Finding God

Finding God
On the pathway to Petra

Thursday, June 22, 2017

What if....

Two paths diverge in the N.C. Botanical Gardens in Asheville
        
       Where DID the cockamamie idea of a “house church” come from? I wish I could remember. I do recall thinking that the church did not have the energy to purchase land and construct a new building. The construction of the conflict-riddled but beautiful sanctuary three years ago had used up what congregational energy was left for such a thing, as well as exposing the terrible church myth to which members had been clinging, of: “If we build it, they will come.”
        What was the point of buying a “used” church building, not that one ever comes up for sale in Chapel Hill, and then taking one declining congregation and moving it into another church building?
        I asked myself: Pastor, wouldn’t we be doing the same thing by moving a declining congregation from its current edifice into a house? When I thought it through, the answer was “no.”
          Relocating the congregation into a house would change everything, even if the worship service remained essentially the same. But I was most intrigued by the idea of how potentially to use a house’s bedrooms. The adult Sunday school at Aldergate collapsed not long after I arrived when the person teaching it followed the former pastor across town to his other church. There are no children at Aldersgate, so there is no need for Sunday school space. What if the bedrooms were used for ministry?!
        Because Aldersgate has a long history of volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House and the SECU House (both of which provide low-cost living space for the families of those hospitalized at UNC Hospitals), members understood well the concept of providing compassionate living space for a family. What if at least one bedroom was devoted to such a use, but for free?
          What if some of the other bedrooms could house…. Oh, I dunno. Duke Divinity or UNC Wesley Foundation students? Free, in exchange for devoting themselves to Aldersgate?  What if we used some of the proceeds from the sale of the current building to create a ministry fund to give wings to their ideas? The idea thrilled me, although I’ve supervised enough Divinity students to know the idea has both opportunities and potential pitfalls.
           I prayed and prayed, and thought and thought. When I prayed, the concept of a house-church felt like a wonderful new thing that God might be offering.  When I was in thinking mode, the idea of the congregation merging with a large church seemed to make much more sense.
            It was time to take the two possibilities to church leaders. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Difficulty of Stairs

Be careful on the steps
Maine Botanical Gardens
        My husband, Keith, had knee-replacement surgery on Monday. Duke Hospital discharged him the next day (yesterday). This morning, I took him to his first physical therapy session.
       To get inside our home yesterday, Keith had to climb nine steps. He was exhausted and in pain, but he did okay. This morning, he had to descend the nine steps to get to the car to go to PT, and then afterwards, climb the nine steps to get back inside the house. It was hard and painful for him. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that our home is not exactly handicapped accessible.
        However, Keith’s physical therapist wasn’t bothered by all the steps. Apparently, stairs are great for strengthening Keith’s new knee, as long as he doesn’t fall.  The easiest thing – no steps – would not be the best thing, in this case. It seldom is. Difficulty in life has a way of strengthening us, unless we fall down the steps, so to speak.
         The difficultly that Aldersgate is experiencing finding our way forward – will it ultimately strengthen us, or are we too weak to climb the figurative steps? Do we think we are too weak? Will we collapse and fall? And what will we find at the top of the stairs? More stairs, or a wide, expansive space? I'm grateful that God is walking beside us, no matter which choice we make.
Out of my distress I called on the LORD;
the LORD answered me and set me in a broad place.

-       Psalm 118:5

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Prayer and Thought

This path seems fairly straight-forward
St. Louis, MO., Botanical Gardens

What to do? How to lead? Where, if anywhere, was God going with all this?

I prayed.  I journaled. I talked in depth with my spiritual director. I still do these things!

If construction of light rail on Fern Avenue (the street that provided access to the church building) would mean the demise of the congregation, as many members believed it would, then the church should leave the building, right? We should sell it before Fern Avenue was torn up and the property devalued, right?  But how could we do that if we weren’t sure light rail would really happen? Was the church going to die in this location, regardless? What should we do? What would Jesus Christ want us to do?

