Category Archives: future church

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?

 

 

 

To Weed or to Seed?

white cockleThe gardening season is upon us now in Wisconsin, and I am pondering the  wildflower patch.  It was started as a 4H project when my daughter was young, and it was fun–until the white cockle took over.  White cockle is a noxious weed disguised as a flower.  It produces a little balloon seed pod that, when you’re six, is fun to pick and pop.  But when you’re a grown up and you have to pull out the cockle because it shades out all the prettier wildflowers, it’s just, well…noxious!

I used to spend hours battling the white cockle on summer afternoons.  There was no end to it, and truthfully, it was hard to tell if the more desirable flowers appreciated my efforts.  I told myself I was being industrious.  But year after year, the cockle just got worse; it was winning the battle.

So last year, I gave up.  I told my family I was letting the wildflower garden go to seed.  We would mow it over and be done with it.  But after we mowed, things just started coming up as they had before.

About mid-way through the summer, I looked closely at the little patch.  Indeed, it had gone to seed.  The seeds had flowered and filled the garden with color.  Sure, there was some white cockle, but it wasn’t out of control.  It was just another color in the garden.

I wonder: is it really worth the effort I put into removing the noxious weeds?  Or should I let nature take its course and see if the good flowers don’t win out on their own?  Maybe instead of weeding, I should be seeding more and more wildflowers so they can take root, flourish and crowd the cockle out without my intervention.

Gardening always makes me think about the church.  We work so hard to “fix” our churches, trying to weed out all their bad habits and lazy assumptions, their dusty rituals and moldy hymns.  We pray quietly–but regularly–that the more troublesome members will move to Florida. We try to muster up the strength  to shout down the demons.  But sometimes it seems we are getting nowhere.

An alternative to weeding might be seeding.  While it is sometimes necessary to call out bad behavior and eliminate outdated practices, we can also be strengthening our churches by relentlessly casting out our best ideas and observations (even when we think we are being ignored), nurturing the church culture with Christ-like behavior, bravely singing a new song, and fertilizing the most faithful and creative members with support and affirmation.  Maybe by empowering what is good to grow toward the sun, those noxious aspects of church life will stay close to the ground and out of trouble.

This spring, I ordered a big bag of wildflower seeds.  I’m going to mow down last year’s stubble again, mix the seeds with sand and broadcast it over the garden.

Take that, cockle! 

 

 

 

Resurrection and Ralph

shapeshifterI ran into Ralph at the café yesterday. Ralph is a retired paper mill worker, a Vietnam vet and a self proclaimed “wise sage” who drives everyone in the café crazy with his incessant theological chatter.  He always interrupts my sermon preparation.  He wants to talk about God or Jesus or numerology or the chickens he’s raising.    But most times, I come away from a conversation with him having yielded a little jewel of insight.

This time it was a big one, though.  He helped me figure out the bodily resurrection.

“Do you believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ, Ralph?” I asked him.

“I have to,” he said.  So I took this opportunity to ask something I could never ask in front of my parishioners.

“Okay, so, if Jesus rose physically from the dead, with his body, then where is his body now?”

Ralph didn’t skip a beat.  “It’s wherever He wants it to be.”

I pondered this.  I’m getting older, but I’m proud to say I’m still manufacturing new brain cells.  Did he mean Christ’s physical body moves around?  Travels the globe?  Changes form?

“Ooo…do you mean Jesus is like a shapeshifter?” I asked, popping out another brain cell or two.

“A what?” Ralph squished up his face.  Apparently, he hasn’t been reading the Twilight series.

“So, you’re saying Jesus’ body can inhabit your body?”

“Well, I certainly hope he does,” Ralph said.

“But…not all the time.  I mean, you’re not Jesus, Ralph.”

“No, that’s true.”

“But maybe now and then, Jesus might inhabit your body and I could get a little glimpse of him by looking at you, just for that split second.  Is that what you mean?”

Ralph was just now figuring out what he meant.

