Thursday, March 5, 2015

*More* is not a Number

Before any of what follows, I want to affirm the two-word prayer my good friend and the prior at the St. Anselm community taught me to pray to God:

"More, please!"

"More, please!" is better than "Thank you." Better, even than "This meal's delicious!"

Of course, if "More, please!" is better than these things, it is because "More, please!" implies both of these things. Maybe better, "More, please!" embodies them. "More, please!" doesn't simply inform the giver that the gift has proven nourishing but demonstrates the act of being nourished, with all the trust and vulnerability and delight that act entails.

I am a fan of any prayer that expresses the gratitude and enjoyment of "More, please!" to God.

Now, to what follows. I want to distinguish the prayer my friend taught me from the Disease of More that is infecting and debilitating faith communities and, probably also, the larger society.

In eight years of ordained ministry, I have met, come alongside, consulted, and partnered with many people to whom God has given beautiful dreams that require growing into - from where they are to somewhere else. Oftentimes, as in a church community, the community will rightly recognize the help she needs to get to the new place, or that the involvement of a larger number of people and resources is a part of the dream God has given them. This makes sense. Christians, after all, have been made partners in Christ's ministry of reconciliation.

Here, though, is where things frequently bog down. When you ask people-with-dreams, the answer to questions about the money or physical presence of others necessary to realize the dream too often is only: "More."

More people. More young families. More staffing. More volunteers. More funding. More pledges.

Here's the problem with this kind of more: you can get more and still not have it. More, by definition, is that which you don't yet have. This kind of more acts in the opposite direction of "More, please!" gratitude. This kind of more is the more of desperation, and it plants the seed of the lie that there is never enough. This kind of more tells those around you that you will take everything they have and, very likely, still feel empty.

Campus ministers are especially vulnerable to the Disease of More because the larger church has historically underfunded campus ministry. If you say you need more, maybe the larger church will compromise and simply not cut your funding. Fair enough. More can be a useful bargaining chip. More can also feel tired and sad.

At a national gathering of Episcopal campus ministers, I listened to several colleagues talk about needing more money. So I began to go around the room, asking each person - without any context - what her/his ministry would do with a gift of $50,000. "Are you offering?" one asked me. "No," I said. "I am asking. I want to hear your dreams."

Last year, I led a team that organized the first Acolyte Festival in the Diocese of Milwaukee. At the next to last planning meeting, I asked the group, "Do we want to have a numerical attendance goal for this event?" The group said yes. We tossed numbers around before settling on 125-150. For an acolyte festival! What does that even mean? The number was ambitious, given the circumstances, but we decided we were up for the challenge.

"What do we need to do to take steps toward that goal?"

We decided to make phone calls to clergy and youth leaders. Multiple calls, with follow up. On each call, we'd explain that we were throwing an Acolyte Festival. We had done a lot of lead up publicity, so most people we talked to knew this already. We'd talk about how we imagined the day, what it was for, and some of our underlying goals - to bring youth and young adults together to celebrate their sometimes invisible service to the church and to introduce youth, especially, to the idea of campus ministry.

Then we shared our goal. "150 adults and young people." Skeptical laughter was not uncommon at this point. We'd continue: "There are approximately fifty faith communities in our diocese, so we figure that each church will need to bring three people for us to meet our goal. Of course, some will bring more, some less. But the goal for each community is three. Being realists, we think it would be great if 40% of the people who are invited by people they trust say yes and decide to come. So we're asking you to think of and invite 6-8 people who trust you to the event. We'll send you detailed information by email, and we'll call to follow up. If we can help in any way, please let us know."

We didn't hit 125. We did have a touch more than 100 attend! Even though we fell short of our goal, the event was a big success. Later, we learned we had scheduled the festival during the diocesan military academy's spring break. According to the chaplain there, he had thirty acolytes who would otherwise have been a captive audience. Ah well.

This is the point: having a specific number and a plan toward that number made our planning infinitely more relational and gave us a ton of opportunities to retell the story that had given each of us a heart for the event. We participated in over 80 one-on-one phone calls, asking for 400 personal invitations, relishing the chance to tell the story of the dream God had given us and to explain how we believed a goal that felt beyond us wasn't as beyond us as any of us imagined.

More doesn't build relationships or tell stories. More doesn't disclose the depths of the dream God has given you. More is easier because it takes less time to say. But more isn't vulnerable and doesn't hold you accountable. More doesn't invite you to consider what your dream looks like to the ones from whom you are asking participation or help. More doesn't ask the ones who believe in your dream to imagine their part in that dream, such that it becomes their dream too.

Of course, numbers can limit. If a goal is too small, the community might surrender the opportunity to be surprised by what God can do through them and the moment. And, fair enough, God's promise to Abraham and Sarah was a promise they wouldn't be able to count. My prayer for the next Acolyte Festival will be, "More, please!" And/but/then/also, I'd ask the leaders for a number. Not too limit us,  but to physically orient our leadership in the direction of the limitless promise of God - a step at a time, and in a way that compels us to risk the dreams God has given us with one another, in whose company those dreams no doubt will change, transform, and - with God's help - surprise.

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