Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Why regional ministry matters

Worried about the decline in your congregation?  November can be a prime season for stewardship emphasis, yet do our worries about the financials and the weekly worship attendance threaten to eclipse our willingness to risk and reach out beyond our four walls in our planning of budgets and commitments of 2014 ministry priorities?

Missional church thinking can be the helpful additive to your congregation's diet.  Indeed, it may help address the malaise or nudge us in new, more vital directions.   When congregations budget with the subtext of woe and worry, do we have the courage to ask ourselves questions that reframe our situation and identity?  

Our American Baptist region provides best practices and companionable presence in the form of our ordained region staff members Dr. Jim Kelsey and Rev. Jerrod Hugenot.  In fact, we welcome your calls and your emails to engage in good conversations about your church.   We can help you connect with ABCNYS and ABC/USA resources to help you know more about your community, explore new opportunities for ministry and mission, etc.  

Why do we do this?   Because strengthening local churches is our business!  

For example, with one congregation, we are exploring together questions of what sort of interim ministry is needed to create strategies for building up its future.  With another congregation, I am helping the church body discern what their strategic planning needs look like for the coming year.  (It's right after a potluck, which is always a good way to gather a group of Baptists!)

The ability to have these conversations and journey with a variety of congregations dealing with varied challenges and possibilities happens thanks to our congregations supporting the ABCNYS Region Offering and United Mission.  The churches who are in these conversations and on these journeys thank you for making this sort of support possible!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Remarks on "When a church must close"

On Saturday, October 19, I served as a panelist for the "Everyone's Architecture" conference, exploring the presence and use of sacred spaces in local communities.  Hosted in downtown Troy, NY, the conference offered a variety of speakers involved with the challenges and opportunities of congregations with facilities that might be outmoded, increasingly too expensive or in dire need of a decision often not easily made.  Some panelists spoke of church conflict over the sale of facilities.  Others spoke of churches becoming community centers where sacred and secular purposes can be explored.

It was a fascinating conference, tinged with some sadness that church buildings are becoming increasingly the subject of much of a congregation's focus, funds and worries.  Preservationists, non-profit and for-profit development experts, architects, clergy and laity pondered together what life (and new life?) is possible among the many churches and diminishing congregations.

I was invited to serve as a panelist exploring the question "When a Church Must Close".  Admittedly, I did not relish having to focus on the scenario we really don't like thinking about, yet the conveners invited the question as an opportunity to reflect on the care of the congregations who are in the midst of the big decisions and the struggle to say "yes" or "no" to the options arising from situations of decline, low funds or overwhelming odds.  

My panel was preceded by another panel exploring the legal struggle of local Roman Catholics trying to save a historic church building.  (Unfortunately, the building was demolished by a developer.)  This prior panel discussion raised a goodly number of questions as we explored how losing a church building has an undeniable need for grieving and an equally important need for such decisions to be held up in prayer and much care of the "flesh and blood" involved in making the decision about the "brick and mortar".

With their request in mind, here's what I said:

The conference focuses rightly on the religious edifice as a communal asset, and indeed, such buildings can be places, hubs even, of community benefit, a sort of hybrid “sacred/secular” multipurpose facility.  I have experience with this work during a seven year pastorate just completed in Bennington, Vermont, at the First Baptist Church in the historic downtown district.  In my new capacity as a denominational associate executive for American Baptist congregations around upstate New York, I am working with congregations in a variety of “life stages”: some enjoying new or renewed ministry, others dealing with years of decline or difficulties brought about by the current economic climate.   So, what do we do when "a church must close"?

In approaching the subject, I want to speak briefly to the importance of legal and due diligence matters.  Engaging the “closure” question must be with a commitment to being thorough, transparent, and timely (how congregations make decisions about the closure of a church must be a shared decision, even as some parts of the process require work by committee or outside assistance, especially in the ecclesiastical, legal and realty side.  It is a dramatic moment that does not need the extra drama of members feeling uninformed or rushed in making big decisions.  As I like to say, informed congregants make informed decisions!)

To understand the process, we have the prevailing legal issues of the state and varying levels of denominational polity implications regarding church property.  Yet, I must add a pastoral word of concern about those for whom the closure or sale of a religious building is not just a matter of parting ways with a building.  For those under a church’s roof and within its walls, you are losing a part of your identity, where lives have been nurtured while in the midst of this brick and mortar.  
Paying close attention to the ways we feel deep down about this structure is not to be ignored or dismissed.  There is a great need for the congregation to experience the discernment process to leave a building or close down its ministry as an opportunity for care, ritual and exploring the ways our given faith tradition speaks of transitions, change, lament and hope.   

