Was this trip really necessary?

Yesterday, the congregation I served had a congregational meeting to vote on some options that resulted out of our 5 month discernment process. If you check the "church" tag, you can see how this has progressed. It came down to three options: 1) close gracefully 2) risk what we have to try to start a new ministry 3) do nothing and go back to the drawing board. After all the meetings, discussions, presentations, and votes we finally decided on...

... doing nothing. 


(cricket, cricket) 


... so... 




... uh.... 


.... WHAT?! 


Honestly, I'm not shocked. I am incredibly disappointed and while I'm trying to not take things too personally, I feel a little disrespected. Still, I have to respect that as a Presbyterian minister this is not my church. It is the people's church and ultimately Christ's church. That said, there's a giant "now what?" hanging in the air that needs to be addressed. Some of that "now what" is for the church. A lot of that "now what" is for me and my family. 

My initial thoughts: 

    - The church has to go through some sort of new discernment process. I probably won't be able to lead them through it. 

    - in the time that we've decided to do nothing, we have gone through five months worth of resources, including impromptu repairs that were required for the roof and organ. To say we 18 months left, as our clerk stated yesterday is naive. 

    - "do nothing" is the church's default mode. I get that now. I think they expected I would do stuff and they would be on the receiving end. I expected to do stuff and that they would do it with me. We're both feeling anger from misplaced expectations. I should say that I don't think "do nothing" is the church's default by choice. I think the older folks really feel like they've contributed all they can to the church. The younger ones (you know, in their 60's) are trying to get blood from stones. There's no one "out there" to help. The biggest problem is that the church does not want to accept what they are - a church of senior citizens. That doesn't mean they've outlived their usefulness, but they do have to severely limit what they do. 

- I too have to come to some realizations. I'm incredibly unhappy where I am. I can't try to lead people who don't want to change anymore. Change is hard, but they knew when they hired me that something different was coming. I feel that they haven't lived up to their end of the bargain and they probably feel the same about me. At some point, it is better to cut ties and try to end things as amicably as possible. Furthermore, and I hate to say this, it is really draining for me to lead a group of people who are in such a different phase of life than the one that I and my family are in. I have a kid in diapers. We've had several announcements about great-grandkids being born over the last few weeks. We're not speaking the same language. "Church" means something completely different to me than it does to them. 

- This has been hard on my wife. I sometimes wonder if it is harder to go through something like this or to watch someone you love do it. She's been an amazing support for me, but she needs a church community too. 

- At the end of the day, the decision that was made yesterday was to shuffle along to the finish line and maybe hope for a miracle. I don't think I can shuffle along with them. It's been the thing I've been saying for five months that we shouldn't do. I still see it as our least faithful option. 

- Presbyteries are clueless when it comes to churches like this. In the past our regional governing bodies used to be heavy-handed so now they err on the opposite side, at least that's the story here. At some point the presbyteries have to step and direct small, failing churches like this one. Some things require micromanagement. 

- I want to believe that I was faithful in this process. I listened to what I thought was wise advice. I tried to create a meaningful structure for dialogue. I tried to empower boldness and risk, both within the meetings, but also from the pulpit over the last few months. In the end, you can't make people change. I don't believe God coerces. I don't believe love coerces. In the end, I hope I didn't coerce anyone into anything. Um... quite obviously I did not coerce the majority of people into anything. 

- One thing I wish I would have worked on earlier was a process of building consensus. I hate voting. I hate the winning/losing feeling that voting creates. There has to be better. more affirming ways of making decisions. 

When people are frightened they do nothing. Before we started this process, I read the parable of the talents to my session (Matt. 25:14-30). One of the session members, who has been a great leader through all of this, mentioned that the servant who buried his talent (or bag of treasure) was paralyzed by fear. That's where we are. It didn't end well for the man in that story. I don't see it ending well for this church either. 

Discernment Session #5 - Mergers

Much of what we will be discussing this week will come from the Alban Institute's webinar "Crunch Time for the Small Church" lead by Alice Mann. I have been incredibly grateful for this resource throughout the entire process.   Download Crunch time pt. 3 The parts we will be using are found on pages 13-26. Here are some supplemental slides I am adding. Download Discernment session #5

After this session, we will have reviewed all of our options. We'll begin thinking through what our next steps need to be. I have asked people what their emotional preference is in terms of our options. The question for this session is what are you willing to commit to in order to make that preference work. I think commitment is one of the major things that the church has lacked in helping to turn the corner. 

After Easter I plan on taking what I've done to the Committee on Ministry in our presbytery. They know we are going through this process, but don't know all the specifics. No matter what we do, the presbytery needs to be involved, despite the church's feelings about presbytery. 

