Finding God

Finding God
On the pathway to Petra

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?

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A New Contact

A pleasant path in Duke Gardens

Because the idea for an Aldersgate house-church included the concept of having Divinity students live in the house, the district superintendent suggested that I contact Elaine Heath, who is the relatively new dean of Duke Divinity School. The dean has a special interest in intentional living communities, she told me.

Right around the time I had that conversation, I received a copy of The 2016 Dean’s Report of the Divinity School. It began with a feature story on Elaine Heath and how she is different from previous deans.

The story included many interesting things, three of which “struck” me.  One, the new dean has a lot of experience forming intentional Christian communities; and two, her method of spiritual discernment involves a process of: “show up, pay attention, cooperate with God, and release the outcome.” I liked that a lot.  

And three, Heath is a mystic. By this, I do not mean an extraordinary person who has esoteric experiences of God. I mean an ordinary person who seeks to know God better and to love God more faithfully through prayer. I mean a person who doesn’t just pray for things but who seeks to know and love God through prayer. These people tend to have experiences of God, in prayer.

In fact, the story ended with Heath’s vision of God as “three wiry old grandmothers.” I was delighted by this image. When Heath, in prayer, expressed her frustration at the long, drawn-out process of change, God said: “We try to avoid coercing people. We work with openings. This takes time.”

Since then, I have thought often of the image of God as three old grandmothers, the truth of what was conveyed in the prayer, and how it might relate to what is happening with Aldersgate.

The article gave me the impetus I needed to send Heath an email.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Talking Things Over with the Church

A path through boggy forest in Maine

Thus began, in early March 2017, a series of meetings with the Administrative Council and anyone else who wanted to attend and discuss the “new thing” the church might do.  This amounted to about a dozen people. When I met with them, I presented a number of options for the church to consider, as well as handing out a fact sheet with some pretty cold, hard facts for folks to consider. The facts included the probability of light rail construction, the steep decline of membership, the small number of those who were willing and able to do the work of the church, the low Sunday attendance (about 25), and the paltry number of visitors.

This church needs spiritual revitalization, I told them. It’s hard to define revitalization but it looks like: “a spring in our steps and a light in our eyes,” “hope rather than discouragement,” “earnest prayer,” and “an eagerness to discern and then get on board with the new thing God might be doing.”

I divided the options into “stay” and “go.” The first “stay” option did not include revitalization and was:  “Remain here and hope that we can continue doing the same things and somehow get different results.” This option seemed unattractive, but I figured it was the option many in the church really wanted because it required no effort.

 The second “stay” option was to cough up enough money to fund a full-time pastor position for three years minimum. The church could request a young, dynamic pastor and commit to supporting fully the pastor’s ideas for increasing discipleship and membership. Aldersgate has enough wealthy members to choose this option, but the church was not interested. I am not the right pastor to do this. I’m pretty sure anything more than half-time with a declining church would wreck my physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

“Stay Option 3” was to change the worship time to Sunday late afternoon and seek out a large United Methodist church who was willing to try to establish an alternate campus in our facility. Things would change, including the worship time, the music, the worship format, and the people leading worship.  But I felt sure the church would grow; I have seen this happen. There was no interest at all in this option.

All of the "Stay Options" had to include the probability of light rail.

The only two “Go Options” I could think of were the ones I had discussed with church leaders and the district superintendent. These required selling the current property and either relocating to a house, or merging with a large church.  The D.S. (surprisingly) supported the house church option, I told them.

Surprisingly, so did Aldersgate.  But as I’ve said, liking an idea and actually doing what’s necessary to bring the idea to life are two very different things. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

What Are You Doing?

May I see Jesus, please? I need to talk to him.
A dock on the Sea of Galilee in Israel


Author’s note: I’ve noticed the readership of this blog has increased. This is causing me some anxiety, but perhaps I’ve finally found something interesting to blog about.

“What are you doing?,” Keith asked me when I told him about my meeting with the district superintendent. “I thought you weren’t going to do this again.”

I know, I know! These days, I try to protect my blood pressure and blood glucose levels, which are negatively impacted by stress. I had already noticed both were increasing.

“Did you ever think your tendency to do this might be more about you than about God?” he asked; a nasty, terrible, valid question! It was a question I already had been asking myself.

Here’s my answer: “Maybe. But I think God might do a lot more, and bigger things, if people were open to it.”

Some years ago, I led Carr United Methodist Church in Durham in making a gift of its building and parsonage to the Shepherd’s House UMC, a new church composed of people from Zimbabwe. Today, the Shepherd’s House is going strong, reaching out with the love of Christ to the inner city neighborhood around the church. The pastor gives me a bear hug when he sees me. It’s clear, in retrospect, that God was at work doing something pretty big.  

