On 8 May 2023 I completed my term as President of the Synod of Albany, and as part of that, I presented the annual State of Religion report. While such a thing generally doesn’t sound that interesting, the response from it has been positive, so I thought I would share it.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Jesus the Christ, the Great Shepherd of the sheep.
It has been my distinct honor to serve as your President for the past year. And especially, for so readily embracing this midwesterner as one of your own. Growing up in Michigan, I served within the Classis of Wisconsin for six years before coming here, and going from Wisconsin to Schenectady makes everyone’s eyebrows furrow. But I am so grateful for the trust you’ve put in me for this season.
There are two things that provide valuable images for me in thinking about the life of faith and of the church. One of these is of vastly more importance, as I think you will see.
The first of these has been the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Jacob is sending a gift to try to appease his brother Esau, the one whom he cheated out of pretty much everything in his life. So he reaches the banks of the Jabbok river, and he sends the gift ahead hoping that it will placate Esau when he sees Jacob. So he sends everything he has out ahead of him, and he will come at the end. And you know the story. Jacob spends the night on the banks of the river Jabbok. And we are told that a man shows up and wrestles with him. It always brings up a lot of questions. But here they are wrestling through the night. And as it comes to just before dawn, he strike’s Jacob’s hip, and, for some reason, needed to be released before the dawn, and Jacob refused to let him go until he wrestled a blessing out of this encounter. And from this encounter he acquires two new things: a new name, and a new limp. If we pause in this moment of grappling, dawn breaking but not yet arrived, hip thrown out of joint, trying to wrestle a blessing out. Pause this here in your mind’s eye. This is, I think, a great description of liminality. In that thin space of twilight before sunrise.
The second image comes from the motion-picture masterpiece that is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indiana Jones goes on a quest to find the holy grail. I’m sorry if you haven’t seen this, but there’s spoilers here. The usual run-ins with Nazis occur and following his father’s grail diary, he finds the space where the holy grail is to be hidden. In order to get to the grail chamber, he has to make it through three tests. The Nazi soldiers fail at the first test, when they lose their heads. Literally. So Indiana makes it past the head slicing machine. He has to Q-Bert the name Jehovah, complete with remembering that in Latin it’s spelled with an I, and a generation of people learned that we shouldn’t learn Latin from movies. He comes to the final test, the leap of faith and he is stopped in his tracks when he is met with an impassable chasm. He tries to figure out how to get across. “No one can make that jump,” he says to himself quietly. And we see him put his hand on his chest, close his eyes, and lift up his foot, and holds it there for just a moment, before stepping out, and he finds himself on a hidden footbridge which cannot be seen but was very real. If we pause at this moment, foot lifted, eyes closed. This, I think, is another excellent image of liminality. The space between moments.
Liminality is something that has been on my mind a lot, as I try to make sense out of the reality which we all experience. We are in a broad-view liminal space, between the entrance of God into flesh, and the return which will bring about the fullness of the kingdom of God. But within this, the church right now, in our context, finds itself in a liminal space.
Liminal coming from the Latin word limen, which means threshold. A liminal space is the moment of transition. Neither inside nor outside. Liminal spaces are inherently uncomfortable. I think of a child standing with the door open, standing at the threshold, and the parents yell, “in or out!” In bringing change to a system, you want a long-ish process leading up to the change, but when the moment of actual change comes, and when the commitment has been made, you want to make the moment of actual change to be as brief as possible. Because the time of turning the corner is a time in which the entire system can come apart as everyone responds to this differently.
I recently read an excerpt from a larger Barna study on pastoral resilience, and the data in that excerpt were both shocking and sadly not surprising.
In 2015, Barna did a report on The State of Pastors.
Then, 72% said that they “feel very satisfied with their vocation as a pastor.” In 2020 that number dropped to 67% and in 2022 down to 52%
In 2015, 53% of respondents said they “feel very satisfied with their ministry at their current church.” That went down to 47% in 2020, and 38% in 2022
In 2015, 66% of respondents said that they “feel more confident about their calling compared to when they first entered ministry. By 2020, that number dropped to 35%. Almost a 50 percent drop in five years.
Are these numbers alarming to anyone else?
