Finding God

Finding God
On the pathway to Petra

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Random Prayer Journal Entries

My prayer images often include plants and water
Charleston, S.C.
I’ve been praying and journaling every day since Feb. 3, 2017, when I first began to feel that God was leading Aldersgate and me in a new way. I used the Psalms, one by one, as a beginning point each day (I’ve now moved on to Isaiah). Here are some random but important entries:

Feb. 12 – When I look realistically at what and who is left at AUMC, I feel discouraged. But when I think and pray about what God could do, I feel excited. What will God do?

March 8 – I was awake before 3 a.m., and it’s now 4:47 a.m. I need to get this Administrative Council meeting behind me. I need to present well. I want to pay attention and work with God, but also release the outcome to God. There is potential for new life, but I perceive in prayer that the door is closing for this congregation. I hope and pray my discernment comes from God and is not just my own dullness.

April 10 – God seems to tell me just to keep taking the next right step; that it really isn’t so difficult. The sensation of Christ standing right behind me with his arms around me, steering the boat, is very strong. But I doubt myself and my discernment.

April 14 – I continue to be disturbed in spirit, unable to feel joyful even when I’m pretty sure God is doing something good. Why is that? I’m afraid, tired of the work I know is coming, tired of being in ministry alone.

May 1 – In prayer, I saw a pine cone growing on an oak tree, and then an oak tree growing from a mustard seed planted on a beach!  I think God is showing me in images that God can do what is both impossible and unexpected. 

May 14 – I must admit to another prayer image. I see the familiar yellow, brown, and dying willow tree, and I see most of its roots are rotten. I want to kick it off the embankment, just place my foot against the base of the tree and push.  I know I have this power. I could do it. And the seed that Jesus wants to plant would be planted elsewhere. I sensed God asking: I thought you wanted ministry to be fun…? “I’m not having fun,” I answered. “It would be easier just to kick it over.” Don’t you trust me?, I heard. “Yes, well, maybe I just don’t want all the hassle and work,” I replied. …. Ah, I begin to perceive the real problem.

May 26 – I’ve been feeling pretty negative after the low commercial appraisal and the insistence that we continue to pursue “house church.” Is there enough of God’s Spirit in this church and in me to do anything?

May 29 – I am still thinking about my strong anger yesterday; it’s not good. I must get a handle on my own emotions and anxiety – the church needs calm leadership. But boy, was I angry. When I prayed about it, Jesus seemed to tell me to stop being so melodramatic. Again, I sensed a playfulness on the part of the divine that I do not share. It did, however, lighten my mood.

June 18 – (after using Psalm 95 for prayer) Am I like the faithless Israelites, too fearful to go forward? God, give me your grace which is sufficient for today. Help my being with people; help my preaching and leading of worship; help me to go forward in the way that you want.

June 25 (the day before church conference vote) – In prayer, I tell Jesus it’s in HIS hands now; please take it. I picture myself giving the situation to him, but he’s playful about whose hands are on top. I want my hands UNDER his – I’m putting it all in God’s hands. I don’t want it in my hands! Again, this divine playfulness that I do not share, and I broke off the prayer. I will just be glad when the vote is over.

June 28 (my prayer based on Psalm 104:13) – Lord, send forth your Spirit, and we will be created; renew the face of your church!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Compelling Vision

I must turn to the Internet to get a photo of the pathway to a Catholic shrine
St. Thomas More expressed cautious interest in Aldersgate’s property as soon as I hinted it might become available. This I did at my “hello neighbor” meeting with Father Scott, the senior priest there, as he gave me a tour of their impressive facility. I was surprised to learn later that more than 10,000 people affiliate with St. Thomas More. I figured that Aldersgate was the only contiguous property potentially available to them, and they would be crazy not to consider it.
Our meeting had the blessing of Aldersgate’s chair of trustees who wanted to gauge the other church’s interest in the property. 
The following week, I gave Father Scott and Carlos, the property manager of St. Thomas More, a tour of Aldersgate’s building.  The tour was informal because our church conference to vote on selling the property had not yet taken place. I told them I did not know if the vote would be yes or no.  I got the feeling there might be some problem on the Catholic side, too, because there was no current bishop appointed to their diocese.
After the tour, I asked the priest to describe how St. Thomas More might use the property if we sold it, and they purchased it.  
The sanctuary likely would be used for daily Mass, up to three times a day, he said. St. Thomas More’s sanctuary is large and expensive to heat and cool all day for the smaller number of faithful who attend daily Mass.  Our sanctuary might be used for some funerals and weddings, too.
The fellowship hall and kitchen tentatively would become the Chapel Hill base for Meals on Wheels, and our church offices might be devoted to Meals on Wheels, as well.
The parlor potentially would house St. Thomas More’s clothing and food pantry, which was currently not in an ideal location.  Our large two-story education wing probably would continue to be used for children’s ministry.
The vision of Aldersgate’s property being used for Christian worship, mission, and ministry on a daily basis was compelling, and became one of several reasons for the eventual vote to sell. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Non-Denom Option

