Guest Column: “Crash Helmets” by District Superintendent Rev. Rich Lang
Appointment season is upon us. It’s a time of some anxiety as pastors ponder whether or not they will
be appointed to a new church, and the congregation ponders whether or not it's time for a change in
leadership. As clergy we have made a sacred vow to serve the larger church through our obedience to
go where the Bishop sends us. The Bishop, in this case, is not to be thought of as a particular person but
as an Office. The Bishop is not a tyrant, or a solo silo superstar making decisions and moving chess
pieces. The Bishop is a collaborative office consisting of the whole apparatus of the Executive Team (i.e.
The Cabinet = district superintendents, conference treasurer, various directors of specialized ministries
etc.). Like the Divine Trinity itself, the office of the Bishop is a relational community of continual
discernment inclusive of others.
Nevertheless, the appointment season is still a time of anxiety. We ponder. We brood. We dream
dreams. We fear nightmares. Hopefully we get to the perfect peace of knowing that we are all parts of a
greater whole, and the whole can be trusted.
This appointment season I am asking myself disturbing questions. There will probably be anywhere
between 5-10 pastoral changes in our District. But what will really change? A leader will go, and a
leader will come but does the congregation and the overall mission and ministry actually undergo
transformation? Or are we playing a weird game of spiritual duck-duck- goose? Just rearranging chairs
but churches themselves don't undergo deep change, deep adaptation to a rapidly transitioning culture.
What does it matter if the pastor changes but the congregational culture stays the same? What changes
if the same elected leaders continue to be elected to lead the congregation? What changes if the Choir
does not adapt its music, style, and emotional intensity? What changes if the liturgy of worship doesn't
shake people to their core, offering, indeed, real opportunity to be transfigured?
Like the great quote from Anne Dillard's book, Teaching a Stone to Talk:
"Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? …
Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one
believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a
batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should
lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may
draw us to where we can never return."
What really changes? I am haunted by observations I have been making about the Seattle District these
last three years. I know that the Church (all of its varieties) is in deep decline. Our particular slice, the
UMC, is wrestling with the culmination of our life cycle. We're old and we no longer seem to grasp how
to connect with families, children, young adults, and the generation of technologically literate. I am
haunted that despite living in this amazingly creative global region almost all of our congregations
basically look alike and feel alike (I'm not talking ethnicity here although that's a pattern too). I'm
haunted by a feeling that, like Dillard's quote, we're afraid to let the waking god draw us out to where
we can never return.
Here in Part One of this post (more next week) are some observations I have made about us as a District.
I share them for the purpose of mutual discernment. I hope you share them and chat among your
congregation. I hope we can engage this conversation and take it into depths that I am incapable of
going without you.
1.) Our churches are mostly friendly, welcoming and focused on the goodness of life.
2.) There are people in every church who hunger for a deepening and a developing of the mission of
God (justice, harmony, reconciliation, hospitality).
3.) Every church has an outward face towards some form of ministry. For example, towards helping
the homeless. Serving food for the hungry. Assisting the poor. Helping the neighborhood. We have the
DNA to be a people for others.
4.) Our churches provide opportunities for service, and some form of spiritual formation.
5.) A primary reason that folks attend church is connection to others. The social morale is very
6.) Our clergy are hard working and desire to be part of the mission of God.
7.) In every church there is a remnant who desire the sleeping god to awake.
1.) At the age of 61 I am often the youth group in congregations.
2.) I've been surprised that many of our congregations do not live in the neighborhood: so what is the
3.) Congregations don't actually know how to have a conversation with their neighbors. Some
congregations don't know why they should desire to have conversation with their neighbor.
4.) It is a very rare congregation that has a strategic, thought-out, intentional system of disciple-making
and spiritual development. I'm not sure our congregations have an answer to the question -" How do we
perfect one another in love from cradle to grave?"
5.) Every week I am in one of our churches for worship but I often leave asking questions like: so what?
Is there anything of urgent importance at stake? Is religion really just an obscure memory of a god
without any practical power and presence in our day-to- day life? I am rarely emotionally moved, or
intellectually challenged, or stimulated to spiritually evolve. I wonder where our passion for sacred
drama and deep gratitude has gone?
6.) The teaching ministry of the Church has collapsed. Folks simply do not know the content of Christian
faith, nor the basics of spirituality. And I don't sense that there is any driving desire to actually know the
deep content and treasures of the faith. It's as if folks think they know all that can be known, and what
they might not know they deem unimportant. It bothers me greatly that our churches cannot compete
in the marketplace of ideas, that we really have nothing to say to a culture that is being manipulated by
authoritarianism and violence. Where is the mind of Christ in this incredibly intelligent city?
7.) There is an overwhelming crisis of apathy towards the committed development of ministries that
will welcome, teach and foster family values and children's spiritual development.
My point is that there is a crisis of purpose in our churches. I don't sense that we are focused on being
sacred places of healing and hope for the deep woundedness of psyche and soul. Nor do I sense us as
sacred places of creative imagination that motivates our desire to offer our assets. I don't experience
our congregations as a source of liberation (i.e. an alternative) from Powers and Principalities (i.e. the
spirituality of empire). Rather, like Dillard's quote intuits, we are places of cliques, niceness and control. I
keep wondering about the Cross – where is our training and our call for sacrifice, exertion, and a
commitment that costs? The Christian faith seems to be an accessory to our life rather than the center
from which one lives one's life.
Against this, I think that Christians are actually, literally the Body of Christ capable of doing all that Jesus
did, and even more (John 14:12). I think we have access to the same Holy Spirit that was in Jesus and
that has been and is present throughout creation. I think our journey into Christlikeness is a lifelong
process with developmental stages of a spirituality that grows ever deeper until the self is known as part
of the Triune Self, and whose love is so inclusive that everyone belongs.
I write all of this with a deep sense of love: I love the Church. I'm all in … I love the Church as institution,
as gathering place, as spiritual home and as hospital in the midst of crisis. I still cling to the notion that
the creative juices of God will use the Church to redeem the sufferings of the cosmos, and the
brokenness of our own nation. And I certainly am still committed to the affirmation that in Christ (and
the Church in Christ) there is a balm for our own wounds, and hope for a better day.
But if all we do is change pastors in this appointment season what will change our focus, our
congregational culture, our capacity to be part of Christ's deeper journey towards redemption and
restoration? As good as pastors are, each of us must answer Jesus' question in John 5:"do you want to
be made whole?" — — In Part Two I want to share some thoughts about redesigning the United
Methodist gospel for such a time as this.
Rev. Rich Lang
Taken from the Seattle District Newsletter “Cross Connection.” To subscribe to the district’s free e-
newsletter, email the district office at: firstname.lastname@example.org