Leave it to a pastor to find encouragement for churches in a Super Bowl victory speech.
That’s exactly what American Baptist Alan Rudnick does in his Feb. 6 blog post, “Churches, listen to Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles.”
But to be fair, Rudnick wasn’t just using his pastoral and theological training and experience to read between the lines of the talk Foles gave after leading the Philadelphia Eagles to the NFL championship last Sunday.
Foles was the team’s often-disparaged backup quarterback until late in the 2017 season. Few guessed he had the talent to lead the Eagles to victory in many games, much less a Super Bowl match-up against the New England Patriots.
In a post-game video, Foles urged viewers to be unafraid of failure in life, regardless of how public or painful the setbacks may be. He added that he is aware of his flaws.
“I’m not perfect. I’m not Superman,” he said.
But Foles, a Christian who said he has considered leaving football in the past, said he knew he wasn’t alone in his personal and gridiron battles.
“That’s where my faith comes in. I think when you look at a struggle in your life, just know that it’s an opportunity for your character to grow.”
And that, Rudnick notes in his blog post, is the very message struggling congregations need to hear.
They need to embrace the idea that they can make adjustments — i.e., changes — just as Foles did in his playing career, said Rudnick, executive pastor at DeWitt Community Church in Syracuse, N.Y.
“Churches face challenges today that they have never or rarely faced before,” Rudnick wrote. “Declining attendance, shrinking membership, fewer donations, or shifting attitudes about religion, churches cannot afford to keep doing what they are doing. It doesn’t make sense. Unfortunately, churches are often the last institutions in our culture to make changes.”
Rudnick told Baptist News Global that through his regular involvement with the American Baptist Churches USA and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, he regularly hears the laments of ministers and other church leaders whose congregations are facing tough times.
“I’ve served a church or two where they saw scarcity instead of abundance,” Rudnick said in a telephone interview about his blog post. “They saw shrinking budgets, not expanding vision.”
Those who counsel churches are all too familiar with such attitudes.
“I believe the scarcity mindset is the spiritual crisis of our time, not just in the church but in the culture as a whole,” Laura Stephens-Reed, an Alabama-based clergy and congregational consultant, said.
“It underlies all the -isms and manifests in prejudice and preservation.”
Her conversations with church leaders focus on the need to build deep trust and to engage in the cyclical nature of discernment to live through difficult times. That cycle requires congregations to discern, attempt, assess and adapt.
“In discernment our capacity for faith grows and our imagination blooms,” Stephens-Reed said.
One of the obstacles for churches is not wanting to fail or appear to fail, Rudnick said. It’s natural, since funds and fresh ideas often are hard to either come by or let go of.
That’s where Foles’ message of progressing through trial and error is so powerful, he said.
“It’s not that you are failing,” said Rudnick. “You are learning what doesn’t work right now. So, try some other things.”
Those other things may include finding alternative sources of funding for new ministries. At a previous church, Rudnick said he sought grants and donations from businesses to fund a lunch ministry inspired and led by lay people.
Their idea came during a visioning process the church had undertaken to start looking to its future instead of its past, Rudnick said. The process emphasized trusting that answers will come from prayerful discernment.
“You have to begin to see what God is doing in your neighborhood. Be the church instead of meeting a budget.”
Rudnick added that the goal isn’t to minimize the challenges, but rather to avoid, or cease, being defined by them. The difficulties facing churches are real.
“But if you do nothing for your church or ministry, that church or ministry will diminish into nothing,” he said.