July 2010

Permission to Move Forward - Anne Clifton Hebert


“If you’ve ever remodeled a house while attempting to live in it, you have a

sense of the chaos and complexity of congregational renewal…your

congregation is what it is today because of how it responded, or failed to

respond, to the realities it faced…What your congregation will be in the future

is up to you and the other members…What you do or don’t do now will make

a difference...Even when the work is going well, renewal can seem messy

and slow.”  (from Pathway to Renewal by Daniel P. Smith and Mary K.

Sellon, p. 25 & 31)


This was the way I began my annual report at the end of last year in the congregation where I serve.  We are going through some major transitions and it has been messy and I am often discouraged by how slowly things seem to move.  One of the values of being in a congregation that is in transition is that for all the days or times it is messy and slow, there are lights of joy and hope that pop up.  Yes, literally, it is as if God is saying, “Here I am over here in this new ministry,”  or, “Here I am over there where people are getting training for a new mission outreach”  or, “Here I am moving in new ways in this or that disciple.”


In Stan Ott’s book, Twelve Dynamic Shifts for Transforming Your Church, the eleventh shift is moving from a controlling leadership to a leadership that has permission and gives permission to new ministries in a church.  It is a movement that says, “Yes, go for it!” when ideas surface.  However, it is not a “go for it” without any structure.  The vision statement and the values of the congregation are the basis from which all ministry flows.  From there, anything is possible with God.


Recently I was told about a group of young parents in our congregation who gather on Friday evenings to study a book and discuss it.  The book is by an even younger Christian man who challenges people to deep discipleship and action.  Before I knew it, I heard that the group had called our city offices to find out about a person who was not meeting code compliance of the city because her yard was not being tended.  Next thing, the group is spending two hours on a Saturday afternoon at the elderly woman’s home, taking down a crumbling fence and removing old concrete fence posts. 


I was thrilled to hear they had taken their own initiative to study, pray, deepen their love for Christ and for each other, and had taken their discipleship out into the community.  No committee or governing body decisions were involved.  They simply acted because they know that in their church, permission-giving is part of the fabric of the congregation.  It has become part of the fabric because new elders and deacons receive information about it to read and to study.  Ministry teams operate with the understanding that they are trusted and can move out in new directions and can encourage their team members to do the same.  Permission-giving is preached and taught by the pastors.  Permission-giving is modeled by the leadership of the church.


Sometimes new ministry requires money or a decision by a ruling board or ministry team before it can be implemented.  That is an instance when discernment and decision-making may be needed by leaders.  It is hoped that the leaders will exercise permission-giving in their deliberations, and that the need to control will not be the first response.  It is also hoped that decisions will be made from a grace-based position and not one that is fear-based.  Sometimes when hard decisions are called for, it is difficult to tell whether the resistance is from grace or fear.  No wonder our Lord said, “Do not fear!” so many times in his ministry.  Sometimes it is hard to tell if the decision is one that God is asking leaders to make.  That is where prayer and trust that God’s hand will prevail is what leaders hold on to when giving permission to new endeavors.  Stepping out in faith requires risk.


Parker Palmer says it this way:


                In the tradition of pilgrimage, hardships are seen not as accidental but as

integral to the journey itself.  Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall,

getting lost – challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the

                ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge. 

                If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to find the sacred center he

                or she seeks.  Disabused of our illusions by much travel and travail, we

                awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now – in every

                moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep within

                our own hearts. (Source: Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer)


For us, the sacred center is Jesus Christ.  Our pursuit of a deepening relationship with Christ takes us individually and congregationally on terrain that is both challenging and a source of wonder.  Our journey in congregations of transition may be messy, slow and hard, so pay attention to the people and groups making Christ-like decisions and heading off to follow Christ because a permission-giving environment has enabled them to do so.  You never know where they might end up.  That is the joy, isn’t it?  On a daily basis we are reminded that we are not in control, and God is.  Thanks be to God.


Anne Clifton Hébert  is pastor of the Garland Presbyterian Church of Garland, Texas.  


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