DURING THE HYMN…

As our church’s regular worship leader, I am normally quite busy during the singing of the hymns. I am checking to make sure that I have the next hymn marked, looking over the congregation to see if I missed anyone’s absence, making sure I have the right spot in the order of service set up on the tablet and, more and more these days with my aging tablet, making sure that I have enough battery power left to finish the service. Needless to say, I am not generally paying a lot of attention to the hymn.

But during a recent service, one line caught my attention. The organist had picked “Onward Christian Soldiers” as the opening hymn—and did her usual excellent job of playing the hymn—I almost felt I needed to march around the sanctuary during the chorus. What caught my attention, though, was the first line of the third verse, where we sang, “Like a mighty army moves the church of God”.

As we sang those words, I was struck by a sense of something—irony, delusion, confusion—something. Here we were, the seventeen of us who made up the congregation that day singing words that compared us to a mighty army. Now, it is true that our numbers were down that day for a variety of reasons: some were travelling, some were at another community function, some were sick and some were just AWOL. But even at our best, we are not a mighty army—mostly, the best our congregations can come with is a seriously under strength platoon and that depends heavily on visitors and summer people.

And our under strength platoon disresembles an army in many other ways. The two deacons who take up the offering are both in their 80s—they are doing really well for their age but they are still in their 80s. The pastor (me) isn’t capable of marching too far—I limp to the door to greet people after being on my feet for the worship service.

And so, our under strength, aging platoon creakily gets to our feet and songs words that proclaim us to be a mighty army. Maybe I should have checked the tablet battery one more time instead of paying attention to the words of the hymn. But then again, maybe the Spirit meant me to focus on those words.

Our church isn’t an army by any stretch of preacherly exaggeration. We were probably closer to that years ago when worship attendance could reach company strength but even at our best, we were never a mighty army. These days, we mostly wonder if we will have enough people to sing the hymns let alone do mighty army acts, whatever they are.

But we are a church—and we are part of the Church Universal, that body of believers stretching through time and space to encompass all people who have discovered the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We might be a small part of that Church Universal but we are still a part of it. And because we are a part of the whole church, the success, triumphs and victories of the church belong to us as well, just as our triumphs past, present and future belong to the whole church.

Our under strength platoon might not be triumphing like the booming church army in Kenya, for example. We might be losing members rather than gain members faster than we can count. We might not be standing up to persecution and government corruption and discrimination. We might not know how long we will keep our doors open, especially if we don’t figure out how to fix the sagging floor in the sanctuary.

But we are touching lives. We helped several families through the pain of death. We are growing in our personal faith through our Bible study group. We are helping the local school provide care for disadvantaged students. We can and do provide prayer support for anyone and everyone who asks for it and for many who don’t ask for it. We support church efforts here, there and everywhere through our offerings and prayers.

So maybe our under strength, seriously aged platoon isn’t a mighty army. But we are still part of a mighty army; we still belong to the victorious side; we have a place and a mission and we are doing it as best we can, with the Holy Spirit’s empowering.

May the peace of God be with you.

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CLOSE THEM DOWN!

Recently, both my wife and I has parishioners in the large regional hospital 2.5 hours away. Our pastoral calling made a trip to the city necessary—and practical considerations made going together in one car a good idea. The fact that we would have some uninterrupted time together while we were doing our respective jobs was a blessing. The five hour drive wasn’t such a great blessing but we were at least together.

On the way back, we stopped for coffee and groceries—whenever we pass near a larger centre, we plan our shopping trip to take advantage of the lower prices and greater selection. While we were having our coffee break, a friend we hadn’t seen since our last stint in Kenya noticed us and came over to sit with us. We had a good time catching up with what was going on in all of our lives.

Except that one part of the conversation upset us both a bit. Our friend knew we were back in Canada but didn’t know what we were doing so we had to do the story of which churches we were serving. It took a while to get across the idea that between us, we serve nine different churches. We had to go through the explanation of how many worship services we do each Sunday; how many people there are in worship; how many in my pastorates go wherever the worship is and so on.

After we got that part done, our friend made the profound observation that it would make a lot more sense to close a lot of the buildings and save everyone a lot of time and effort. At that point, I sort of began looking at my watch, wondering if it we could graciously break off the conversation and head for the groceries and then home.

Our friend’s observation, delivered with such conviction, was the perfect example of armchair pastoring. I am not sure but I suspect that his comments about closing buildings were delivered as if I had never thought of that. He likely felt that he was giving me some important advice that would change the course of my ministry.