The Sunday after Easter we will review all of our options and discuss a process for decision making. I'm assuming right now that this will include a congregational meeting in late May or early June. I'm hoping it will also include a lot of prayer. 

reflections on discernment session #4

I didn't write much about the nuts and bolts of our forth option which is to share our facility. It is pretty cut and dry; we'd need to create a landlord/tenant agreement, we'd have to figure out how to share space and expenses, and (of course) we'd have to find a willing partner. 

During the session itself, there wasn't a whole lot of discussion on this particular option other than some thinking through some of the logistics. Obviously at this point, if we could find someone who wanted to share our space, while it wouldn't solve all of our problems, it would be a help. The emotion just wasn't there as there has been for some of our other options, which is about what I expected. 

What was totally funny to me was an interaction I had in the grocery store after the session. One of our members works in the store. Both he and his wife are deacons. He has had to work Sundays and I haven't seen him much, so I stopped to chat for a bit. He told me that his wife had been keeping him up to date on the meetings. He then said "I'll tell you one thing we definitely can't do and that's share the building! There's no way you could get those people to figure out how to share space." I couldn't help but laugh. 

After our brief discussion on sharing the space, I asked people some general questions: 

1. Having gone through 4 options so far, which do you prefer most? Least?

2. which option do you think makes most sense for us? Least sense? 

3. What do you think God is calling us to do? 

4. How are you feeling about the process up to this point? 

I had them write down their responses to these questions and asked them to keep the paper so that we could talk about the first two questions down the road. We then had a discussion of questions 3 and 4. I tried to make it clear, that I wasn't asking in question 3 which option does God want us to pick (guess ing that would be the same as #1 for most of them) but what does God want from us in general. Some really good thoughtful responses: to know that if we close we haven't failed, to provide ministries of care for the neighborhood, to risk doing something that might be hard, to be faithful... Good answers. 

Then I asked how they were feeling about the process. Some felt frustration. Some felt anger. Some felt the process wasn't doing any good. Others felt that despite the frustration, it was good to go through the process. Someone mentioned that they didn't realize that we had so many options. For some, the primary value is that they get to vent. I mentioned my feeling that the process feels really slow. Some agreed. Others felt like so much info was being thrown at them that they felt like were going at lightspeed. One person said it's helping them to deal with reality. Perhaps needlessly, but I added that they were dealing with realities that should have been dealt with ten or more years ago and that's why it is so hard now. Not sure they wanted to hear that.

In any case, we have one more option, mergers, to discuss and then a process of decision making has to take place. I think that part is making me anxious. What's the best way to decide how we move forward? Do we just vote straight up? I can't see anyone voting for us to end well, though I still maintain that that MIGHT be the most faithful thing we could do. I'm hoping for some inspiration as we enter the last leg of this race. Prayers are appreciated.  


reflections on discernment session #3

The first response after I finished my presentation on parallel ministry, the first response was "well, that just looks exhausting". This really seems to be a theme of this whole process. Not only will anything we do require loss and risk, but they will require work. There's no avoiding it. Not doing work is what got the church into this position in the first place. 

There was a lot of reflection done on the church's previous attempt at an alternative service. I tried to clarify that what I'm suggesting is different from an alternative service, but an entirely different service with a different board and worship service. The previous pastor had done some great work reaching out to the community to bring people into this service. When this pastor left, the service ended and those people left. It wasn't considered a loss because those folks couldn't support the church financially. The idea of a parallel ministry reminds people of this and the fact that we may actually have to go out and get those folks back. "Who is going to do the work of outreach/evangelism?" is what was both implied and explicitly asked. We don't have energy to do that. 

In the midst of these negative thoughts was some recognition that this idea might be the church's best hope of not just surviving, but also thriving. It's about taking a risk. Some seem ready for that and that is encouraging. I just don't know that their voices can win out among the negativity. 

Discernment Session #3 - Parallel Ministry

Hope you had a chance to read this. If not, do it now.

Ok, ready? I think this will be an interesting session. I think there are some in the church who think this is our only hope, others who think this would be completely unrealistic. Both might be right.I'd love to hear some thoughts on this approach to revitalizing a dying church.

Download Discernment session #3 outline

reflections on discernment session #2

This was, as expected, a pretty difficult session. A few of the things that jumped out at me: 

- People really don't understand what it means that the Presbytery owns the building. 

- people assume that the presbytery will tell us how to spend our remaining money (or just take it away) 

- personally, I've never had the experience of having been in one church for my entire life. It must indeed be hard to think about that kind of loss. 

- denial is pretty rampant when discussing closing a church. is it denial or faith? I believe there is some genuine belief that a miracle can and will happen that will bail us out. 