A clergy person may find it helpful to spend time with her judicatory official to talk about the “pastoral” implications of what is happening.  You may even find it personally and pastorally helpful to sit down for some intentional conversation with a mental health provider (the stress load of weathering such times is high for lay persons, but honestly, the clergy person bears much as a shepherd leading a flock of divided minds and breaking hearts).  A clergy collegiality group could be a source for stepping away and having the shared wisdom around the table as you think through how the decisions and process of a building’s closure should be cared for via the sermon, pastoral care, worship planning, etc.   You are navigating a major decision as well as something akin to a trauma, as churches making the decision to close a building are very much like the family going through the difficult, emotional and sometimes contentious decisions about selling the family home or the old homestead. To clergy: Don’t feel alone when in the midst of these difficult questions!

If a building must be closed, congregations can find some hope in the midst of the grief when they think about legacy.  A church in St. Louis, MO, decided to sell its building.  The proceeds were donated to my alma mater Central Seminary in Kansas City to endow a faculty position for congregational health.  Another congregation opted to gift its building to another church for a minimal sale with some of the contents remaining to help the “new” congregation continue and other assets given to other congregations or sold, with the proceeds benefiting religious or community charitable purposes.   Being thorough about leaving a building in good condition, addressing the interior and exterior issues at hand (i.e. building contents, grounds maintenance, etc.), is part of the good stewardship of leaving a facility in the next owners’ hands.

A religious building can give up its “life” and yet live on. Finding a way to put the facility into community use as a place for non-profit benefit is especially attractive, as the tending of those in need is consonant with religious values.  However things end, aim to end with ways that speak of “hope”.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Words that work within us

A few years ago, I met with Fr. Edward Hays, a Catholic priest and writer from the Kansas City area who was sort of a minor celebrity among some of my mentors and friends. Author of a number of books on spirituality, his writing style is a bit difficult to describe. Some might find him a little off the beaten path. Others might find him the first person to make prayer a deeply moving experience. I found myself simply inspired by his way of speaking of prayer.  One of his comments to me: "Some treat prayer as if it is like calling 9-1-1. Only in case of emergency do we call to God."

Hays shared a variety of other observations, but what I recollect most is his measured pace of talking about prayer. He was not "dispensing advice". Instead, I felt like he reached deep inside himself to give these answers. These remarks were part of a rich life spent in prayer, sort of like receiving a bit of honeycomb, something wonderful that comes only at the end of a very long process.

For Christianity, one such prayer is the one known as the Lord's Prayer, or the Prayer of Jesus. When you pray "God's will be done", when you pray for daily bread, when you ask and give forgiveness, it is not something that will happen magically. It takes learning the Prayer of Jesus and then allowing yourself to be shaped by it. As you pray, the Lord's Prayer becomes confession as well as covenant with God as the words of the prayer work their way down into your bones and the deepest places in your heart.

A word to the wise:  We can become too familiar with the Lord's Prayer, reciting its words in a way that is better described as by rote. It is one thing to have memorized the words.  It is quite another to practice the Prayer in the midst of your life.  Do we find the words connecting our words of our lips with the inner workings of the heart within? The Lord's Prayer points to a way of prayer, a spirituality, if you like, that is lived as much as recited.

For example, in the Reformation era, a Christian was brought before the city authorities in Geneva, accused of being silent when the congregation was to pray the Lord's Prayer.  (Caveat:  Calvin's Geneva was a bit too theocratic for its own good, but I digress...). The citizen admitted he did not pray the Lord's Prayer, as he did not wish to pray the part about "forgiving those who trespass against us". If he did so pray, he knew he must forgive a person who "trespassed against" him, and he was not ready to forgive.  The words of the Lord's Prayer illumine the better way, even as we see ourselves wanting to stick closer to the shadows within our own hearts.

The next time you pray the Lord's Prayer, ponder what words or phrases catch your attention.  Are these words working within us?  Is it time to let the Prayer of Jesus be our own prayer to God as well?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Here in this place (Churches struggling with their churches)

Deferred maintenance.  Utility rates on the rise.  Cobwebs.

These are a few of the laments heard among many churches these days.  Church edifices built in previous eras reflect the high aspirations and even presumptions about the usefulness of such space and property in the coming generations.  

