An old dog learns

Jan 18, 2016 by

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A great deal of my pastoral time is spent dreaming. Last week I sat at my desk, dreaming about what the congregation could look like in five years or 10 years.

Watson

Watson

When I thought about what sort of leadership they would need to achieve these goals, I quickly inventoried my own skills and panicked. Certainly, I lacked the organization, leadership and talent to help shape this vision.

Three years into my ministry, at times I already feel like an old dog with no new tricks, repeating myself in sermons and recycling orders of worship from previous years. At times I feel like a young teacher mastering a curriculum, one who in a few years will have no new material and just cycle through the same old lessons from last year.

Some time in adulthood, we learn that being unskilled is to be avoided. We say, “I don’t play golf” or “I can’t dance.” We make a list of things we’re good at and things we’re bad at and spend our lives trying to only do things on the first list.

I see it even in the high school students in the congregation, being funneled by their guidance counselors into “regular English” so they’ll be able to focus on Advanced Placement Chemistry. We teach them to avoid hard things and play to their natural skills.

I also see it in the retirees in the congregation, who will turn down volunteer opportunities because they feel they’ve already held all the positions that they can do well and wouldn’t dream of doing something poorly. They decline opportunities to plan worship or join committees, worried that their imperfection will prevent the congregation from seeing Christ.

God forbid Christ be present in our imperfections. Perhaps we’ve forgotten that Matt. 5:48, “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect,” is equally well translated, “Be bringing things to completion.”

We forget that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.

Everything we do in church is a practice, from the singing to the preaching to teaching Sunday school. It’s a practice because we have to work at it. We Mennonites forget that we were all terrible singers once.

Perhaps we need our preschool choirs to sing more regularly.

I encourage my congregation to be bad at things. I encourage myself to be bad at things — sometimes even in front of the congregation.

Being bad at something, and being bad at it repeatedly — and then slightly less bad but still below average — holds us in a middle ground of hopefulness. It teaches us not to fear failure but to learn from it. Not to fear change but to ride the waves while keeping our balance. To use our old skills to strengthen our new ones.

The church is an old, old dog within human civilization. We have to continue learning new tricks. And we have.

We’ve spent the last few decades learning from feminist scholars and liberation scholars how the church can better heal from the sins of patriarchy, racism and complacency with extreme poverty.

We are beginning to learn from watershed discipleship what it means to be faithful stewards and active healers in this environmental crisis.

It’s slow, and sometimes we do stewardship or antiracism poorly. But we do it. We learn from it. And we get better.

Old dogs can learn new tricks. It may even be what keeps us young.

Hillary Watson pastors at Lombard Mennonite Church in suburban Chicago. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com.


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