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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The once and future church

I've been reading, with no small amount of sadness, about what is happening to one of the churches in our diocese. Their story is, I believe, a modern parable about what is going on in mainline churches around the country and what God is calling us to do and be about that.

Pay attention and file this under, "Coming soon to a neighborhood near you."

Some of us have been lulled into a trance induced by the mantra, "Money follows mission." It's been offered as an anxious prayer - a 'silver bullet' - to ward off the Evil Spirits of decline induced by an inward-focused, 'maintenance-minded' ecclesiology.

That could not be said about St. Paul's, Paterson. Here's what they say about themselves:
St. Paul's Episcopal Church is a gathered community of "all sorts and conditions" of people who are committed to the Christian life and witness in the urban setting of Paterson. We are Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian. We are native born and newcomers from many lands. We are young, old, and in-between. We live in cities and suburbs. We are gay and straight, married and single. Some of us dress up for church, and others don't.

Through worship, outreach, education, parish life, pastoral care, and stewardship, our diverse community seeks to celebrate and proclaim God's justice and mercy; to live out the good news of God's kingdom for all people, and to be a healing sign that the things which divide us from each other may be overcome in the oneness of God.
And, they mean it. Take a look around their web page and you'll see what I mean. Their services are vital, alive and innovative, with good music and preaching. And, they are fully engaged in God's mission in the world.

Check out the link to St. Paul's CDC. They go beyond soup kitchens and food pantries and homeless shelters to address systemic issues of poverty. Some of their programs are Housing and Neighborhood Development, Next Steps, and AmeriCorps.

And yet, this recent article in the NJ Star Ledger truly makes the heart sad.

An anonymous, 'private collector' has offered the church $2 million dollars to purchase their 12 priceless Tiffany stained glass windows.

The window frames are rotting and it would cost an estimated $520,000 to repair them. However, the roof also needs to be replaced, stone work needs to be done on the exterior of the church, and work needs to be done in the Parish Hall.

Mind you, I have not spoken to the rector or any member of that congregation. All I know is what I read in the papers. It sounds to me as if most of the profits earned from the sale of the windows would go right back into the maintenance of the building.

Which leads me to ask, "Really?"

Granted, lots of wonderful, indeed amazing, ministry and mission happens from that building, but it does beg lots of questions about what we call 'stewardship' of the building, especially as that issue comes into tension with the rest of the mission and ministry of the church.

As a rector who has been consumed by "property issues" for the last eight years of my tenure, and now confronts a church building which needs a new roof and renovations to insure that the entire building is handicap accessible, I tremble when I realize that we have spent more of our time, resources and money on the 'stewardship' of the building than on either mission or ministry.

The dollar amounts spent on 'bricks and mortar' are staggering, but when I compare that to the amounts we have spent on mission, I feel a total and complete failure in terms of my responsibility for both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.

In my most despairing moments, I lament that I went to seminary and finally, after 10 years, freed myself of the enormous debt that incurred for me and my family, to become a missionary for Jesus, an evangelist of His gospel, a minister of His Word and a priest of His Sacraments - not a general contractor for building projects or a caretaker of a Museum of Liturgical Arts that is only used 4-5 hours, once a week.

In my most hopeful moments, I rejoice that 'generations of generations' will praise the name of God in that place and pray that it will become a portal - a gateway - to even greater opportunities for evangelism, mission and ministry in the sacred name of Jesus through the particular inspiring liturgy and music of The Episcopal Church.

Faithfulness has often looked like foolishness, and vice versa, n'est pas?

At least, that's what I tell myself when I look in the mirror in the morning.

There are lots and lots of other, compelling aspects of this complicated and complex issue, none the least of which is the whole bureaucratic structure of the church with layers of hierarchy of priests and bishops.

That bureaucratic structure and hierarchy have become Very Expensive - more than most congregations can afford. Indeed, I think most of us have been unable to afford the lifestyle we've been living and enjoying for a very long time. As my sainted grandmother would say, "You've been drinking champagne on a beer budget."

