“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.

Smoke and Ash

ash and childNot many kids came to our youth program on Ash Wednesday.  Some were scared away by the temperatures outside, which dipped below zero;  0thers by the serious evening worship service that would interrupt their usual scavenger hunts and Wallyball games.

But a few showed up for a promised opportunity to play with fire.

I taught them a little about what Lent means, and we each wrote on a piece of paper something we wanted to burn that was separating us from God, as a ritual to begin the season.  Then we went out to the church breezeway and crushed up last year’s palm branches.  We threw all the papers and palms into a big soup pot from the church kitchen and lit the whole mess on fire.  Smoke rose up in the frigid air and we stood around poking at the embers until the red light came out of them.  Then we lugged the pot upstairs to the kitchen, sifted the ashes down and sprayed a little Pam on them to make them sticky.

Who needs a priest when you have four middle schoolers to help prepare for Ash Wednesday?

That night, we went home not only with ash on our foreheads, but reeking of smoke.  Some grown-ups said the church smelled like their college dorm rooms.  Others were reminded of Boy Scout campfires.  I myself remembered the Orthodox churches I visited in Israel, their air so thick with the smell of candle wax and incense, you could hardly take a deep breath without choking on particulates.

Now my car smells like smoke, and my coat and mittens, too.  But I don’t care.  Whenever anything really important happens in your life, you come out the other side smelling different.  You smell like the hospital where you got your new heart, or the sterile nursery flowers laid on the coffin of a beloved.  You smell like the cologne your husband wore at the wedding or your baby’s milky breath. It only seems right that, when we burn something from the past that needs to be let go, the odor of regret mixed with hope should linger long enough to remind us we are no longer the people we used to be.  In some small way, God has extinguished a dangerous flame in us, or cleansed with fire an impurity of the heart.

I hope, when those kids got home last night, their parents sniffed them lovingly like they were puppies, and wondered at the fragrance of mercy that rubbed off on them.

 

Mission Trumps Size

St Mark's New Jersey

If you think you’re too small to have an effect, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito”       (Bette Reese)

Many of us might assume that a church with only 32 members automatically qualifies as a “struggling church”, or even a dying church.  But in the case of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Keansburg, New Jersey, many of us would be wrong.

St. Mark’s housed a non-profit meal program out of their building for years, but when Hurricane Sandy hit, and the electricity went out, the program was unable to continue.  Members of St. Mark’s came down to the church after the disaster and found hungry people at their door.

At that moment, they demonstrated that they are a church with a vital mission.

They took the thawing food out of the church’s freezers and started cooking for anyone who showed up.  From there, a new meal program was born, as volunteers returned or showed up for the first time, to help feed their devastated community.  Today, they serve breakfast and lunch every day, about 5,000 meals a month.  A nurse, social worker and crisis counselor visit regularly.  And they also gather for weekly worship, healing services, and  monthly “Recovery Eucharist in the AA tradition”.

Most of St. Mark’s members are over the age of 70, but the congregation has welcomed in outside assistance, including other churches and Scouting groups, who come in to help them carry out their mission.

A few things worth noting in this story:

1) It reminds me that a disaster often gives us the urgent ability to respond to a crisis with compassion, and can become a wake up call about whatever true mission a church is called to carry out

2) A small group of people may not be able to do it all on their own, but with coordination and delegating, any size group can have a significant impact on the world.

3) A church full of 70-year-olds can be a vital church!  And with the changing demographics of our country, we are going to have to stop assuming that churches need big Sunday Schools and youth programs in order to be vital.  Vitality is not limited by age or size, but only by our ability to respond creatively to what the Holy Spirit is doing around us.

Here’s another story about a church that found vitality and a new mission in the midst of a disaster.

Churches in Conversation

Fall 2014 003

 

 

 

In November, I was invited to meet with clergy and lay leaders in the Hudson River Presbytery in New York.  There, under the direction of Rev. Rhonda Kruse, their Connections and Change Presbyter, I had several occasions over two days to help foster conversation about creative responses to church decline.