As I journey with congregations dealing with property and financial management challenges, I observe that it's a shame church buildings cannot shrink or expand to match the present day congregation's needs. More often than not, a church built for hundreds in mind now is the management challenge of the dozen(s) who gather for worship each Sunday.  A Midwestern ELCA bishop was known for saying around his metropolitan area synod that he never imagined his skill sets should have included "landlord", as small member congregations opted to merge, move on, or close, leaving the judicatory with the challenge of older structures with sometimes little possibility for redevelopment (sacred or secular alike).  The bishop found realtors his newest closely consulted advisors!

For some churches, missional thinking can help reframe the questions and challenges in ways that move a congregation away from feeling "stuck".  A dusty church nursery can turn into a community-need serving opportunity (i.e. inviting a non-profit to share space with a congregation or creating a food pantry ministry).  With a few good questions, a congregation can see a different sort of future than the two most dwelled upon: some sort of divine intervention out of left field or the prospect of just throwing in the towel.  

ABC NYS offers support for congregations wanting to explore good conversations about their presence in a local community.  The building you worship in could be underutilized in its possibility, or it could be time to have a conversation about whether or not a given facility realistically should be part of a church's future.  The church is ultimately the people of God, not necessarily the steeple long familiar in a congregation and community's memory.

One ABC NYS church celebrates this weekend a milestone in their journey.  First Baptist, Poughkeepsie, NY, sold their historic downtown church and relocated to a new building elsewhere in town.  I'm working with the minister and church leadership to have additional conversations now that the congregation has relocated.  Being in a new neighborhood with a new facility raises a new set of variables to explore as a congregation.  Who are we now that we are here in this particular space and place in the community?

In my words of greeting and congratulations to the congregation, I offer these words of blessing:

May your new church home be:
            a sacred place where people learn to share the gospel in deed and word alike;
            a welcoming space where souls can be tended and mended,
            an open door into the Kingdom/Reign of God
for those who are in need of love, care, dignity and inclusion;
            a hub for mission within and beyond these walls;
            a collection of bricks and mortar, all too temporal and temporary,
                        yet well blessed in its holy purposes
for a holy people in worship and service to the most holy Triune God.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

And now a word from our heritage

       As one entered our seminary chapel, you passed by a variety of things: a wooden sign saying “Quiet please—chapel in progress”, a little guestbook register that had been in service since Moses was young, a wooden stand with the day’s bulletin available, a place to store book bags, coffee mugs (truly a tool for classroom learning) and other items in hand, and a small table with usually a few flowers and a little wooden cross.
       It took most chapel attendees about five seconds to walk past through the entranceway. Habit made this hallway overly familiar, needing no great reason to pause and look around. One day, I did take my time entering the chapel, and I noticed that there was a small note on the cross itself. Written in careful small letters, the note read, “This cross is fashioned from wood taken from a renovation of William Carey’s home.”
        Unless you slept through seminary courses in church history, world mission class, or even Baptist history 101 (and many did get drowsy in one or all three), you would recognize the name of William Carey, considered to be the “father” of the modern mission movement. William Carey was a British Baptist living in a time when “missions” was not a concern for Baptists. Indeed, the theological view of many British Baptists of the late 18th century was that God did not need believers to spread the Gospel. Those who would believe would believe if God wanted them to do so.
         A crash course in early Baptist beliefs would be helpful to explain this, but the fact that this notion sounds odd and pretty bizarre to your ears means that William Carey’s appeal for Baptists to go forth with the gospel around the world worked. The notion of Baptists being mission-minded is just as deeply engrained in our Baptist spiritual DNA as our love for gallons, of water to baptize believers and the passion for a good potluck dinner.
       Today we begin our month of offerings to support the World Mission Offering, benefiting the work of American Baptists through the Board of International Ministries. It is our way to make certain that our mission work continues a proud tradition stretching back to the era of persons like William Carey and Adnoiram Judson. American Baptists celebrate many good ministries around the world, and it is our responsibility and calling as churches and American Baptists to support our missionaries and mission.
       In my mind’s eye and with a good belief in the New Testament notion of the communion of saints above cheering us on, William Carey leans over the side of the heavens above, and says, “Go, American Baptists, go!"

       To learn more, visit www.internationalministries.org.  Materials about our World Mission Offering are already at our congregations via a mailing earlier this fall.  Ensure you offer a weekly "Moment for Mission" highlighting the critical work of our International Ministries missionaries and partnerships.


Closer to home, I encourage you to support regional mission in New York State, remind your congregations to ensure participation in the ABCNYS 2013 Region Offering to help us finish our own ministry and mission year strong.  To learn more about the Region Offering, please contact Dr. Kelsey or myself.