Loaves and fishes

Are you a wannabe? Or are you a gonnabe?

Wannabes want to be like someone else. A wannabe is girl who wants to be like Lady Gaga, or maybe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A wannabe is a boy who wants to be like Patrick Mahomes, or maybe Alex Gordon. Try as they might, they can never become someone else.

By contrast, gonnabes want to become the best possible version of themselves. Gonnabes may start out like wannabes, but they move beyond the stage of mere aspiration. They change the wanna into gonna. They become what they wannabe. They become the best possible version of themselves.

Churches are the same way. We got our wannabes, and we got our gonnabes. The question every church must ask itself is simple: Which one are we? Are we a wannabe, or are we a gonnabe?

The question may never have been more important than it is now, as we struggle through the covid-19 pandemic. We have an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. If we do, we may come out stronger than we were before. If we don’t, we are in big trouble.

Pardon the grinding noise as I shift gears.

Every year for the last 20-plus years, Church of the Resurrection has sponsored a Leadership Institute. It attracts pastors, church staff members and laypeople from multiple denominations around the country – indeed, around the world. They gather for two or three days to hear top-flight speakers and attend workshops on best practices.

I’ve attended many of these sessions, including the most recent one Sept. 24 and 25. It was very different from the previous ones, in that it was totally online. That has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, it’s shorter, and you don’t have to travel to get there. On the minus side, you have much less opportunity to meet new people and to reconnect with friends. Last year, I was able to spend time with a friend I hadn’t seen in maybe 10 years. That alone made the whole thing worthwhile.

The in-person 2019 Leadership Institute attracted 3,200 people – a record number. The online-only 2020 Leadership Institute attracted 4,200 people. That means one thousand more church people than last year wanted to connect in whatever way they could to hear how they could become better church leaders in time of pandemic.

These are wannabes on the way to becoming gonnabes. It’s not that they want to become like Adam Hamilton. Rather, they want to become the best possible version of themselves that they can be so that they can lead their churches to become the best possible version of themselves that they can be.

I want to share some of what I learned during this session, because it’s important.

First, Adam made a point that I’ve shared with you before. The “old normal,” whatever we imagine it to have been, is gone. The old normal is history.

Life before March 15 is history. Pre-March 15 Edgerton is as much history as the villages of McCamish and Lanesfield that once stood nearby. Pre-March 15 Gardner is as much history as that sign that pointed “This way to Santa Fe, this way to Oregon and California.”

Life can never be the same as it was pre-pandemic. Even as we grieve that loss, we want to recognize that we have an opportunity to make life a little better than it was. God did not cause this pandemic, but as always God is trying to work good through it by working with us to create positive change.

Covid-19 will continue to make our lives difficult for some time yet. But, unless we blow our response entirely, this is only a temporary situation. The new normal that will come out of this is what we are creating right now.

We don’t have to completely get our act together right now. But we need to start thinking about what we need to do to get our act together, and working to implement those ideas, or we will be caught off-guard and stumble bigtime.

One of the speakers at this year’s Leadership Institute was Ron Heifetz, who is one of the world’s best-known authorities on leadership. He normally teaches at Harvard in Massachusetts, but the pandemic lockdown caught him vacationing in Hawaii. That’s where he’s been stuck since mid-March. Tough duty, he admits.

He says there are three questions we need to ask ourselves as leaders and as institutions.

1. What is essential for us to preserve? Or, as Adam Hamilton paraphrases it: What must we keep doing?

2. What must we let go from our past? What must we stop doing?

3. What innovations must we make? What must we change?

These are challenging questions. These are not new questions, though. These are the same questions we ask ourselves all the time, if we are truly attuned to the gospel imperative of being fresh wineskins for the good news of Jesus Christ.

Several years ago, when we were moving to a one-board form of church governance, I said that questions similar to these should be part of every Church Council meeting – and one of these days, when we return to regular Church Council meetings, they will be again.

What is essential? What must we continue to do, no matter what? What defines us as a church? What is there without which we are not who we really are, or at least want to be?

For the last seven months, we have continued to worship. We worshipped online only at first. Now we worship in person and online as well – at least, when the wi-fi cooperates.

We continue to feed people through the Community Food Pantry. We have had to stop hosting Grace Café because of safety concerns. If we consider that part of our food ministry to be essential to our identity, we will pick it up again eventually, though perhaps this hiatus give us an opportunity to tinker with the format before we start up again.

Small group meetings for Bible study and book sharing have continued in new ways. Purely social gatherings, such as senior game night, have had to stop because we cannot imagine an online alternative.

Being able to go online has saved us. In fact, going online has greatly expanded our reach. Before March 15, the only way you could be part of worship was to physically show up at 9 on Sunday morning. Since then, we have expanded the number of ways you can be part of this worship time. Now we routinely reach 100 or more, sometimes way more, every week. Our “attendance” has multiplied.

