On Being Predictable and Consistent
It's good advice. Sort of.
Hi. Welcome to mid-July at Greatheart’s Table.
As you know I’ve promised to keep our time together short each week. Each newsletter post of 800 words translates into about 6-8 minutes on audio. I don’t want to consume too much of your time. Nevertheless, should you like to carry on the conversation, do so by emailing me, or posting comments below. I’m encouraged by the interchange.
Also, remember, there will be no post on July 19. The next one will be released on July 26.
This week I want to consider a temptation we all face, which is in some ways good and in other ways deadly. So pull up a chair and let’s talk about “Being Predictable and Consistent.”
Good (?) Advice
A sign at an entrance to the Cross Seminole Trail on which I frequently run details proper trail behavior. In addition to the expected “Keep pets on leash” and “Clean up your litter,” users are warned to “Travel in a predictable and consistent manner.” Nothing can precipitate a nasty collision more quickly than a runner’s sudden movement into the path of an oncoming bicycle. It’s good trail advice. It’s also good pastoral advice.
Predictable and consistent pastoral care can help congregations thrive in a turbulent world. Ragged Christians long for the rest provided by predictable liturgical rhythms and consistent pastoral leadership. We joke about churches being unwilling to change, but in truth stability can be life-giving when uncertainty characterizes the rest of life. To pastor “in a predictable and consistent manner” is a gift to a congregation.
It’s also good for job security.
And therein lies our problem.
Open to judgment
I recently read a sermon by the late theologian John Webster in which he challenged churches, and by implication pastors, to be open to the uncomfortable and often security shattering judgment of God. Drawing from John the Apostle’s prophetic word to the church in Sardis, he challenges our predictable consistency as possibly arising from our deafness to the voice of God.
We must submit to that revolution in which God upsets and overturns our habitual thoughts about our own religious decency. . . . conversion means breaking free of the assumption that the straight line of my life can go on forever as it is.1
Our affection for the predictable and consistent2 puts us on a straight path that God may challenge us to abandon. Webster speaks to congregations, but pastors are charged with particular responsibility here, and thus the struggle. To have a congregation that craves consistency pastored by a person whose heart is being shaken by the Spirit of God is less a picture of two runners on a quiet trail than it is one of two trains hurdling toward each other on a single track. For fear of collision, and for love of our jobs, pastors may hesitate to heed that needed and sanctifying voice of God.
Clearly, not all calls to change are to be understood as the voice of God urging repentance. The voice of the newest church growth strategist or that of the “this-is-how-you-do-church” conference speaker is probably not the voice of God. Process your spiritual pilgrimage with trusted spiritual mentors, not corporate leadership coaches. Our concern here is with what God is doing with our hearts more than how we should structure our leadership team or order our song selection.
Nevertheless, when a pastor is growing under the movement of God’s Spirit change happens, and for this reason pastoral ministry feels and in fact probably is unsafe. A physics teacher or a house painter can change views on racial justice or how the church relates to non-Christians without worrying about her paycheck or her professional reputation. But changes to a pastor’s heart can result in serious conflict and loss. Consequently pastors are tempted to tamp down the change and tune out the Spirit’s voice.
For the first fifteen years of ministry I traveled in narrow and predictable channels. Then, in 2000, God so radically altered the landscape of my life that I was left reeling. (Perhaps this is how some pastors feel after a year of pandemic ministry.) When the dust settled, I had come to understand grace and therefore the gospel in ways I had never before envisioned. I knew that no matter my failings Jesus was still there and that he loved me. This was a conversion in the fundamental meaning of the term: a time of repentance and growth that left my congregation asking, literally, “What happened to Randy?”
Be gentle, wise, subversive, and repentant
That I had taken a sharp turn from my predictable and consistent path was clear. What one should do in such situations is not so clear. Perhaps I should have eased out of that ministry altogether, or sought to tease out congregational transformation in a more quiet and subversive way.
Instead, being enthralled with what God had done, I barreled ahead naïvely thinking the congregation would immediately and delightfully get it. The reality is that change takes time, for congregations as well as pastors. Pastors yanked from the “predictable and consistent” path need great wisdom to lead gently and without harm.
But we must never refuse the change. Webster reminds us that the church is to be a “. . . community that is ready to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”3 It will be pastors who hear that voice first, and when we do we must find a way to follow. That is the persistent and consistent path that leads to life.
John Webster, Christ Our Salvation, (United States: Lexham Press, 2020), p. 94, 95
John 3:8 suggests that the Holy Spirit is sometimes unconcerned about the predictable and consistent. There, Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
John Webster, Christ Our Salvation, (United States: Lexham Press, 2020), p. 91.