The seasoned minister was addressing a group of young clergy about some of the lessons learned on the job. You know, the ones you can’t learn in graduate school or from a book. These are the ones that matter most.
One of his most insightful moments was the day he realized that “the cavalry ain’t coming.”
He said he grew up watching cowboy and western movies that always ended the same way.
Someone would get into trouble, face a huge predicament (tied to a railroad track, surrounded by the enemy, trapped in some impossible situation) and at the height of the drama when all seemed lost, the cavalry would appear on the horizon, riding to the rescue at just the right moment to save the day.
This veteran minister, with a wry smile, looked out into the faces of the green ministers and said: “You have to understand, the cavalry ain’t coming.”
It’s been years since I first heard this powerful truth, and I constantly relearn it.
Recently, I’ve found myself regularly repeating some version of it to congregations and clergy as they awake to the scale and scope of the challenges before them.
One of the first and appropriate responses to any challenge is to ask, “What can we do to solve this problem?”
Not surprisingly, we rightfully look for the easiest and simplest solution first. If the car won’t start, we check the battery. If the light is out, we replace the bulb.
In congregational life, some of the issues we face can be solved with a phone call or a reassuring word.
However, most of the issues before us require more complex responses than simple ones. The hard truth is that there are no easy solutions to our complicated issues.
As much as we would like to believe otherwise, the cavalry ain’t coming. No idea or person is going to magically show up and rescue you from your predicament.
I am constantly amazed at the lack of awareness of this truth among congregations.
If I had a dollar for every time I have heard someone declare that the solution to the issue before them is to get rid of a minister or ministry leader, I’d be wealthy. Same goes for clergy who cast about for a program to import or a magic ministry wand to wave over whatever challenge is before them.
When the simple fixes fail to provide relief, many a church or minister has retreated into a mantra of “let’s keep doing what we’re doing and hope it gets better.”
All too often, despair and cynicism take root and take control. Blaming, scapegoating and suspicion rule the day.
What our wise ministry friend went on to say that day was something like this: “When I realized that the cavalry wasn’t coming, I started becoming the minister God needed and could use.”
Healthy faith communities and their leaders resist the lure of the simplistic. Rather, they allow God to lead them into the depths of authentic faith and its struggles and knotty challenges.
My friend was inviting us into deeper waters of faith than we would ever know if we always waited for some person or idea to rescue us. Instead, he invited us to follow Jesus.
While Jesus surely offers simple words to us that have the power to rescue us from intractable situations (“Seek first the kingdom,” “take up your cross,” and so on), each of those simple invitations are, in reality, invitations to journey deeper into the mysteries of the faith.
“Seek first the kingdom of God” may sound simplistic, but it may well be the most demanding challenge you will ever embrace.
The more you comprehend its implications, the more you will realize just how elaborate is its invitation.
So, what are some guiding principles for faithful congregations and clergy seeking to navigate the complexities of congregational life? Here’s a start:
- Let’s agree that no person, group, conflict or opportunity is as simple as they/it appear.
- Every option before us has consequences, some obvious and some hidden.
- We will not assume that someone else will do the hard things for us.
- My opinion may not be factual.
- All of us should consider the possibility, however remote, that we do not know everything about anything.
- As a faith community, we operate under a different set of values and principles than any other organization in the world. Importing their norms and practices can be extremely dangerous.
- Christ, not you or me, is the head of the church.
- The answer to every challenge we face is the same: Jesus. Let’s look to Calvary, not the cavalry.
- God’s way has always involved intense challenge. Read the Bible. Welcome to the club. Let’s agree to quit complaining about it.
Feel free to add to the list.
Bottom line: The cavalry ain’t coming, so what will we do?
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.