Sunday, February 22, 2009

sitting in the balcony

I did not preach this morning. On our annual calendar this was "Youth Sunday", and I will say a bit about that later. It was an atypical morning, but an extraordinary one.

It began with a Fellowship Breakfast. I am usually not able to attend this gathering, since it is held at the approximate time of our 8:30 am service, but today I could be there. The speaker was Dave Sanderson, a member of our church and a survivor of Flight 1549 (Hudson). Dave is a close friend; he has served on our staff-parish relations committee, is a delegate to the Western North Carolina Annual Conference, and has spearheaded our "Igniting Ministries" initiative. More than any other person, he is responsible for our being certified as a Welcoming Church through Igniting Ministries. Dave talked about the experience of crashing into the Hudson, and surviving. Not only did he survive; he was one of the last ones out. His talk was inspirational and a large group was there to hear him. It was, as a friend says, a "God" moment.

Following this breakfast a group of about 80 persons gathered for the first of three "conversations about the future of our church". This is the congregational component of our strategic planning process; we are most fortunate to be led in this endeavor this year by Janice Virtue of Duke, Gil Rendle and Bishop Robert Schnase. I welcomed the group, said a word about "appreciative inquiry", and offered a prayer. I then left the group in the hands of two very capable facilitators.

I next went to teach an adult class of approximately 90 people. I talked about scripture, tradition, reason and experience, using the Wesley Study Bible as a resource, and reflecting on the uniquely Methodist "way" or understanding and living by the scriptures. A couple of weeks ago I sat in a Conference Board of Ordained Ministry Committee and listened to candidates talk about this very topic. It helped me to work with that same material in an educational setting.

I then had an all too brief conversation with a couple who have a concern about the church. It was one of those moments that merits more time to go into the issues, and yet any pastor reading this will know what this experience is like.

I made my way to the sanctuary, and on Youth Sunday (and this was my sixth one at Providence) I sit in the balcony, which is where many youth and parents of youth sit on Sundays. It is great to sit there on this Sunday, and for me it has a couple of meanings: first, it is about role reversal. I want to see the youth in approximately the same way they see me, and I want to afford them the same gift they extend to me by their presence.

But I also realize that sitting in the balcony helps me to get a different glimpse of what is happening. Typically, two or three youth will speak, they are seniors in high school, and I am able to perceive all that they have absorbed over the years. All of the inputs during those years, all of the decisions and commitments somehow become an output, and I can see and hear clearly what has happened. And it is quite extraordinary.

Being the senior pastor of a large church is a challenge, at times, but it is a gift, and this is especially so today. Sitting in the balcony, I am reminded that what the church is involved in does matter. (Note: Those of you who wish to explore this idea further might locate a copy of Ronald Heifitz' Leadership Without Easy Answers, where he talks extensively about the "balcony".). It matters to a person who has a miraculous life experience, and seeks to put things back together; it matters to a group of people who care about the future of their community; it matters to a group of adults who have been reading the Bible for most of their lives, and are struggling to make sense of it; it matters to a couple who are honestly searching for something that they have not found; and it matters to teenagers, who are in the process of claiming Christian faith on the way to adulthood.

It was a good day to sit in the balcony.


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