Finding God

Finding God
On the pathway to Petra

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Attraction of Dinner Church

A pleasant path
Duke Gardens

During the 90-day due diligence period, I have had time to pray, consider, and discuss with others the future of Aldersgate. I kept returning to my research on alternative expressions of church. Quoting from a blog post I wrote on July 10 of this year:

House churches attract newcomers who want an alternative to traditional church. They don’t find the spiritual formation and intimacy they crave in traditional church, so they look elsewhere. They want Communion more than once a month, interactive "conversational" sermons, and weekly fellowship meals. They want fellow worshipers to be "real," to share details of their lives, and to offer genuine friendship. They dislike giving money for the upkeep of a building and prefer their offerings go to meet local needs.

Aldersgate was going to become a dinner church rather than a house church, but I was struck by how well our new expression of church potentially would fit the criteria.

---- We will celebrate Communion every Sunday. It will become the central act of worship that I believe Jesus intended it to be. Aldersgate already celebrates Eucharist twice a month and was amenable to every Sunday.

---- While Aldersgate won’t have “conversational” sermons, in the dinner church model, the pastor reads scripture and then tells a short personal story to illustrate the scripture. Then the pastor assigns a question based on the scripture to be discussed at individual tables. After discussion, time often is allowed for questions, answers, and insights. Dinner Church is intensely conversational and interactive.

---- Our dinner church will provide a weekly meal without cost for everyone who attends.  

---- Conversation around the tables lends itself to being “real,” as participants share details of their lives. Friendship with newcomers becomes more likely in this format.

---- One hundred percent of Aldersgate’s Sunday offerings will benefit charity, not the church itself. This is because interest from our investment from the sale of the property can pay for my salary, apportionments, catering and whatever other bills there will be. I anticipate this focus on charitable giving will be one of the most attractive aspects of dinner church for visitors (assuming we ever have any). This plan also will much better facilitate receiving generous offerings for special-Sunday groups, such as the Methodist Home for Children and Disciple Bible Outreach. No longer will worshipers be asked to give to pay for the upkeep of a building, utilities, insurance, and salaries.

There probably also will be lump sum of interest left over at the end of the year that can be given away. Also, apportionments count as charitable giving. This means even the interest from the investment will be going toward good causes.

Dinner church could work. I pray that it will.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Due Diligence

The first photo I ever took of a path, in 1988
Wengen, Switzerland

It took the better part of a week to get the language of the contract to purchase so that it pleased buyer and seller. Once the signatures were on the document, the 90-day due diligence period began, which allows St. Thomas More to back out of the contract for any reason or for no reason and receive back all of their earnest money. There have been recent slight adjustments, and we are still within the due diligence period.

The following week, Father Scott suggested a meeting between himself, me, and the other church's facilities manager, Carlos.  I believe it was the priest’s intent to keep the sale process friendly, to not let it degenerate into a “your- agent-talks-to-my-agent” thing.  I appreciated that.

“Ninety days plus another month before we close is a long time,” I told them.  “I thought it would be quicker.” I confessed that I was worried about all the things that could go wrong in a four-month span.

St. Thomas More needed the time to raise money, Father Scott explained. The diocese required that they raise a certain amount upfront. His church carries a mortgage, and the purchase of Aldersgate’s property would add to that. However, he felt optimistic about raising the necessary funds.

Thus began a series of receptions and meetings that St. Thomas More held at Aldersgate, to raise funds.  We gladly shared our facility, and the Catholics left the building in immaculate shape when they were finished. I’m told that the receptions have been successful. Carlos coordinated all of it, so I gave him several keys and my blessing. He has been unfailingly polite, friendly, warm, and professional.

The four months that concerned me have turned out to be a gift. The months have given the congregation time to come to terms with the sale and to say “good-bye” to a sacred space they have loved.  We’ve had a final “Anniversary Sunday.”  I’ve had time to clean out a ton of old stuff, set aside things to give away, and go through old records. In fact, I’ve learned quite a lot about Aldersgate as I’ve sifted through everything, some of it good, some of it not-so-good, most of it utterly unsurprising.

Four months has given me time to calm down and start planning for the future. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Offer

It's time to cross the bridge
Sylvan Heights Bird Park, Scotland Neck, NC

Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017, was the deadline for St. Thomas More to make an offer for Aldersgate’s property, and the offer arrived at 4 p.m. that day. I had scheduled an Administrative Council meeting the following day because ultimately the Admin Council was the body who would make the decision to accept the offer, or not.  The selling process had been emotionally difficult, and church leaders and pastor were weary and frazzled.

St. Thomas More’s offer was based on the commercial appraisal they had secured, which turned out to assign less value to the property than our own (member-disputed) appraisal. STM wanted to purchase the property furnished, so they added some value for furnishings to their offer and subtracted the amount it would take to put a new roof on the older part of the building. The offer was accompanied by a warm and gracious letter from the senior priest, Father Scott.

