Between two worlds… Between two worlds…
If you have followed my blog for any length of time you will have seen this nagging theme of “between two worlds” threading itself through much of my writing. In fact, during Lent of 2016 I wrote a whole 40-day blog series under this title (it was actually only 39 blogs since I was just too tired one day. An almost perfect Lenten discipline!).
Two days ago the unthinkable happened.
My two worlds were invited to come together. I just accepted a position with the Presbytery of the Cascades (the 97-church district that covers Western Oregon and a small slice of Southern Washington and Northern California) to become the Presbyter for Vision and Mission. To the outside world the language may sound clunky, but essentially it is the head of staff executive position in charge of seeing the church through the next few years of deepening our mission and creating a unified vision that will pull our congregations forward for the next generation or so.
It is a sobering position given the general decline of our mainline Protestant denominations and the shifting patterns around religious affiliation and loyalty. But more than that, it represents the engagement of my two worlds that have often been awkward dance partners in my professional life. As I have described in the past I have often felt like I have one foot squarely planted in the life, the rhythm and the rituals of the church and the other foot planted in the secular spirituality of our communities where the Sacred can be found just as easily out on the hiking trail, waist deep in the river, or with a coffee cup and a Sunday paper in hand at an bustling outdoor café.
For years I have either felt this need to choose one or the other or bring them together at the risk of alienating myself from both communities. It happens all the time. If I try to make room in the church for the nature-loving spiritualist who trades out the name of God for the concept of the Sacred I get puzzled looks and questions like, “I certainly respect their brand of faith, but what does that have to do with church?” And if I let slip too early that I happen to be a minister with my hiking, biking, snow-shoeing buddies I can feel the air suddenly grow cold between us as if I had a bad case of garlic breath.
But this new position gives me the opportunity to bring these two worlds together. In fact that is what I am supposed to do. Last year our presbytery had a net loss of 5.8% and 850 members. Unfortunately that pattern has been going on for many years and seems to be picking up speed. I think the Presbyterian Church is finally ready to acknowledge that our future is not in doing church better but is in understanding the spiritual needs and lives of those whose closest association with church is admiring the stained glass windows while walking their dog across the street.
I know that there were many reasons for my selection as the new Presbyter (“Executive” in secular terms). Among them my broad range of experiences as a minister including interim positions, new church development, legacy/closure work, and solo pastorates. I also co-moderated the East Portland Vision Plan, a 25-year plan for the quarter million people in East Portland, to improve infrastructure, the economy, parks, bike lanes, traffic patterns, community-building and political clout.
But I believe a big part of this invitation is that for years I have lived in the awkward space between two worlds, between the rich historic traditions of the church and the experimental spiritualities emerging in our communities. Quite honestly it would have been easier on my mental health and pocket book to have settled into one or the other rather than to straddle two worlds, but my love of both left me no choice but live in the space between. The sacrifices, the occasional suspicions and the months on food stamps were all worth it.
I do know that this invitation to lead the Presbytery is no perfect and final panacea. It will still be a struggle to introduce these different worlds to each other and get them to find common ground and learn to trust and enjoy each other. There will still be initial suspicion and awkwardness. This is not like winning the lottery, but more like finally being accepted to race the Boston Marathon. It’s not a magic pill, but the terrain has changed. What has changed is now my livelihood is based on building those bridges whereas before I risked my livelihood in my attempts to build those bridges. Now I am rewarded for the risks whereas before I often suffered for the risks. It is, at least in my heart and soul, a monumental shift.
I have been writing about my experience of living in two worlds for over five years. Now it is two worlds and one job.
Maybe there really is a God!