“So that explains why, sometimes, when you are with someone, you feel like  they’re channeling the Holy Spirit or something.  That’s Jesus deciding to put his body in someone else’s body, right?”

“That’s right,” Ralph smiled.

“I can buy that,” I said with satisfaction.  Finally, the bodily resurrection made a little sense!  There’s probably something deeply heretical about this idea, but if there is, I don’t care.   I like it.

And if Jesus can do shapeshifting with his body, I wonder what he can do with that body we call the Church!

*Artwork by Thomas O’Rourke, licensed by Creativecommons.org

 

 

 

Trees for Tomorrow

A 200 year old hickory tree

A 200 year old hickory tree

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” - 1 Corinthians 3:6

My husband Charles grew up eating hickory nuts. Hickory trees grow in parts of Wisconsin and there must have been some on one of the family farms because his mother always had hickory nuts to bake into brownies or sugar cookies, and he loved them.

As an adult, now in his fifties, Charles has lost both his parents. But he has not lost his love for hickory nuts. So, a couple years ago, he ordered ten hickory tree starts from a nursery. He cleared a piece of brush-covered land about 3/4 mile from our house and put them in the ground, a long ways from any water source. He encased them in little cages to keep the deer and bunnies out. All summer, we empty 5 gallon pails of water off the back of his truck to water the starts when the weather is dry. All winter, he looks across the pastures and wonders if those little trees have become snacks for hungry wildlife.

After we planted the hickory trees, we did some research and discovered they are slow to mature, but he expects that, if they survive cold winters and dry summers, they will begin producing nuts in about 40 years. Yes, 40.  He will be in his 90’s then. Hopefully, he will still have a strong set of teeth.

In an interview, a faithful church leader once said this to me: “My period of leadership is ending soon, and I sense that my church is in decline. What can I do now to leave a legacy that will help them get through this phase and move on to a better future?” One hunch was that she could help train younger and newer members with leadership skills. She also had a wonderful, “non-anxious presence” that served as a model to others, and her encouraging leadership style was infectious.  That’s a great legacy!

Whatever that leader leaves behind, she is asking the right questions. How can we be useful now in ways that pay off in the long term future? It sometimes seems we are casting seeds in the desert, unsure whether anyone will come behind us to water them, whether those seeds will be allowed to grow up as wheat among the tares, or ever produce a harvest. But seeds are seeds. It’s up to us to plant, and it’s up to the next leader, and God, to make them grow.

What has God given you the capacity to plant, or to water, in your faith community today so that it may still bear fruit in the distant future?

*Photo by G.W.  Bill Miller

 

 

 

 

 

A Little Exposure

CC cover 3-19It’s a bit late, but I’m happy to announce that The Christian Century has printed an article I wrote entitled “Holy Stuff” in their March 19, 2014 issue, which you can find here.

This article draws on a few stories from my book “Toward the Better Country” about the way Christians mourn the loss of physical objects they identify with their life in a church that is closing.

I’m happy that the article offers my book a little exposure to people who may benefit from it as they struggle with leadership in declining churches.  The Christian Century is read and respected by many of my colleagues, and the article is helping to get the word out.

But I’m finding that marketing the book is a challenge for me personally.  People want a short answer: “What’s your book about?”  and I’m tempted to say “It’s about church closure”.   The Christian Century article would certainly make it seem that way.

But the book is about more than closure.  It’s about the grief, disorientation and powerlessness many of us are feeling as we watch our churches shrink.  It’s about identifying what is really important in your ministry and putting aside everything else that gets in the way of that most vital mission.  It’s about the creativity and collaboration–with God and neighbor–that is allowing some churches to do ministry in new, more vital and sustainable ways.

Why can’t I seem to get that into an elevator speech?

If you have read or even skimmed my book, and want to help me with my elevator speech, please post a suggestion below,  I could use your help!

Turning Burdens into Blessings

IMG_8965The Episcopal Church Building Fund (ECBF) is finally doing something about the growing problem of how church building maintenance is colliding with pursuit of a church’s mission.  They are gathering leaders to talk about how congregations can use their buildings in new ways.

