusetts. We were struck at the kind of imagination it took George Lucas to create the movie.
The church and imagination have always been uncertain dance partners. They have stepped on each other’s toes and fought over who leads. We have witnessed the trouble a poor soul encounters when they imagine a piece of church furniture can be moved or a tradition changed. While no one wants to hear the same sermon every Sunday, whoa to the preacher who lets their imagination get beyond the congregation’s.
I can count on one hand the number of times I have spent Christmas in my own home as an adult. We have shared that day with grandparents and other family. In a pre-Amazon era, we hid presents among the luggage and spent those days on the road just like Joseph and Mary. But of course I knew that my bed was there to welcome me when it was all over.
Henry was way past 80 when I first met him. He had not attended our congregation for many years because of his wife’s illness. Although I tried to visit with them often, it was not till she was hospitalized that Henry and I had regular conversations. Henry had been a deacon in this congregation almost thirty years previously. One of our conversations led to the solution for a maintenance issue that had puzzled us for a long time.
Renee was a vivacious young girl who wanted to marry me when she grew up. She actually sort of let me off the hook a few years ago when she got married. Renee had great insights into the Bible and what it meant to be good people.
As I write this the airplane carrying Pope Francis is probably in its final approach into Rome. In the United States it is Monday, with all of the start-of-the-week chores waiting for us. The analysis of the impact of the Pope’s visit continues. It continues in the media and in the minds of the people who heard him speak or enjoyed an individual encounter. The Pope used his influence to talk about many of the important issues of the day. Immigration, climate change, and the death penalty were directly addressed, just to name a few.