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.

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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.

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.