[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]
In my time in membership of Baptist churches I have several times experienced what is usually called a time of interregnum, that is, the period between when a minister leaves a church and a new minister comes to that church. Inevitably a lot of work falls on the diaconate (or Leadership Team) during this period of time, as various people take temporary responsibility for the things the minister usually does – principally pastoral care and pulpit filling, but many other little details as well.
When a minister announces s/he is leaving a church, the planning begins. First the church and minister bid a fond (or perhaps not so fond) farewell to each other, most often in a special service that includes gifts and kind words. After this the church usually begins a process of self-examination, clarification of strengths, weaknesses, goals and dreams. This information is used to create a sort of dating profile (or, more professionally, job specification) to share with potential ministers.
A “search” or “personnel” committee will then begin to seek for and examine possible candidates, looking for a good match of goals, desires, values, theology and talents in a new minister. If one is found, an initial conversation is often held with the search committee or diaconate followed by one or two trial services in which the church is given the opportunity to meet and listen to the potential minister. A church meeting is then held to decide whether or not to “call” the potential minister, and, if all parties are happy, plans can begin for the induction service.
Throughout this process, which is in many ways eminently practical, both churches seeking a minister and ministers seeking a church will speak of seeking the will of God in this situation. Often this is accompanied by ernest entreaties for prayer, asking God to make that will plain or reveal the divine Plan. I have little doubt that in most places that prayer is sincere and ernest, but I have often wondered if it is misplaced.
A friend of mine who was contemplating his future once said to me that he was convinced God had no set plan for this portion of his life, but rather that God was offering him a number of choices, through all of which God’s plan could potentially be worked out. He found the choice difficult, but I can’t help wondering if this scenario is closer to the truth than the prayers that assume there is a Plan we are trying to find and must follow in order to stay within God’s Will.
Think about it for a moment. Let’s assume that God is the all-powerful, all-knowing being that many, if not most, Christians believe. God can see all time at once and knows all that was, that is, and that will be. (This is not the same as saying God causes all things to happen as they do, that’s another conversation.) This all-knowing God, who sees our mistakes before we make them, has created a perfect plan for each human life and each Christian community.
God knows exactly what this Plan is, but leaves it to human beings to pray and seek this Plan by trial and error with no more to go on than hunches, feelings, subjective readings of scriptures, and impressions of divine leading. If human beings stray from the Plan, they suffer for being outside God’s Will, or, at least, they receive less than God’s best because they are not following the perfect Plan.
Surely if it is indeed so necessary for us to follow God’s perfect Plan for our lives, a loving God would provide a more certain way to do this than hints, hunches, impressions, interpretations, and emotional/spiritual experiences? Otherwise the whole thing seems more like a game of blind man’s bluff. With every human being blind, and God dancing ahead on the path making the odd noise when asked.
I find it impossible to believe in such a God.
It may be true that God wants “what’s best” for us, but as that phrase has no concrete meaning, it is probably better to abandon it all together. Certainly there are choices we face in which certain options are clearly better than others. (Do I kill the person I am angry with, or do I walk away and seek counselling for my anger issues?) But there are many more decisions to which there is often no clear solution – the better of two goods or the worse of two evils – (which university to attend, for example, or which candidate to vote for). In such situations it may be advisable to pray, but it is also advisable to consider other sources of information.
The Baptist churches I described at the beginning all go through a practical process of discernment, identifying characteristics, needs, and goals and spending time getting to know potential candidates. They may chose to dress things up with spiritual language about seeking God’s will, but when it comes down to the decision, each person involved is drawing on a gut feeling or a calculation of the facts or what s/he thinks would be best for that congregation. God may or may not be involved in the factors which influence the decision, but to wonder what God is “saying” through this situation or suggest that there is a divine mandate to call (or not to call) a certain individual as the minister is, I think, to place too high an importance on the process.
In reality many churches and ministers which go through this process end up in a disastrous relationship. Such relationships can end in nervous or mental breakdowns, early retirement on ill-health, loss of faith, splitting or closing of a church or any number of other disasters. To suggest that people who find themselves in such situations have failed to follow God’s plan is, I think, adding insult to injury. They made the best choice they could based on the available evidence. Unfortunately, it turned out badly.
Equally, many ministers and churches enjoy long periods of fruitful and positive ministry together, but the same church could easily have had just as positive a time with a different minister. To suggest that a church selected the correct minister because his or her time in post was positive or the wrong because it was negative is to employ the famous logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc.
As an aside, to suggest that it was in God’s will or plan for things to go badly in order for the parties involved to learn some kind of lesson has appalling consequences on one’s concept of God. If a parent arranged mental and emotional suffering for a child in order to teach that child a lesson, we would call it abuse, not love. Although some may wish to claim that the rules are different for God because “his ways are not our ways,” the excuse doesn’t hold water. Divine ways may be beyond our comprehension, but one cannot simply change the meaning of something and put it down to divine incomprehensibility. Day is not dark. Blood is not yellow. Fire is not wet. Love is not abusive. To call God loving and still credit God with manipulative or abusive behaviour shows a serious lack of connection between faith and reality.
Although I have used the example of churches and ministers seeking one another, I believe the conclusions also apply to personal decisions. If one believes God has a perfect Plan, it is dangerously easy to get stuck in a holding pattern of praying and waiting for some clear guidance. Perhaps there just doesn’t seem to be any guidance in a given situation, so one continues to wait, perhaps for years. As the waiting continues, bitterness or sadness can grow, as it is easy to feel one has been forgotten or abandoned by God.
If, however, we abandon the idea that God has a Plan which will be revealed to us at the due time (or when we ask the right way or have been good enough), more positive possibilities for life open up. We could consider whether God might be waiting for us to make a move, prepared to work with us in whatever we choose to do, or we could come to believe that God prefers us to explore our options and develop our gifts without prescriptive divine guidance. Perhaps such a change in perspective could free the bitter, sad or stagnant Christian to be more creative with his or her own life. At the least, it could save us from wasting time and tears begging for guidance when we could be doing something positive.
So, when faced with a decision for your own future or the future of a community of which you are a part, by all means pray, if that centres you and helps you to see more clearly, but don’t stop there. Seek wisdom in written sources or positive friendships. Seek clarity on the options. Consider pros and cons. Try to understand your own gut feeling and where it is coming from. Explore or test your options. Make the best decision you have on the available evidence, but don’t agonise over making a choice that is in keeping with God’s Plan, or ask that famous unanswerable question, “what is God saying in this situation?”
To summarise: I don’t believe God has a perfect Plan for each life (or each congregation), even less do I believe it is our responsibility to discern it. If it is true, we’re all blind in the dark and God’s sadistic.