At about this point, all the "anonymous" readers who write me hateful comments - and expect me to actually post them - are laughing up their sleeves about 'what do you expect' and 'Episcopal covens' and blahdity, blah, blah apostasy and heresy.

Spare me, okay?

I'm not going to publish your cowardly anonymous statements. Indeed, I've come to find great pleasure in hitting 'reject' when such hateful, toxic waste appears on my screen.

What's interesting about the news that Saddleback Church received $2.5 million in its call to fill a $900,000 budget deficit is that everyone is marveling at the $2.5 million response - which is, admittedly, pretty marvelous.

However, don't miss the subtext: Even Saddleback Church had a $900,000 budget deficit. They of the "walk right, talk right, think right do right" evangelical, so-called orthodox faith. They won't talk about it, but even their Average Sunday Attendance is significantly down.

The theology that maintains that outward prosperity is a sign of God's favor and that poverty is a sign of God's judgment is, in actuality, an outward and visible sign of spiritual bankruptcy.

So, what is going on? How are we to make sense and understand all these things?

I do believe that "God is doing a new thing" in the church. God always has - always is - always will. We're always 'catching up' to where God is - and has been - and is going next.

I believe we are called to the struggle to understand what it is God is - has been - calling us to do and to be. The answer, I believe, is in the struggle - not in easy answers and quick fixes.

The world is too dark and broken a place, and God's people are in too much need, for us to play simplistic theological games with one another.

I don't have any answers, but I know we've got to start struggling with the questions. Not so we can find the answers, necessarily, but in order to deepen and enrich our faith.

I only know this much to be true: You can't know the fullness of Easter joy without a Good Friday walk through Calvary.


Fr Craig said...

This is always a tough thing. My parish is - near as I can tell - very healthy. We've lost 3 families and gained 15 in the last 3 years. Our pledges were up very nicely this year. But our ASA continues to slide - down nearly 30% in last ten years... I note, though, that they all come on the major feast days. I've beat my head against the wall for years on this and can only conclude that - religious as people claim to be - worshiping and thanking God has become an 'I'll get around to it' kinda thing. It just isn't the priority it was when I was a kid (50-60's). To a great extent, I blame us 'boomers,' we rebelled against rules and institutions. I certainly never forced my girls to go to church after about 6th grade - and none of them go now. We aren't delivering the access to the Holy that I think they really are interested in - or will be some day. It is always painful to spend money on bricks and mortar rather than mission - but we wouldn't be here today if our ancestors hadn't done just that. There must be a 'place' where the Holy resides - thus I don't think house churches are any kind of answer. And I refuse to go to 'happy clappy' worship - that makes worship all about ME getting a spiritual high, not about me giving thanks to God. In my permanent optimism, I believe that liturgical/sacramental worship is what God has in mind and the wanderers will eventually come home. As to the kids, well - I left the church after high school and didn't come back till I had kids of my own; didn't get serious about it till I had a crisis in my life and went to see my priest. These things are generational... On the other hand, I'm probably too old to even begin to grasp the use of current technology for the spread of the gospel. I still believe it needs to be face to face, not with a text. But I'm an old curmudgeon... ah, I'm wandering...

Brian Baker said...

I wholeheartedly agree with you. I believe we are in the midst of the birthing of a new form of Christianity. We are being asked to shed some of our heavy institutional structure to become more supple and responsive. While this transition will be painful, I think in the end it will be fruitful. There is no shortage of the need for the gospel. We just need to change our model of living into it. I believe the theology and liturgy of Episcopal Church is well suited for this new era. For us, it is our structure that needs to change. We need to be less dependent on paid clergy and we need to spend less on diocesan and TEC structure.
Thank you for your faithful ministry.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Oh, my, Elizabeth...are we channeling again?

My little parish has a building that is in the National Register of Historic Places--the first place to be named in our town for 25 years.

As its Junior Warden, I look at our lovely tile roof and know had that tornado been ONE MILE further south last May, we would have reached The Point of No Return. Even missing the building itself would have dealt a fatal blow to the roof.