In January of 2021, 29% of pastors surveyed said they’d given real serious consideration to quitting being in full-time ministry within the last year. By March of 2022, that number had gone up to 42%
Of that 42% These were the top reasons given
“the immense stress of the job”
“I feel lonely and isolated
“current political divisions”
“I am unhappy with the effect this role has had on my family”
The last two years have been, for me, a constant season of grief where I see friends, and good pastors, very good pastors, far better pastors than I, making what is for them the right decision and leaving the pastorate. Their reasons are all their own, but the refrain is that the ministry is having a detrimental impact on their life and faith. This is not even to count those who are in a private turmoil who are not able, for whatever reason, to take the step out of the pastorate but desperately want to. These are not people who went into the pastorate on a whim, nor are these people for whom the pastorate was just a job. These are people who took seriously the promise to pledge their life to this work, these are people who gave of themselves in so very many ways to others, to their churches.
But there is a point at which you can no longer squeeze water out of a well that’s been long since drained.
I know full well that the church is made up of more than just pastors, but these numbers and stories aren’t only about pastors, they are about all of us, they are about the church. This is but a single data-point about the state of the church, but this does not look very good when we, essentially, cannibalize ourselves.
Now, I will say I’m not generally known for my cheery optimism, and anyone who knows me will readily confirm that. I’m not a “glass is half empty” kind of guy. I’m a “the glass is an illusion and there’s actually nothing” kind of guy. But what I lack in optimism, I think that I make up for in hope. Because while I have very little optimism, I have great hope. Hope which is not wishful thinking, but rather a hope rooted in the promises of Jesus Christ that not even the gates of hell will prevail against the church, of which we are a tiny part.
Part of the reason for this crisis in pastoral confidence and well-being is the fact that we didn’t enter a liminal space, the space surrounded us. We did not consciously make the decision to enter a space which is in between, a space which is always in the process of turning a corner, but never quite. We never asked to be in this uncomfortable space where it seems impossible to confidently place your footing anywhere. Like Jacob, we simply expected to spend the night camped out on the riverbank, and then someone shows up and an unexpected wrestling match ensues. This liminality came upon us as if it was like a fog rolling in during the night.
And we all respond to this differently. Some of us insist that we just need to go back to some imagined golden time when things felt like they were better. And if we can just bring that back, things will be okay. Except we can’t, and it won’t. Some just blame the situations surrounding this liminal time. Sports on Sunday, over-scheduled families, the spiritual anemia that comes from the frenetic pace of life. And while these may all very well be contributing factors, blaming the cool air over the warm ground is not going to make the fog any better. Still others blame the pastor. If only the pastor would do this better or that better, then we wouldn’t have these problems. And still several others of our churches are without ministerial service long-term.
Liminal spaces are inherently uncomfortable and not enjoyable. And so we try to find something on which we can hang rationale and seek (usually in vain) to find a quick exit out of the liminal space.
We are all Jacob wrestling with the angel on the banks of the Jabbok trying to wrestle a blessing out of the strife before daybreak. We are still in the midst of the wrestling, right before daybreak. Looking ahead to a future which we cannot as yet touch.
This extended liminality is hard on pastors, it’s hard on members, it’s hard on churches. Especially when folk are trying hard to find a quick off ramp out of liminality and when folks are doing that, they are often pulling in a myriad of directions, and this is what causes such strain to a point of rupture.
This liminal space is both terrible, and the place in which we are called to live. In a large way, we live in a liminal space between the Word taking on flesh and the arrival of the fullness of the Kingdom of God. But in a narrower way, we live in a liminal space in the life of the church. The Church of Jesus Christ, that is, the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church will be fine. We confess this in the Belgic Confession. But the churches I serve? Or the churches you are a part of? Or our classes? Or the Reformed Church in America? I don’t know. I don’t know because none of us will see the exit of the liminal space. We are moving toward a future that none of us will ever see. In a way, we are like the ancient people wandering in the desert for forty years, always in pilgrimage to a location they will never see.
But just like Advent is not just sitting around waiting, but is filled with expectation, anticipation, so also is our existence in this liminal space not to just wait it out, not to assume that the tides will turn, and that we will recapture something of our former glory.
