I am a planner. It has always been a key part of my ministry. In every appointment, I have led my congregations in strategic long-range planning. Twice a year, I lead my staff in planning for the upcoming season. I even plan my days off.
Planning gives me a sense of joy.
But not now. Planning our limited reopening of in-person worship left me with a sense of dread and exhaustion.
The pandemic exposes how much I have placed my faith in my abilities to plan. The pandemic reveals my hidden heresy. More than I care to admit, I have trusted in my planning and hard work to save the church. Pelagius was the ancient heretic that suggested that we are saved, in part, by our good work. I am a Pelagian Planner.
I am a member in good standing in the Sect of Pelagian Planners. It’s called the United Methodist Church. This is not the first time we Wesleyans have been accused of works-righteousness; there is a semi-Pelagian taint to the tradition. For my generation of pastors, it was stoked by the church growth movement and the anxiety of denominational decline. It is branded with labels such as ‘effectiveness,’ ‘excellence in ministry,’ and ‘fruitfulness.’ It is measured by numbers—attendance, giving, and programs.
The linchpin for all this is planning. If we can just craft the right plan, then we will renew our churches. Of course, we coopt the Lord in all this. Our plans are ‘visionary,’ ‘prayerful,’ ‘Spirit-filled’—but we should test the spirits, for not every spirit is of God. At the end of the day, we are trying to save ourselves.
We pastors have always carried this burden. The successful ones thrive on it. Others are crushed by it. All live with this anxiety churning in the background. Now, the pandemic has brought it to the forefront of our minds.
Right now, the Spirit invites us to let go of the idolatry of planning.
The Spirit invites us to replace planning with practices. Now more than ever, the only thing we should focus on are the basic spiritual practices of the Christian faith. True to our tradition, we should center our congregations on using all the means of grace. There is a slew of them in the General Rules and Wesley’s sermons such as ‘The Means of Grace’ and ‘On Visiting the Sick.’
Now is the time to do the minimal amount of planning, just enough to re-center our congregations and ourselves on these basic building blocks. Don’t worry about counting heads and marketing. Don’t worry about the church falling apart. Little by little, practicing the means of grace refocuses our attention on Christ alone. This does not require a strategic plan.
Here is the key: The sole purpose of these practices is holiness. Holiness is the gift of living completely in the love of Christ. It is the Spirit of the Risen Christ. We practice the means of grace so that Christ can abide in us and we in Christ. In short, the goal is to be possessed.
What is good for a pastor and a congregation is even better for the denomination. Between now and next year’s General Conference, the healthiest thing we can do is center our decision-making in the means of grace and forego the games we play with denominational politics. The pandemic has left no room in our souls for these games.
And let’s dispense with grandiose talk about a great revival coming after the pandemic. That too is the idolatry of planning and our history is full of these altars. Let us seek Jesus Christ alone through the means of grace so that the Holy Spirit can show us how to embrace our brokenness.
Authentic revival is not concerned with plans and numbers but with fire:
‘Jesus, thine all victorious love
shed in my heart abroad
then shall my feet no longer rove
rooted and fixed in God.
Refining fire, go through my heart
illuminate my soul;
scatter thy life through every part
and sanctify the whole.’
I like that hymn so much that I’m tempted to make a PowerPoint of it and screen share it in our next staff planning meeting. God help me!