The water looks nice, but it's freezing cold
I'm walking on the Spittal Pond Path in Bermuda
One of the two churches who were invited to make an offer for Aldersgate’s property within 30 days was a non-denominational. This church of maybe 200 souls was worshiping at a local school, I was told, and wanted a church building. I doubted our building would suit their needs because our parking is limited, and the proximity of light rail was an unknown factor.  I could understand a mega-church being interested in our property for an additional campus, but not a growing non-denom.  
I didn’t stop to think why one or two members of Aldersgate might want this non-denom to purchase the property. One of our members suggested that we consider selling the property to the non-denom for less than the appraised value; she was in contact with that church and told me they wanted to come to our sanctuary one Sunday and “try it out” by conducting a worship service.
“No way,” I replied.
Then I had an “ah-ha” moment. She wanted the non-denom to buy the property so that she could continue worshiping in the building. Whatever kind of Sunday service that church was conducting, it was probably closer to a United Methodist worship service than a Catholic church’s Mass. I actually had some amount of sympathy for her feelings.
The trust clause of The United Methodist Church prevents local churches from breaking with our denomination by holding the local church’s property in “trust.” The district board would never have approved the sale of AUMC’s property if the church had the ulterior motive of changing denominations. No: Whoever purchased the property would have to pay the appraised value. I figured that a relatively new church probably would be composed of younger folks who don’t tithe, and the non-denom would not be able to afford even the lower-than-expected appraised value.
In an interesting twist, I discovered that one of my tennis friends is a leader in that church. I asked her, “Why would your church want Aldersgate’s property?”
“We don’t,” she laughed. “Let’s just say it’s not a good fit for us.”
Her church was “dating” (her word) declining churches with nice property, she explained. They tentatively were pursuing a relationship with a desperate pastor-less Baptist church. However, the Baptist church’s theological leanings were perhaps too conservative, and they probably were not willing to give up liturgical control, she said, so the non-denom’s worship at the school would continue for now.
I was both appalled and fascinated. “Methodists don’t work that way,” I told her. Her church had figured that out, she said, adding, “We couldn’t afford your church’s property.”
In the next 30 days, the non-denom did nothing to prepare to make an offer for Aldersgate’s property, while St. Thomas More did quite a lot. The best thing the Catholics did was to cast a compelling vision of how the property would be used.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Live and Learn

Could be anywhere
“Live and learn,” goes the old maxim, and this is never truer than for a pastor. You’d better learn from your mistakes if you don’t want to make a mess of church life.  I made a mistake scheduling a Trustees meeting the day after the church conference, in order to set a price on the property.  I have difficulty discerning if the urgency I sometimes feel comes from God, or if it is my own impatience.
If the property were going to sell, I wanted it to sell quickly so that Aldersgate could purchase a house and get Divinity students settled in the house by late August, when they arrive back on campus.  What was I thinking? Selling a piece of property and purchasing another in a month and a half was ridiculously unrealistic.
Emotions were still raw from the church conference. Some of the Trustees were already furious over the commercial appraisal, a pricey report that showed the property was worth much less than everyone assumed. Some members imagined UNC would want to buy the property and wouldn’t care what the price was, nor that it was zoned residential. 
The meeting was further complicated because some vocal Trustees were not church members and/or did not attend worship, or both. The Discipline allows non-members to serve on Trustees.
One of the committee members was angry with me for insisting the church get a commercial real estate agent and an appraisal. She felt I should personally have gone to St. Thomas More and UNC and proposed an arbitrary, absurdly high price. She felt Aldersgate could have sold the property without help, for more money. 
If a church meeting degenerates into shouting, crying, and/or too much loud arguing, I typically will end it immediately.  Because our commercial agent was at the meeting and I wanted to get a price set, I did not end the meeting, although the chair of Trustees threatened to do so.  Arguments erupted over the appraised value, the zoning, and the potential buyers. I felt strongly Aldersgate should sell to a church so that Christian ministry and mission would continue in this location, the new sanctuary wouldn’t be torn down nor the Memorial Garden paved over. I also felt strongly that the appraised value was enough to make a go of a house-church.  Trustees who had shown zero interest in a house-church turned out to have strong opinions about how much money they felt Aldersgate ought to make from a sale.  
Our agent, Mike, was a God-send. He was able to calm emotions and persuade the Trustees that part of being a “good neighbor” was to offer the property first to St. Thomas More. There were several people who objected to this, claiming to have personal knowledge of non-denominational churches who were worshiping in schools, who would be interested in the property. One of the Trustees revealed that she had shown the pastor and leaders of a non-denominational church around our building, and she wanted that church at least to be included in the offer.
I did not.  The Trustees did.  I handed it over silently to God.  It was settled: Both churches would be allowed to make an offer for the property (no price was set) within 30 days. If neither made an acceptable offer within 30 days, the property would go on the open market for 90 days.
My dream of establishing a house-church and intentional living community by late August was over. I reassessed: If the property sells, maybe we will buy a house, settle in, and wait until next August to start the intentional living community. Problem was, my dream and God’s plans were not exactly the same. Are they ever?
“Live and learn” for me often means simply: Let go of outcomes, and trust God.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Church Conference