The ECBF will gather on April 28th – 30th in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to discuss ways churches can transform their empty, expensive buildings into uses that complement or fund their true missions.

The ECBF website includes clips from the 2012 ECBF conference, at which Bishop Gregory Rickel and others spoke.  It was in his address at this conference that Rickel used the phrase “Religious Industrial Complex” referring to the grand building campaigns of growing churches during the post WWII boom.  This phrase seems harsh to those who lived through the optimism of that time, but to a younger generation now encumbered by the buildings their parents erected, it seems strangely apt.

Nevertheless, there is hope for churches and their buildings.  When you go to the site, be sure to click under “info., links and tools” and check out the many alternative uses for church buildings they have documented.  These are real examples from real churches in real cities you can check out.  And these are only Episcopal churches!  It is inspiring to see the creativity that is emerging as churches wrestle with the challenge of turning real estate from a burden into a blessing.

*Photo by Katjusa Cisar, licensed by Creativecommons.org

Toward the Better Country

June 2013 021Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection

by L. Gail Irwin

is now available from

Resource Publications/Wipf & Stock Publishers 

You can order your copy here,

Web price:$17.60 plus shipping

Copies are also available online at Amazon.com

Book Synopsis

The pews of many mainline churches are clearly not as full as they used to be.  While committed Christians are trying everything they can to keep their churches open and thriving, history has shown that no local church is meant to live forever in its current form.    Like people, churches are born, live and breathe, fulfill their missions, and pass away.  And recent history shows that more churches will be closing or re-shaping their ministry in the near future.

Toward the Better Country tells about the grief stages, discernment processes and creative options explored by lay leaders, pastors and regional leaders who have dealt with this sensitive time in the life cycle of a church.  These are woven in with the author’s own experience of leading a church through steep decline toward closure.

This resource, based on interviews with over thirty lay, clergy and judicatory leaders, will offer healthy, practical ways for congregations to move through the terrain of loss, discern God’s path for their future and pass on their legacies to emerging ministries.  It can be used for personal reflection, leadership training, or in discernment groups in local churches.  Scripture readings and questions for conversation are included at the end of each chapter, along with a list of additional resources for churches struggling with decline.

Chapter Titles:

1. Introduction

2. The Rise and Fall of Sacred Places

3. Expressions of Grief in the Faith Community

4. Discerning the Failure to Thrive: Lay Leaders

5. Discerning the Failure to Thrive: Pastors

6. Discerning the Failure to Thrive: Regional Pastors

7. Multiple Paths to the Future

8. A Tale of Two Closures

9. Laying the Foundation for Future Ministry

10. Seven Ways to Say Goodbye

11. New Wine for New Wineskins

Appendices, Additional Resources and Bibliography

The Mission Finds a Church

Community MissionThere is the Church.  There is the mission.  And there is the building.  Not necessarily in that order.

Here’s a story about a church that closed: Westside Church of Christ in McKinney, Texas.  Their building was sold to the McKinney School District, which found a use for it as an alternative school for students who had committed anything from “serious breaches of the district rulebook to misdemeanor crimes.”

Then, after the school was in its new home, a church that has no “home” found the school (that used to be a church) and made the school its mission.  Sound confusing?  Read the article here.

What I love about this story is that it distinguishes between a building, a church (faith community), and a mission:

* The building has been a church, and is now a school.  It’s just a building, after all; we can make it into anything we need it to be.

* The church is a group of people who have come together to serve the world in the manner of Christ, and they can do that in any number of ways.  In this case, it’s The Parks Church: a young, 300 member congregation that “has no home of its own, drifting from venue to venue since 2011″.

* The mission is the opportunity God puts in front of a congregation to live out their faith in practical ways in the world.  In this case, it means caring for the students and teachers at a school that is easily overlooked; a school that works with kids on the verge of delinquency who need a temporary, academic “time out”.

