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One of the gems from my mica mining grandfather’s treasure chest of stories comes from the early days of courting my grandmother. She went to church. He did not; well, not until he got interested in the flaming red-haired Mae Gouge. Hard working, moonshine swigging Ed Huskins’ appearance in the Lily Branch Church captivated everyone’s attention, especially the preacher John Gouge. Hard-shell Preacher Gouge was the father of his youngest daughter of 10 children, my Mamaw, the flaming red-haired Mae.
Papaw told his story in different ways at different times as most good stories make room for a little creativity. But the gist was that Papaw became the target for conversion through long altar call appeals from the pulpit of his girlfriend’s daddy. Now, at this point in the story Papaw usually diverted his story along a humorous path to tell of those who went forward for the altar call but whose lives never seemed to be altered by the experience. Papaw loved to spin a yarn, but underneath that exterior was a fierce commitment to plain speaking and an honest assessment of life.
One Sunday Preacher Gouge lit into a pointed fire and brimstone proclamatory zeal about the necessity of making a one-time faith decision to escape the devil’s temptations and the resulting eternal torments of hell. All heads bowed, and eyes closed. NOW, NOW is the time to come forward. Now is the time before it’s too late, too late, TOO LATE!
Papaw described the experience in solemn tones. His head was down. His eyes were closed, and he was determined to outlast Preacher Gouge. But suddenly, his head “started to swim.” He felt dizzy. He was afraid of what might be happening to him. He opened his eyes. Then he saw that the ushers were pushing his pew into the center aisle trying desperately to force his conversion. He laughed to himself as he watched this all unfold. At the end of the service Ed and Mae climbed over the back of the pew, walked up the aisle and politely shook the ushers’ hands in the vestibule. Winding down the final touches on his story, Papaw would chuckle and say, “damned pew pushers.” It is a refrain that has made its way down the generations. What has also stayed with me is the wisdom of keeping one’s eyes open and learning to laugh.
Have you ever felt like someone or something was pushing your metaphorical pew? We all have. I had one of those experiences several months ago that had me laughing to myself. I was at a church conference and one of the workshops was focused on what to do about church membership decline. “Mainline Decline” we often call it in my little Presbyterian nook of the world. Smaller numbers have been around a long time now. This has been affecting all kinds of faith communities of every sort. Denominational Protestantism has been getting steadily smaller every year since 1965. Most of us have gotten used to the fact that church is simply less popular than it used to be. There are a thousand different choices for people today. And many folks simply don’t choose church. Some church leaders, however, are still carrying around a lot of fear about this turn of events.
So, I listened to the church consultant’s pitch for his curriculum to turn around declining numbers. I chuckled when he said that Now was the time for his program before it was Too Late. This poor guy wasn’t really a pew pusher, however. It seemed like he was hardly convinced of his own program. I felt bad for him, because it seemed like someone else was pushing his pew. The language that he kept using over and over again as the magic potion for all church problems was “transformational leadership.”
The language and ideology of “transformation” have been around for some time now. And the language of transformational leadership pops up in most every institution today, not just in the church. You can hear it in health care and in higher education, in public schools and in government. The word transformation is starting to remind me a lot of the old word conversion. There are good folks with good intentions who want the best for their organization who think the transformation tools will help their team succeed. The language of transformation, like the older language of conversion, implies a form of completion. But the reality is that we are always works in progress. What I have seen in the church is that promises of transformation are simply not real. No church ever arrives. The few who claim arrival are places to avoid.
If we were to lift our heads up and open our eyes, we might ask the question – “Where does the language of transformation come from?” It’s sorta fascinating. In the early 1980’s the language of transformational leadership became the lingua franca in the literature of large corporate consulting firms. Here’s an example.
“Today’s business volatility is totally unprecedented. And whether the causes are new technologies and digitalization, globalization, blurred industry boundaries, regulation, energy dynamics, or other factors, the message is clear: transformation isn’t an option, it’s a business imperative. Forward thinking companies are launching transformations even when they dominate a market, retooling themselves so they stay ahead.” Boston Consulting Group
One of the foremost leaders for corporate transformation has been McKinsey and Company. One of their best-known clients, the most committed to transformational leadership, was a company named Enron. Maybe you remember them? Before their downfall, this corporation thought they had arrived, as did their soon-to-be angry stockholders.
Marketing metrics have pushed their way into every aspect of our lives. Nurses in hospitals worry about key performance indicators while their bosses struggle to understand revenue cycle management. Teachers and professors measure their productivity through dashboards and dials. Pastors are pushed to become more energetic entrepreneurs.
Despite all this, the problem is not business. Business and economy are important and meaningful human endeavors. The market is a needed and good institution. The problem is when any single institutional language and ethos dominates everything else. This colonization results in the loss of the central mission of other institutions. The overbearing market insistence upon measuring all of us by its own tools is the pew pusher pushing us around. The transformation tools and business metrics soon become ends in themselves that must be served rather than doing good work. This pressure drains peoples’ sense of meaning and purpose in their work, and it has contributed to the decrease of trust in our institutions. No wonder we feel dizzy and nauseated, especially as we make the mad dash through the last quarter of the year.
December is the season for many things. It has always been a personal favorite. Yet the market’s relentless intrusion into everything makes this feel more and more like the season of pew pushing. Linus Van Pelt said it well way back in 1965. With blanket in hand, Linus looked at Charlie Brown and said, “Christmas isn’t just getting too commercial. It’s getting too dangerous.”
So, if you get a chance to catch your breath during this busiest of seasons, remember the most basic language of Christmas. The promise of Christmas is a child who is called Emmanuel, God with us. Emmanuel, God with us, is born in a stable to simple, peasant parents who live far away from the pew pushing power of the empire. Emanuel. The “withness” of God. And I would add the withness of beloved family, friends and neighbors. This holy withness is simple, profound and real. May this holy withness be with you this Christmas.
Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who pastors small town and country churches. He currently serves New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Southwest Virginia. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.