Hope often requires courage, courage to walk by faith and not by sight. And this season requires no less from us. One doesn’t have to look too far into the future to see that we will have to redraw classis bounds. Even apart from our denomination sailing into stormy waters without a rudder, we have things to deal with too. It will also require courage from classes to have hard conversations with churches about what the future might look like. It will require courage from churches to be able to engage in the process of leaning into liminality and engaging in difficult conversations not knowing where they may lead. It takes courage to try to figure out how we are going to adequately provide the ministry of Word and sacrament to all the vacant churches, both in preaching and in administration of the sacraments.
It is increasingly the case that churches cannot support a minister on their own. For some it has been the case for generations. For others, this is a newer development. And we have to get out of the idea that churches need to have their “own” pastor. There are already a number of multiple parishes in our synod, and we have to be prepared for more. We need to think about collegiate churches, union churches, federated churches. All of these require a great deal of re-thinking how we imagine the church to be.
And while the matters of the local church are between the church and their classis, the synod does, I think, have a role to play in supporting classes in these difficult tasks and conversations. The synod can help provide resources to classes who are doing this difficult work with their churches.
The Adaptive Change task force has proposals they are working on and you will hear from them. These are, I think, the kinds of things that we have to think about, that we have to consider, this kind of out of the box thinking helps us as we make the road while we are walking it.
I don’t know if these are the absolute right things, I don’t know where it will lead. But this is part of the nature of liminality. It requires us moving into a future that is not yet, from a past that is no longer, and an in-between space of what often feels like limbo. But we are called forward, we are called to make a path by walking it. We are not headed into unprecedented times, but we are headed into times that we have not experienced in any kind of memory. We need to take hints from the past in order to find our way into the future.
This does not mean just re-living the past, but rather, to learn from the past, and the mistakes of the past, to try to move into a new future. This will most certainly include grief and pain. But I think the question we are called to ask ourselves is whether or not we are the pilgrim people of God. We grow attached to things and ways of being, and these aren’t inherently bad by any means. And—and—we are the pilgrim people of God.
Our calling in this season is to lean into the liminality. Lean into the discomfort. And when we do this, we are invited to find stability in Jesus Christ and find stability in the body of Christ.
I think that the regional synod is perhaps the most important entity in trying to help the churches to lean into this liminal space. The word synod, of course, means together on the way. Most of the time the regional or particular synod is seen as a superfluous entity. I think many in Albany Synod see the value of this entity, but there’s another reason that it’s important.
In a letter, dated August 23, 1968,to Bill Bouwer, the Stated Clerk of the Particular Synod of Chicago, Elton Eenigenburg, the chair of the Committee on Revision of the Constitution wrote of the regional (particular) synod as the “organic link between the classes and the general synod,” and he continues,
the particular synod, often regarded as a kind of non-entity because it seems to exercise so little of the authority which is the ordinary instrument of both the classes and the general synod. However, I think it is the particular synod which keeps the Reformed Church from falling away into the kind of parochialism which would be the case if the classes did not have a point of reference beyond themselves in the general region in which they do their work, and a bureaucracy, on the other hand, which would eventuate if the general synod were able to carry on this work without constant reference to the several large regions of the church which are determined by the existence of particular synods.
This is the reason why this middle assembly is important. Because the denomination is not able to help us to lean into liminality in a meaningful way. Because to do this requires connection, it requires contextual awareness and it requires flexibility and, most of all, trust. This is not a cheap appeal to unity, but rather, an appeal to unity because we require one another in order to lean into this liminality. While I hope we have a significant commonality of witness, this is not to downplay the differences, and yes, divisions, within our Synod. Many of our congregations do not have adequate resources to faithfully lean into liminality, and the story is similar for many of our classes. This is why the regional or particular synod exists, and this is why it remains important for the future.
Beloved Synod of Albany, let us seek to lean boldly into this liminal space. Relying on one another, and most of all on Christ. Taking big leaps of faith and bold steps into a future as yet unknown as we seek to “minister to the total life of all people by preaching, teaching, and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and by all Christian good works.”
Let us never forget what this is all about, it is about bearing witness with our lives to Jesus Christ who,
is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.Colossians 1:15–20, NRSV
To whom be glory now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
The Rev. Matthew J. van Maastricht
Pastor at Altamont and Guilderland Center, New York
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