Maybe it isn’t always wise to separate building, mission and people.  Sometimes they are inextricably woven together.  But in some cases, it is good to do the exercise of pulling them apart:

* Who is your church community and what are they capable of?

* What is the mission God is calling your church to carry out?

* What is your building suited for and what does the community need it to be?

By separating these questions from each other, maybe some churches will find that the building and the people have two separate missions.  Others will find they don’t need a permanent home at all (!Let me know if you are aware of churches like this!).  Some may find the building is an obstacle to fulfilling their mission, while others will find uses for their buildings that help them carry out a new mission altogether.

Thanks again to Joe Duggan of Congregational Seasons for sniffing this story out!

Photo by Kevin Bauman (Kevinbauman.com)

The Wedding Flees the Church

wedding 3So, 34 couples got married in a live, mass wedding during the Grammy Awards.  Queen Latifah (no, not ordained) officiated at the ceremony, against a projected image of stained glass windows.  A gospel choir joined in singing behind Madonna while the couples, old and young, gay and straight, exchanged rings.

I’m not going to lie: I have mixed feelings about this spectacle.  I’m clergy, so performing wedding ceremonies, along with all the preparation and education that goes with them, is a job I take seriously.  I develop a personal relationship with every couple, helping them converse about everything from their parents’ marriages (and divorces) to who’s going to take out the trash.  I pray with them and for them, write their unique wedding liturgies and sign their licenses.  For some couples, marriage preparation will be the first time they’ve been in church since their confirmation–or baptism–and may be the last time they drop in until their first child is born, or ever.  I value that fleeting opportunity to reach out to people who are making a significant emotional and spiritual turning point in their lives, and let them know God is walking beside them.

So the idea of having a live, televised group wedding in which the participants are selected by a casting agency comes off to me as a little crass.

But then, I have to admit, crass is a mild word for the way the institutional church has behaved in response to many people who long to form life partnerships.  The church has had its chance to be present in the lives of different configurations of family, and for the most part, we have said: if it doesn’t look like the 1950′s, go someplace else to get your blessing.

So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that some people are going elsewhere to get God’s blessing.  They are getting married on the steps of courthouses, in parks and roller rinks, in abandoned churches re-cast as wedding chapels, and anywhere else they please, including the Grammys.

Part of me is sad that the church is losing its hold on being the place where this rite is enacted.  I like the oversight and protection the church has to offer to couples making their way in the world.  Being married is hard and, well, “it takes a village” to keep a marriage strong.  The church can be that village.

But the reality is, the church has refused to be that village for gay and lesbian couples and others who don’t “fit the mold”.  And now, the sacred ritual of forming families has broken out of the walls of our churches and is being celebrated in the open, where everyone can see the beautiful thing God can do with two people in partnership.  Couples are hopefully finding new ways to support their families spiritually and emotionally outside the church.

Or, maybe not.  I don’t know.  Maybe someday, couples will bravely venture back to the church looking for a community that fosters every shape of family.  Maybe they will find churches like the one I’m at now, where every creative configuration of family is welcome.

Maybe someday, weddings will come back to the church!

*Image from Wikipedia

The Book is Here!

June 2013 021If you are part of a church struggling with vitality and viability, and wondering what options you have for continuing ministry, I am happy to announce that my book, “Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection” is now available in print from Resource Publications/Wipf & Stock Publishers.

This has been a four year project for me and I am pleased to see it come to fruition.  My book is not perfect, but hopefully it will generate discussion that helps us all move the church forward into a new era.  I am happy that so many great stories shared with me can now be shared with others, and I encourage you to read it and let me know if it is helpful in your church.

For a brief synopsis of the book, click on the “About the Book” tab at the top of the page.

You can order the book now by clicking here , or at Amazon.com.  The book will be available as a Kindle e-book within 3-6 months.  Libraries and educators may be able to access the book through Ingram.

If you are part of a church or denominational group, and would like me to come and talk about the topic of church downsizing and closure, please leave a comment below and I will contact you.