You can't tell it, but this path goes steeply uphill
Maine

The last week of June, the congregation had the meeting that no one really wanted to have – the church conference to vote on placing the church’s property on the market. The two questions that kept getting discussed at our many meetings were:
1. Is it a faithful use of offerings to fund an annual budget of almost $100,000 that gets spent maintaining a large building and grounds and paying a pastor for what essentially turns out to be one hour on Sunday, for 25 people?
2. If there were a church who needed all of the property’s space, and would use it immediately and well for Christian ministry and mission, was selling the property to that church the right thing to do? By this point, we knew St. Thomas More was interested and needed the space.
Most members had become resigned to the probability that light rail would happen. Construction in three years would heavily impact the street that provided access to Aldersgate.  
The church conference was postponed twice, as I tried to find a date when the most people could be present. You have to be a church member to vote at a church conference, and you must be physically present to vote. Pastors are not members of the church and therefore do not vote. 
A day or two before the church conference, the people I knew to be in favor of selling began to drop like flies. Our lay leader fell and broke her shoulder; another person had a heart attack, and another a small stroke. If one person of a married couple was “out,” they were both “out.”  
I began to worry that the vote would be too close – a simple majority wins, but a simple majority should not win, in my opinion.  If a vote is that close, then the church needs to pray and talk some more.
Furthermore, there had been some confusion – was a vote to sell also a vote to do a house church? Actually, a vote to sell was a vote to continue to gather as a church elsewhere, which we – at that point – assumed was going to be a house church.
The day of the vote, I thought to gather everyone in the fellowship hall and was surprised when a member suggested we convene in the (still new) sanctuary. We had to wait because the district superintendent was alone in the sanctuary, praying. I was impressed by that.
Once everyone was in the sanctuary, the D.S. explained the procedure, and handed out slips of paper to vote. The question before us was: Yes or No – Shall Aldersgate place the property on the market for sale? It took several minutes for her to collect the paper and count the votes. The vote was “yes” by a three-quarter majority, even with all the missing people.
Our district superintendent preached a little message from Acts about the early Christians gathering in houses.  She reminded Aldersgate that, if the property sold, we did not have to buy another property but could lease or rent. As long as we continued to gather weekly for worship – no matter where or when – we would be Aldersgate United Methodist Church.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Decline Unto Death

When the sun is setting, the path lies in shadows
Zion National Park, Utah
It is my belief that United Methodist churches sometimes are allowed, subtly encouraged even, to decline unto death.
When a church begins to decline numerically and financially, it looks for ways to trim the budget. Money for missions beyond apportionments probably dried up long ago. The first place the axe usually falls is the pastor’s compensation and/or apportionments. In the churches where I have been pastor, I have refused to allow payment of apportionments to get reduced, preferring instead to drain the church savings accounts. This has worked, barely, but seldom has made me popular.
As a church declines, the pastor’s compensation gets reduced – first, to minimum salary, then to half time, then to quarter time or less. Despite this, the system keeps sending pastors.  Lots of churches are delighted to discover they can get a full-time pastor for a part-time salary. They become less agreeable when yoked to another church to become a two-point charge.
Interestingly, declining churches often are unwilling to cut staff salaries, viewing the secretary, choir director, musician, children’s minister, and so on, as “one of us,” I suppose, in way the pastor never will be. The church seldom realizes their apportionments are high because they’ve been forking out so much money in staff salaries. One church where I filled in as a short-term interim pastor had an average Sunday attendance of less than 25, a half-time pastor, a generous salary devoted to a surly secretary, and a salaried musician and custodian. They also had a cool quarter-million parked in a building fund despite congregational complaining about how they could not afford to pay their apportionments.
As members continue to die or move away, the declining church finds it must swing the axe in a widening circle.  
Soon, an aging church building needs a big repair that is not covered by insurance – a new roof or furnace perhaps.  In my experience, church Trustees cut corners over the years and bring down major building issues on themselves. At a previous church I served, the Trustees had decided long ago that paying for termite and pest control was too expensive. One fine day, after a portion of the sanctuary floor dropped several inches, the church discovered two girders under the building had been eaten clean away by termites.
In fact, severely declining churches often let the building fall down around them.
You want to know how bad it can get? One of the churches where I filled in as a short-term interim pastor had an average of 10 in worship (all members of one family), paid a total pastoral compensation of $300 a month, worshiped every other Sunday, hadn’t paid apportionments in years, and had such a dilapidated parsonage that no one could live in it. As I dug into their history, I discovered this church had drained its bank accounts in less than a decade.
Here’s the thing, though. I always have found that the declining churches I served, who really needed to close, were open to doing so. No, they don’t want some guru from Garner coming and telling them what to do. But they will listen to their pastor. They want and need some way of leaving a legacy, though, and the sale of the property would be a good way to do this, if only it were allowed. Maybe it is allowed in some cases.
There’s one more practical consideration. It costs serious money to get a property in shape to sell. In July, as part of the due diligence process, Aldersgate discovered a 12-foot buried fuel oil tank that probably had been leaking for many years (some long-ago trustees cut a corner by not draining the tank and filling it with sand). Guess who paid to have it drained, removed, and the several tons of contaminated soil removed and replaced? Why, the seller, that’s who.
When a church declines unto death, I imagine the conference is left with a ruin of a building that can’t be sold and that continues to sit and rot. Am I wrong?

