Seventy-two e-mails. Fourteen phone calls, not counting the telemarketers who ignore the “no call” list. Six people stop by in addition to your scheduled appointments. The daily paper. The audio information and book service subscription. One hundred and forty-five satellite television station possibilities. The daily mail including correspondence, junk, solicitations, and subscriptions. Congregational reports. Denominational news. Conversations with family, friends, fellow congregants, acquaintances, and strangers. Meetings. Dozens of billboards and other ads at bus stops, on public transit cars and buses, popping up annoyingly and distracting you as you try to access the information you came for. The broken things and relationships from the past that you would like to fix but can’t. Your to-do list. Your worries.
You deal with more “opportunities” to receive information in one day than were accessible in a lifetime to many generations, or are yet accessible today to many souls on our planet.
Now—in the midst of all this noise—attend to what matters. Harder yet, attend to the reign of God. And, maybe, harder yet again, help the congregation of multitasking, busy, distraction-tempted people you serve to attend to the reign of God like the wise virgins who kept watch, oil at hand and their wicks trimmed, always prepared to receive the reign (the bridegroom) when it appears.
The experience of being distracted is not new. John Wesley complained in the eighteenth century of the “dissipation” of attention, with so many amusements available then (!), which distracted the population from the reign of God. Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler wrote passionately about the clergy’s “vocational guilt” because the work they do in ministry often replaces the work they were called to do. He saved his most spirited words when imploring clergy to resist “the maceration of the minister”:
He, in his private and imperiled existence, must fight for wholeness and depth and against erosion. By a sheer effort of violent will he must seek to become his calling, submit himself to be shaped in his life from the center outward. He need not be slapped into uncorrelated fragments of function; he need not become a weary and unstructured functionary of a vague, busy moralism; he need not see the visions and energies and focused loyalty of his calling run, shallowly like spilled water, down a multitude of slopes.1
How much the more is this true today than when Sittler penned these words in the late 1950s. In a powerfully distracting culture, leaders seeking to help a congregation be attentive to the reign of God face daunting challenges. Leaders cannot count on members walking in the door with roomy, strong capacities to attend.
If a congregation wants to engage in long-range planning, often they have members trained in that skill. If a congregation needs to develop a Web site, often some member knows something about how to get started. If a congregation wants to hold a rummage sale, there are usually some people with demonstrated experience in those events. But it is not often that leaders can assume members’ ability to attend with love to God and neighbor.
In order to attend with love to God and to neighbor, Christians need capacities (1) to enter with hope into suffering, (2) to practice emotional intelligence, (3) to engage the discipline of relinquishment, (4) to practice thankfulness in small things, (5) to “cook slowly,” (6) to persist, and (7) to think theologically. How might we foster such capacities? The first way is to pay attention to them, beginning with yourself and the other members of your leadership team, which is what I am asking you to do now.
Capacity to Enter with Hope into Suffering
A strengthened ability to enter into suffering requires that we know the ground of our hope and that we know it deeply, in our bones. Thus, the capacity to enter suffering with hope means that our practices of theology, worship, prayer, and the like must penetrate into the crevices of our minds and the joints of our spirits.
Capacity to Practice Emotional Intelligence
To practice emotional intelligence means to direct the so-called higher thought centers of the brain to engage our attention, to assess whether the threat is real or whether we have distorted present reality, and then to choose the most helpful and fitting response. To practice emotional intelligence means to think before speaking (rather than blurting out regrettable words), to own our feelings as our own (rather than holding others responsible for them), and to respond with equanimity to others (rather than taking emotional cues from them and reacting commensurate with their reaction).
Capacity to Engage the Discipline of Relinquishment
It is hard to be defensive and attentive at the same time. It is hard to treasure our obsessions and be present. It is hard to hook ourselves to our anxieties and to pay engaged attention to the person in front of us. We cannot serve God and mammon together. Neither can we embrace God’s embrace of us when our arms are full of our mental and material stuff.
Capacity to Practice Thankfulness for Small Things
The taproot of being a real, whole, healthy human being—an authentic human being—is to be able to give and to be able to receive. Either one by itself is insufficient. Those who cannot receive are diminished—for even God receives our thanks. No matter how strong a person claims to be, the person who is unable to receive is withered somewhere inside, like a branch detached from the tree. Those who cannot give are also greatly diminished. Like Mr. Scrooge, the miserly never have enough; it is unpleasant being around them. A complete human being is able to give and able to receive.
Capacity to Cook Slowly
Congregations could strengthen their capacity to attend by practicing the institutional equivalent of the slow food movement: Healthy ingredients. People- (rather than technology-) intensive activity. A premium on savoring. Allowing the time that a dish needs. I am speaking metaphorically-but not completely! Speaking plainly: celebrate God’s goodness with occasional feasts that revel in both the diversity of dishes and the complex makeup of each dish.
Capacity to Persist
I’m told that an ox yoked to a plough will lean into the work all day, even if progress is slow. A horse will pull for a short time and will give up if there is no immediate progress. Real change work requires more oxen than horses. How can we learn to hold attention to the same issue for a long time? Mindful learning involves focusing on the problem, yes, but from many angles of vision. In fact, the more angles of vision on a problem one can imagine, the better to hold our attention. Leaders might help congregations and denominations, where attention seems to be about as stable as a twisting kaleidoscope, persist in their work on a designated problem by regularly looking for a new angle of vision. In other words, try rotating the frame rather than moving on to a new problem with no dent made in the former one.
Capacity to Think Theologically
Theology is not a luxury in congregational life. Learning to think theologically about everyday life—about living and dying, about meaningful work, about use of money and time, about school and civic community, about our government’s participation on our behalf in world affairs, about forming relationships and breaking relationships—is an essential Christian skill. Congregants ought to expect that their called, elected, and appointed leaders will equip them to shape their attention theologically, toward the reign of God, and attune their resources accordingly. p>
Adapted from Paying Attention: Focusing Your Congregation on What Matters, copyright © 2005 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce go toour permissions form.
1. Joseph Sittler, “The Maceration of the Minister,” available online at http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=795&C=975; italics added.
Reflecting with God
Paying Attention: Focusing Your Congregation on What Matters by Gary Peluso-Verdend
In a culture marked by what many call “attention-deficit disorder,” congregations and their leaders are subject to distractions that detract from their mission and lead them in directions that have little to do with their reason for existence. In this inspiring volume, Gary Peluso-Verdend issues a call to congregational leaders to refocus their church’s attention on the core matters of Christian faith—the Word, the example of Christ, and an intentional embrace of theology and spiritual practice—to renew the congregation’s vision and to center itself again on God’s call.
What’s Theology Got to Do with It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church by Anthony B. Robinson
Theology can be a loaded word for mainline Protestant congregations. But when unleashed from its narrow academic sense, “theology” offers a powerful way to get at many of the issues that impact the health and vitality of congregations. Anthony Robinson examines the problems that occur when congregations are reluctant to focus on theology and are unsure of their beliefs. Absent core convictions, structure replaces Spirit, indirection replaces healthy dialogue, and agendas replace leadership. Congregations are strengthened when what they believe backs what they do.