Letters to a Seminarian 4

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All search committees lie.

Most don’t intentionally or even realize they do. How do search committees lie? They tell you they want a young leader with fresh, new ideas to bring more young people into their church.

What they generally mean is that they have this idea that there should be more young families in their church—specifically their sons, daughters, and grandchildren—but there aren’t and it bothers them, even if it is simply because their son took a job two states over. In order to be worthwhile, you have to have young people; this is preached by our society and most church growth experts as self-evident truth. Search committees feel this pressure, even if they can’t articulate why it is important.

Most, however, do not want new ideas in terms of worship and music. You might be able to add a few new songs to their repertoire, but only if they are added so slowly it is almost imperceptible. They might silently wish the pianist had more skill, but that does not mean they want you to replace her. Most of them are not unlike Jane and Michael Banks when advertising for a new nanny in Mary Poppins. They have no idea what they need, only what they think they want. No castor oil, just play games with us and smile, and that will be fine.

Unfortunately, if your seminary was anything like mine, you will have spent the last few years having your head filled with ideas on how to grow churches, start new ministries, and fix whatever is wrong with whatever church will have you. If not a recipe for disaster, per se, it is at least a recipe for some painful lessons ahead.

So what is a brand new pastor to do?

If I could do it over again, I’d try a lot harder to check my ego at the door. I wouldn’t change things in the church. Instead of looking at all that is new and shiny in the church world, I’d look more at what is old and steady. I would still have had tough experiences and learned a lot of things the hard way—I’m not suggesting a panacea—but I would have had a more solid foundation to stand on through those experiences.

As a young pastor, you must drink deeply of the traditions of the church and allow yourself to be formed by them. If your church doesn’t have any tradition, then I would humbly suggest it’s not a church—tradition is the life-blood of any group or organization. (No one told you that in seminary, but it’s true.)

If I join your family for Thanksgiving or even just for a Saturday evening, can you tell me what to expect? You probably can. Why? Tradition. Some of it you cherish, some you may not (especially regarding your family of origin), but you know it and it gives you a frame of reference. You are who you are because of it.

The military retains their identity only as they pass traditions on from one generation to the next. If the army stopped wearing uniforms, they would cease to be the army. There must be some continuity and the military preserves this by passing on the stories behind their traditions.

The church is no different; tradition and story is our identity. Tradition is the vine that connects the local branches back to the root. We have a story to tell, not just about New Testament events, but also about the two millennia since. If our story hasn’t made a difference throughout history, why are we still telling it? Our traditions help tell both the Gospel story and its impact on people throughout history.

Drink deep of the tradition until it flows through your veins. Only if you embrace it and allow yourself to be formed by it can you expect anyone else to be. That search committee doesn’t want you to change anything in the way you are thinking of change. What they want is revival, the bringing back to life of what once was. You can’t do that without knowing what that was, and is, and evermore shall be.

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Filed under Leadership, Liturgy, Priesthood, Seminary

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