P.S. We need to change the culture that acts as if a closed church is a failure for the church, the pastor, the D.S., and the conference. A good ending is not a failure,and God is a part of endings, too. Pastors need to be trained to help severely declining churches close gently and well.  But until the culture changes, nothing else will.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Rocky Road

Can you believe this is part of a path?
Petit Jean State Park, Arkansas

There are at least two “tracks” to this story – the potential sale of the property, and what the congregation would do if the property sold. Writing this next chapter is tricky, and it disturbs me.
In the weeks between the approval by the District Board of Church Location and Building to sell the property, and the twice-postponed church conference to vote on the same, I did a lot of talking with our (mostly elderly) church members.  I began to get the feeling that some of our active leaders were planning to leave Aldersgate rather than be a part of a house-church.  Many members seemed ready for the church to close. Some seemed to be looking for a guilt-free way to exit.  
Some were weary of addressing never-ending building issues; others were worn out from having to serve through difficult times as church leaders.  Most people realized that what we currently have is not sustainable financially nor numerically.  The people already doing the work of the church suspected that a house-church would mean more work. Some folks felt Divinity students living for free in a house would not respect the space, and there would be conflict.
There was a turning point.  Our “sister” church, Aldersgate UMC in Durham, brought their choir and musicians to our church to perform their Easter cantata, on a week night soon after Easter. That evening, the choir had more singers than there were people in the congregation.
The cantata was incredibly beautiful.  I felt an almost physical pain in my heart; I had not realized how much I miss hearing and singing beautiful sacred music. I was not the only one to feel this pain. Our church apparently used to have a very good choir and excellent music. Those days were long gone, and the cantata reminded people not only of what no longer existed, but of what is still available at other churches.
The next time I met with the district superintendent, I suggested – what if Aldersgate sells the property, and closes? We’ve come this far; could the church distribute all – or most, or even half – of the proceeds in order to leave a legacy, probably in the form of a scholarship or two? The answer was no. Read the Discipline, pastor. The church closes first, and the conference takes possession of the property. If it is sold, the money is used to start new churches.
If that is the case, Aldersgate might decide to sit in place, I argued. Decline would likely continue, and the building would begin to deteriorate. Once light rail started construction, the property might be devalued.  Members were tired, I said, and many of them felt they could not worship without a traditional Sunday morning service with an organ, a choir, beautiful windows, and a robed pastor delivering a well-crafted sermon. My arguments did not sway. I was encouraged not to give up on the house-church.
When I brought my findings back to the church, we had a long conversation and a straw vote. Members overwhelmingly were in favor of forging ahead with the sale of the property – and, oh yes – the house-church, too.   

If God calls you to walk on a rocky road, may he give you strong shoes.
 – Irish proverb

Thursday, August 10, 2017

On the Right Track

A pleasant walk in the spring time
Cedar Grove, NC
Suffice it to say that I was provoked into contacting the priest at St. Thomas More with the suggestion that I was not being obedient to what God had given me to know in prayer. Because the suggestion made me defensive and a wee bit angry, I suspected there was at least some truth to it.
I found the priest’s name and e-mail address on the church website. Because it was the Tuesday before Easter – and pastors are notoriously swamped during Holy Week – I did not expect a reply to my “hello neighbor” e-mail to Father Scott. My short note suggested that because our churches are next-door neighbors, we should meet sometime soon. I was unprepared for his friendly return e-mail that arrived within the hour.  We found a mutually agreeable date to say “hello” about three weeks in the future, at his church.
The speed and friendliness of his reply indicated to me that God was in the mix, and I perhaps was on the right track.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Finding a Path Forward

Where are we?
I think it's Israel, on a scholarly trip I took to the Middle East and Greece in 2004

When I look back at my calendar from April and May this year, I am struck by all the meetings.  These were not just church conversations, but meetings about what has become one of my least favorite topics: the buying and selling of property in a town known for its restrictions. Let’s not forget that Holy Week and Easter fell right in the middle of all these meetings.

There were regular house showings with Kitty, a residential real estate agent who had fallen from heaven (or so it seemed) into our Thursday afternoon bible study. Kitty is a somewhat estranged United Methodist who used to be very involved in a different church. She came to our bible study because someone in the group invited her.  During April, May, and June, Kitty showed me (and then church members) houses in the Chapel Hill area that might work for a future house-church.

I met with commercial realtors, too. Strangely, several of them hardly gave me the time of day, and one of them stood me up for a meeting. I thought this was odd, considering how much the property potentially was worth. In retrospect, I wonder if they believed the church would never agree to sell, and that meeting with me would be a waste of their time.  Finally, we found a great agent, Mike, who sat down with the chair of Trustees and me, explained things, and told us we needed to get a commercial appraisal done. Placing a price on the property would be tricky because church buildings seldom come up for sale in Chapel Hill, and the property was zoned residential.  I came to respect Mike hugely when he became a calming influence during several Trustee meetings.