Certainly, on the level of simple logic, closing buildings makes perfect sense. But the practical realities of closing get twisted together with social, cultural, personal, family and theological ties that create a knot with deep and powerful roots. Closing church buildings isn’t an easy process—it is a Gordian knot that even Alexander’s chopping solution won’t work for.

There are valid reasons and effective processes for closing church buildings—but the process is long, slow and inefficient to the extreme. And that is because the process doesn’t involve economics and efficiencies and logic. It actually involves feelings and traditions and hopes and dreams and a bunch of other non-logical and hard to measure stuff. Any pastor who approaches the process of closing a building steps into a mindfield protected by lasers, machine guns, trained attack scorpions, dive bombers and super ninjas—and that is just the normal level of protection. Threaten the building and the people really get serious about its defence.

I learned a long time ago that ministry in rural areas and small churches is going to have to be done in the context of too many and too much building. The demands of buildings are going to consume lots of time and energy and money. Long term, some of them must and will close. But in view of the difficulty and poor return on time and energy investment, I decided to ignore buildings and focus on ministry. I use the buildings, I appreciate the history, I even try to take part in repaid and clean up days—but the building isn’t the focus of my ministry. The people are—and if they want to continue with too many and too much building, that really isn’t a big issue for me. I will encourage them to look at their building status, I will encourage them to think seriously about their buildings, I might even suggest that the church isn’t a building—but I will do that in the context of trying to remember which building we meet in this week and which building is going to need repairs this week and all the rest.

My friend’s suggestion was a much too simple solution to a much too complicate issue that I generally choose to ignore because there are better ways to spend my ministry time.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO BUILDINGS

One of the realities of being a pastor for rural churches is that I get to work in some really old buildings. One Sunday recently, both worship services occurred in old buildings. One dates back to 1835 and the other to 1833. In another pastorate, we were responsible for a building that was put up in 1810. By European standards, these are of course relatively new buildings—but by our standards, they are very old.

These buildings have all the drawbacks that you might expect from such an old building: limited facilities, inadequate electricity, inefficient heating systems, no cooling system, poor parking, uncomfortable and fixed seating. Most of them are wooden buildings, which always need serious work—the 1835 building needs sills replaced and the 1833 building has had major work done recently. The majority of them indicate their age with the tell tale scent of mold and decay. Basic maintenance jobs tend to be expensive and eat up lots of time, energy and money getting them taken care of.

There are some advantages to the buildings: we have a place for our church to gather, we can enjoy the old-time craftsmanship, we can complain about the hard seats. If we get enough money and support, we can and so make some modifications that make them better for our purposes.

But lots of people ask why we are so committed to these old, expensive, inefficient buildings. Generally, the only people not asking that question are the ones who have regularly worshipped in the buildings year after year. New comers, people from away, leaders of bigger congregations in other places, denominational dealership, even theology professors ask the question a lot, sometimes assuming that just because they ask the question, we inhabiting these old buildings will see the light and abandon the buildings.

But those of us who worship in such buildings aren’t asking the question. A person like me who has pastored congregations like this for years used to ask the question. These days, I don’t bother asking because I know the answer. Why do we in small churches keep meeting in old, antiquated, expensive to maintain and heat buildings? The answer is simple: because we can.

We don’t worship the building—well, maybe a few do. Mostly, we continue to inhabit our buildings because they are ours. We worship week after week and the building itself enhances our worship. Occasionally, the enhancement is a result of the building itself–the acoustics, the craftsmanship, the view—but more often, the enhancements occurs because of what the building houses.

It houses our memories. That seat at the back left—that is where I first went to Sunday School. The third pew from the front in the centre, that is where Deacon Zeke used to sit—he was a wise and wonderful example of the Christian faith. That pew right there—that is where I was sitting when I decided to follow Jesus. That Communion table—that was donated by my great-grandparents and my great-grandfather made it by hand from wood he cut himself.

The building houses other memories as well. We remember those we grieved and whose lives we celebrated at the funeral. We remember the weddings when new families came into being. We remember those who grew up in our midst and went on to serve God in the pulpit or the mission field. We are reminded each week of the faithful whose memories are collected and celebrated in our buildings.

We keep our buildings because they hold the memories. We keep our buildings because they allow us to celebrate the cloud of witnesses that are part of our story. We keep our buildings because they are a visible symbol of the endurance of our faith. We keep our buildings because they help our faith.

We don’t worship our buildings and we don’t need the building to have and express our faith. If the building is beyond repair or suffers a fire, we will grieve. We will mourn the loss—but we won’t lose our faith. We will still be believers, albeit believers struggling to find a place to locate our memories.

