Two Simple Lessons

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Brian Wallace
Associate Minister for Emerging Ministries &
Acting Head of Staff
Thursday, May 9, 2024

Two Simple Lessons

I’m a cat dad.  I can’t say this is really a choice I made so much as a natural consequence of my wife and our oldest going to the pet store.  She told me she was going, and she knew I wouldn’t agree to get a cat, so she brought a box home instead.  There just happened to be a cat inside.  We called her Bella.  That was 12 years ago, and Bella is still going strong, even in her old age.

In her early years, Bella was perplexed by the weather.  One cold winter afternoon, I heard Bella meowing up a storm outside the front door.  Being the good cat dad I was, I went to the front door and let her in.  She immediately sprinted to the back door, waiting to be let out.  When we obliged, Bella learned a valuable lesson: The weather was the same no matter what door she went out.  But rather than accept this lesson, Bella looked at us with a look that can only be described as rage and frustration with a face that said in essence: “Can’t you do anything about this?  I want to run outside and play, but it’s too cold no matter what door I use.  Please, do something about this!”  The best I could muster was to look at her and say, “Sorry, kitty.  Welcome to life.”

As I’ve acknowledged many times in this space, I have a high value for control and am not a fan of surprises.  I prefer stable, predictable, and safe.  In more recent years, I’ve discovered that one of my core values is a sense of inner peace, and so when things are stable, predictable, and safe, I’m in a good place.  When I first began my time in vocational ministry, my affinity for stable, predictable, and safe actually served me well.  The church I was serving had seen a fair amount of turnover when it came to their youth ministry leadership, and so, unsurprisingly, stable, predictable, and safe was appealing at that point in time.  But, somewhere between three and five years, things started to shift.  Some of the shifts were things that I could control, but others, the most frustrating ones, were things that I could not control.  And when I encountered something I couldn’t control, I found myself trying to blame something – somewhere – or someone for what was happening to me.  And in my worst moments in time, it felt like a personal attack – a targeted personal attack.

Don’t get me wrong – sometimes it is a garden-variety conflict: A family in the church who was deeply unhappy, a situation in the life of the church gone awry, a complicated conversation about where to stand on a given issue or what course of action to take.  In situations like these, it can take a personal turn, no doubt.  But equally as often, my frustration came from a situation over which I, and none of the people in my church, had any control.  And in some ways, situations like this were more challenging because there wasn’t really anything I could do about it – it was out of my control.

At this point in the life of the church, there is a lot of which we have no control.  Changes in church attendance patterns, the multitude of options for people on Sunday mornings and specifically the rising prevalence of Sunday morning activities for kids, broader shifts on major social issues, inflation, rising utility costs, shifts in national and geopolitical situations, and the rising cost of health care are all things that are on that list.  To be clear, these changes are important and impact all of us, specifically on the life of our churches.  And as frustrating as it is, there isn’t much we can do about any of them.  We have two options: Quit (which sometimes we can’t do) or respond.

Recent research has shown that one of the most sinister impacts of the 24-hour news cycle and the corresponding social media engine is that they fuel our rage about things over which we have little to no control, which fuels a sense of powerlessness.  In short, everyone is super focused and mad about things they can’t control, and that focus has a negative impact on happiness and overall well-being.  But beyond that, this powerless rage phase has an even more detrimental impact: it keeps us from taking action and making the adaptations we need to make.  We’re so focused on what we can’t control about a given situation that we don’t have the time or energy to focus on how we adapt to the changes we’re experiencing.

Shortly before I graduated from seminary, I attended the “Everything Must Change Tour,” keynoted by Brian McLaren (who will be in town in a few weeks and dialogue with two of our own).  With a title like that, you’d think I would have left highly motivated to tackle the most significant challenges the world faced.  In his final keynote, Brian said two things that have stuck with me ever since:

  • If you’ve got kids, focus on raising your kids.
  • If you want to change the world, take a small, seemingly insignificant step.

That’s it.  I remember, in that moment, feeling underwhelmed.  Seriously?  I came to be energized to change the world, not hear platitudes about seemingly insignificant steps.  And yet, eighteen years later, those two pieces of advice have served me better than I could have ever expected.  Two examples to close:

Many of you know I’m a photography fanatic, and the recent solar eclipse presented a unique opportunity to take some pretty incredible images.  We had a couple of options for being in the path of totality, but because our kids couldn’t come with us, we decided that 97.3% coverage would have to be good enough.  I admit I was slightly disappointed and envious as I saw photos taken from within the path.  But I consoled myself with the fact that it was fun to get to share the experience with our kids.  However, any remaining disappointment was washed away when our oldest showed me their graphic design project, which included a picture they took during the eclipse with the caption: “I took this picture with my dad, which makes it extra special for me.”  Lesson remembered: Focus on raising your kids.

There’s been a lot of conversation lately about changes in our pension and benefits system that will begin in January 2025.  And, like some of you, when I first read about the changes, I was flummoxed, perplexed, and frustrated.  I could do math like anyone else and recognized that the proposed changes would have the most significant impact on those who need medical coverage for their family and were making at or near the minimum terms of call, usually serving churches where there isn’t a lot of financial flexibility.  Within hours of the announcement, the chorus of voices online started directing blame toward those within our denomination for the situation we find ourselves in, with the Board of Pensions and “big churches” being most often identified as the bad guys.  As I was sitting in my office, stewing in my frustration, Ralph stopped by, and we began to commiserate about the situation.  Then, to his credit, he said this: “We’ve got to respond.”  He was right.  Sitting there complaining wasn’t going to help anyone.  So, I took two seemingly small and insignificant things: I started crunching numbers and scheduled a meeting with our Board of Pensions representative so I could gain a better understanding of the new package options.  Neither of those steps were significant in and of themselves, but they got me moving.  Out of my frustration and powerlessness and into action, even as insignificant as those actions seemed.

I know what some of you are thinking after reading the last paragraph: “Brian, don’t be such a wimp!  You hate conflict and don’t want to rock the boat!  Sometimes, you must fight!”  And there is a lot of truth in all of that.  But, after a few weeks of perspective, I’ve also realized this: While there is a valid critique of the proposed changes to our pension and medical program (see my comments above), at the end of the day, no one within our denomination can control the cost of healthcare and the overall structure of the healthcare system in the United States.  Ultimately, that’s the factor that we’re all being forced to contend with, and any system anyone comes up with will be imperfect.   But we have a choice: we can drive ourselves crazy trying to control what we can’t control, or we can focus on identifying solutions to get us moving again – even if they initially seem insignificant.  Those seemingly insignificant initial steps have helped our Pastoral Vitality Subcommittee get started understanding the changes to the Board of Pensions, and a draft of our proposed Minimum Terms of Call and Benefits Policy will get a first read at COM next week.  While the changes are significant, I no longer believe that they will lead to the end of full-time ordained ministry (as in my fear, I initially did).  And it all started with a simple e-mail.

I know that compared to the innumerable challenges we seem to be facing in the life of the church, this can feel deflating and can be read as if my suggestion is to accept our fate, no matter how wrong or unjust it may be.  But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s how true those two bits of advice from Brian McLaren have turned out to be:  If you’ve got kids, focus on raising them, and if you want to change the world, take one small and seemingly insignificant step.

In Christ,

PS – Please plan to attend a meeting with our Board of Pensions representative on June 5th starting at 10 a.m. at the Presbytery Office. You can attend this meeting either in person or via Zoom.  For those attending in person, there will be a complimentary lunch after the meeting. Pastors, as well as other Congregational leaders and staff, are welcome to attend. You can sign up for the gathering using this link.


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