(Editor’s note: Although Bill Wilson’s commentary pieces — written as a column for the Virginia Baptist Religious Herald — have appeared frequently on Associated Baptist Press over the last year, with this edition ABP will begin the regular biweekly publication of his column, called “Vital Signs.”)
By Bill Wilson
There is a school of thought running rampant in congregations these days that sounds something like this: “This is the worst Pastor/Group/Recession/President/Situation/Era/Event that we have ever known! We must get rid of him/her/it/them immediately or we are doomed.”
As a result, we hear regularly about congregations and clergy that make hasty and ill-informed decisions that actually extend and expand their problems rather than resolve them.
Let’s think for a moment about what we are saying in the midst of difficult days. Something bad happens at our church or with a minister, and we react by saying: “This is awful.” Right so far.
We then go on to say: “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to us.” Could be, though we tend to under- and over-remember such things.
We close by saying: “We are doomed.” Whoa. We just went from being God’s people walking by faith to being fatalists. This is a huge leap into despair.
Let me suggest another way of thinking about difficult days that is at once more biblical, more hopeful and more likely to be true.
In the city where I last pastored, the local high-school football team had a remarkable record of success. The Dalton High School Catamounts, should they have a winning record this season, will have amassed a winning record for 50 (!) consecutive seasons. That is nearly unprecedented in high-school athletics. Over many of those 50 years, Bill Chappell served as the head coach. Now retired, Bill is a humble, intense and thoughtful man. He is a person of strong character and integrity, and is beloved by nearly everyone in the state of Georgia.
One day, at an obligatory preseason dinner appearance before local fans who are way too invested in high-school football, Bill was asked, “What kind of team are we going to have this year, Coach?” He thought for a moment and replied: “Ask me in 20 years.” Thinking that the coach had not understood the question, the fan asked his question again, with more passion. Bill calmly responded with the same words: “Ask me in 20 years.” Exasperated, the fan raised his voice and asked more ardently, “Coach, what is the team going to be like this year?!”
Bill responded: “Look, I know what you are asking, but what you are asking is the wrong question. We’ll have a fair football team, but we won’t really know what kind of team this is until 20 years have passed. You see, we are about building character in young men, and we won’t know how that turns out for at least 20 years.”
I’ve adopted The 20-Year Rule for working with churches and clergy. I urge you to do the same. When someone looks at a painful situation in your congregation and asks you if you think that all is lost, just respond by saying, “I don’t know, ask me in 20 years.”
It’s biblical. Think about all the characters who, had you asked at the moment, would have failed the success test. Moses as he runs from Egypt with blood on his hands into the back side of Midian. David as he sends Uriah into the heat of battle. Peter as he denies knowing who Jesus is. Saul as he executes innocent believers. Think about all the churches across the ages who were brought to their knees by scandal or sin or foolishness and who seemed on the verge of closing.
The 20-Year Rule says that biblical faith and faithfulness is more of an endurance contest than a quick victory. Some of God’s finest servants have had to navigate personal failure, deep heartache and devastating loss. Some of the most remarkable congregations I know have endured trials and tribulations that seemed overwhelming in the moment. By remaining faithful over time, what they have found on the other side of despair is hope.
The Good News is that God’s people can recover from mistakes and that life can regenerate even when it seems all is lost. That is the gospel story that we want to personify to a world wondering if, indeed, this is a time to give up on the future.