“From Death to Life”

Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.

Romans 6:13

Since April, 2010, I’ve been researching stories about how churches discern a decision to downsize, merge or close when they are losing vitality and sustainability.  My research is supported by a Pastoral Study Project grant from the Louisville Institute.  This site is designed to engage people in conversation about how vulnerable churches faithfully discern their future options.  It will be a more lively discussion if you share ideas and questions in the comment boxes beneath each post.  If you want to receive free notification of new posts, which come about once a week, you can subscribe on the right.

Crushing the Butterfly

butterflyA friend I will call Jean came to a summer party at our farm recently.  Jean is an animal lover who   entertains raccoons,  squirrels, ravens and even bears in the woods near her home.  When they appear sick, she feeds them with syringes or takes them to the wildlife refuge.    All the neighbors know where to drop the stray cats.

But she surprised us the night of the party when she found a monarch butterfly and brought it to show us.  Apparently, it was injured and could no longer fly.  She held it gently in her palm while we beheld its stained-glass window wings. “So beautiful,” she said.  “but I’m going to have to crush it.  It’s been injured.  It can’t fly anymore.  It needs to be put out of its misery.”

Suddenly, before anyone could protest her assessment of the butterfly’s prospects, she placed it on the ground and stomped on it squarely with her foot.  Shudders and groans swept through the group surrounding her.  The action was so swift, so authoritative, so seemingly heartless, we were all speechless.

I have thought about that action again and again.  What kind of impulse drove her to it?

I believe it was love.

Most of us love animals because they entertain and amuse us.  We imagine that they exist for our pleasure.  But Jean’s action expressed a deeper love, a compassion for the butterfly itself, not for its elegance or the hopeful symbolism it offered her.  More important than its resplendent wings was its unseen soul, its anguish, however imperceptible, at being injured and unable to fulfill its truest calling.  She put herself in the position of the butterfly and did what she thought was best for it.

To Christians, the demise of a church is a tragedy.  We love our churches and all churches.   We love what they represent and the good they have done in every corner of our world.  When we see them shrinking and closing, we recoil.  We want to hold those colored windows in our palms and preserve them forever.

But those who truly love the Church know that it was made to fly by the power of the Holy Spirit.  And a dying church can be a place of spiritual injury, a cluster of injured souls straining to survive as a human institution instead of reaching for the sky as a creature of God.  The Church should not exist to avoid hurt feelings, to maintain friendships or to preserve historical character in the neighborhood.  The Church exists to make disciples, and when the disciples are at the end of their rope, tired and thirsty for spiritual nurture, maybe someone needs to put the institution out of its misery.

Nobody wants to be the one to crush the butterfly.  It makes you look heartless and cruel.  But there is a kind of love that knows when it’s time to do just that.

The butterfly, remember, is living its second life.  It has already experienced resurrection once, so it has no fear for its future beyond the grave.  Shouldn’t this also be true of the Church?

 

* Photograph by Estela Romero, licensed by Creative Commons.

A Lesson on Resilience

July-August 2014 147This is my daughter’s pet plant, Vivaldi.  He’s a succulent, and a nice, bushy one, too.  But it wasn’t always that way for Vivaldi.  When she first brought him home from the nursery, she was given special soil and instructions to “be careful not to overwater a succulent.”  That first summer, Vivaldi did great out in the yard.  Evy was careful not to overwater him, but he did get rained on a few times.  In the winter she brought him in the house and continued to “be careful not to overwater him”.  In fact, she was so careful, he sometimes wouldn’t get a drink for weeks!

Eventually, Vivaldi shed some leaves.  Then his remaining leaves started to shrink.  And finally, he began to resemble…a dust bunny.  By the following summer, he was so small and shriveled, we thought he was dead.

A friend from a nursery then explained to us that succulents live in the desert, where they get big, infrequent downpours.  “Water him well,” she advised us.  “But not very often.  Once every week or two will do.”

When we began watering Vivaldi appropriately, an amazing thing happened: he came back to life, added leaves and filled out.  Now, he is beautiful.

I’ve since learned that succulents are resilient because they can store water in their leaves to survive drought conditions.  If it gets too dry, those leaves can easily be shed.  Succulents spread their roots wide, but shallow, to soak up any little rain that may come.  Their cell walls are elastic, so they can expand and contract depending on the amount of nutrients they receive from their environment.  And succulents literally have a “thick skin”, an impervious cuticle that keeps their leaves, well, succulent!

I wonder if churches could learn something from succulents about expanding and contracting according to the conditions around them, to maintain life and vitality.  Resilient churches might downsize for the lean years and challenge themselves to grow when spiritual and material gifts abound.  They might practice maintaining the spiritual health of their members, so they don’t “dry up” by depleting their spiritual gifts.  They might spread their roots wider instead of deeper, so that they could be touched and affected by changes in their community, rather than always focusing on their interior history.  They could fluidly shed programming that is outdated and innovate with new ways of spreading the Good News.

Resilience comes from flexibility, not rigidness.

