Every year, there was a slight exodus from the church that I pastored. Typically around the beginning of summer, a few members of our community, largely comprised of 18- to 35-year-olds, would venture out for the Great Plan that lay before them. It was a sad yet expected time and the transient nature of our community became a part of the ethos of our church.
While that segment of the population is bent toward mobility across the board, there was always a cross-section of our congregation in search of an easier time of things. Our part of the country (a post-industrial Midwestern small town) is notoriously difficult to find jobs within. The city itself lacks any real cultural options, the educational system is a complete disaster, and local bureaucracy features the same small-town politicians trading the mayoral seat every other election.
In short, there’s a lot of environmental friction here.
I’ve done a lot of thinking, praying, writing, and speaking about environmental friction over the years. It never had the title, but the concept was ever-present in my mind, prayers, articles, and sermons. It’s that reality that each environment—a city, an organization, a family, a work place—holds a certain level of friction you must deal with. The amount of friction will vary, but there’s always some level of difficulty we face in our endeavors in regards to the place and people and culture around us. It’s a part of life.
The common default for most of us is toward the path of least resistance. The reason is that there’s less environmental friction involved. Many of our stories are littered with episodes of having taken that path to avoid the friction we feel in certain environments. We avoid the family reunion because it would require “that” conversation. We leave a church community because there’s “nothing there for me/us.” We move to another city because the job market in our current one never opened up.
It’s all a form of environmental friction.
Part of the response we have to this friction is not only understandable but perfectly reasonable. After all, a person must pay their bills so they must go where the opportunities are. I’ve watched many friends endure toxic ministry environments as pastors or community members only to lose their heart for service to the overwhelming level of friction.
I recently interviewed a songwriter who lived in the middle of New Mexico, far away from any surroundings that would nurture her craft. After several years of attempting to give a career in music a chance from her home base, she decided to make the move to Nashville. When I asked her about her familiarity in Nashville, she stated that she’s only been there twice in her life but that each time “things just happened there for me that have never happened anywhere else.”
For her, Nashville held less environmental friction than what she was used to. At home, the population couldn’t quite understand her calling and craft. Consequently, they could not fully relate to her. At the same time, inspiration was difficult to find and loneliness was a common feeling. She was experiencing the effects of environmental friction and it was overwhelming to her. We’ve all lived there (or even continue to do so).
Sometimes the friction is the indicator that it’s time to leave—to find a new church, a new city, a new circle of friends.
We must, however, also admit that there is a darker side of our response to environmental friction. Perhaps our tendency toward the path of least resistance is not always the right option as Christians. After all, the Gospel compels us to bring love and establish the kingdom of God in the very places that environmental friction reaches its fevered peak.
My wife and I labored in our town in Indiana for many years, eventually coming to the realization that very few people were willing, or else called, to do so. The harvest is plentiful, as they say. The joke told multiple times at church planting conferences I’ve attended is that somehow God is calling nearly everyone to start a work in Denver, Seattle or some other happening metropolitan area.
I was always amazed at the heart and fortitude of the people who committed themselves to our church community. They bought houses in unsafe or unsightly neighborhoods. They started small businesses in economically depressed areas. They dreamed of a new reality in a place where the destructive nature of the present had quelled any sense of hope.
In short, they stood tall in the face of staunch environmental friction and embodied what the Gospel is supposed to do—to call forth the upside-down nature of the kingdom by freely offering ourselves to the margins and doing so in loving community.
Now I find myself at the crossroads of all of this. After eight years it became clear to my family that it was time to step down from the ministry — that a personal toll had been taken and that my own dreams and gifts and passions had changed over time. New leadership was in place and ready to assume my responsibilities, so we made the decision to step aside. With that single decision, my wife and I became a part of the exodus.
We haven’t moved — yet. Those things are in the works and will come soon enough. Yet even a few months after the escape of my own version of environmental friction as a pastor, I find that the overall feeling does not go away. Doubts loom about career decisions that I have made, and they will continue, as they always do, with each choice that I face. Life is not so neatly categorized in terms of right or wrong, at least in my experience.
A friend and I gathered for lunch the other day and the topic du jour was his unmet expectations in seemingly every area of his life. I did what any good friend would do in that moment—offered an ear to listen and told him “that sucks” 10 or 12 times. When he was finished, I asked him what changes he planned on making to get himself out of at least some of these situations.
He turned the tables on me. He asked me why I defaulted to change as the answer he needed. He asked a question that will likely stick with me for some time: “What role does faithfulness play in our lives today? That’s what I am wrestling with now, so I’m drawn to the reasons why you ask me about change.” I sat there in silence. My first impulse came without thinking. I didn’t want my second one to be the same.
His challenge is something I am wrestling with as I consider what to do with the friction that I feel. To stay or leave. To get involved or back away. To commit or to look around. These are the questions that we all face as we search for signs that one person, one situation, one opening, one opportunity is the “right” one to move toward or away from.
As my wife and I continue to make such large-scale decisions, my hope is that we continue to wrestle with what it means to face the environmental friction that we feel and face it faithfully. I pray we are willing to faithfully endure in difficult places where perseverance is needed, yet my desire is also for discernment in case the friction is intended to move us toward something new.
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.