“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.

The Servant Who Risks and Loses

John the Baptist having a bad day

John the Baptist having a bad day

The parable of the talents is making its annual appearance this week, and I put it before some teenagers I know last night. I handed out wads of cash and asked them what they might do as stewards of it for a year.  One, predictably, said he would spend it on McChicken sandwiches; who cares about the Master?  One said she would open a savings account because, even at less than 1% interest, at least she wouldn’t lose it (she had not, of course, figured in the current 1.7% inflation rate).  One 5th grader said “I would give it back to the Master; it’s not MY responsibility!”  Finally, one young man said he would invest it in the stock market, where he might make a gain, or he might take a loss.  And he could live with that either way.

I want that last guy to lead the church when I’m gone.

The problem with the parable of the talents is that nobody in the story loses their money.  The ones who risk it in investment and trading actually double their money.  I’m sorry, but in today’s market, that is highly unlikely.

I think Jesus should have included a fourth servant: the one who invested the money on an ambitious idea that simply did not pan out.  This servant laid all her money down to create a church where children and people with dementia could worship together, or a farm market with produce grown by teenagers, or a bed-and-breakfast where you pay whatever you can afford.   And the great idea flopped, because the world is not quite ready for all the great ideas God’s people are dreaming of.  And the Master came home and said, “Well done, good and faithful servant, because taking a leap of faith is more important than doubling my money.”

God’s people are starting to dream, at least a little, about new ways of being Christ’s church, and people like this blogger are calling us to take more risks in the church in order to reach those outside our doors.  I agree wholeheartedly!

And I also believe that taking risks in the church is like playing the stock market in one way: we might fail.  We might lose something.  It might hurt.

But that’s okay.  Because whatever happens, we will learn a little more about what steps God wants or doesn’t want us to take next.

To take a risk and double your money is a great thing, and it might happen!  But risking failure is also part of being faithful.

Just ask Jesus.

- *Painting by Geerten tot Sint Jans (1465-1495)

Pressing Where It Hurts

massage

I had a massage from an excellent massage therapist recently, and discovered my body is full of knots.  What was supposed to be a relaxing experience became a confrontation with unaddressed pain, as I discovered that I am in pretty bad shape.  Stress, age and poor posture are taking their toll.

“Your body is full of toxins,” the therapist said flatly.

What, like a skunk?  Or an industrial waterway?

Whenever she found a knotted up spot in my body, she came at it from the edge with her thumb and pressed gently down.  I flinched.  I yelled, “Ouch!”  I got tears in my eyes.  But I did not ask her to stop.  And she didn’t stop.  She never said “I’m sorry”.  My knots are not her fault, after all.  She just kept gently pressing in, hurting me in the kindest way.

Finally, between moans of pain, I said, “I wish I could do for my churches what you do for your clients.  You press down on the pain because you know that’s the only way they will heal, and you don’t stop, even when they yell at you.”

On hearing this, she didn’t laugh or make a remark.  She just kept pressing.  I was awed by her strength, both physical and emotional.

In pastoral work with struggling churches, I have tried to learn the hard lessons of pressing down on the pain: listening for the rough but loving judgments of God and interpreting them for congregations who feel stuck in ruts but have no real interest in changing their behavior.

Pressing on the pain might mean asking: “What mistakes did you make with your former pastors?” Or displaying the hard truth of their situation (“You will run out of financial reserves in X years”).  Or something like the confession I had to make to a lay leader once: “I don’t trust you…yet.”

I really hate this part of my job, and frankly I’m not good at it, either.  But speaking the truth in love is the leader’s job.  It’s our job when the truth to be told is part of a church’s healing and reconciliation, or when it’s needed to correct behavior that is leading a church away from God’s mission for them.

When the massage therapist was done with me, I felt relaxed and pliable for the first time in a while.

But that was two weeks ago.  Now I’m back to my old, toxic self.  In the dysfunctional body, things bounce back to default disease pretty fast.

The good news is, my massage therapist is coming tomorrow to press all my pain buttons again.   I know it will hurt.  And I know I’ll feel better when she’s done with me.

* Photo licensed by Creativecommons.org

How Can We Keep From Singing?

Boston Harmony World Music Chorus

Boston Harmony World Music Chorus

No storm can shake my inmost calm,  while to that rock I’m clinging.                 It sounds an echo in my soul; how can I keep from singing?                             (Folk hymn)                  

I started singing in church choirs when I was  a teenager.  There I learned to read music and find acceptance among the grown up singers.   It was my church’s choir director who helped me find my spiritual voice again after a car accident that fractured my larynx.  I went on to study vocal music, compose hymn lyrics and sing in choirs at my college, seminary and several churches over the years.

There is a special kind of relationship that forms among choir members.  Something about those rehearsals, with their jokes, irritations and prayer rituals, creates a spiritual bond that can’t be replicated anywhere else.

But my view of the traditional church choir has changed over the years.  One time, I watched a song leader, without any written words,  notes or accompaniment, teach a room full of people to sing a simple hymn in parts.  The effect was electrifying.  I have sung improvisational jazz in groups, never sure exactly what note might come out next, or who it will come from.  I have even been to a “tunnel hum”, standing shoulder to shoulder with wanna-be druids and aging hippies, humming placidly until we all found a common, harmonic drone.  I’ve learned there are a lot of different ways to make sound together, but what really makes it groove is when everyone is engaged in the making of it!

