Hinge Moments – 8/22/21

Making decisions has always been hard for me.  Especially when faced with a big decision, I tend to agonize over what I will do for weeks and months, analyzing ever possible scenario and outcome.  I want a sense of certainty that I am making the right decision, that I won’t come to regret whichever path I choose.  During this time of deliberation, I often take small steps toward choosing a path without making a final commitment, a way to put off the finality of a decision but still allowing me to believe I am making progress.  I seek the counsel of everyone I trust, probably because I don’t always trust myself to make the right decision.

One of the most difficult decisions I have ever faced was my decision to leave my prior congregation.  Feeling drawn to exploring the possibility of being a supervisor of clinical pastoral education, I started by applying for a residency at BroMenn.  I interviewed and got the position, but I still felt conflicted.  So I put the residency on hold for another year.  In the meantime, to further insure I wasn’t making a mistake, I entered search and call.  I felt exploring possible positions with other communities would give me a sense of clarity not only on whether I really wanted to leave the church setting, but also whether the connection I felt to this particular community was unique.  I interviewed with many churches, received several offers, but in the end turned them all down.

After the passing of another year, I was still struggling intensely with what to do.  I felt deeply connected to the people in my congregation.  I didn’t want to lose those relationships, and I feared what would happen if the residency was not what I hoped.  Would I live to regret my decision?  Would I be left without any options for my future?   I contacted BroMenn to see if the residency offer was still extended.  When I learned it was, I was given a date by which I had to commit.  Recognizing this may be my last chance, I still struggled with the decision and delayed until the last moment.  On the final day, I called BroMenn, still not entirely sure of my decision.  But in that moment, I decided to act not out of fear and to embrace the possibility of what could happen next.

All of us face moments in which we are required to make decisions which will make a change in the course of our lives.  Times when we stand before a door and are required to decide which to open and which to close.  These moments have been called “hinge moments.”  How we respond to these moments has a disproportionate impact on our future paths.  Like hinges on a door, they hold the possibility of opening or closing.  And because these hinge moments often bring both at the same time, they can be some of the most challenging moments of our lives.

Having faced many of these moments myself, I have come to recognize ways to make hinge moments less challenging for myself.  The first is the acceptance that I cannot know for certain what I will find behind the door I open, that uncertainty in those times can be a gift.  The second is that the feelings of conflict I often experience in these hinge moments are themselves a means of discernment – messengers of where my inner self is leading.  Finally, I have learned to be conscious of those traps I often fall into in these moments, those default settings in my decision-making process – avoiding risk, seeking certainty, and doing what others hope I will do.

What I have seen in the accounts of the life of Jesus we find in the gospels is that prayer was always a component of his action in hinge moments — when he chose his disciples, at the time of his baptism, when he saw a deep need in others, at the last supper, while in the garden of Gethsemane preparing for his execution, and on the cross itself.  At each of these critical junctures, Jesus retreated into isolation and drew upon his spiritual practice to guide his next steps.

Each of us at New Covenant have a different view of what prayer looks like, if we even call it prayer.  Some may meditate, spend time in silence.  Others spend time communing with nature, going on walks, reading sacred texts.  However we connect with our spirit, it is in these hinge moments that those practices become essential if we are to move forward in a way in keeping with our authentic selves.

There is also a method for making decisions which was posited by Ignatius of Loyola which has been helpful to me.  The first step in this process is to rely both on reason and on feelings.  He points out that our feelings are messengers which point to our deepest desires.  We should explore the origins of those feelings, whether they are driven by fear or greed or if they are motivated by a desire to greater well-being.  This includes an analysis of how our decisions may impact those most vulnerable and marginalized.  Ignatius encourages a detachment from a particular outcome so that we can more honestly assess the choices which lie before us.  During this first step, we should also share our deliberations with those we trust.  By sharing with others how we are responding to the decision, we are better able to process and understand our own thoughts and feelings.

A second step in this process offered by Ignatius is imaginative reflection.  In this exercise, you may consider how you would advise a close friend who came to you with the same situation.  Another scenario is to imagine yourself at the end of your life looking back on your decision and consider how you may view the decision from that perspective.  Finally, you could imagine a conversation with the Divine, or with someone you loved and trusted who passed away and consider how they would feel about your decision.