A colleague recently explained to me the theory of organizational life cycles.  Even in the midst of decline (and especially early in that decline), a church can still grasp for a new vision from God, build new bonds of relationship with others in the community, experiment with programs that help people live the vision, and hopefully regenerate life for the future.

If the decline is left unaddressed, a church will eventually “dry up”, losing sight of its vision.  Its bonds of love will fray, its programs will wane, and finally, the church will become merely a skeleton of its old self…a dust bunny.  Even succulents can die if they are not cared for.

Is your church resilient?  Could it learn to be?

 

 

 

A Favorable Review

book title coverI was honored to read a review of my book “Toward the Better Country” in “Preaching and Pondering”, a blog written by the the Rev. Jerrod Hugenot, Associate Executive Minister of the American Baptist Church of New York State.  You can read it here.

I was especially pleased to read that Rev. Hugenot was compelled by the book to get in touch with his own grief about churches facing decline.  I think it’s healthy for judicatory leaders and pastors to stay self-aware about our emotions and assumptions regarding struggling churches and the impact we can have on them.

Thanks to Rev. Hugenot for sharing my book with others in his region!  If any of my readers would like to write a review of my book, favorable or not, you can post one on the Amazon.com page where my book is sold.

 

A Parallel Start in New Orleans

Carrollton UMC

Carrollton UMC

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  (Jeremiah 29.11)

On a recent mission trip to New Orleans, I visited Carrollton United Methodist Church, where two brand new pastors are dreaming of a new venture: a parallel start.

My group was visiting a senior center that is housed at Carrollton each day, providing lunch and classes in sewing, Spanish language, tai chi, and more.  Guests play Bingo and lounge in the church’s windowed breezeway when the programs are over.

But the senior center is now the most significant ministry occurring at the Carrollton church.  A couple of small non-profits share the building, and they once built showers to host workers who came for Katrina clean-up.  But now the worship community is down to about 30 people and there is a sense that the building is haunted by its own unfinished business: how to be vital not just as a community gathering place, but as a church.

So the United Methodist Church has infused this congregation with funds to hire two new full time pastors, Sione and Billy, who had both started working there the day before we arrived.  These two have the task of maintaining the current organizations that house the building AND launching a new church development there at the same time.  That’s sometimes called a parallel church start.

Our hosts gave us a tour of their meandering building, which in some parts still has the lingering odor of standing flood waters. Its rooms are a mixture of forlorn memories and promising potential.  A large parlor will be used for worship by the older congregation.  The hall pictured above has been used for children’s programs, but badly needs a face lift and some blades for the ceiling fans.  There seemed to be kitchens everywhere we turned, including one in a closet, but none of them looked fit for preparing a large meal.

The closet kitchen

The closet kitchen

In every room, the two new pastors saw hope.  They were imagining how the rooms could be repaired, revived and filled with new ministry, the way Jeremiah did when he imagined a future for his fallen city :

Thus says the Lord:
I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob,
    and have compassion on his dwellings;
the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound,
    and the citadel set on its rightful site.  (30.18)

There is no way to move forward in these times except with bold imagination.  But a little money really helps, too!  Kudos to the UMC for investing in the future with these two ambitious leaders.  May God bless them with a future and a hope.

There is not much out there to read about parallel church starts.  From the Episcopal tradition, check out this article, though it’s a bit outdated.  And this recent DOC newsletter mentions a parallel start project in Washington.  If you have more examples of parallel starts, please send them my way!

The Church After Katrina

Camp Restore/ Prince of Peace

Camp Restore/
Prince of Peace

Last week I went on an unforgettable mission trip to New Orleans and encountered a couple churches that gave me a lot to think about.

One was Prince of Peace Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.  In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast from Texas to Alabama.  Over 250,000 homes were destroyed, plus businesses and community buildings.  Prince of Peace, once a thriving church and school, was flooded.  But with assistance from the wider church, its expansive building was renovated and converted into a volunteer camp, now called Camp Restore (a separate non-profit agency), which brought in thousands of volunteer workers to do hurricane clean-up.

Camp Restore has become a thriving center that provides bunk style housing and meals and matches volunteers with work sites where they do everything from hanging drywall to playing bingo with senior citizens.  They average over 3,000 volunteers per year.

Meanwhile, Prince of Peace is a tiny shadow of its former self.  At one time, they housed over a hundred members and a busy Lutheran school.  Since Katrina decimated the population of their community, they are down to about ten members.

I asked Bill, the church’s president, what it was like to experience such a massive loss of members all at one time.  “Well, honestly,” he said.  “We had other things to be thinking about.”

Those “other things” included the clean-up and restoration of an entire city.  “The only people who stayed,” Bill explained, “were the people who still had a house, a job, or a family here.  Everyone else left.”

Today, Bill occasionally stands in line to eat breakfast and meet some of the volunteers that crowd his church’s sanctuary for meals at long dining tables.  Recently, after years of meeting on Sunday mornings, the tiny congregation decided to try worshiping on Wednesday nights.  They invited the volunteers to join them, and the first Wednesday they tried it, they ran out of communion elements, because they weren’t expecting so many people in worship.

