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A Letter from the Associate Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Insane Ministry
July 20, 2017

As an undergraduate student, I was a Physics and Computer Science major.  This means that I spent a lot of time on a variety of subjects that I have since forgotten more about than I ever knew (and know a ton of really bad science jokes).  However, it did acquaint me with the genius of Albert Einstein.  The case can easily be made that Albert Einstein is the most significant figure in science from the 20th century.  Interestingly enough, he also is often credited with this quote: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  Now the truth is, we have no idea if Einstein actually said this but, regardless it’s true.

Want proof?  How’s your New Year’s Resolution coming along?  I can’t even remember what my resolutions were forget whether I’ve actually kept them!  Over and over I commit myself to the same type of things – losing weight, eating better, exercising more, reading my bible more, praying more regularly, etc.  But time and time again it’s the same pattern: after a short-lived improvement, I fall back into the same pattern I was in before.  Here’s where our Einstein-credit quote applies: to try the same thing over and over again and expect different results, well, that’s just insane.

In every area of our church, we’re hearing the same phrases over and over “it’s a new day for the church” and “we need to rethink ministry completely.” By and large those things are true.  But there’s also something that gives me pause about those phrases. After all, the Apostle Paul is pretty clear about some things:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Today, just as those before us have had to do, we need to balance a tension.  On the one hand, expecting different results while doing the same thing we’ve always done is, well, insane.  On the other hand, there is the historic faith of the church that has carried it for the past 2000 years and we abandon that to our own peril.

Interestingly enough, I think Jesus provides us the model for navigating this tension in the Parable of the Sower.  If you think about that story for a minute, the identical seed falls in four different environments with vastly different results.  If we think of the “seed” in this case as the historic faith of the church, then it clear that’s not what makes the difference but rather, it’s the environment or, in more human terms, it's the culture of our churches that’s a difference maker.  Our church culture is everything that comes with it from the physical appearance, tradition, customs, priorities, budgets, etc.

If you’re anything like me when it comes to planning, my first question is always “Well, how did we do it last year?”  While there is certainly a lot of wisdom to be gained from knowing what’s been done before, I’ve started to wonder if that’s a wise first question.  Often I find myself falling into the trap of just doing it the way we did it before while expecting different results.  But there are a few instances that I can point to where I was involved with the transformation of an existing ministry and without fail the actual change that was needed was a cultural change rather than a programmatic one; a change within when it comes to traditions, habits, values, or allocation of resources.

So next time you’re confronted with “What are we going to do about….?” stop and think.  Is there something culturally that needs to change first?  Do our priorities need to be shifted?  Do we need to let go of a tradition that has tied us into a certain pattern of ministry?  Do we need a fresh set of eyes and new leadership in order to navigate this next season?  Because if you expect different results by doing the same thing, well, that’s just insane.  Or so Einstein would say.

The Rev. Brian R. Wallace, Associatel Minister

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