Thirdly, Ignatius encourages us to act on reason after we have gone through this process.  While our emotions are messengers, they should not be the sole basis for our decision.  We should seek out additional information to see if it confirms our choice.  And we are not to stop even after we make a decision.  Ignatius encourages us to examine our feelings after we make a decision.  If we feel a sense of peace or freedom, it may confirm that the choice we made is the right one.

We face one of these hinge moments now as a community.  As we examine next steps for NCC, we will be having a community meeting on September 19.  I will be presenting four options for this community to consider as it discerns its future.  These will range from making plans for growth and revitalization, making decisions on where to move, and entering the search and call process for a settled minister with all of the work that entails.  On the other end of the spectrum, this community could decide that it wishes to focus on its legacy rather than on growth and make plans to begin the process of winding down.  There are other options to consider between these two.  And we will have plenty of time for you to ask questions, to process both individually and together, before the time comes to make a decision.  We have tentatively scheduled a second meeting for October 24 to make that decision, and we will be offering some conversation groups before then to help you in that decision-making process.

As Karen so aptly said a couple of weeks ago, I hope that we can move forward with our decision making without feeling a sense of guilt.   And one of the ways we can do that is to make an informed decision. Church consultants have set forth criteria to guide when a congregation may need to start thinking about its legacy rather than about renewal.  The first indication that a community is in decline is when there is a total concentration on member-oriented activities, when it cares primarily for itself and provides resources only for its own programming rather than reaching out to the larger community.  The second is an excessive emphasis on the past.  While a community can be proud of its accomplishments, when looking back is primarily what we do the present and future have been neglected.  Next is the loss of connection to denominational ties because it signals a lack of connection to the work of the larger church.  The final factor is if there is a firm resistance to change, a feeling of being set in our ways and a reluctance to reimagine how the church could evolve.

While these are the primary factors, there are other indications of difficulty on the horizon.  These include whether there are sufficient numbers of persons to maintain critical mass for volunteer ministry and financial support, if the community is barely able or unable to sustain full-time pastoral ministry, if the average worship attendance is less than 50, and if the primary goals of the community center on survival.

As we move into our community meetings in September, I ask you to keep these criteria in mind.  We are facing a hinge moment.  And the way to face that hinge moment is to approach it with honesty, with the necessary information, honoring the legacy of NCC by being hopeful yet realistic.  My goal is to simply hold up a mirror so that you can face this hinge moment with an accurate reflection of the situation at hand.

I share our first reading for this morning as a comfort.  In these hinge moments we may come to regret the decision we make.  We may come to feel that we should have moved another way.  But even in those times, I believe that regret can be transformed such that regret is not something that we must fear.  That we can still end up in the place we are meant to be even in we are not in a place to make the right decision in a hinge moment.  You will recall Peter’s actions at the time of Jesus’s arrest.  After promising Jesus he would never deny their relationship, Peter three times denies that he knows him.  Fearing the consequences to him and his safety, he makes a decision in a hinge moment, a decision he immediately regrets.  A decision which may have sent him on a different path.

But in our reading for this morning, we see a redemption of that moment.  Just as Peter denies Jesus three times, three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him.  And when he answers yes, Jesus gives him direction forward.  Jesus tells him to watch over his followers in his absence, to tend to the sheep of his flock.  And I believe Peter uses this redemptive moment, channels his regret over his decision in a hinge moment, into strength as he becomes a leader in the Jesus movement going forward.  A door opened which may have appeared to be closing.

After beginning my residency, I began to recognize that the path I thought was before me was no longer one I wished to travel.  Feeling a sense of loss with something I cared deeply about, I wondered if I responded in the correct way when faced with that hinge moment.  As another door closed, I did not immediately see another door to open.  But looking back now, I have been able to move past feelings of regret, past feelings of guilt.  Had those doors not closed, I could not have entered this time with you at NCC.  Hinge moments for me have always entailed fear.  But finding myself in this moment, I have come to see that no door closes without another one opening when I face those moments with honesty.  When I act out of my authentic self rather than fear.

As we face this hinge moment as a community, may we be intentional, may we draw from our sources of spiritual strength and the strength of this community, may we be deliberate in our process, so that we embrace our movement through this doorway without regret, without guilt, and honoring our authentic selves as individuals and as a community.