It started as a kitchen-table enterprise, quickly becoming a multi-million-dollar creative hub, connecting starving artists with monied art buyers. My friend was one of a second wave of hires, helping to move the business from the founder’s kitchen table to beautiful offices and production facilities in the most business-friendly city in the country. They worked hard, every day, all day, pursuing the founder’s relentless dream. Amazing people clamored to work there. Growth was exponential. They bet big, every day, and never lost.
That was ten years ago. The industry has changed. Competitors now bite into their market share. The creatives who were first drawn to the intensity of the mission, are now seeking work that is more predictable, income more steady, an environment less volatile. But the founder cannot let it go, cannot live without the adrenaline rush of meeting impossible deadlines, exceeding unreasonable expectations, overwhelming the odds. Even before the pandemic, the best and brightest on the staff were already looking for the exit. After the pandemic, lay-offs became necessary and some of those laid-off—including my friend—were relieved. Being laid off was an escape hatch from the founder’s maniacal drive, dogged determination, unwillingness to listen.
We can all tell stories like this, stories about amazing organizations that faltered or failed because the founder couldn’t imagine any other way but theirs, refused to craft succession plans, ignored the signs of change. It happens in congregations, too.
High atop a bluff in northeastern Iowa, the Lutheran church steeple still casts its long shadow across miles and miles of rich farmland. Founded in 1853 by a visionary Norwegian immigrant pastor and his wife, the congregation exploded with activity and interest. They built a stunning edifice that welcomed hundreds of worshippers—worshippers who first travelled there by horse and buggy, and later by car. The founding pastor turned leadership of the congregation over to his eldest son, who later turned leadership over to his eldest son. In 1949, the congregation was voted one of Twelve Great Churches in America, according to a poll of 100,000 pastors conducted by The Christian Century.
Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a vibrant congregation? Who wouldn’t want to learn the faith from a three-generation clerical dynasty? What could possibly go wrong with an organization left unchanged for 100 years? You know the answer. Though rural congregations have all suffered cultural and demographic shifts, the fall of this particular congregation was fast and furious. Because the pastors and leaders refused to envision any vision but that of the founder, the congregation plummeted from being one the Great Congregations to being a mostly empty building.
As I write, the impeachment hearings are playing in the background in my office—hearings occasioned by catastrophic failure to imagine a new vision, to understand the need for orderly succession, to heed the painful truth that leadership needs to change if an organization—even a nation’s government—is to thrive.
And, as I write, Sunday’s gospel is bouncing around my brain. On Sunday we mark the Transfiguration of Our Lord—the backdoor of Epiphany and the gateway to Lent. Our texts speak of orderly succession, transfer of power, a shared and dynamic vision, an unchanged mission.
Elijah, the greatest of biblical prophets, passed the mantel to his associate Elisha in dramatic fashion. Though Elijah was tired and happy to be done with it, Elisha begged him not to go. Elijah was undeterred, clicking his heels together three times as “the chariots of Israel and its horsemen” carried Elijah into the clouds. (2 Kings 2.1-12)
Jesus, the only Son of God, dragged three disciples to the top of a lonely mountain to hobnob (virtually) with Elijah and Moses. The three disciples, terrified, would learn only later that they had been allowed to witness Jesus’ transfiguration so that they could carry on Jesus’ ministry post-resurrection. (Mark 9.2-9)
Every founder needs a successor. Every vision needs re-vision. Every organization needs re-organizing. Here’s the thing: though the vision might shift, and the face of leadership might change, the mission does not.
Our mission? As a congregation, as disciples? Though we might gather differently than did the first disciples, differently than we gathered even eleven months ago, the mission of our founder, Jesus Christ, has not faltered. That’s why, two millennia after that transformative Transfiguration, the church of Jesus Christ continues to thrive on every continent, in thousands of languages, under many names. What is that founding mission? Join us on Sunday for live zoom worship, and we’ll talk about it more.
After worship on Sunday, we ask you to remain for our February Vitality Talk, a compact, honest and insightful discussion with Vicar Phillip Potaczek of a recent article in Living Lutheran magazine: “Unpack White Privilege: The Important Work of Making Church Less Harmful.” Download the article here . If part of you says, “I don’t remember talking about White Privilege before,” you would be right. Every generation addresses that generation’s central issues as part of its mission. We have deemed discussions of race and class to be central to the unfolding founding mission of Jesus Christ.
Can my friend’s former employer, that creative enclave, survive the founder’s myopia?
Can a storied, venerable congregation become a novel, nimble one?
Can a nation survive violent attempts to overturn a central tenet of its mission?
Can Ascension trust the Transfigured Jesus to transform us, again and again?
One more thing. In the midst of this protracted weather pattern, leading to frigid temperatures and frequent snow, I remind us to give thanks for those who work in the cold to protect us, and to pray protection for those who live in the cold because they have no place to go. They are part of Jesus’ mission, our mission, too.
“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post