Some time in the ’90’s, the Rev. Loren B. Mead led a clergy conference for the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton. He had graciously agreed to come on a reduced fee, but we did not receive a discounted conference. Far from it — I recall it as one of the best of the various clergy conferences I attended while in parish ministry. I don’t recall much of the specific conference topics, and I have long since lost my notes from it, but one thing stands out.
In the final session, after recapping the major areas of discussion, Mead left us with “twelve truths” for ministry. Some of them were explicitly about church issues, but several could be applied very generally. The one that made the most immediate sense to me at the time was:
“A new ___ won’t solve all your problems.”
When I posted this on Facebook without any referent, all sorts of people responded with either a question about what the blank represented, or their own suggestion for filling it in. The thing is, they’re all right in their own ways. What Mead was getting at in the original context (or so I heard it) was the tendency for people to latch onto a single solution for complex problems.
At the time of the conference, I was well into my second parish charge. When I arrived there, the Bishop told me to get them a building quickly, because the issue threatened to tear the congregation apart. There were a few people who resisted the whole idea of having our own building instead of the rented space we were using, but most of them were utterly fixated on getting into our own church. “It’ll be better once we get our building” was the mantra, spoken in a variety of ways, but always with the same subtext: all the problems of the congregation would be fixed by a building.
We did get into our own building, less than 3 years after my arrival in the parish, but the hordes of new people many were expecting never materialized. Rather, several families who had worked hard on the building project started to drift away from the church. Our income dropped by 10% in the first year, while the building occupancy costs drove the budget up by 20%. It was true that we had space to meet, we could advertise a fixed location, and we could set our service time without bumping into another congregation. But… (there’s always a “but,” isn’t there?) people’s energy levels were low. Years of working on a project had taken its toll. The new building didn’t solve all the problems — it merely helped with some existing ones, and brought along a whole set of new ones.
It took some time, but by the time I left there, the parish had managed to put its edifice complex behind it, and was beginning to behave like a missional church.
I had an analogous experience in my first charge, where I was the first resident cleric in 20 years. They had worked hard to become self-supporting once again, instead of being linked to the parish in the neighbouring town. A lot of hope was pinned on having me there, which I didn’t really wake up to until my first annual meeting, about 7 months in. One man said, “We thought the church would come to life again, and the Sunday School would be full like it was in the ’50’s.” The new priest was to be the solution to all their problems, leading them straight ahead into a glorious past. Those expectations were just as misplaced as the expectations around my next charge’s building. During my time there, we made a number of advances together, but the unrealistic expectations around my presence in an ageing congregation could never quite be overcome.
I have also seen this kind of magical thinking at work in all sorts of places inside and outside the church — enough material here to fill a small book! It appears to be happening to some extent in my former diocese, which has been through some very difficult times. A new Bishop is now taking office, and some of my acquaintances appear to me to have placed all their hope on him. I wish him and them well: they have a huge task ahead of them. Nonetheless, a change of leadership, while often very important, will not by itself solve all the problems of the diocese, nor of any other organization.
Individuals often fall prey to this tendency. Clergy (of whom I know quite a few!) can fall into the trap of thinking that a new charge will be the solution to their vocational and professional problems. It’s known as the “geographical cure” among some bishops of my acquaintance. It rarely works, because moving a cleric in burnout simply moves his or her problems from one place to another.
“A new ___ won’t solve all your problems.”
You can fill in your own blanks according to your situation. I’m certain it will be appropriate for you. Whatever happens, let it be a warning not to place all your hope in one solution, expecting a magical solution. There’s no magic on tap! In Christian theological terms, we might call it “pseudo-Messianic thinking,” looking for a new Messiah when the truth is we have one already. Following the true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, is the only real solution, as long as we don’t treat God like a kind of fairy godmother. Rather, the solution to problems is to be found in hard work, careful consideration of issues, working to change things that we can change, and turning what we can’t change over to God.
Note: I intend no offense to anyone in my former parishes or diocese. If any is taken, I apologize. Things are what they are, and this is my experience and my own opinion.