I had the privilege of worshiping alongside the congregation one Wednesday during my stay, and was joined by about 30 other volunteers.   Although in many places, Missouri Synod Lutherans do not share communion with people of other traditions, we were all welcome to kneel and partake at Prince of Peace.

I had to wonder what the Prince of Peace congregation is made of: they have survived one of the fiercest hurricanes in history and stayed in place.  Yet they have also take a huge leap into new territory, allowing their building to be transformed from a traditional church and school into an entirely different kind of ministry in rapid response to an emerging need, making all the sacrifices necessary in order to do that.

What can you and I learn from this tiny, amazing congregation?

 

 

 

Not Today

Die todayI had an encounter recently that left me feeling dejected: at a gathering of clergy, a pastor poured out to me his frustration with his declining church.  He could not get the congregation to change their behavior, even though they were on a path of steep decline.  He was looking for some answer, some ray of hope.  All I could do was listen and nod my head.

I went home and asked my husband, “What am I supposed to say to these people?  Your church might die.  Sorry about that.” 

He looked at me for a moment, and then said, “Not today.”

“What?”

“They’re not going to die today,” he repeated.

It took me a second to get my head around that. My husband, a farmer, speaks from experience.  This is a guy who works to keep animals alive every day.  They get diarrhea and pneumonia and swallow pieces of metal.  He is always injecting someone with penicillin or patching a sore eye or bandaging a hoof.  When a heifer is gasping for life and he’s pumping her veins with electrolytes, he is saying, “You might die.  But not today.  Today, it’s my job to keep you alive in case you get stronger tomorrow.”

In his usual sparse way, he had said so much.  If you are not closing your doors today, there is still work to be done.  Any church that is worrying about the fact that they might close some time in the future is wasting time.  There is important ministry to be done today.  And I don’t mean cleaning the grout in the church kitchen tile.  I mean, there is a mouth to feed, a grieving family to be comforted, a love to be celebrated, a story to be told, a cold body to be warmed.

I know this contradicts so much I have said about planning for a generous, faithful end of life for churches when that end seems inevitable.  I still believe in all that.  But at the same time, letting church decline sabotage whatever good ministry you are doing now is not the answer.

Just this once, forget about dying tomorrow.  Keep being the church, alive, today.

*Photo by Marshall Astor, licensed by Creativecommons.org

 

More Lessons from Jazz Camp

Clay Jenkins
Clay Jenkins

I wrote here a couple years ago about my annual visits to a fabulous jazz camp in the northern Wisconsin woods, staffed by jazz professors from around the country who teach  amateur, just-for-fun jazz lovers how to make great music.

Recently I again attended jazz camp and came away with another lesson on leadership.  I was assigned to a combo directed by trumpeter Clay Jenkins of Eastman School of Music.  Clay has devoted his life to teaching jazz trumpet to young people, and he has a friendly but determined focus on getting the best out of his students.

This year, he presented us with a Sonny Rollins piece called “East Broadway Rundown”.  The Rollins piece is dissonant, chaotic and avante garde, not exactly easy listening, and not the kind of thing we usually perform at jazz camp.  But Clay had a vision.  He assessed his students: two saxophones, a flugelhorn, a trumpet, a trombone, a piano player and a vocalist, all of varying abilities and temperaments, and he made a plan.

On the first day of jazz camp, he taught us the short, choppy, repetitive melody, going over it again and again until we got it.  On the second day, he encouraged everyone to improvise on the piece, and layered in a dissonant harmony, pressing me to sing a fourth below the horns with his leading.  On the third day, he called on our best gifts.  He let some musicians do solos while others teamed up with each other for supportive roles.  He convinced me and the female trombone player to engage in a musical dialogue, echoing off each other from voice to horn.  He drew us all into an extended, planned chaos, calling on some musicians to play counter melodies against others, creating a wild cacophony of musical layers.

On the final night of jazz camp, when we were to perform the piece in front of a live audience, I had no idea what we were doing.  But I wasn’t worried, because I trusted Clay.

We got up on stage and followed his lead.  I concentrated so hard, I forgot we even had an audience.  Everyone was forced to listen to each other one minute, and then to tune each other out and listen only to ourselves the next minute; we had to watch Clay and keep counting, and trust his hand beating the air when we lost count.  We didn’t worry about what it sounded like to our audience.  We were completely absorbed in the moment.

Amazingly, the audience loved it.

Clay’s leadership of our combo helped me understand why he is not just a great trumpet player, but also a great leader: he capitalized on the abilities we each brought to the table while pushing us out of our comfort zones.  He brought his own personal vision of a seemingly unplayable piece, but he coaxed us through it and kept the expectations light.  He was helping us each to be different, and all to be unified.  We didn’t even know how much fun we were having until it was over.

When the concert ended, I pulled Clay aside to thank him for his leadership.  “That’s the kind of leader I want to be in my church,”  I told him.

* Photo by Donald Jackson