I thank God we did not have to live through "tile roof vs. regular roof" decisions. Yet when we need minor repairs, I know we've been "cheating" on the roof. It needs to have all the tiles removed and more modern tarpaper and base. It needs modern vents. We have replaced un-findable tiles with faux ones we've fashioned out of treated wood.

As we go through our interim period, there is hope AND tension. Hope because we can try some new things. Tension because some people wave the red flag of "Change THIS, and I'm outa here. I want to have church out of my box, and I'll take my ball bat and go home," if it's not what "I" want. Oh, they do it very politely and in Episcopal-speak. But it is there.

But I keep wondering if we need to liberate ourselves from our buildings that don't fit the box of what the emerging church needs to be in a hurting world, as much as I truly, dearly LOVE our little church building.

Catherine Evans said...

We too on this side of the pond find ourselves asking similar questions. After a winter in the cold as the boiler was condemned we face bills for roofs and essential maintainence. Perhps God is at work to get us to see what is really important, not bricks and mortar, but spiritual homes in the truest sense.

David@Montreal said...

'I do believe that "God is doing a new thing" in the church. God always has - always is - always will. We're always 'catching up' to where God is - and has been - and is going next.

I believe we are called to the struggle to understand what it is God is - has been - calling us to do and to be. The answer, I believe, is in the struggle - not in easy answers and quick fixes.

The world is too dark and broken a place, and God's people are in too much need, for us to play simplistic theological games with one another.'


Brother David said...

Perhaps church building became millstones with the Reformation. That was when the Service of the Word became over emphasized and folks moved away from the ritual excesses of Rome and installed pews. Up until pews, folks stood through the liturgy, as they still do in some Eastern denominations, and church naves were so much more multipurpose.

Perhaps this opens a new task for church engineers, architects and church furniture supply companies. Researching and discovering building forms and materials which open our churches to new possibilities. While the same time take the burdens of the money pit away, or at least lessen it to more reasonable and manageable percentages as building materials that last longer and require much less maintenance are discovered/invented, old materials are given new opportunities in liturgical settings, and old/new shapes and forms open our buildings to uses that better represent wise and faith-filled stewardship.

We have been having a conversation at Father Bosco's blog in New Zealand about the offices of ministry; bishop, priest and deacon, and responsibilities, and even ordination; sol vida vs incremental ordination. He speaks of the ministry of bishops/priests being turned inward, more toward ministering to the congregation/diocese and the worship of God, and the ministry of deacons being turned outward in ministry to the world. I am ashamed that I know almost all, perhaps 98% of the resources of our dioceses, parishes and missions here in Mexico are turned inward; trying to pay salaries, maintain buildings and help members. We accomplish so little in the ministry turned outward to a hurting world.

Mary-Cauliflower said...

Hey, Revda. Elizabeth - You may already know something about what's going on at St. J's in Our Fair City. Email me if you are interested in hearing more or in being in touch with our Rector. This is a burning issue and open to much misunderstanding and abusive behavior. Praying for all churches in similar struggles. - Mary C.

Bill said...

I think that they should sell off the windows but not use the money for repairs. They should use the money for the people of the church and their mission to those people. What is a church structure, except hubris? In the long history of man, all those grand edifices were nothing but monuments to the vanity of kings and emperors. What did any of those buildings really do? What was their function? What benefit to humanity did they render? A tent was fine with the ancient Jews for worship until Solomon changed all that. And then what? It was destroyed. Then it was rebuilt. And, then it was destroyed again. Vast sums of money are used to build and maintain these structures while little or none is used to help the poor and needy. What kind of sense does that make? Will putting a new roof on that church feed one hungry child? Will fixing the stone work provide clothing for a family in need. These structures have nothing to do with God and everything to do with human pride. Does an incorporeal being really need a house? Does anyone really think that Jesus lives in the tabernacle? These are all quaint customs but have nothing to do with reality. If you want to have a really nice place to worship, fine, but do it after the needs of the people have been met.

