Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A belated, yet incarnational review of Carol Howard Merritt's "Reframing Hope"

I received a copy of Carol Howard Merritt's book, Reframing Hope, several months ago, soon after it was published. I made a promise I would review the book and share my insights on her work.

I couldn't bring myself to read it. I read the book in fits and starts, never getting beyond the first 20 pages. I like to keep my promises, so the book sat on my desk, mocking me. I met Carol at Unconference11 (#unco11) in May and talked with her a few times. She is gracious and encouraging both in social media circles and in person, and has many great things to share with the church. So I felt worse about not publicly contributing to the conversation about her book.

After a bi-coastal trip for congregational redevelopment last month and racking my brain in considering what I learned, I ripped through the book. I don't do this very often. I tend to take my time with books, pondering stories, philosophies and theologies. After hearing the stories from my colleagues about congregational decline at my training and also the stories of God at work delivering a sense of urgency in struggling communities, a title containing "hope" gained new cache in my vocation.

Why today? Why now?

For ten years until about 8 weeks ago, I served the church as an interim pastor. I brought great passion to my work, giving witness to God amid the vortex of congregational dynamics associated with a congregation in a pastoral leadership gap. I always considered myself a bearer of hope in the interim ministries I served.

What I realized as I read Reframing Hope was that there was a gap in the hope for Christian faith communities I could deliver as an interim pastor. My reasoning is that as an interim pastor, I always had an escape hatch. My time with a congregation averaged about 15 months, or at a retreat in a consultation. I was exhausted (usually in a good way) from the work, but I knew that after the limited time with the congregation, I could leave. I was the pastoral equivalent to how many grandparents function (though this is evolving). They get the grandkids for an afternoon, an overnight, or a weekend or longer, but often there is an end in sight. Grandparents have hope for their grandchildren. But I hear from many grandparents with a wry smile after a long exhale: "they go home." As an interim pastor, I always got to go home. It doesn't mean grandparents or interim pastors aren't passionate about their congregations, but the distance is different.

Now I find myself in a congregation that has significantly struggled in recent years. My wife and I bring our daughters to St. John's Lutheran Church in Lakewood, Washington, and ponder what God might be up to. We're looking for a home in the area. We're thinking about the schools for our daughters. Our relationships in the community take on greater weight. The stories of faith in the congregation take on a new sense of the Spirit for me. In the stories of past and current hurts of the people at St. John's, the Incarnation of God in Christ is palpable.

Reframing Hope is an incarnational book. It is about the presence of God witnessed in the life of congregations. This is not an academic exercise book. However, Reframing Hope calls on some good academic resources to give witness to the movement of God from numerous facets of congregational life as well as Howard Merritt's personal faith and ministry stories. It also gives a historical survey of the church in the American context and perspectives on emerging approaches to faith and congregational formation, from ancient practices to social media, recognizing the imperative of contributions of all God's people to sharing the grace of God in Christ with the world. Reading Reframing Hope probably wouldn't have made as much a difference to me as an interim pastor. It's a solid contribution for any ministry consideration. However, there is a fine line between personal investment and incarnational investment in ministry. I'm learning that, and Reframing Hope is a good reference point for my ongoing discernment.

I believe hope in Carol Howard Merritt's Reframing Hope is about incarnation--God's presence using the multitude of opportunities available to congregations ranging from classical liturgies to social media and beyond. I find this hopeful as I work to partner with the people of St. John's in redeveloping a community of faith. During my recent training in Newark, there were times I was downright fearful. Soon there will be a time I won't be traveling 30 minutes to get home after time at the church. Reframing Hope will continue to be a good conversation facilitator as St. John's movies into God's preferred future.

If you love a congregation (or many) and struggle to find how that congregation recognizes God at work in a changing world, I commend to you Reframing Hope to your ongoing discussion.

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