I met with the commercial appraiser that Mike recommended, and showed her around the building.

I met with a United Methodist contractor who was able to advise me about Chapel Hill zoning and permitting challenges. Turns out he is the son of an U.M. elder who was my supervisor when I did a chaplaincy internship one summer at UNC Hospitals. His dad was a mentor to me and played a critical role in encouraging me to stay in ministry.

The district superintendent was always willing to talk on the phone whenever I needed clarification on what I and/or the church could or should do.

I met with the pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, to talk with her about the challenges of proper zoning and permitting. I loved the worship space of this little, growing church! They found a one-room, old country building of a closed Episcopal church, moved it to Chapel Hill, and plopped it down on the acreage they had purchased. As soon as I walked inside the little old sanctuary and saw the padded chairs arranged in a circle, I exclaimed, “You’re doing house church here!”  The pastor, Lisa, laughed and said she often changes the positioning of the chairs, piano, and Communion table. The former chancel has become a slightly elevated space for small children to play quietly under adult supervision so that they remain in the worship service.  The Advocate’s worship services always include Eucharist and end with a covered-dish meal.  I was so charmed by the whole set-up that I actually felt sad I couldn’t attend that church.  

In my office, I met with the representative of the Wesley Foundation at UNC, to gauge that group's interest in sharing space or living in a house, if Aldersgate bought one. The group was intentional about staying on campus, I was told. Even Aldersgate's current building (which is in walking distance of campus), would not work, I was told.  

I met several times with folks from the Missional Wisdom Foundation – the people who are “seasoned” in forming intentional living communities. One of these is a published spiritual director who, with her husband, lives in community with the dean of Duke Divinity and her husband.  After an uncomfortable two-hour conversation at their home, she needled me – yes, “needled” is the right word, or perhaps “provoked” is more scriptural – into contacting the priest at St. Thomas More Catholic Church, located next door to Aldersgate.

I was in an snit when I contacted him. But God was at work, and I ended up with a healthy dose of awe.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Meeting with the District Board

Me in 2004, on the ancient path through the ruins in Delphi, Greece
An oracle might be nice every now and then

The congregation’s meeting with the Corridor District Board of Church Location and Buildings was a disappointment to me, but not because of the Board’s ruling, which was favorable. There was good attendance from Aldersgate, and five members of the Board attended, including the district superintendent. 

My disappointment came from the flow of conversation around the table. I had hard copies of the proposal of house church available for everyone (http://methodistfindinggod.blogspot.com/2017/07/aldersgate-house-prototype.html), although Aldersgate had seen and endorsed it several times already.  The Board, composed of clergy and lay people, loved the idea of a combination house church and intentional living community, or at least they said they did. But that evening, Aldersgate members focused on the sale of the property, getting into heated arguments about zoning.

Aldersgate is zoned R-1, single-family residential. Churches and schools are allowed in R-1 zoning, but it means the least complicated sale of the property would be to another church. I already had explained this many times! What I heard that night from a few loud voices (and perhaps I am focusing the negative) was a fixation on the potential money to be made from the sale of the property rather than on forming a house church.  The arguing embarrassed me. I thought: Despite all the meetings, some of these folks still do not understand what this is all about.

Only one person lifted up that the church is the people, and that we could worship in a tent for all she cared, as long as we stayed together. Several others talked about their grief at the congregation’s most recent decline and their feelings of helplessness that light rail construction probably would mean the end of the congregation. They remained fixated on light rail despite previous conversations and meetings about it.

I remember thinking uneasily: I’m hearing very little enthusiasm for a house church. However, there had been zero enthusiasm for any of the other options we had discussed over the past several months.  There was, however, enthusiasm for selling the property. This made no sense to me.

The District Board gave its approval for Aldersgate to hold a church conference to vote on selling the property, with the understanding we would use the money to relocate in the Chapel Hill area to potentially become a house church. We set the date for the church conference in about a month. 

That same evening, the Orange County commissioners approved moving forward with plans for the Durham-Orange Light Rail, construction due to begin in three years.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Meetings and More Meetings

Stay on the path, and watch for alligators and snakes!
Charleston, S.C.
Do you enjoy meetings? Some people do. Even the people at Aldersgate who like meetings are weary of them these days. We’ve had a lot of meetings.

We needed to meet a lot because you cannot over-communicate in church.  During the spring, when members missed an important meeting, they wanted me to hold the meeting again so they could get the information first-hand. I always offered the same meeting multiple times. Some people came to every single meeting; others, to only one or two. We had informational meetings, prayer meetings, discussion meetings, “dreaming” meetings, and official meetings.  I met with individuals when they asked, to explain the concept of “house-church” and intentional living community.

Interestingly, the people who missed the most meetings were not the ones who asked me to meet with them personally.

