Thursday, April 16, 2015

I Drink My Coffee at Room Temperature

These are the words of the one who holds God's seven spirits and the seven stars: I know your works.  You have the reputation of being alive and you are in fact dead.  Wake up and strengthen whatever you have left, for I've found that your works are far from complete in the eyes of God.

John of Patmos, to the church in Sardis, Revelation 3:1-2

These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation: I know your works.  You are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot.  So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I'm about to spit you out of my mouth.  After all, you say, 'I'm rich, and I've grown wealthy, and I don't need a thing.'  You don't realize that you are miserable, pathetic, poor, blind, and naked.

John of Patmos, to the church in Laodicea, Revelation 3:14-17

The mug sits next to me on the table, its once piping hot contents now sitting at room temperature.  I can finally drink it at a rate faster than a tentative, scalding sip--even if I should be able to mow down hot coffee at a much faster clip because, after all, I am a pastor, and pastors are nothing without their trusty church coffee.

Far from me wanting to spit the coffee out from being hot or cold, I greedily gulp it down at this point, desperate for its caffeine to take effect, not merely because I am a hopelessly addicted fiend, but because room-temperature coffee is, some days, all that keeps me from being dead.  Even though I may have the reputation of being alive.

I came to the congregation I serve at only 25 years of age, fresh out of seminary. without really a clue as to how to do my job well.  I mean, I had some semblance of what a strong and vibrant church looked like.  I was raised in one, and I had a truly excellent field education supervisor at the church I worked at before coming here.  But I can also watch World Cup-caliber soccer on television and that doesn't mean I can head out into the yard and replicate the wizardry I just saw being performed.

Now, nearly four years later, at 29 years young (and forever 29 years young, no matter how many birthdays come after this one), I am on the surface a pastor whose ministry looks great.  I've presided over baptisms and weddings of new and old members alike, I've seen new children come and find joy in our congregation by the carload, I've seen new missions and new ways of outreach be born out of nothing but tears and inspiration.  I get told all the time how proud people are of the job I'm doing.

But I am scared--terrified, really--that I am in fact dead, like the church in Sardis.  I am so very, very fearful of my beloved congregation's future.  We grow and grow and still have to pull out of savings to pay our bills.  I'm petrified not just of letting down the church I was given when I arrived, I'm petrified of letting down the church that has formed since then.  And I am worried about how so many other congregations--especially in my denomination--seem to be in identical straits.

It isn't paralysis; I haven't frozen (after all, that wouldn't quite fit the cold/lukewarm/hot, coffee ice cream is the s**t).  It's more like treading water.  In the open ocean.  Where the sharks swim.

And that's no place to pastor for the future from.

Even if I, on the surface, represent the future.

Honestly, it is such a heavy burden to bear.  It really is.  If I had a dollar for every time I was told something along the lines of, "You represent the future for the church!" my parish wouldn't have the financial deficits we have.  But when people in my denomination say those exhortations, this is what I hear:

It is up to you to do a better job with this church thing than we have, now please accept this gift of aging facilities, deferred maintenance, and an institution-wide distrust of innovation.

If the church were hot or cold, maybe we could do something with that.  We could embrace our place on the margins of the spectrum and go from there.  But being lukewarm feels better going down, and we're interested in maintaining what status and power we still have, so room temperature we shall remain.

What scares me is that after nearly four years out of seminary and in the trenches, I continue to trend more and more towards the lukewarm and the room temperature.  I make myself more palatable than the Hebrew Bible prophets of old who went to all lengths to speak truth to those who needed to hear it.

Because treading water feels the safer option than swimming, especially if you're uncertain which direction to swim in.

So, may I offer you a deal...please stop saying that I and my millennial-aged colleagues represent the future of the church, and I'll keep swimming.

Yes, like Dory in Finding Nemo, I'll just keep swimming.

Because I think that will honestly keep me finding my way forward.  It might even make me a little less scared, and, in so doing, push me a little further away from being room temperature.

And to all the pastors out there who struggle with feeling lukewarm, I hope I have given at least a bit of a voice to your own struggles, and that my voice has validated them.  And please, come have coffee with me sometime.  After all, I hope to start drinking mine at a temperature a touch hotter or colder than room temperature very soon again.

Yours in Christ,

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