- Being "Presbyterian" is not as important as being at this church. Denominational connection just isn't that important to people. 

- No one was willing at the time to admit that closing might be our best option (though several people thanked me afterwards) 

- no one can articulate why the church should stay open. the only things that come close are discussions about the church's potential (future) and its history (past), not what it actually provides right now (present). 

- There's a Looney Tunes cartoon where Yosemite Sam makes a comment about buying the old ladies home and kicking the old ladies out. I felt lIke Yosemite Sam for much of the meeting. 

- the animosity isn't just between the church and the presbytery. it is between us and the other two presbyterian congregations in the area, both of which have members who have transferred from our congregation. apparently in the past, the other congregations haven't been so gracious in expressing how they have gained from our church's turmoil. it was also mentioned that the church's own internal lack f grace was the reason many people left. 

- The idea of us investing remaining resources in some other community ministry was mocked. 

- I had hoped that this discussion would be the catalyst for some creative thought. The next session on parallel ministry might be where we need it the most. We'll see if my arranging of the meetings has the desired effect. 

- personal - sometimes I think I'm more suited to be a college professor than a pastor. These sessions have felt like classrooms. That might be working against me. 

- there wasn't agreement on what I consider "ending poorly" as being a bad option. Some would rather keep going until the money runs out than end with a plan. 

I think that's all for now. After the last session I was thankful for having spaced these discussions out. Now, I just want them to be done. They exhaust me and I, like others, am anxious to see how this all is going to play out. 

thoughts on discernment session #1

The church had it's first discernment session, considering shifting from a full time to a part time minister, this ast Sunday. Here are some initial thoughts:

- opened with looking at Ephesians 4. Talked about the minister's role as equipping the saints to do ministry, not to do all the ministry. Judging by the rest of the meeting, that may have fallen on deaf ears. 

- I'm glad I've spaced these meetings out. I was exhausted after this one!

- The first assertion about a shift from FT to PT was that to do this,  the church needed a "clear ministry focus"  and to be "deeply self reliant". For some, the conversation ended right there. While I would have loved a more fruitful conversation on what it means to develop a clear ministry focus, most of this conversation was based on the perceived inability for the congregation to be self reliant. I've heard this one before and it breaks my heart. I probably need to write more about this subject about this at some later date, but I feel that a church that is completely reliant on their pastor to make things happen is no church at all. 

- there are young people out there somewhere whose sole pupose is to do the bidding of this congregation. Sadly, they are elusive. But when we find them, they will come to the church, be completely comfortable with the fact that they don't have peers in the congregation or that there is no programming for their children, and they will love a style of worship that hasn't changed in decades. (sorry, that was probably a bit snarkier than intended)

- in considering the "pros" amd "cons" of a part time minister, something I considered a "pro" was seen as a "con". I see the ability of a part time minister to work in the community as a plus. Those gathered saw it as a minus because the minister's allegiance would be divided. Hmmm...

- talked about having a full time pastor without the resources to sustain such a ministry as missplaced values. That was not appreciated. (used the example of big screen tv's in the homes of people who can't afford repairs... in this scenario, I'm the big screen. Maybe it was just the analogy they didn't appreciate!)

- lingering bitterness about the departure of my predecessor emerged for the first time (or the first time that I noticed)

- yoked ministry also seems an unpoular option. basically, the congregation doesn't want to have to share their astor with anyone else.

- presbytery is out to get them! I don't know how to break them of this. Maybe it's foolish to think I can, but I think that attitude is detrimental to us moving forward. Presbytery is going to have to be involved at some point in the process and they are convinced that Presbytery is going to come in and force some decision on them. What they don't seem to get is that circumstances, not presbytery, will force their hands to make a decision.

- some of these things will come up at every session.

- I think some of the folks on the Pastor Nominating Committee feel betrayed by me. I think they thought the deal was either I would save the church or I would let things drag out until we ran out of cash. I can't seem to do the former and I'm unwilling to do the latter.

- what happens to me and my family is somewhat of a consideration to some of them. That's nice.

That's probably enough for now. As I said, this was exhausting and it was only the first one. The next one on March 13th will be about ending well and I'm sure that will be much harder. Please keep me and the church in your prayers as we wrestle with God's will for us.



Discernment Session #1 Shift from FT to PT minister

This is the file for our first discernment session. I think this might be the best way to post this. Let me know if you have a better idea. Thoughts? Particularly, can you think of other scripture, or liturgy to open or close? How about Pros and Cons? That section feels like it could use some beefing up.

Thanks for being on the journey!


Download Discernment Session 1 outline