Most of our church meetings focused on: Should we sell the church property? If we do, what are our options? If we don’t, what does the future appear to hold?

The coming threat of light rail construction was usually a part of our discussions, but there were a number of people who believed light rail would not happen. That spring, it was less of sure thing than it is now. Even now, it is not a sure thing.

A black thread running through our spring-time and early summer meetings was the way building-and-grounds safety issues seemed to be falling through the cracks. One of the community groups who use our building accidentally left on an old coffee maker on a Wednesday night, and it wasn’t discovered smoking and stinking until Friday morning. It might have caused a fire, but it didn’t. The handicapped button on the main door didn’t work right, and when it got pressed, it occasionally swung violently outward and almost knocked people over – but never did. A large tree that was leaning over the playground and needed to be cut down – wasn’t. It fell on a Sunday night, smashing through the playground where – thank God – no preschool children were playing. One or more of the toilets would run without shutting off, and we’d get a horrific water bill. The thermostats were always messed up. Weeds grew in the flower beds and Memorial Garden.

The poor Trustees had to meet a lot, dealing with other building issues. I felt the dwindling membership could no longer adequately handle all the problems involved in maintaining a large, aging building and grounds.

Some of our many meetings were “official.” At our April 1 congregational retreat, we had a show of hands that indicated a large majority of people wanted to move forward with potentially selling the property, which required the permission of the Corridor District Board of Church Location and Building.  I explained that the Board could give us permission to sell the property, but we would need to present a plan of what we were going to do should the building actually sell.  The meeting was scheduled April 27.

Ironically, the Orange County commissioners met the same evening to vote on moving forward with light rail plans.  

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Prayer Images

Not my photo; it was sent in an email to me. But it's pretty cool, don't you think?

In prayer over these past months, I repeatedly have experienced two “images” – the first, of Christ wanting to plant a seed that required the church’s permission, or at least our acceptance.  I perceived that whatever came from the seed would be strong and robust.

I spent a lot of time considering, sometimes with my spiritual director, what the seed might represent.  I didn’t feel particular pressure about the planting of this seed – I felt that God wanted me to know that Christ has plenty of seeds and would plant it elsewhere if necessary. The seed was an invitation to both the church and to me: We were invited, encouraged even, to help plant this seed.

The second “image” was the sense that we (the church and I) were together on a boat. My hands were on the wheel, but Christ stood behind me with his hands on top of mine. I felt that things would work out as long as I didn’t abandon ship or try to wrest the steering wheel from the hands of Jesus. 

The boat image in prayer is a familiar one to me. I often tell Bible study participants that the church is like a boat, and our sanctuaries often resemble an upside-down boat.  I enjoy studying the New Testament stories that take place in boats.  I am fond of saying: “As long as Jesus is in the boat with us, what have we to fear?” I’m fond of saying it, but I certainly have not conquered my own fear.  

There also was the problematic “voice” I twice heard in my heart – “Go to St. Thomas More first.” I wrote it down in my journal and underlined it. The second time I also heard, “I have that priest well in hand.” That seemed an odd thing to “hear,” or whatever you want to call it.   St. Thomas More is a huge Catholic church and school located next door to Aldersgate.  My education in a Catholic high school made me permanently intimidated by nuns and especially priests. I assumed this prayer experience was about selling Aldersgate’s property, but I did not intend to have any personal contact with St. Thomas More.

Of course, that is exactly what happened…. later.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What Does "House Church" Look Like?

There's a mountain to climb
Pilot Mountain, N.C.
The pastor of Refuge Home Church in Durham is Megan Pardue, who was one of two Duke Divinity field education students assigned to the Rougemont Charge in the summer of 2011. I was her supervisor. I remember telling her she had the gifts and graces to be a pastor if she felt called in that direction; she wasn’t sure at the time.

When we met last spring, Megan was glowing, pregnant with her second child. Looking at her, I felt old. I wondered, for the hundredth time, if I have the energy to do something this different and new. Megan described the joys and challenges of worship and fellowship in a house church.

Refuge Home Church members worship in one another’s homes. Are they even members? – I don’t remember asking.  Probably lots of them are worshippers without being members. They tend to be young and have children.  The Nazarene fellowship doesn’t advertise, Megan told me. They are bursting at the seams, partly because of the small worship space, but also because of growth, which has been all word-of-mouth.  She told me that newcomers don’t even typically use the website to find the late Sunday afternoon worship services, which change location every week. People are motivated to come, and so they figure it out.

Megan thought Aldersgate House’s biggest challenge would be changing to the different worship and preaching format required of a smaller, intimate worship space.  She told me I would need to break out of my dependence on what we Duke Divinity graduates call the “well-crafted sermon.” She wasn’t sure I could do it.

Well, I’m teachable, I argued. I can learn! What’s so hard about it?

She explained, and my understanding of the preaching experience at Refuge Home Church goes like this: Megan sits in a chair and holds a cup of coffee in one hand, a Bible in the other. Everyone finds a seat in the living room.  She reads the scripture and expounds a little on it.  She then opens it up to the group. Part of the challenge is getting people to talk honestly, which requires a level of trust in the group. Some of the best discussions have allowed people to talk about how scripture can seem not to have been true for them – illustrating that the kingdom of God is also “not yet,” she told me.  Could I tolerate that? Could the congregation?