The first was a shared Sunday worship service with three small churches who are located near each other but had never worshiped together before.  The church we met in–Bethlehem Presbyterian– was established in 1729 (see photo).  Talk about resilience!  With a combined choir to inspire us, four pastors led worship and gathered with members over coffee afterward.  The common refrain I heard was, “Maybe we should do this again!”

Later that afternoon, 70 people from around the Presbytery gathered to hear a summary of ideas from my book and talk among themselves about their own experiences of decline and revitalization.  It was a time to be honest about the struggles they were experiencing, and to recognize that they were not alone.  Presbytery staff were on hand to listen and respond to concerns, encouraging churches to consider options for revitalization, merger, or closure, depending on their circumstances.

On Monday morning, I was taken to the beautiful Stony Point Retreat Center, where the Presbytery Committee on Ministry was meeting.  Once again, I shared stories from the book and judicatory leaders clustered in small groups to talk about how to help struggling churches they are in contact with.

Over meals and on car rides, I listened to stories of churches facing incredible obstacles and still finding divine creativity in the thick of it!

At one point, I said to my gracious host, Rhonda: “I don’t feel I can do much for these leaders.  I’m just coming and going, but they are staying here to do the hard work.”  Her response encouraged me: “You’re helping them start the conversations they need to have.”

Since I started the book project, I have always believed that honest conversation, whether it includes lament, idea sharing, critique or celebration, is the best way to hitch our hearts to the Holy Spirit’s power to make all things new.  By listening and learning from each other and our neighborhoods, we recognize that God is already at work in us; we just need to catch onto what God is doing.

I appreciate the foresight the Hudson River Presbytery has had in helping their churches team up to converse about their future.  All our local churches are really Christ’s one Church, so why do we keep struggling alone?

If you are interested in having an honest conversation with other churches in your area about change, decline, and God’s new thing, and if you want help starting the conversation, contact me, and maybe we can make it happen.

The Church on Fire

Klondike Community Church

Klondike Community Church

Recently I visited a nearby country church with a tumultuous history.  Built in a burg called Klondike, it was originally a Catholic church.  In the 90’s, the building was hit by lightening.  The volunteer fire department bravely climbed up into the attic and put the fire out, at some risk to their own lives.  Repairs were made and the church went on.

But a few years later, in 2005, the Diocese closed the church, and its members migrated to another nearby parish.  The building sat empty for awhile until two women bought it and tried running a bakery out of the church kitchen.

When that tanked, a nearby family purchased it and decided they would form a new congregation in the building.  They hired a preacher, printed an article in the paper and invited the neighbors.  A few showed up.

But just as traffic began to pick up, another disaster hit: an arson who had started a series of fires in the area broke into the building and lit one in the chancel.  Once again the fire department was called.  The fire charred the walls of the sanctuary and rose up into the steeple, but the building was not lost.

Without enough insurance, but with determined owners and well wishing neighbors, money was raised and repair on the building was carried out by volunteers.  During the restoration, the little band met in an outdoor open shelter, which was cloaked in thick plastic during the winter months.

Today, the building looks beautiful, inside and out. My friend Michael is its current preacher.  A forty-something African-American pastor from Cleveland, Michael came to northern Wisconsin to work as a Christian radio announcer, and has now found himself moonlighting as the church’s spiritual leader.

The day I visited, there were about 25 in worship, despite the sub-zero temperatures outside.  The sanctuary was cheerfully adorned with Christmas poinsettias.  A keyboard player accompanied us on “Softly and Tenderly”.  Then she pulled out a guitar and led us in a cowboy version of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” Michael, in his conversational style, preached to a room full of pink cheeks and white hair, wondering aloud what it would be like if white church leaders called up black church leaders to just talk about the racial tensions in Ferguson.  He called upon us to remember that Christ died “just for you”, and urged us, out of gratitude for our own salvation, to reach out in community toward others.

After worship, we gathered in the basement for coffee.  There, a church leader named Don told me the story of his church’s multiple encounters with disaster and closure.  The more he told, the more fervent he became in the telling.  It wasn’t religious fervor, exactly, but more like wonder at the persistence and hard work of so many people in the tiny Klondike community who have cared for their disaster-prone building.

