Finding God

Finding God
On the pathway to Petra

Thursday, June 22, 2017

What if....

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Difficulty of Stairs

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

-       Psalm 118:5

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Prayer and Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017


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.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Meeting

This path looks like a dead end
Bermuda Botanical Gardens
Light rail proponents brought their big guns and a Powerpoint presentation to the February 2017 meeting with Aldersgate, or so it seemed. My memory is that there were about ten of them, including representatives from the Town of Chapel Hill.  Most Aldersgate members and constituents came, a “crowd” of about 25.

Here are my memories of the meeting:

The transit folks were both serious and soothing. They said, in essence: Assuming the pieces fall in place for funding, light rail is coming, and it’s coming very close to your church building. There is nothing you can do to stop it, but we will help to mitigate its impact by rebuilding the steps of your sanctuary. Light rail cannot cross to the other side of Fordham until after it passes in front of your building because it would impact the N.C. Botanical Gardens, and federal law prohibits that.  They said: light rail is a good thing, a progressive thing, something our area needs desperately, according to our research.  They said that right now, our area must depend on overloaded buses.

“What overloaded buses?,” one church member demanded. “All the buses we see running between Durham and Chapel Hill are half-empty!”  Certainly, the free buses that run all over Chapel Hill can be full at times – but these buses don’t go to Durham.

One church member pointed out that if light rail were moved to the other side of Fordham, it would only impact the Botanical Garden’s gravel parking lot. It didn’t matter, we were told. Federal law prohibits it if there is a reasonable alternative. Apparently the front yard of a small church is a reasonable alternative.

Church members asked: What about Fern Avenue being relocated? That’s not what you told us last time we met with you!

Transit people denied having said anything different, and replied: The piers for light rail will go into the ground where Fern Avenue is currently located. Fern Avenue will be moved closer to the church building, impacting the front steps. But we will rebuild your steps off to both sides and install an attractive vegetative barrier between the sanctuary and the light rail. They showed us an artist’s drawing of this.

Several church members pointed out the town had required Aldersgate to significantly set back its new sanctuary from Fern Avenue. Light rail was about to violate the town’s own rule about set-back distance!  Apparently, that was okay.

What about the church’s playground?, other members asked. What parent in their right mind would bring a child to a preschool whose playground was mere yards from heavy construction? The transit team replied, “Preschoolers like to watch heavy equipment!”  This off-hand comment ratcheted up the congregational anger growing in the room. 

An Aldersgate member addressed the person representing the Town of Chapel Hill and asked, “If you’ve known about light rail all along, why didn’t you warn us about it when we were seeking the (expensive and time-consuming) permits for our new sanctuary?”  The man had no answer, and church anger began to overflow. The meeting threatened to degenerate into a shouting match.

I wanted to prevent this, so I stood and said to the light rail people: “I think what you are hearing is the grief and anger of this church because we feel construction of the light rail is going to mean the end of this church and our preschool.”  The room grew quiet, and the transit people had no reply.

The meeting ended on neither a positive nor totally negative note.  It convinced some members to actively fight the possibility of light rail. Other believed there was nothing to be done but wait and hope the funding fell through. Some members felt that all would be fine if the church got the sideways steps and vegetative barrier.

My take-away from the meeting was this: These people are hell-bent on having light rail. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

I'm Not Much Liking This Path

Path through mangroves-- I wonder if there are snakes in the trees?
Sanibel Island, Fla
My first reaction to realizing the impact the proposed elevated light rail would have on Aldersgate was to fire off an email to the congregation, giving them the link to Triangle Transit’s virtual tour and encouraging them to write, phone, or email their county commissioners, whose contact information I had found on the Internet.

Immediately, I encountered the obstacle so common in congregations composed of older members, even in tech-saavy Chapel Hill. Many folks seemed unable to click on the link and watch the virtual tour.  Perhaps their computer systems were too antiquated to run it. Or maybe they didn’t want to see it, or perhaps they didn’t know what a virtual tour was, or they thought their computer would get a virus. Who knows? Very few people watched it, although I did hear a lot of, “Pastor, I couldn’t figure out how to do that.”