Could I let go of the well-crafted sermon? Could I gently direct a topic that is getting dominated by one or two people, but also not control the conversation? There’s an art to it, apparently.  And no, it’s not the same as a good Bible study, she replied to my wondering.

Every Sunday at Refuge Home Church, the conversational sermon is sandwiched between a covered-dish dinner and Communion.  Singing and praying are a part of the worship service, too.

Newcomers don’t sneak in and out of the worship service the way they do in traditional church, Megan explained.  They come for dinner because the worship service starts with dinner. They get to know people in a way that’s unlikely in a typical traditional service.

One of the most interesting aspects of Refuge Home Church is the portability of the service. The Sunday service moves around, and not just to people’s homes. The church supports prison ministry, and so periodically, they take their worship service to a prison. This is not an additional service attended by a handful of dedicated souls, but THE Sunday worship service. I was impressed, thinking of the ways a healing ministry, should Aldersgate decide to embrace it, could be moved around to hospitals and nursing homes as THE Sunday service.

My meeting with Megan left me feeling both excited and scared, which translates as “unsettled.” If I hadn’t continued to feel, in prayer, that God was leading Aldersgate and me in a strange new direction, I would have chickened out. I was often tempted to chicken out. I still am! Prayer keeps me focused. And my, how things keep changing. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Reactions

Walking on a snowy road can be both beautiful and slippery
Bunny Road in Rougemont, NC, after a snow storm

Reactions to the idea of “Aldersgate House” have been interesting.  

Some people get excited about the possibilities, but a significant number are perplexed or confused. No matter how many times I explain it, or put it in writing (see http://methodistfindinggod.blogspot.com/2017/07/aldersgate-house-prototype.html ),
they remain confused. Maybe it’s too far out of the box to imagine. Perhaps it must be lived into. Several people persist in repeating they are turned off by the idea of “worshiping in someone’s living room” even though the “great rooms” we have looked at in various houses are beautiful and spacious.  One member said she did not relish more intimate worship services nor did she want to share meals with “those people.”  One shut-in member responded by shaking her head and repeating, “It’s just soooo sad!” 

Sad is the last thing the Aldersgate House is, to me.  It’s scary, maybe; intimidating, for sure; exciting, yes; but not sad. “Sad,” to me, is witnessing the struggling remnant of a church wrecked by its own history.     

Not many pastors know about the idea of Aldersgate House because my experience at Carr UMC taught me that pastors tend to be pessimistic and overly cautious about out-of-the-box ideas.  I have a wealth of pessimism and caution of my own and don’t need to add to it.

I was completely ignorant of “house-church,” but I researched on-line as well I as could. I failed to find any United Methodist house churches (meaning: sacramental house of worship); our denomination favors a traditional church model.  UM churches tend to have a sanctuary with pews facing forward, focused toward a pulpit, Communion table (which probably gets used once a month), and baptismal font (which typically gets used far less than the Communion table). Our churches have educated, trained, paid clergy who have expected tasks within the church.  Worship tends to be passive for most of the laity.  UM churches typically have Sunday morning worship, Sunday school, age-level programs, committees, set ministries – and a need for enough money to pay for all of it.  

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. The research said they dislike giving money for the upkeep of a building and prefer their offerings go to meet local needs.   

I felt – still feel – uneasy that Aldersgate, as it currently exists, is exactly the sort of church these kinds of seekers are trying to avoid.  I hope that being located in a house, having a specific shared ministry with a focus on healing, and hosting an intentional living community will be enough to change everything.

Most house churches fail, and usually because of disorganization. The leader is often underpaid and untrained theologically and liturgically.  In the absence of good leadership, the most needy, talkative people tend to dominate the worship service.  If the leader is a pastor, he or she often becomes resentful about working long hours for very little pay. A typical house-church moves from house to house of its own members; the size of the worship space limits the number of worshipers.  Jealousy can develop over whose homes host frequently and whose do not.

In my research, I discovered one house-church in Durham: Refuge Home Church (www.refugehomechurch.org ), a Nazarene fellowship whose pastor is – surprise! – a former Duke Divinity field education student I supervised when I was pastor of the Rougemont Charge. I contacted her, and we arranged to meet. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

One Step at a Time

One step at a time through an alien landscape
Roman ruins in Syria, 2004. That's me at the back of the line.

Elaine Heath’s interest in the potential Aldersgate House surprised me but seemed to be compelling evidence that God was at work. When I sent an e-mail to the dean of Duke Divinity, I expected no response. After all, she is the relatively new leader of a big, busy seminary. But I got a quick response of interest, and a meeting was set up between Heath, myself, and her colleague, Heidi Miller. The meeting at the Div School was scheduled toward the end of March, 2017, a few days before an Aldersgate congregational retreat on April 1.

