Category Archives: Reasons to stay open

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  They could fluidly shed programming that is outdated and innovate with new ways of spreading the Good News.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 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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Task of the Storyteller

story teller dollI told a story in church last Sunday.  It was not just my story; it was a shared story from my family that had only been told quietly for a long time.  Maybe it was a confession.  After telling it I felt spent, as if something powerful had moved through me.

To be a storyteller is like having an electric current move through your body.  The story comes from somewhere–maybe you lived it, or maybe someone passed it to you–and it comes into your body and you ponder it in your heart for awhile, like Mary did.  And then one day, you tell it.  Not just for yourself, but for everyone who has a role in it.  And the telling has its own power, and the electric current moves through you and on to the hearer, and you as the story teller are changed, and the one who hears the story is changed, and even the story itself changes.

This is what it means to proclaim the Good News, to be a Christian witness, to testify to the stories that have changed us.

When I began interviewing people for my book “Toward the Better Country“, I was immediately struck by the responsibility of receiving people’s stories about  their struggles in declining churches.  I listened and recorded, wrote and edited, and the weight of those stories bore down on me.  I kept telling myself I had to finish the book on behalf of all those people who’s stories I had received.  I had promised them their stories would be told, so I could not let them get stuck inside me.

I noticed that, when people told me their stories, they were forming new meaning, and the stories changed.  The tellers listened to themselves and learned things.  And for me, listening and asking questions, I found myself  entering  the stories and becoming a part of them.

Once a story is shared, it can never be taken back.  Whatever power it has to transform the teller, the listener, or the story itself, just in the telling, that power is released like a chemical reaction.  From then on, the story does not really end.  It keeps being told, entering people’s hearts and waking them to new insights.

Last week, I attended a clergy event and ran into one of my interviewees who is a small church pastor.  I had a copy of my book with me, and I took it to him and opened it to a certain page and asked him to read it to himself.  There he found his own story, now part of a larger story of many churches that have languished, struggled, survived and been renewed by God’s hand.

It felt good to have kept my promise to him.

What story are you bearing the weight of?  Who will you tell it to?

*Storyteller doll by Helen Cordero, Cochito Pueblo

 

 

 

 

 

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