Two years ago we moved from the Chicago suburbs to northern Minnesota—a major cultural adjustment.
Driving through town recently, I approached a four-way stop. The cross-traffic sat passively, watching me slow down and come to a complete stop before starting out. As I waited I complained to my son, "Can you believe it? They sit and wait when they could have gone, and now I have to wait for them."
"Well, Dad," Nathan said coolly, "this isn't Chicago, you know."
He was right. In a small town, sometimes you have to wait. Accepting a different pace of life here has been a significant part of maintaining my ministry edge.
When I lived in metropolitan areas, I found numerous opportunities for sharpening ministry skills. I had my pick of seminars, seminaries, consultants, libraries, large churches, and creative colleagues. Progressive business people and entrepreneurs stretched and challenged me with their big ideas.
Now, I'm back in a small town, and I sometimes feel like I'm losing my edge. It's not the size of the town that dulls me, it's how I respond to my setting. But I've discovered I can grow intellectually and spiritually even in a climate that pressures me to reduce my vision to suit the lowest common denominator. This means countering two prevailing attitudes.
"We know best."
Small-town pride is legendary. We cheer for our school teams. We stand together against out-of-towners.
However, local pride can stifle fresh input. Recently, after our church building committee had examined the options, I felt it was time to recruit someone to stretch our thinking. The idea of bringing in a consultant, however, raised resistance.
"Three years ago we spent $16,000 to bring in a fundraising expert," said one deacon. "It was a waste of time and money. He didn't do anything we couldn't have done ourselves. We don't need so-called experts from the outside! We know our situation better than they do."
Many value stability and foundations far more than change and progress. When I encounter such fears, I'm forced to slow down. I acknowledge the church's history. Then I can begin resuscitating the discussions with courage and faith, gradually moving the group toward consensus. The extra effort is essential. My goal: to show that bankruptcy of ideas—not budget—is the more dangerous condition.
"Good enough is good enough."
This attitude will dull my edge unless I resist it. When members are satisfied with less than their best, I can't afford to let my standards slip.
It's fine to be "laid back," but I've caught myself becoming too easily satisfied, justifying a weak effort as "good enough."
That frightens me.
And that motivates me to work on my edge again. Often I'll give pep talks to our leaders or teachers: "Excellence is our goal in all we do. We must offer our best." They think I'm challenging them, but the truth is I'm working on myself.
Demanding excellence can raise eyebrows. Some believe they're already doing their best. Others suspect anything that smacks of professionalism—"quenching the Spirit," they say. "Make it good, do it well, but don't get carried away."
One children's worker told my wife one day, "I can't practice for the children's drama this week, but I'll come 15 minutes early on Sunday." That's good enough, he implied. I hope we can move him to raise his standards.
Honing the edge
Here's how I'm trying to counter the tendency to accept half-hearted, mediocre efforts.
Cut with the grain, not against it.
I stay sharper longer when I work with people, not against them. To do that, I have to understand their culture and mindset.