Thursday, October 01, 2009

unearthing the path

Let me begin by acknowledging that I don't have answers. Questions, plenty. But answers, not so much. Right now that isn't a big concern.

Some of the thoughts and ideas that began to stir during my drive the other day had some additional fodder. On my return drive home I listened to another interview recorded a year ago, this one wiith Forrest Church, a Unitarian pastor whose diagnosis with cancer inspired reflection on life and death and resulted in a book sharing those reflections. Church died last week. His conversation with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air helped me focus the earlier internal conversation toward ministry.

The framework is this. The congregation I serve consists of about 55 households and just over 100 people. For the most part that number consists of people who actually come to church on a regular, or semi-regular basis. But the bulk of the congregation, roughly 75%, is over the age of 50. More than half of that number is retired, and tired. Until an internal expression of the broader conflict raging in the Episcopal Church raised its ugly and untethered head a few years ago, this was a thriving church. With membership once able to support a full-time priest, this parish now struggles to keep its deficit down with part-time clergy leadership.

Much of the lay leadership, and members who have been part of this community for a long time, react to the financial devastation by seeking numerical membership growth in order to move from the frightening hues of red ink to the benign comfort of black. It's true that more people in the pews translates to more money in the plate. It's also true that more people in the pews translates ostensibly to more participation in parish activities and resources for leadership. Focusing on this is not a new phenomenon in the Church. And where I would once hunker down and seek to motivate members of the church to respond to and act on the desire to grow, my heart has experienced transformation and is being led more purposefully toward mission. The Field of Dreams tagline "build it and they will come," understood in the context of servant ministry, is what draws and drives me now.

When we address areas of need in the community there is a line of thinking among many that our mission/outreach efforts might result in recruiting membership. There's nothing wrong with the desire, but to me it is more important to serve without expectations. Meet the need. Let God respond.
  • I'm interested in working with the landowner whose property adjacent to ours sits unused. There are no community gardens here, and with the increased interest in and need to grow our own food, it is a natural collaboration.
  • A portion of our own property is well suited to the establishment of a labyrinth. Buffeted from street noise by plantings that could also serve as a meditation garden, the labyrinth environment would offer a contemplative respite to those whose spirits are in need of such rest.
  • An elementary school a block away is home to a large number of children from immigrant and struggling families. An after school reading program or partnership with the school to aid those students with reading and other academic areas would equip those children with improved skills for future learning and development.

This is the direction I would like us to head. It's not about numbers but about loving our neighbor and sharing our abundance. Those to whom such a life is appealing would find a home with us and enrich us. And perhaps, God willing, we might have something to offer their souls as well.

The graphic above is a form of sacred spiral. In sacred geometry (yes, there is such a thing) it reflects growth. My heart is there, somewhere, reaching out, seeking to serve, desiring to love. Wanting to make a difference. The challenge is to release my dream in hopes that my parish would find this an inviting path as well, and that they would seek to be part of its creation.

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The Bug said...

The church I last attended (we moved in June & I haven't found a church home yet) was struggling financially as well. It had been doing ok (with a handful of wealthy parishioners) but then the Rector felt called to be a Sanctuary Parish for illegal immigrants. Our service became bilingual (sermon & gospel read in English & Spanish) and we started having a lot of folks who weren't used to church come & bring their small children. The Rector has always believed that children belong in the service & that it's perfectly ok for them to run around. Took me a LONG time to get used to that! Anyway, this drove quite a few people away. We had been a stronghold of GLBT couples & liberal yuppies, but this was too much for many of them. To be fair, it was mainly the older folks who left.

And yet, these people needed what we were providing. No one else was providing it. And isn't that more important than our comfort? As a Vestry member I REALLY struggled with it. Especially because these folks were really poor & I could see the budget...

I think your ideas sound really good - and I think you're right that people might be attracted by these ministries - but that that shouldn't be the main reason for ministering...

Jayne said...

Subscribing and reading Tom Ehrich's On a Journey has really given me such a different view of how we "do church." And, as he points out, people are looking for a way to reach out and be a part of something that isn't necessarily between four walls on a Sunday morning. I think the focus on outreach is the key. We ALL grow when we reach out, and in doing so, we help others see that being a part of a community of faith that walks the walk is more along what Jesus was about. I love your ideas and think you are fully on the right path.

Songbird said...

I believe you are on the right path, too. In this moment of change, I believe churches are called to do just what you are describing. The trouble is it doesn't sound "right" to old school church people (that's about perspective, not age). Go gently with them until they get the idea.

KimQuiltz said...

Let me chime in with an "Amen" too!

Church isn't a place to be comfortable (referring to Bug's former community being uncomfortable with the kids running around), church is a place to serve.

Serve away, Dear Woman, serve away!

We aren't here to sign people up for timeshares so we can put more money in the bank, God doesn't need our money. He needs us to feed his sheep. And - *grinning like a fool* - what better woman to feed his sheep than a Pampered Chef Priest with a penchant for peaceful prose, an appreciation of soul-deep beauty and an enthusiasm for and understanding of social media?!

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