A few years back when I was still a young man, I had a less-than-jolly first call church experience. While I know I am the only one that has every had one of those, please indulge me ;-)
This was billed as a new church plant that was more of a church redevelopment so/and after serving out my four-year contract – for your presbies it was a designated position – I left; debating whether or not to continue in professional/pastoral ministry at all. Of course it was not all bad. I learned much about pastoring and was nurtured by many faithful folks that still greatly inform my ministry today. My eldest child was baptized there, we made some lifelong friends and I still giggle to myself thinking back to some of the moments of church life that I know make God smile. Then there were the less than helpful parts: my blood pressure rose to dangerous levels, there were severe times of crisis of call and I lost faith in a great many aspects of the traditional and institutional church. Without going into details, the last few years of my call, were simply painful and destructive to my heart, body and spirit.
As I have reflected on that time now over 10 years ago, I can see more clearly the obvious places where I was set up to fail. Nothing intentional – I think 😉 – but mostly a structure and community that was caught up in the nasty place of transitioning between what they were and what we where becoming. Handled well, a time of discover and growth, handled poorly well, you know . . . stifling at best and toxic at worst.
And while I do believe the church has much to own in the debacle that was my final two years there, I know that as the pastor, fair or not, much of the failure of that time rests squarely on the shoulders of that cocky 26-year-old, know-it-all who came in thinking that we would seamlessly transition into the church of the future. And yeah, I knew with certainty what that future was to be, go figure. We did some great and wonderful things that I believed embodied some positive images of being church yet, in the end, I was not ready for the tsunami that would come as a once larger, older and mechanistic congregation transitioned into a small, younger and more agile one. I simply thought we could get on the same page and be church together. Silly me.
As it turned out, in the midst of our time, neither of us was REALLY willing to reflect on our life together and truly be open to the Spirit. "Water under the bridge" as they say, but one thing I do keep with me is a conversation that I had with a long-time mentor as I was trying to discern my future in ministry.
The brief conversation went something like this . . .
Me: "Why didn't you push me more during that time? I really felt like I was left out on my own during most of the rough parts. I could have really used your guidance."
Mentor: pause "Honestly, you simply weren't teachable."
Ouch. Mentors suck.
In one short moment, I was basically told that, blinded by my own arrogance, I was not humble enough to know that God would be the transformative Spirit and that, no matter how skilled I was, it would not be me. My arrogance, in fact, was holding back the Spirit: in my own ministry and the life of the church. Sure, there were plenty of reasons that things where rough, but clearly I was not open to how I might best navigate and pastor this community through the rough waters of transition.
I was not teachable. Again, "Ouch."
To be teachable these days is, I believe, one of the crucial elements to any influential place of pastoral leadership today. I don't think teachability is confined by bounds of church size, age, experience or theology, but rather a posture of ministry that will allow for us to move forward amidst a changing world where adaptability and movement must be a central part of any future structure and body of gathered people.
To be teachable is to have the confidence and humility to know our gifts, power and limitations so that we may rest on God's transforming spirit in the midst of hard choices and chaotic times. If we can't learn, shift and adapt – and see those things as faithful responses to God – we should not expect to lead any community that calls us pastor with any authority and credibility.
So as we think though the many aspects of our church lives be it in historic communities of faith or ones that are just finding their footing, we must all be teachable and willing to be transformed by God. Of course being teachable is not the only gift we must hold dear and strive to embody, but certainly one that without, we are sure to stumble far more often than God would expect us to.
So today, I strive to be teachable: confident with my vision and gifts,
yet humble in my limitations and understanding about to whom I belong and why I do what
I do. If can can get this right most of the time, I trust that, in struggle or in joy, I will be a better pastor and person.
I was not teachable. And again, "Ouch."