Without a a denominational affiliation, a permanent pastor or even sturdy walls, this community is determined to preserve its spiritual gathering place.  Is it possible that something beyond human tenacity is at work here?

I have written previously about resilience in churches.  Sometimes resilience is the result of adaptation and flexibility, and sometimes it comes from sheer stubbornness.   But there may be churches that are resilient because they are just on fire with the Holy Spirit.

Partners in Sacred Place Sharing

SOAR Powerkids

SOAR Powerkids

Recently, my church made a connection with an after school program for kids.  They needed a large room for martial arts classes after they lost their space at a nearby school.  They found our building, with its large hall and polished wood floor, and asked if they could rent the space from us for a small fee.  After checking out the insurance arrangements and how furniture would be moved before and after the program, an agreement was reached, and now, two afternoons a week, the upstairs is full of kids kicking and punching the air, testing each others’ strength,planning community service projects and, most remarkable, listening quietly and respectfully to their leader, a female martial arts expert.

The program not only teaches martial arts, it also focuses on character development, bullying prevention and civic responsibility.  While it is not a faith based program, it is consistent with many of the core values we teach kids in our own youth programs.

Your church may be sharing its building with other community organizations: a Scout troupe, an AA meeting, or a yoga class, for example.  You might think of these other groups as “tenants” who help you pay the bills.  But it’s possible that they are co-workers alongside you in the building of God’s reign.

Partners for Sacred Places is an organization that provides resources to help churches team up with other organizations for the building of community life through “mission based space sharing”.

In this Youtube video, they explain how they are creating a network to match local arts and non-profit organizations with churches for space sharing that is not only mutually beneficial for each group, but also creates “social capital” in neighborhoods, helping them build their own cultural life using the “moral and physical” presence of church buildings.  The video points out many other reasons why sharing space is a good idea for your church AND your neighborhood’s vitality.

Check it out!

 

 

 

The People We Ought to Be

May 15 2013 002“Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in living lives of holiness and godliness, waiting and hastening the coming of the day of God…?   (II Peter 3:11-12)

I am struck, as I read this week’s Epistle reading from II Peter, by the repeated use of the word dissolved.  The writer speaks of the day of the Lord coming like a thief, in a dramatic transformation of the world.  Elements and even the heavens will be dissolved and set ablaze, and everything will melt with fire.

I can’t imagine living day to day with this harsh expectation!  Most of us take comfort in the assumption that the world will be basically the same tomorrow as it is today.  The early Christians, by contrast, looked forward to a cataclysmic change, because they believed it would be a change for the better.

As an interim minister, I’m learning to live in a world a bit more like theirs: one in which big change may happen at any moment.  Some time in the future,  a new pastor will be called, and the whole landscape of the church I serve will change.  But I don’t know when or how.  This is the nature of an interim “calling”.

I struggle with the fear and excitement that comes with knowing change is always in the wind.  How do we anticipate a future we don’t know?  How can I help my congregation plan and prepare for the unknown?  How do I maintain that professional, “non-anxious presence” in a setting where I am invested emotionally?  Do I look forward with hope, or with trepidation?

Here in II Peter, there are hints of what we can do with ourselves in an unsettled time, when we know changes are coming that we may not have much control over.  We may ask ourselves, as God asks us:

In this kind of time, what sort of people ought we to be?

This is a different question than: What should we do while we’re waiting? It is less about what we do and more about who we choose to be.

In both “waiting for” and “hastening” the day, we can consider which of our qualities and gifts are most needed by our faith families.  Patience. Alertness. Confidence in God’s care for us.  A sense of historical perspective.  Openness to surprises of the Holy Spirit.  A sense of humor.  Attention to acts of compassion.  You can think of others.

These are Advent qualities: characteristics that allow us to wait attentively for the new thing that God is doing.  We learn them from people like Mary, who offered herself, body and soul, as God’s handmaid.  Or Zechariah, who chose faithful listening when he was silenced.  Or the Magi, who walked without knowing who or what they were following through the dark.

I wish every church could learn to see every time as “interim time”.  Then maybe we would realize that change is constant, and we would start paying attention not just to what we should do, but to what God is doing, and what sort of people we ought to be in response to that.

 * Photo by the author

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)