Saturday, January 29, 2011

As you look out on that small, aging church

"Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many." Isaiah 51:1-2

The first SoCal church I served as priest in charge had an average member age in the 80s. But several of them were hopeful, forward looking, dedicated leaders. One of them was an elderly lady of prayer, who slipped me this verse from Isaiah on a note one day. She'd perked up reading Scripture about an old couple with no future who became the foundation of God's saving plan for the whole creation.

My little group of senior saints sold off their cozy, familiar chapel and built a multipurpose building closer to the town's growth. Long story short, they transformed into a viable multi-generational congregation.

The verses from Isaiah came up in Morning Prayer today, and I remembered the joy of that church: one usually stoic gentleman coming up to me giddy the first Sunday we filled the parking lot, grabbing my hand and exclaiming, "I knew we could do it - I just didn't think we could do it so soon!"

While much younger than that church started out, my parish here in Sioux Falls still fits the description of a smaller, older mainline congregation. Yet this new year finds us rejoicing in real abundance. 2010 was filled with financial blessings and energetic ministries. We have momentum.

What's interesting is that things fired up in a year in which I was gone quite a bit. I was struggling with family health and financial issues, and finally took two months away on sabbatical.

This, I believe in hindsight, was God's way of bringing out the congregation's strong lay leaders. One of the drawbacks of older congregations is their expectation of a church in which members donate and enjoy fellowship, but in which all "ministry" is done by the clergy. That worked in the 50s, but it's no longer effective in a post-Christian society. Today, every member's spiritual gifts become critical to make the church into what the Bible describes, the thriving "body of Christ" in which each "member" contributes work that benefits the whole.

I think God laid me out, to some extent, to provide a "severe mercy" that brought forth some of our best lay gifts. The Vestry (the governing "board") is excellent. The lay people of the parish initiate ministry ideas and service projects. All give generously.

I wish I could say that I had more creative impact on this evolution of the church. I'm generally an encourager and supporter of lay peoples' ministries, so that was just there. But last year all I really did was evaporate a bit. The Holy Spirit did the rest.

Reflecting on this, a couple of other things strike me:

1) The Isaiah passage rules out haranguing the people into some kind of change. The Prophet speaks to a core group that already "pursues righteousness and seeks the LORD." Hammering a smaller, older congregation in theoretical sermons (not actually sermons, but lectures in disguise) isn't going to connect with what God is doing. What's needed is identification of and investment in key people of faith.

2) Clergy need to step back from the rewards of being in the center of everything. There's no denying that the compliments feel good, but they can produce a symbiosis by which the lay people become passive, the priest gets praise, and the church is satisfied but stagnant.

3) I am thankful that I am in a congregation in which the lay people expect things to happen. That means I get nudged and challenged a bit but it also means rewarding breakthroughs, personally and in the whole parish.

4) At the end of the day, the priest still needs to be the spiritual leader of the congregation. The priest needs to ask the key questions and keep presenting our loving God as the source and focus of all effort and achievement. The priest needs to spot and celebrate holy moments in the peoples' lives, both as individuals and as a congregation. The priest needs to set an example of prayerful reliance upon God, application of Biblical wisdom, and encouraging (and judiciously challenging) the people to grow in Christ.

5) I have changed every congregation I've served, and every congregation I've served has changed me - which is to say that God is faithful and active in the lives of those who seek and serve Him according to the New Testament presentation of "church."


Unknown said...

Thanks for this. This is exceptionally insightful and timely.

TLF+ said...

If it made any sense of gave any help, all glory to God!

Bless you, dave.

TLF+ said...

By email from a lay leader, and I think right on the mark"

I think that if God blessed us so abundantly while you were for the most part unavailable, how much more blessings He will bestow on us when you are available. He wants us to work together as a team, as one body.