Our old, inefficient and expensive to maintain buildings could disappear and our faith would continue. But we have them—and because we have them, we can and do use them to enhance our faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW MANY?

Both the worship services I lead recently had me feeling much more nervous. The morning service was a special worship to which we invited the community. While I suggested the idea and thought it was a good one, I wasn’t expecting much increase in attendance—it was a holiday weekend, after all. On the drive to worship, I counted in my mind the ones who would likely be there: our normal 8 or so, depending on who was sick or away plus maybe 4-6 more from the visiting family of one of our members.

But that morning, people just kept coming and coming. We ran out of chorus sheets early in the process. At one point, after seating more than expected I peeked out the open door and saw as many people standing around as were seated. My final count was 27 while one of the others got 29—we decided to go with his numbers.

The second service at my other pastorate was definitely not going to be that good, I thought. To start with, it was a stifling hot day—and our buildings have no air conditioning. It was the first Sunday of our summer worship schedule, meaning worship was in the evening. And then there was the fact that the we couldn’t use the building we were supposed to use because of serious emergency repairs. We called everyone and put a sign on the building about the change but I was pretty sure the change would upset things.

And just like the morning worship, once people started coming, they kept coming. We surpassed our average of 18-20 really quickly. We ran out of bulletins. We used up all the new chorus books we are printing for the church. And people kept coming. When we started, we had 29 people in our worship.

Now, I know that for many people, those numbers are small and that for some churches, that might be the number of greeters and ushers, not the whole congregation. But these are big numbers for us—and while I was excited and pleased and happy, I was also more nervous. I am always nervous about leading worship and preaching but on a normal Sunday with our normal group, I have more control of the nervousness. But more people tend to increase my anxiety.

To start with, there is more to do before the worship. I like to greet people as they come—since our buildings are basically one room, I am obviously there and so it makes sense to greet people as they come in. There are other bits and pieces to deal with, questions about the worship, changes to the music and so on that get harder to work out as we have more people. I begin to lose focus and forget things.

In the morning service, I forgot to take my water cup to the pulpit—in fact, I completely forget where I put it and couldn’t see it from the pulpit. Fortunately, I had some cough drops for when my voice needed some help. In the evening service, I forgot to turn on my tablet until I got to the pulpit to start worship, an omission that I confessed and which delayed our start a bit since I didn’t have a bulletin to read the announcements from.

There are probably some who would suggest my increased nervousness is a negative thing. There are some who would suggest that being nervous at all before leading worship is a negative thing, perhaps a sign of a weaknesses of faith or something like that. I am the first to admit that I don’t have a perfect faith and have definite weaknesses in my faith.

But my nervousness before worship isn’t a sign of weak faith or something negative. I think it is a healthy sign and an indication of my respect for the people I lead in worship and the God I serve through that process. I want to do my best to help the worshippers experience the reality of God’s presence and be faithful to God’s calling to me. If I am not nervous, I am probably relying on myself in the process not God through the power of the Holy Spirit. My nervousness is a sign that I am aware of my need of God’s strength and help and a reminder to open myself to him in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE YARD SALE

Like most small congregations, the churches I serve tend to be underfinanced. One in particular has had some serious financial issues over the years. The financial crunch has eased a bit because we have sold the unused parsonage and shifted to a part-time ministry position, But we still carry on some of the fund raising activities that were crucial our church when finances were tighter.

One of these is the annual yard sale. All year, we fill the unused upstairs Sunday School area with the bits and pieces that people no longer want but can’t quite bring themselves to throw away. The actual preparation for the sale involves carrying everything downstairs, spreading it all around the hall, the sanctuary and outside and putting prices on it. I have to confess that I am not much use in that part of the process—my bad knees seriously limit the number of trips I can make on the stairs and I have absolutely no sense of what used stuff is worth. But I was there, doing what I could.

The day of the yard sale, I really didn’t have an assigned job. I did take charge of making tea and coffee for the staff and initially was assigned to accept payment, I job I held until we actually had people buying stuff—my math ability is seriously limited. There were some things that needed to be moved around, some people needed help with carrying things out and there were occasional requests to help find something or identify something that someone wanted to buy but didn’t actually know what it was.

But mostly, I found myself wandering around talking to people. Early in the day, I talked to the church people working at the sale. I would find myself near their work site and would chat about the weather, their family, their plans, and so on. Now and then, we might spend some time talking about the church or the Bible study and I think one person might have actually mentioned a recent sermon.