I felt the offer was fair and provided enough money to relocate and become a dinner-church. The offer was surprisingly okay to our worn-out congregational leaders, as well.  However, the finality of a sale was unsettling, and our meeting was difficult and emotionally charged.

One of the sensitive topics was the Memorial Garden, where the ashes of maybe 30 people are interred.  The Memorial Garden has been an on-going source of emotional outbursts this year, which seems strange considering that most of the time the garden sits un-pruned and knee-deep in weeds even though there is money budgeted to take care of it.  During this past year, I often asked tearful members what they imagined would become of the Memorial Garden if Aldersgate continued its trajectory of decline, eventually closed, and the Conference took possession of the building. At least St. Thomas More agreed to our condition of honoring the garden in perpetuity.

The timing of dinner-church was another contentious topic. Some people felt that Sunday at 4 p.m. was an inconvenient time to gather; why not have a breakfast church or lunch church? However, late afternoon or early evening were the only times on Sunday that Extraordinary Ventures could accommodate us – and I simply could not find anywhere else to gather that fulfilled all the picky criteria given to me (Would someone else like to try? No?). I reminded everyone that Aldersgate could technically worship at any time on any day, but it would need to be a church decision, and we would need a set location.

As the meeting wore on, despite my determination to be patient, loving, and not get angry, I felt my control slipping (Did I really just ask someone to please stop crying?).  I remember focusing hard on just trying to stay quiet.  A turning point came when the discussion became so loud and emotional that the meeting threatened to fall apart.  One of our most active leaders asked for quiet, and then he stood and said, “If this church makes the decision to stay put here, I’m done,” meaning he would not remain.  Another leader chimed in with, “Me, too.” 

The room grew quiet. Someone called for the vote, and it was seconded. The Administrative Council then voted overwhelmingly to accept St. Thomas More’s offer. We didn’t even counter.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Time Creeps Forward

I can see the ocean, but it's still a ways off.
Near Pine Knoll Shores, N.C.

Did time creep forward or did it rush? I suppose it depends on your perspective. To me, it seemed to creep. St. Thomas More’s deadline to make an offer on Aldersgate’s property was Aug. 1, but toward the end of July they asked for an extension to Aug. 15. They needed more time for their commercial appraisal to be completed. We agreed to the extension.

In the meantime, STM brought over groups of people to see the building; sometimes these were church members or Meals on Wheels folks; other times, it was people to conduct various inspections. I remember showing several priests around the sanctuary, and one of them marveled at its beauty and cleanness. He remarked, “It still smells new in here!” Well, yes, that’s because it IS still new, I replied.

We told STM that one of our conditions in selling the property was that Aldersgate’s Memorial Garden, where the ashes of about 30 people are interred, be left in perpetuity.  There are some Aldersgate members who want their ashes eventually to be interred there. The Catholics assured us not only would they honor the garden and allow visitors and a small number of future interments, but they would put a wrought-iron fence around it so that children wouldn’t trample the garden.

Meanwhile, Aldersgate was burdened with some significant building-and-grounds issues.  We discovered a 12-foot, buried, leaking fuel oil tank, which had to be removed, along with several tons of contaminated soil. The church received a water bill for $1,600 and discovered someone had stolen a large amount of water from an outside spigot. OWASA forgave most of the bill, and we put locks on the spigots.  St. Thomas More’s facilities manager – by lucky chance – discovered that our hot water heater was leaking; we replaced it. An inspection revealed a nest of baby copperheads under the  bushes next to the playground. By then the preschool was gone, so we put a sign and a padlock on the playground gate so that no neighborhood child would be bitten by a snake.

Because Roman Catholic acquisition of property is somehow tied up with the bishop, STM was waiting for a new bishop to be installed in the Diocese of Raleigh. Luis Rafael Zarama was named bishop in early July and installed in August.

The pieces were falling into place.  More and more, I got the feeling that Jesus Christ was a strong part of what was happening, and that events would play out according to God’s plan. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Time Away

The flags spell out "Beaufort" in sailing language

Time away from church for pastors is so important when big things are going down. Between what is going on in our country and world, and what is going on in the smaller world of church, life can seem pretty heavy, and we need a breather. I’ve had two lately.

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter, Katherine, and I went to Beaufort, NC, for a several-day getaway. We stayed in a historic inn, and we did a lot of walking and eating, not necessarily in that order. One of the highlights was a culinary bike tour, which was light on the bike and heavy on the culinary, although a reverse order would have been better for us both!

And then earlier this week, Katherine, Rachel (our daughter-in-law), and I took a day trip to the Sylvan Heights Bird Park in Scotland Neck, NC. I had never been to Scotland Neck, although I had heard about it from a colleague who was appointed to a UM church there years ago. Scotland Neck is northeast of Rocky Mount, and an easy two-hour drive from here. There is so much cotton growing around the area that it reminded me of my hometown, Sheveport, La.

The bird park was nice, the weather was perfect, the company was spectacular, the day was wonderful, and God felt very near. I laughed a lot and didn’t think of church at all. 

Katherine and friendly budgies (parakeets)
Rachel and budgies