DeanB said...

Cheer up a little about "mission" and look at this blog's live traffic feed and list of international visitors. Mission is not properly measured in dollars.

Dollars spent on building maintenance are going to support working people and their families, anyway. Money you spend as well as money you give away can help the community. Bill asks, "will putting the new roof on the church feed one hungry child?" Well, if it makes the difference between the roofer having a job next month or not, yes, it will.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Bill brings up a great point. The Ark of the Covenant--the presence of God that resides within holy objects--was under a tent for a LOOOOOONG time. Then Solomon decided to build a temple and put it in there, and it was all downhill from there.

Elaine C. said...

Similar issues here, building basement waterproofing needs significant repair, service to community is increasing, average Sunday attendance is declining, average age of members increasing, what is good stewardship??

Jane Priest said...

I must have a different outlook on "Money follows mission." As I understand it, it means that if we are about the work of the mission of Jesus then we will not need to worry about the money. Either we will have what we need or we will see our mission differently and not be dependent on the buildings. Either way, we have what we need to continue the mission. That said, I am a Christian, in part, because of the beauty of the Episcopal church in architecture, liturgy, and music. I cannot see those things united in a store front or a home or a school.

As a priest in two small parishes 8 minutes from each other (is there anything more ridiculous than THAT?!) I do think we need to merge more congregations. Will we lose some? Yes. Will communities be more vibrant in the end? Very possibly which means we may gain more than we lose. And why don't more micro-mini congregations merge? Largely because of the misperception that a building or a church or an endowment or a community is "ours" rather than God's.

Oh, and I am a good cook. Really, I am. Love it. Into the whole local food movement and would LOVE to learn to butcher my own meat. Am trying gardening our own veggies but we have too much shade. What I am getting at here is that I would love to have a church that has moveable seating and run a restaurant in it at other times of the week. Seriously. There is a restaurant in Houston called Mark's but it used to be St. Mark's Lutheran Church. No, it doesn't go back and forth in its use but how hard could THAT be?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Joie - I think the mantra "Money follows mission" is meant to be said the way you hear it, but it is chanted in the Northeast Corridor as an anxious promise that, if you do mission, you can start a CDC, get government grants and begin to revitalize your congregation. It is model that's had some success, but that's not what "Money follows mission" is meant to communicate. Not here, anywhere.

In terms of food and church - there's a Black Baptist church in Newark that has been running a restaurant "The Promised Land" for about 15 years now. Best fried catfish, greens, creamy grits and bean pie anywhere. Apple crisp to absolutely die for.

The minister and his wife are the chefs. It's a wonderful ministry which enables incredible mission to happen from that church. The #1 rule in that church - 10% of the tithed income goes directly to mission. Rule #2 - they don't spend what they don't have. So, if they need $X to have Y# staff and they don't get the money, they first give 10% away first and then they cut staff.

It's absolutely inspiring.

Elaine C. said...

Cathedral of St. James in Chicago is turning the lobby of the diocesan center into a coffee house ... complete with music ... it's a good use of the space.

I'm always trying to find ways for our church building to be used ...

motheramelia said...

One problem with church buildings used for purposes other than worship is that it is so hard to counter the resistance you encounter. Trying to replace pews with chairs or even suggest that the space could be used for "secular" purposes is anathema to so many. Even if the secular purpose is really mission. And so our ASA continues to decline.

MarkBrunson said...

Cheer up a little about "mission" and look at this blog's live traffic feed and list of international visitors. Mission is not properly measured in dollars.

You know, this is key.

Our "mission" is to embody Christ in the world and help bring about the Kingdom. That requires nothing but us to do. Anything else is merely a struggle to fatten an institution. This is coming from someone who loves the structure of an episcopal system and believes the "pomp and circumstance" serves a very important role in the human psyche.

Important - not vital. Perhaps, even for people like me, it's time to look at the way secular society is stripping away what is not vital in this depression, and ask if we shouldn't do the same until Christianity regains its vitality and true dynamism.

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