I remember praying in the sanctuary and hearing in my heart quite clearly: “Go to St. Thomas More first.”  I immediately set this aside because I did not know if it came from God, or from me, or from someone or something else.  It was something I would discuss with my spiritual director.

What came to me after prayer and thought were two potential options if Aldersgate sold the property. One: merge with a large, healthy church in Chapel Hill, using the proceeds from the sale to bless that church’s ministries; or two: use the proceeds to buy a house in the Chapel Hill area and become a “house-church.”

I knew next to nothing about either option.  My work was cut out for me – explore the options and then go to church leaders and ask them which choice, if any, appealed to them.  I began to research the options via the Internet, and this would lead me to greater exploration through conversations with local “experts,” including the district superintendent. The results were surprising.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Epiphany


I think I knew where this path ends
Nova Scotia

It feels weird to be looking back on a story that is currently on-going. Each day, including today, our story takes a new twist.

But looking back to February of this year…

If construction of light rail was likely to mean the demise of the congregation, and if I were to have conversations with the church about being proactive about – what? Fighting light rail? Relocating? Something else? – I needed to sit down and take a hard look at the numbers.

What I saw shocked me. I’m not sure why it shocked me; did I not know the congregation I was serving? Had I not been presiding at worship every Sunday for a year? This is what I saw:

-- No new members in more than five years. 

-- Few visitors, most of whom were from the Ronald McDonald House nearby. Aldersgate was great about welcoming, loving, and supporting them, but these families lived elsewhere and eventually moved on.

-- An almost complete non-engagement of the preschool. This one really bothered me. Our preschool had been set up seven years ago as a ministry of the church, meaning children were taught about Jesus, and one of our members was a teacher. The preschool was given free space and paid very little toward the utilities they used. We had tried a dozen different ways of involving parents and children, to no avail.

However, it was the actual number of active church members that really shocked me. I listed every name of every active member, and I’m using “active” very loosely. “Active” included members who never came to worship but showed up occasionally to help with a building project. “Active” included members who had moved away and attended worship less than six times a year. “Active” included members who were ill so frequently they mostly stayed at home or in an assisted care facility. There were only 30 names.

The genuinely active member core was about 12.  I stared at the numbers and had an epiphany: This church is dying, regardless of light rail.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Turning Point

I wonder what lies ahead?
Wintergreen, VA, path to a waterfall

Are turning points evidence of God’s presence? They certainly have been for me.  I remember well the conversation that became a turning point in what I think of as the “light rail mess,” but my memory of the timing of the conversation is a bit vague.

It was either not long before the meeting with the Transit people – or not long afterwards – Aldersgate had an Administrative Council meeting. After the meeting had concluded, I leaned in to the woman sitting to my right and said something like, “Maybe we ought to get the heck out of Dodge before light rail construction begins.” 

“What would we do?” she asked.

“I dunno,” I replied. “Maybe sell the property and relocate?”

My comments only appeared to be off-hand. I wanted to see how she would react – I expected her to swat me upside the head, so to speak. This particular person had a huge emotional investment in both the church’s preschool and in the new sanctuary. But she didn’t swat me upside the head. Instead she looked at me sideways and said, “This property is worth a lot of money.”

“Really? How much?” I asked.

She named an absurdly large figure.

“Who would buy it for that price?,” I asked.

Are you kidding? Why, St. Thomas More Catholic Church next door and UNC would have a bidding war for the property, she said. We are situated in a very valuable location.

I wondered to myself: Even with an elevated light rail coming within spitting distance of the building? 

“Well, we don’t have to worry about it for three years,” I said.

And then came the entirely unexpected turning point.

“We don’t have three years,” she replied. “If you’re serious, you need to talk with this church now.  In three years, there won’t be enough energy left in this church to do anything.”

I thought to myself: She’s right.