In the meantime, I researched Elaine Heath. I read two of her books (God Unbound and We Were the Least of These) and studied the website of the Missional Wisdom Foundation, which she co-founded and directed (https://www.missionalwisdom.com/). I discovered she had helped start several intentional living communities in Dallas, where she lived while teaching at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

The day of our meeting, Heath was ill and not present, but I met with Heidi Miller, who is a leader in the Missional Wisdom Foundation. She described intentional living communities and explained that she and Heath both lived in such houses in Texas. When they moved here, they started two new communities. She invited me to attend an upcoming covered-dish dinner between three local intentional living communities (hers, Heath’s, and one other), and I accepted. 

She explained that the Missional Wisdom Foundation folks, through trial and error, had formed a process for selecting people for intentional living communities, and rules that govern them. Members of the community pray, talk, and eat together on a daily basis; they accept the oversight of an “abbot”; and they volunteer with whatever ministry the community/house embraces.

Each community is attached to an "anchor church." Aldersgate House would be a new thing, with the church actually worshiping and meeting in the same space in which the community members lived. It presented some interesting challenges and blessings.

I had no idea organized intentional living communities existed for Protestants, particularly United Methodists. I left the meeting feeling both encouraged and a little overwhelmed. I kept repeating to myself what has now become my mantra: “One step at a time.” 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Aldersgate House Prototype

Path to Magnolia Plantation, Charleston, S.C. The house is barely visible.

The latest iteration of "Aldersgate House," presented to the church, the district superintendent, the district board of church location and building, and Duke Divinity: 

“Aldersgate House” – focus on healing and hospitality. House to accommodate both Aldersgate UMC-Chapel Hill, as well as persons living in the house (explanation below)

The Aldersgate House might have:

·         A beautiful “great room,” filled with light, where padded chairs are arranged in a semi-circle, so that people can see the pastor and one another. The church would bring with us the Communion table, baptismal font, paraments, piano, hymnals, Bibles. Worship services would be much the same as they are now, except there would be Communion every Sunday, vital participation by students (see below), congregational meal most Sundays, and more “conversational-style” sermons.

·         Three to four bedrooms
A.                One bedroom/bathroom would provide free accommodation for the care-giver(s) of a hospitalized person.

B.                Two bedrooms would provide free accommodation for Duke Divinity students – those interested in the concept of New Testament “community living” and/or those dedicated to healing ministries. In exchange for free housing, these students will commit to Aldersgate being their church for the duration of their time in the house. They will assist with worship and bring their ministry ideas to the table. AUMC will dedicate a fund to help give life to their ministry ideas; in fact, one of the purposes of the Aldersgate House will be to become a Spirit-led incubator for new ministry.

·         Office space, to be used as a pastor/church office.

·         Kitchen to be used by everyone

·         Dining room/kitchen area to accommodate everyone for meals

·         Front yard large enough and appropriate for parking (big enough to avoid annoying neighbors)

·         House would be handicapped accessible

·         Current church members would be encouraged to participate in daily activities of those living in the house; ie, fellowship, meals, Bible study.        

There will be a steering committee composed of pastor, several church leaders, a student, maybe a faculty advisor or denominational official. The steering committee will make and enforce the house rules, handle potential conflict, and approve funding for ministry ideas.

Aldersgate would:
·         Purchase the house (about 3,000 square feet) and care for it
·         Furnish the house in a simple style
·         Provide free living space
·         Pay for utilities, if possible
·         Pay for weekly cleaning of the common areas, yard mowing, maintenance, insurance
·         Provide the majority of Sunday meals

The students would:
·         Make Aldersgate their church while living in the house, participating in worship, Bible studies, service, fellowship, etc.
·         Observe house rules
·         Keep their own rooms and bathrooms clean and in good order
·         Agree to work with the pastor and steering committee
·         Agree to respect the church, the space, and the opportunity they have been given
·         Bring their ministry ideas to the table
·         House living arrangements would be single gender but might also include married couples.

The church, the pastor, and the students would covenant to: LOVE ONE ANOTHER.

Potential renovations:
1.    Handicapped accessible
2.    Adding downstairs bathroom(s)

After the house is purchased, furnished, etc., the remainder of the proceeds from the sale of 632 Laurel Hill Rd., Chapel Hill, will be invested. The interest from this investment will fund the church through the interim period.

If our house church focus is “healing,” then possibly once a month, we would take our Sunday church service to UNC Hospitals or a nursing home and do our service there.  

Location: The house will be located no more than 15 minutes’ drive from most AUMC members. All houses we have looked at have been no more than 5-6 minutes from the current property. The house will be located no more than 30 minutes away from Duke Divinity.

Because we would remain a United Methodist Church, AUMC still would be required to have certain committees and officers, and we would continue to pay apportionments.

Flexibility – This is a new thing, and we can create new traditions or keep old ones (or both). We hope the more intimate format, spiritual formation through Communion and table fellowship, and the healing/reaching-out focus will appeal to people who are looking for something not available through ordinary church. 

***
Now: can you IMAGINE a small group of elderly United Methodists agreeing to this? What do you think God can imagine?