A couple years ago Dr. Tod Bolsinger came to Grand Rapids to speak to pastors and ministry leaders about leading change in uncharted territory, based on his book Canoeing the Mountains.
During the question and answer portion of the day, I asked a question related to leading change in the congregation I was pastoring. While I don’t remember my specific question, his response has stuck with me.
First he asked if I was the first female minister to pastor the congregation, which I was. He then pointed out that the congregation was already in uncharted territory. A woman preaching, offering pastoral care, and leading a council meeting was new and unfamiliar to them. We were doing ministry off the map.
This realization was sobering. Before I even opened my mouth, I was presenting a new paradigm to the church. This was a perspective I hadn’t considered before. By simply walking into the room or into the pulpit, I was, in some way, asking them to change. Some embraced the change, thrilled with the opportunity to grow and eager to hear Scripture expounded on by a female preacher, but others were resistant and opposed.
As I reflect on my pastoral ministry, we—the congregation and I—didn’t always understand each other, nor did we always extend enough grace to one another. I’m sure I was impatient, not realizing the full impact of the paradigms I was challenging, and some members negatively acted out their anxiety as my presence threatened the way they had always done church.
If this year has taught us anything, it has shown us how hard it is to let go of well-worn ways of doing life and ministry. Economist John Maynard Keynes said, “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”
In the book by author Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which was later made into a movie, Billy Bean, the manager of the Oakland A’s, takes the baseball industry off the map into uncharted territory by proving that one of its deeply held paradigms is flawed. As a result he is heavily criticized by others in the industry.
At a crucial moment in the film, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry says to Billy, “I know you’ve taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall always gets bloody. Always. It’s the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds, it’s threatening the game.”
As we continue to navigate the changing landscape of ministry, including, but not limited to, women leading in the church, we need a renewed commitment to extend grace and compassion to one another. My brief exchange with Bolsinger gave me an increased awareness of what it means for some when I walk into a room, and a greater appreciation for how difficult it is for a congregation to change.
I’m grateful for those who are willing to be the first through the wall, those who are called to present new paradigms and challenge the way things have always been done. I’m also grateful for those on the other side who are willing to welcome, receive, and be changed by the one who emerges from the rubble.
Let’s cultivate humility and compassion as we take down the walls that divide.