By Katie Hays
What’s your next move, church?
Let’s say you’re part of a traditional congregation that has enjoyed a long and fruitful life, and is coming to the end stages of its productive ministry. Maybe the neighborhood has changed around you; maybe the membership has matured beyond the vigorous local engagement it once had. Maybe past seasons of conflict or controversy or clergy misconduct have taken their toll. It doesn’t have to be anybody’s fault. It might just be time.
But your congregation is still a vital part of your life, and the lives of your close Christian friends. You can’t imagine relocating to a spiritual home anywhere else. You need this church now more than ever, because you need God now more than ever. This is no time to let go.
When your current pastor retires, or moves on to another church, you’ll be part of the search committee that’s trying to find a replacement. You’ll be tempted to write a job description that says your church wants to be transformed, wants to reach out to its neighbors, wants to revitalize and recapture the energy of former days.
But there’s a little part of you that knows that’s not quite true. What you mostly want is for the church to remain a source of comfort and strength for the people who gave so much to build it up over the years. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Probably the church should take care of the ones who took care of it for so long.
Here’s an idea, then, for your church in its latter days: rather than hiring a full-time pastor to maintain the church as it is currently embodied, hire a missionary.
Hire someone who is energized and entrepreneurial; someone who has a dozen new ideas before s/he gets out of bed in the morning; someone who would drive your church to distraction if all her/his energy were directed at you. Invite this person to direct their passion elsewhere, with your blessing.
Hire someone who believes wholeheartedly that God has a will and a way for the people of your town who currently don’t believe that God wants anything to do with them. Invite this person to go find them.
Hire someone who can see those people, and learn their language, and enjoy their culture, and love them with a deep down love that will traverse mountains and swim oceans to get to where they are. Invite them to climb, and swim, and love outside the walls of your church.
Hire someone who respects that your church has done its best work, and is turning its face toward the legacy it will leave for the next generation and the next. Invite this person to lunge into that future on your behalf.
A local missionary’s job description could look like this:
1. With 25% of her/his time, or 10-15 hours per week, we ask our missionary to:
• Plan and execute strong, traditional, weekly worship of God for the congregation that gathers here.
• Preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in weekly worship so as to fortify us for the world to come.
• Care for the sick, the dying, and the grieving of our church with all the compassion that the Holy Spirit affords.
• Leave us alone to do the intra-congregational ministry we know well how to do: social gatherings, women’s and men’s activities, Sunday school, administration, and more.
2. With 75% of her/his time, or 30-40 hours per week, we commission our missionary to:
• Search out the gaps in the wellbeing of our community. Find the demographic niches that traditional Christian communities haven’t found and that our congregation is not well suited to serve. Ask, “Where is Jesus most needful in this place?”
• Invite the spiritual refugees that are our neighbors into the knowledge that God’s love is real, God’s love is for them, and God’s love is worth it — just like Jesus invited the refugees of his day to experience the realm of God.
• Imagine and implement a newly formed Christian community that can convert strangers into neighbors and wanderers into wonderers[*]. Create an infrastructure for relationship that will help people draw near to each other and to God’s heart.
• Use the resources of our church – the missionary’s time, our budget for materials and meals, our building and grounds, our wealth of experience with administration – to manifest that infrastructure.
• Trust us to leave the missionary alone with this work, to not interfere in the strange, new methods s/he will employ to share the strange, old stories of God’s engagement with humanity. Trust us to trust you.
• Try things, lots of things, because this project is vital for God’s realm and it will require the generation of many more ideas than will work. We understand this research and development will take time – years, even, a decade, more – and we are prepared for the financial expense of trial and error. Keep good records. Try more things. Let us pray for you.
• Help us recognize when the time comes that the new community is ready to take responsibility for the assets of our congregation. Guide us in the transfer of our legacy to the next generation of the Lord’s church, with the promise that the missionary will continue to pastor us even when we are no longer the ones paying her or his salary.
• Build into the ethos of the new congregation the imperative we have demonstrated for the transfer of the gospel to the next generation and the next. Teach them to be open-handed with the gifts God has given them through the opening of our hands.
I hear rumors of churches where this is happening, and maybe even working. Whispers of congregations that are looking more forward to what God will do with the resources they’ve released than they are looking back nostalgically to a past they can’t reclaim. If you have a story to tell about a local congregation hiring a missionary for their own town, send me confirmation; let’s build a list and encourage each other with narratives of hope.
It’s our move, church. The world is waiting for us to make it.
Rev. Dr. Katie Hays is the planter-pastor and Lead Evangelist at Galileo Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), or "Galileo" for short, in Mansfield, Texas. Galileo Church seeks and shelters spiritual refugees -- those for whom church is boring, irrelevant, exclusive, or even painful -- especially LGBTQ people and the people who love them. Galileo was born in the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth at Pentecost in 2013. galileochurch.org
* “Strangers into neighbors, wanderers into wonderers” is from the Root and Branch Christian community in Chicago.