George Carlin once observed that you just don’t see quicksand in movies as often as you used to. It’s funny because it’s true. But you do see quicksand in real life, and you see it all the time. Okay, not literal quicksand, but metaphorical, allegorical, symbolic quicksand is everywhere. And it’s rampant in my field.
The armed forces use a slogan that our churches should adopt – “Complacency kills.” Churches become set in their ways, stubbornly refusing to change or experiment with worship, mission, or new (to them) ways of being in ministry. Ecclesiastical complacency leads to what we might call lazy church syndrome, a church that sinks further and further into the sofa, covered in Dorito dust, and refuses to even reach out for the remote control to change the channel. A church that is not doing anything new can never grow. The quicksand of complacency and laziness can swallow a church or a pastor inch by inch, little by little, until all that’s left is counting the days to retirement or closing the church doors.
Complacency can manifest itself in many ways in a pastor’s life. A pastor can become lazy in sermon preparation, mistaking his ability to preach 20 minutes for his ability to preach a really good sermon. She can become lazy about her accountability to the denomination, turning in Charge Conference paperwork and Annual Statistical Reports with fudged numbers and guesses that look about right. He can become lazy at pastoral care, addressing conflict in the congregation; complacent about stewardship of her own body; become complacent in regard to her spiritual life.
The one that makes me the most cranky is academic quicksand. Pastors have this strange tendency to complete the educational requirements for their jobs, and then become academically lazy. They preach sermons without a scratch of exegesis or research, openly dismiss and downplay seminary education, and their laurels develop bedsores from being rested on for so long. Worst of all, some stop reading. Or when they do read, they get as far away from seminary-level theology as they can and read fluffy faithy stuff.
My denomination (United Methodist) requires that our pastors receive continuing education throughout our careers. This is supposed to help move us away from academic complacency and foster lifelong learning. It’s a great treatment, but it’s not a cure. I see two obvious reasons it sometimes fails: one, its success or failure depends upon the motivation/complacency of the pastor; two, some workshops are better than others. I’ve seen pastors walk into dynamite workshops with an “I’m only doing this because I gotta” attitude, and the chief benefit they get walking out is the continuing ed credit they report at Charge Conference. Other workshops present excellent, well-researched information that has little practical impact on the day-to-day life of the church. Others present business-like insights for church growth and congregational management without getting terribly theological. And some, let’s face it, are just not put together very well at all.
In my previous career as a counselor, I attended a ton of workshops. I can think of two that really changed the way I did my job. That’s two workshops in nine years. And one of those workshops actually confirmed some of the insight I present here.
In the movies, someone generally got out of quicksand because someone threw them a vine to hold onto, and pulled them out. That’s the cure for us, too. We United Methodists ought to know this. We develop our brain cells by first deciding that we’re going to develop our brain cells. Then we make a plan and execute it. And the real key is the buddy system. We’re not terribly good at doing it on our own. (An insight we all need to be reminded of because pastoral ministry has the quicksand of a kind of inherent loneliness embedded in it). We need someone (a partner or a group) to whom we are accountable. The early Methodists got this right. Pastors tend to do better when they have groups (especially groups of other pastors) with whom they meet: book study groups, lectionary study groups, Bible study groups, Covenant Discipleship groups, Emmaus or Cursillo Reunion groups. When we do the hard work of lifelong learning outside of day-long workshops, and do the hard work of brain cell development and accountability, we get better and avoid the quicksand of complacency. We find ourselves throwing the vine to our colleagues, and we end up having the vine thrown to us. We keep each other out of the quicksand.
Make no mistake, complacency kills. Look out for quicksand – it’s everywhere. Just not in the movies so much.