vacation 2.0 midpoint reflection...

At midpoint of vacation 2.0 in Canada - a time of rest, reflection and renewal - I must confess to a thought that has been haunting me most of the summer: the public irrelevance of most local church congregations. Notice I am not claiming that our small institutions are personally or pastorally insignificant, nor that they hold no value for those within; only, as others have observed over the years, that these small communities have become increasingly irrelevant to the wider public. I know that in my small city, even after nearly a decade of activity designed to both better serve the common good AND reintroduce the town to its founding congregation, most people still have no idea that we exist.  Right before we left on vacation, for example, the regional visitor's map was published showing points of local interest:  other churches were pinpointed - as were the new art galleries and eateries - but not our faith community and we've been in the same place for 253 years!  In fact, a New England town could not be charted until a Congregational Church was established. And still... so let me share three intersecting thoughts about what I think this means:

+ Faith communities like our own can no longer sustain full time traditional ministries.  It is an expensive proposition to fund a full-time clergy person with benefits. Even a modestly compensated minister is beyond the ability of most small churches in the US. Most of these churches have avoided finding alternative funding sources for decades - an act of denial as well as a lack of imagination - making a living wage in the 21st century plus insurance and annuity a near impossibility. Different insurance options might help for a time, but when the burden of compensation is added to the demands of a large, aging building (and seminary debt) the problem becomes fiscally insurmountable. 

This could become a creative catalyst in the ministry of small communities of faith that seek to serve Christ in this era. As the former mayor of Cleveland, OH used to say, "Learn to make poverty your friend." That is, let your limited dollars help you revamp what really needs to take place in your church re: staffing, emphasis and authentic acts of compassion and justice so that Christ comes alive through your community. Sadly, inertia, fear or privilege too often define the hour and new opportunities to thrive are squandered or not even conceptualized.

+ Faith communities that are more impassioned about tradition and bricks and mortar deserve to perish.  This is about control, creativity and the karma of ministry: our old facilities could become community centers - public places of beauty, refuge, renewal, solidarity and artistic imagination - but that would require a leap of faith so profound that many churches choose to close their doors instead of throwing them open in radical ways. Rather than revision how a facility could foster healing in a town, the building  becomes an albatross dragging hope into despair. In time, this means that while the edifice may remain standing in the form of a condo, the Spirit of Christ's caring for people will disintegrate. How did Joni Mitchell put it: "Pave paradise to put up a parking lot?" 

It is my experience that such a loss of outward creativity and compassion did not emerge just at the time of financial distress. It's roots are much deeper and older. Inwardly focused churches create a culture that fails to notice the world around them. We become aloof and elitist. We become deaf to the cries of the wounded. As St. John Chrysostom put it in the second century:  "If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice." What I have see over the years is that when the numbers (however they are marked) no longer work in a congregation's favor, the default position that most congregations return to is so myopic that we cannot see possibilities in our challenges, only the problems. Limited vision has so shaped ours ethos for generations that we obsess on internal problems so that outward possibilities never come to the table. 

I have a friend, now long retired, who observed that the legacy of a church or denomination has a long half-life: the troubles Western Anglicans are currently having with their former colonial charges who are no longer under their thumb is one manifestation. I would wager that local congregations that have tended towards self-importance over the centuries are also now reaping what we have sown.  Again, this need not be our death knell, but such training is hard to overcome - and requires a trust in God that will test our faith.

+ Faith communities that no longer serve the status quo can be liberated to become
centers of solidarity, hope and creativity IF we are willing to embrace the 21st century.  Again, this takes a tremendous leap of faith, hope and love but some old school, elitist churches have let the Spirit help them become places of joy, solidarity and creativity. These congregations are thriving in a small is beautiful manner. They have part-time staff focusing on discipleship, worship and community organizing as well as the creative arts, caring for Mother Earth, solidarity with the LGBTQ and serving refugee communities. We have visited Anglican and United Churches in Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax that let the Spirit of the hour open them to new ministries. God's grace and inspiration has set them free from their pasts while unlocking the trap of fear to the status quo, too. This recent report from the United Church of Canada offers a bit of objective reality - and hope for those with eyes to see. (Check it out @
http://www.united-church.ca/blogs/round-table/future-church-becoming-clear-almost-1)

As I head into my second week of vacation, I entrust the care of my congregation - and my denomination - to the grace of God. May this be a time of deep searching and quiet joy for us all.

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