The trilogy of movies adapting J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” for the big screen a few years back was not terribly good. But there were some impressive special effects, including one scene in which the elf prince Legolas smoothly (and improbably) jumps across a collapsing stone tower over a ravine, lightly jumping off each stone just as it falls away beneath him. (You can see the scene here.)
That scene comes to mind whenever I hear someone in the church talk about the need for ministers who are “adaptable,” “nimble,” and “resilient.” In a way, these words make sense. The church finds itself set in a changing world and is itself called to change so that it can continue to proclaim the gospel afresh. On this line of thinking, what we need is a bunch of Legolases who can nimbly leap from one stone to another, adapt to change, and resiliently handle the challenges that crop up along the way.
But as I reflect on our first few weeks together this semester in the midst of a pandemic, I confess I haven’t always felt particularly nimble, adaptable, or resilient. Covid has brought on such significant changes to our life together, that it has been difficult to adapt. I get confused as to what public health guidelines apply to which event and find myself concerned that we’re not following the right ones. I miss doing things I once took for granted, like gathering around a single table in a single room to eat, worshipping together on Wednesdays in St. Luke’s Chapel, eating food that is not individually wrapped and packaged, or standing side-by-side to sing. The result has been not a nimble and adaptable start to the school year but one that has at times rather felt a bit more lurching and off-kilter.
The start of the school year has been an important reminder for me that ministry happens in that messy place where grand visions meet messy reality. We can have great visions for what our ministry can look like and, God willing, we will all achieve those. But we also need to wrestle with the reality of what our communities, buildings, and contexts are actually like.
Nimbleness, adaptability, and resilience are important skills in ministry and I hope you are able to cultivate them over the course of your studies. But they all begin with the ability to honestly understand the context and situation in which we minister, and the constraints and opportunities these impose. The church may never be what we imagine it can be but—with some nimble and adaptable leadership—it can always be more than it is now. And that, surely, seems an aspiration worth striving for.