Helpful and Hurtful Patterns
Spring is coming in Kentucky. Last week, the snow began to melt. This Sunday, the tiny green specks pushing up from the dirt have become, almost overnight, substantial little stems. The daffodils and tulips are coming, hopefully in time for Easter. We will light the New Fire at the Great Vigil of Easter and welcome a new season. And, after the Great Fifty Days, we will slip easily into Ordinary Time. Spring will become summer. Then fall and Advent. The pattern continues.
Churches have patterns. We as human patterns. Many times they are comforting rituals. The movement of the calendar. The routines of our days. Our patterns.
We also have not so helpful patterns. The pattern of leaving a community or relationship when we don't get our way. The pattern of salving our emotional pain with alcohol. The pattern of giving ourselves away so that we can feel needed. Yep, those patterns.
Every social structure has patterns. The universe, in its organized chaos, has patterns. We as humans have patterns. Perhaps patterns are part of of the fiber of our created order, and our call is not to label them bad or the reason our brilliant ideas and best intentions failed, but an invitation for us to learn something about ourselves and our church communities.
Yes, we can all engage in patterns of behavior that can be damaging to ourselves and others. When someone brings these behaviors to our attention, we can choose to shift, to make another decision. Breaking the pattern is a bit strong for this action. Instead, I think we choose to enter into different patterns.
Far too often, congregations and dioceses fall into the pattern of thinking the newly-elected pastor or bishop will "save" them. And we know from experience that one human person cannot save a church, or a diocese from generations of choices that have resulted in the unsettled place they find themselves (looking at you, Episcopal Church, as we elect a new Presiding Bishop this summer). So we enter the pattern of adulation and welcome (often called the honeymoon period) that devolves into feelings of betrayal (We have all the same problems! Why didn't you fix them?) and almost always results in the "Hey, let's elect a new pastor or bishop" place to begin the cycle again.
So we can choose to continue the pattern of making others responsible for the well-being of our own communities of faith...or we can begin the hard work of taking responsibility for our good and bad behaviors that have led to this place. This is an example of how patterns, from recognizing them to having the deep, hard conversations about why they might exist to finding a new pattern in which to enter, can be an example of allowing our patterns to be transformed instead of continuing to transmit their pain onto others.
However, sometimes the patterns are just there. We can't break them. We can't change the pattern. But we can learn from the pattern. We know that there is a pattern of birth, life, and death. And yet, why do we as a church who confesses this holy pattern resist this same pattern with congregations, refusing to recognize that yes, even churches die? We ignore the pattern, resist entering into the holy journey of death and resurrection (however that resurrection may look) and instead adopt a life at all costs approach.
We know that more often than not, those leaders in a congregation during times of crisis have great difficulty adjusting to the same congregation as it enters new life, growth, and change. Our experience informs us that they leave for other churches or become inactive. So how do we recognize this pattern of church leadership and help the leaders and congregation adjust to something that is very likely to happen?
Can we see patterns not as bad things in our lives, but realities that, like all things in creation, have the potential for good and bad? In seeing patterns, identifying them, we are called to enter into the pattern of discernment - and I mean real discernment, not as a euphemism for sitting around doing nothing or having endless, going nowhere committee meetings - another one of our church patterns, if we're honest. When is the pattern something we can shift? What comfort (payoff) have we gotten from the pattern? When is it something to which we can respond? And - every time - what can the pattern teach us about ourselves and how we can grow and change as people of God?