That happened because of innovations we made to preserve what’s essential. Necessity forced us to go online. We had to innovate. We had to change. And more changes are ahead.

Our monthly newsletter has now become a Weekly Update distributed by email and US mail. Its content keeps expanding. Who knows what it may look like in seven more months?

The nasty question, of course, is what activities we might discard and leave behind, either because we cannot find a new way to do them, or we decide that they’re no longer worth the effort required to do them well – and if we can’t do them well, we should not do them at all.

We have so slimmed our ministry menu of late that there may be nothing else left on the plate that’s extra. Or maybe there’s room for more of a different kind. We will have these conversations as we move along.

One thing that is here to stay is our online presence. It is vital to our present as well as to our future. We just have to get better at it. I remember my first two attempts at Facebook Live when I appeared sideways. Somebody changed the rules on how you start it up, and I missed the memo, so I appeared vertically challenged. I’ve learned a few things since then. I know there’s plenty more to learn to improve our livestream experience.

Church of the Resurrection recently discovered just how important its online presence is. On Sept. 20, 502 people joined the church in an online ceremony. More than 50 of those people don’t live around here. Some of them have never even been in the building. Some of them may never be. But they have pledged to be supportive members.

So COR now has a purely online congregation as well as a hybrid congregation of those who worship online plus – as of this weekend – those who worship in person. Such transitions are difficult, as we can testify after worshipping outside for five weeks before we moved inside, and still under strict conditions that we could never have imagined seven months ago.

Talk of change always gives people the willies. Ron Heifetz makes the point that people don’t fear change per se. What people fear is loss. We’re afraid that change will bring loss of something we hold dear. But if we adapt creatively to the changes around us, the gains can outweigh any loss we feel, and the future can be bright.

We face two kinds of challenges, Heifetz says – technical and adaptive. A technical challenge is something you probably already know the solution to. The furnace quits; you fix the furnace. The wi-fi quits; you fix the wi-fi. Those are technical solutions to technical problems.

But some challenges are so big and so broad that they cannot be met by technical solutions. They require adaptive changes. They require basic changes in how we do things. And deep change is always risky because people fear the possibility of loss.

But Heifetz says we usually don’t need to make revolutionary changes to meet adaptive challenges. He says most positive change involves relatively conservative adaptations of what is already in place. If change is rooted in who we are, we won’t feel a great loss because we won’t lose anything in the transition.

Denial of the situation will kill us, Heifetz says. Nostalgia for the past will kill us, too. We have to face the reality of the present and do what we need to do to preserve what we believe to be essential. We can look back fondly at where we’ve been, but we have to realize that the past is not a proper guide to the future.

Most of all, we need to proceed in faith. I won’t insult your intelligence by denying that even that can be scary.

Take the time Jesus and his disciples land their boat at a remote place and discover that a huge crowd is already there waiting for them. Late in the afternoon, the disciples tell Jesus it’s time to send everybody away to buy food. They see a technical problem – people are hungry – and they propose a technical solution – let them buy food.

Jesus sees the problem differently. “You feed them,” he tells his disciples. He knows that a technical solution to the problem is impractical. So he provides an innovative solution. It’s not one the disciples could have expected. It’s not one we can expect today. But we also need to look for innovative solutions to adapt to our new circumstances.

As I was musing on this scripture and some others last week, there came to me a possible solution to something that’s been bugging me for awhile. Some time ago, I helped saddle this church with a generic vision and mission statement that provide little inspiration for anyone. Maybe I’m the only one who cares about it. But I want to suggest an alternative today because it could be helpful as we chart our future.

It seems to me two things are among the things essential to who we are. These are worship and feeding people. Most everything we do revolves around those two concerns.

A vision statement is supposed to describe the change you want to make. A mission statement is supposed to describe what you do to make it happen. I think our mission is nourishing people in body and spirit. I think our vision is a community that is free of hunger and rich in spirit.

See how those fit together? We nourish those who are hungry and poor in spirit because we want to see a community that is free of hunger and rich in spirit. I think that says a lot about who we are. Let me know what you think of the idea.

By ourselves, we cannot feed all who are hungry in the Gardner-Edgerton area. But we can set the pace for doing it. We can be like that young lad who showed up that day in Galilee with a knapsack containing five barley loaves and a couple of dried fish. He was willing to share what he had, and God multiplied it to feed thousands.

God can work miracles in our midst, too, if we are faithful; if we have a strong sense of who we are; if we decide that on these essentials we will stand, and on these essentials we will innovate.

Because we are not just wannabes. We are gonnabes. We know what we wannabe. We wanna be God’s change agents in our corner of the world. We wanna praise God, and we wanna be used by God to feed hungry people and tell the good news about Jesus. And we’re gonna do whatever it takes to become what we wannabe!

This message was presented October 4, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Matthew 14:14-18.

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