But the experience with Carr was really stressful. It changed me in ways that are not all positive. I swore I would never do something like it again.  In later years, when I was pastor elsewhere, every time I would start to pray, “Jesus Christ, take back your church!,” I would check myself… “Jesus, take back your church as long as it’s not overly stressful for me, please.” Jesus would smile, and the Spirit would pass over.

I had stopped praying that particular prayer long ago (God help us all if Jesus really takes back his church), but I had not stopped praying. In fact, during and after the spiritual direction course I took, my prayer life had strengthened.

And here’s something strange: When I prayed about Aldersgate, I often sensed a playfulness on the part of the Divine. This was something new – or perhaps my ability to perceive it was new. It had (still has) the effect of keeping me from taking myself too seriously, and it has kept me from being too stressed out to pursue this new thing that God might be doing.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Next Step: Talk It Over with the Boss

Why is this bridge painted red?
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, S.C.
       
       I prayed about Aldersgate's situation for days before I met with the district superintendent. I prayed that God would speak to me through our conversation, and that God would grant me the grace to accept what I heard. I felt pretty sure I knew what I would hear. 

        I was fairly confident that I either would get a "no," or the D.S. would like the idea of Aldersgate merging with a big church, bringing along our millions to bless the ministries of that church. 

     By this time, the value of Aldersgate's property had blown up to millions in my mind. That's how much the members felt the property was worth. The building sits in a primo location in Chapel Hill, where property in general is scarce and pricey. 

      The district superintendent and I met in a coffee shop in Chapel Hill. I admit to missing the days of having a private district office in which to meet. Ah, well.

      I told her about light rail -- how construction would disrupt the only street that provides access to the church building, how the elevated train would practically side-swipe the church building, and how the congregation probably would not survive the construction phase.

      We discussed the two options I had taken to church leaders, assuming the property could be sold: the house-church or a merger with a large, healthy church. I told her church leaders were open to both. I waited for the "no" or the cautious enthusiasm for a merger. I got neither.

      She liked, she actually liked, the idea of a house-church. I had to pick my chin up off the floor, and I had a weird feeling in my gut about all the praying I had done that God would speak to me through our conversation. Was God speaking?

       My surprise is defensible. Despite the repeated message from on high that churches and pastors should be "nimble," creative, and take risks, the United Methodist beast of a bureaucracy is anything but nimble, and does not tend to support "risky, creative" (read: "cockamamie") ideas. An elderly, declining congregation becoming a house-church is a fantastical concept. Ridiculous, even. Furthermore, I could not uncover the existence of a single United Methodist house-church despite focused Internet searches. Would the powers-that-be really allow us to risk millions of dollars on this?

     Actually, the D.S. did not believe Aldersgate's property was worth millions. Light rail probably would devalue the property, she said, which likely wasn't worth as much as everyone thought it was worth even without light rail. Any potential buyer would know about the light rail plans. I told her we would get a commercial market analysis done of the property's value.

      That day in the coffee shop, I lad out a compelling vision of a U.M. house-church and intentional living community. The D.S. liked all of it, especially the idea of a focus on healing and hospitality. She suggested I contact the dean of Duke Divinity School, Elaine Heath, who was interested in the concept of intentional community living. 

        A big door swung open that day. It was such a big door I almost panicked -- What the heck am I doing? I swore I would never do this again!

Friday, June 23, 2017

First Step: Go to the Leaders

A pleasant enough path through Hill Forest in Bahama, NC
       Staying home to take care of a husband with recent knee-replacement surgery gives me some extra time to write.
       The reaction of church leaders to my suggestion that we sell the property before it was impacted by light rail still surprises me. At first, I went to leaders individually in their homes – both the established leaders and some of those who exert influence from behind the scenes. I expected shock, grief, anger, confusion, and defensiveness. I expected a wealth of caution.  I did not expect what I would term happy interest. Their reaction both surprised and puzzled me. I thought: Okay, so they just need a few days to consider what I’m suggesting, and then out will come the anger. But it never did.
         As time went by, there were negative congregational reactions to be sure, but anger was never one of them.  I sometimes wonder if I caught the congregation at a point in its life cycle where all the “fight” had been taken out of them. The church had experienced significant conflict among themselves and with the previous pastor just two years previously over the building of the new sanctuary. Worship attendance, already low, had crashed.
        In my initial conversations with church leaders about selling the property, what I mostly heard was an openness to both ideas. Admittedly, some were dead-set against merging with another church; the option of merging with a small church had been offered to them previously and rejected. But they had never considered merging with a large, healthy church. There are three large, healthy United Methodist churches in Chapel Hill. 
         As time has passed, I have learned that being open to an idea is quite a different thing than committing to the work and changes involved in actually doing it.         
       But congregational leaders being open to the idea of selling the property and doing something different was all I needed at that point.  Because I wasn’t sure if Aldersgate would be allowed sell anyway, I made an appointment with the district superintendent, to talk things over.

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.