We are used to referring to situations in which it feels like we are making slow progress as taking two steps forward, one step back. It’s a phrase that captures so well the feeling that, despite some significant effort, we aren’t really seeing the headway we might have anticipated or expected. At such times though, at least we can take comfort in some sense of forward momentum.
As we have emerged from the long shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on church life it has often felt like we haven’t even been achieving this. It has felt more like taking one step forward and two steps back. Like the hamster on the proverbial hamster wheel we have found ourselves running furiously and chasing our tails to accomplish even the smallest thing. Yet having done so often we have found ourselves only set further back on ourselves because of an emerging lack of leaders, sudden spikes in infection rates or the ebbing away of the last embers of the church year and its opportunity to engage people before they disappear for a holiday season.
It can all feel arduous, discouraging, wearying and hopeless, but what might God be teaching us from these experiences?
Pace or race?
Any athlete knows that in terms of keeping fit for the season, the body demands a rhythm of activity and exertion, followed by periods of rest and recovery. This cycle is what ensures a sustainable fitness level that allows them to stay in the game. Advances in sports science have led to a move away from an endless regime of playing and training all the time to something that is much more about setting the right pace to ensure long term health, strength and performance. I wonder has our grasp of ‘spiritual science’ caught up with that yet?
So much of our experience of church life over the years has been of things continually racing along. Long church seasons of weekly activities with the shortest possible breaks for Christmas and Easter. Different meetings for different activities on different nights of the week – prayer, Bible study, kirk session, committee – all blurring into a spirit sapping programme of action with little time or space for reflection.
Might God be trying to teach us that setting a sustainable pace trumps frenetic race in almost every way – helping us maintain spiritual desire, ensure ministry effectiveness and sustaining engagement?
Taking time is making time
Added to this is a general lack of rigor to how we seek to organise ourselves in church life. We say we want things to be more informal, that the church isn’t a business, and of course it isn’t, but has that become an excuse for the kind of sloppiness that only erodes any desire to give our precious time to things that we can see in the end never actually go anywhere?
The truth is that fewer meetings with proper preparation, sharper focus and efficient follow up, achieve a lot more than a raft of meetings which are poorly framed, not properly administered and result in a lack of clarity about the action that needs to flow from them.
Taking time is making time. When we set aside the time to prepare properly rather than either ramstam ahead, or blunder along, we make time by ensuring steady progress and a sense of momentum that almost carries us along by itself.
Back to the future?
So if it feels like we are going backwards into the future because we can’t build up that usual head of steam, is that necessarily a bad thing? Might it be one of the lessons of the pandemic that life generally, the spiritual life and the life of the church is not always intended to be lived at 100 miles per hour?
What if we could achieve a balanced rhythm of rest and work in our organisational life? What if we could learn to better break down the church year in four distinct seasons, September to Christmas, new year to Easter, Easter to start of summer, the summer months? Better still, what if busier periods of activity in ministry and mission in each quarter were bookended by a week of prayer or rest or some combination of the two? What if investing in properly planning ahead meant less scurry, hurry, strain and stress?
Stressful and slothful spirituality
The Bible deftly guides us away from both stressful and slothful spiritual attitudes. Psalm 127 verse 2 encourages us not to think that we can impress God or move him to action by trying to outwork or outpace him.
It’s useless to rise early and go to bed late, and work your worried fingers to the bone. Don’t you know [God] enjoys giving rest to those he loves?
Equally, Proverbs 24:30-34 paints a provocative picture of the effects of laziness.
One day I walked by the field of an old lazybones, and then passed the vineyard of a slob; They were overgrown with weeds, thick with thistles, all the fences broken down. I took a long look and pondered what I saw; the fields preached me a sermon and I listened: “A nap here, a nap there, a day off here, a day off there, sit back, take it easy—do you know what comes next? Just this: You can look forward to a dirt-poor life, with poverty as your permanent houseguest!”
Watching our step
By now you are probably either finding yourself strongly agreeing with what you have read so far or inwardly seething against it. The way we approach periods of speed or slowness in our lives and spiritual life is largely determined by our particular personality type. Some of us are almost addicted to speed. Others find it quickly wares us out. Some of us take a long time to just get going. Others hit the ground running.
Both types of people will be found in any church. Some have experienced the pandemic as a welcome invitation to slacken the pace, others have experienced restless exasperation because of their inability to be able to do things the way they usually do. Which do we recognise in ourselves? Can we see that both extremes and ends of this spectrum manifest symptoms of spiritual sickness and immaturity?
So, whether it is one step forward and two steps back, or two steps forward and one step back, can we find the balance that gladly acknowledges that it is God who establishes, directs, guides, determines, quickens or slows every step we take?
Rev David Thompson is Secretary of the Council for Congregational Life and Witness.