As the sale got busier, I found myself talking to customers, sometimes about where to find something or the price of something but often about the building (This is our new building, put up on 1833….), our ministry (yes, we actually hold worship here on a regular basis), how they are doing (the surgery went well and the chemo isn’t that bad…). This was punctuated by spells of making coffee and tea, moving things around, carrying stuff to cars, taking a few pictures and infrequently, taking money for people who didn’t really want to go back to the cash desk.

Now and then, I would slow down to breath and notice the rest of the church people doing similar things. Over the course of the day, I saw pretty much all of our church people involved in conversations with each other and with people coming for the sale. As I watched, it was clear that some of the people they were talking to were good friends—but it was also clear that a lot of times, our church people were talking with people who simply showed up for the sale—sunny Saturdays inspire some people to make a circuit of all the sales in the area. I heard them talking about the weather, their family, their plans and so on. Now and then, I heard them talking about our building, our ministry and how the people were doing. We were all doing pretty much the same thing, except that most of the other church people were a whole lot better at handling money than I was.

What did we accomplish with the sale? Well, we raised some money which will help with our continued ministry. Since some of that will undoubtedly end up on my pay cheque, I am happy about that. But I think that we also did some serious ministry. We met people, we spent time with people, we talked and listened. There were no dramatic spiritual events during the day but we did, I think, provide people with something of our faith. We spent time with people, not just because we wanted them to spend money but ultimately because we wanted to—and in the process, I think we showed something of our faith and what we believe. I think we were witnesses, which might be the most important thing we did that day.

May the peace of God be with you.

TOO MANY BUILDINGS

My job sounds much more demanding than it really is, a fact that almost inevitably leads to a specific conversational track when someone asks about it. The process begins when someone who doesn’t know what I am doing asks and I explain that I am part-time pastor to two different pastorates, one of which has four congregations and the other of which has 2 congregations.

The immediate response is one of surprise and comments of how busy I must be, which I respond to by saying that the congregations are all small, we only have one service a week at each pastorate and in the end, each pastorate basically functions as one congregation, although we meet in multiple buildings. My explanation that the small size of the congregations and the fact that I am part-time means that I don’t work anywhere near as hard as they might think are met with nods and winks.

The next phase of the conversation tends to focus on the buildings—it seems that people really can’t get a hold of the fact that I can and do actually manage to keep myself to part-time hours (mostly) and so they need something to focus on to avoid calling me a liar. The building provide a convenient focus.

And we have lots of buildings. And these aren’t all great buildings. Between the six buildings, there are two and a half bathrooms—the half comes about because the women of the building with a porta-potti out back don’t consider that to be a bathroom for some reason. The newest of the buildings is well over 100 years old, although two of them have recent additions (including batrooms) that play a valuable part in our ministry. All of the building have considerable maintenance costs—although these old buildings are well built, time-induced deterioration simply can’t be avoided. Add to that the fact that old buildings are simply not energy efficient and you have a fairly expensive ministry base. In the end, we simply have too many buildings for the people and ministry.

So, the person talking to me generally makes a comment about the number of buildings and wonders why we just don’t get rid of some of them—or all of them for that matter. A few of the people I talk to come from denominational traditions where the bishop or some outside committee makes the decision to close a building, which makes the issue all the more difficult for them to understand.

I have been in this conversation so many times that I have developed a standard answer. For me the bottom line is that the buildings aren’t my responsibility or focus. There is a lot of ministry that needs to be done and focusing on buildings takes away from my ability to do the real ministry. As long as there is money to keep the building usable, I don’t get involved in the process. I use the building, I appreciate the building and I work hard to make sure I am at the right building at the right time for the right purpose—but I am not going to get involved in the debate over if and when to close down a building.

And fortunately for me, I belong to a denomination where that decision isn’t one I really have to be involved in. In our tradition, the building belongs to the people who make up the church that makes that building their home and they have final say on everything about the building. My job as pastor is to teach, preach, enable, encourage, care for and generally be a shepherd to the people. I can and occasionally do draw attention to the excess number of buildings and encourage people to think about that reality. When the issue arises at a meeting, I agree that we need to think carefully about our buildings—but I am also going to be working at the fund raiser for the building.

I have more important things to do than worry about buildings. As long as the building is providing a base for ministry and the church has the means to support the buildings, I don’t much care whether I lead worship in one building or four buildings. My responses to the conversation about buildings tends not to satisfy people who think we would be further ahead with fewer buildings—but they tend to become quiet when I ask them if they would close down their building.

May the peace of God be with you.