One of the changes we’re seeing in churches today is the decline of the church choir.  This article* documents how church choirs, including some of those large, contemporary ones, are on the wane.  Choral directors, pipe organs and sheet music are costly in a church that may not even have enough money to pay the pastor.

Since many people like me learned how to read music by singing hymns, we may be losing a vital place for music education, as well as the potential for those unique spiritual friendships built in the choir loft.

Some churches are holding fast to their choral traditions, and I am hopeful that, if they are flexible and resilient, people who love music will return to find the joy in group singing.  Other churches are expanding their idea of sacred singing to include choral flash mobs like this one, Taize worship, “threshold choirs” that sing to the terminally ill, or simply a renewed emphasis on robust congregational singing.

Without music, worship will lose its vitality and without that one place in society where people gather to sing, our communities will lose some of the glue that binds them together.

How does your church make music these days?  Are you listening to others make music, or are you finding a way to chime in?  Do you think sacred music is a luxury or a necessity?

*Thanks to Joe Duggan at Congregational Seasons for sharing this article!

P.S. Here’s a great movie to watch about the importance of singing together, and the bond it creates.

(Photo licensed by Creative Commons)

 

Who Is Your Hope?

bird 1Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops – at all -
Emily Dickinson

 

Hope is the name of one of the waitresses at my favorite café.  She waits tables with eager determination and a bird-like alertness as she darts around the place making sure everyone is happy and well fed.  She always seems cheerful, with her sing-songy voice and a tendency to call everyone “Honey”.

But one day recently, she confided in me that one of her regulars had gotten the bad news: he has terminal cancer.  Every day, he comes in for breakfast, and now he needs more than just eggs and hash browns.  He needs a hand to hold, a shoulder to lean on.

“I don’t know why they always find me,” Hope said that day.  “It must be my name.  I always attract people in desperate situations.”

I told her,  “It’s not your name.  It’s that you live up to your name.”

She went on to tell me that, when she’s not waiting tables at the café, she works in an oncology ward at the hospital.  I’m not sure what she does there, but she comes in contact with people who need more of what she represents: hope.  And she finds herself listening to their sad stories a lot.

“I’m going to have to lean on you a little,” she said to me that day.  And I was honored to think she trusted me as a pastor, instead of as just another plate of poached eggs.  She was telling me, in not so many words, that bearing another’s sorrow is a load, even when it’s not your load.  And that she was going to need a little help holding up for her loyal customer.

A few days later, I had a bad day at work.  And the next morning, I headed to the café, found my corner table and sat brooding for a long time.  Hope wasn’t there that day.  But there was another customer watching me nearby, a retired cop who is a regular like me.  Finally, he came over and sat down.

“You’re deep in thought today,” he said.  So I told him my story, and he listened.  And afterward, I felt lighter.

We are all of us here to hold each other up.  Sometimes that is all hope is: the kindness of a neighbor to get us through the rough parts of our lives.  But sometimes there is a bigger hope: a hope in something or Someone beyond  us that is urging us to move toward the better country.

If you are a leader in a struggling church, chances are you are one who has listened to some sad stories.  Where do you go when you need to tell your own stories?  Who do you lean on?  Who is your Hope?

*Photo by Don McCullough

A Shared Church

Holy Sepulchre JerusalemYears ago, on a Holy Land tour, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem,  considered by some Christians to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.  I went back a few days later to a Sunday worship service of the Syrian Orthodox Church, and found it was conducted in a small alcove of the church for an ethnic Syrian congregation of about 50 people.  Services of other churches were being conducted in other alcoves located off the main sanctuary.  In a city as plagued by religious division as Jerusalem, I was struck by the ability of Orthodox and Catholic Christians to share space in this way.

Since that visit, I’ve often dreamed of a large church building where several churches, or even different faiths, might worship at different times in cooperation with each other.  And my dream has come true in some places such as Springhouse Ministries in Minneapolis and the Brookville Church in Nassau . I’ve imagined that someday, one of those big mega-churches might be converted to a shared space church for small churches who can’t afford their own buildings, like condos.

I also used to dream of starting a church in a mall.  Just think of all that empty storefront space with big windows where people would walk by, look in, and see that we Christians aren’t ogres, after all!

Then I read this article about a mall in Ft. Myers, Florida that converted all its retail space into churches, synagogues and mosques: one stop faith shopping! As I listened to the article, alas, I realized it was a hoax, and a very funny one!  But even in this played up example of the “church mall”, I recognized a piece of my dream.

From Wikipedia (a slightly more fact-based source than the site above), I learned that simultaneum mixtum is a term coined in 16th Century Germany for a church where public worship was conducted by more than one religious group.  It is said to have been “a form of religious toleration” in the wake of the Reformation, stemming from a situation where both Catholics and Protestants needed worship space.

So it is not so new and cutting edge for churches to share space, and if they could do it in the heat of 16th Century Reformation conflict, we should be able to do it today.  Today, the conflict wouldn’t be about transubstantiation and consubstantiation.  It would more likely be about who gets the kitchen on Saturday morning and who left wax stains on the carpet!

In your community, who might share church space with each other for mutual good and the glory of God?

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?