One person told me I was exaggerating when I said in my email that the light rail was going to come “right through the church’s front yard.”  I discovered Aldersgate had met more than a year ago with Triangle Transit, who told them the train was going to run well away from the church building, in the grassy median between Fordham (Hwy. 15-501) and Fern Aveune. That was Aldersgate's understanding, anyway.

“That’s not what the virtual tour indicates,” I replied to the man. The virtual tour says Fern Avenue will be relocated. When he finally watched the virtual tour, he was outraged – this was NOT what the church had been told! Meanwhile, I called the public liaison person at Triangle Transit, and she answered some of my questions.

She admitted that yes, light rail is planned to come very close to our church building; in fact, it is going to destroy some of the sanctuary’s front steps. But Triangle Transit would commit to rebuilding those steps in a sideways direction. Fern Avenue, the narrow street that provides access to the church building, will always be open to traffic, even if it’s only one lane, she told me.

I tried to imagine what that would look like – orange barrels, dirt road, construction debris, giant beeping trucks, and monstrous piers to hold up an elevated train. The train, incidentally, will run every 15 minutes, and will be about the same height as the church’s front entrance, which is 18 steep brick steps high, facing Fordham.

“Your church has a strange architectural design,” the woman told me, implying that having to climb 18 steep bricks steps was an odd way to welcome people in through a church’s front door.  I gnashed my teeth.  I was not the pastor of Aldersgate when the new sanctuary was built several years ago, but I had been on the district committee that supposedly oversaw the architectural design of the new sanctuary. The committee had expressed the same concern, among others. Somehow the new sanctuary got built anyway without corrections. Eighteen steep brick steps were, in fact, a major design flaw. Just try getting a casket up or down those steps, I wanted to scream.
Instead, I took a deep breath and pointed out that the proposed elevated light rail was crossing Fordham immediately after it passed within feet of Aldersgate so it would not impact the campus of our large next-door-neighbor, St. Thomas More Catholic Church and school.

“Can’t you have it cross Fordham a bit earlier so it doesn’t impact us so much?” I asked. No, she said, that would make it impact the N.C. Botanical Gardens directly across the street from Aldersgate, and federal law prevents that.

“We’d like to come out and meet with your church and explain everything,” the woman said soothingly. “When would be a good day?” So we set an afternoon date about two weeks in the future.

Our path forward was about to get complicated.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Is Our Path Blocked?

Magnolia Plantation, Charleston, S.C.
The challenging path which we lately travel, the church and I, began like so many “ministry by the gut” moments, with a subtle feeling of unease.  Keith and I hosted a New Year’s Eve party less than five months ago, and one of our guests (married to one of Keith’s golfing buddies) was a Durham County commissioner. I heard her talking about the Durham-Orange Light Rail plans, so I eased my way into the conversation and said something to the effect, “Not everyone supports the current path planned for the Light Rail. Running between two hospitals doesn’t seem as smart as, say, running it out to the airport or to RTP. And it’s incredibly expensive.”  

“It has to start somewhere,” she said.  “It will eventually expand to RTP.”  I don’t recall what else she said, only that she made me feel, well, dismissed, even though I had expressed valid concerns.  

“I think it’s supposed to run right in front of the church I serve in Chapel Hill,” I told her.  One member had told me about how ugly the elevated rail would look, blocking the front of the church. This led to further dismissal – I was talking about Chapel Hill, which is Orange County, not Durham County. 

Oh, well, it was a party, so I moved on to other conversations. But my encounter with her made me feel mildly uneasy, and I’ve learned to trust that little twisty gut feeling.

Isn't it odd that the conversation with the county commissioner -- rather than the conversation with the church member who was concerned about the ugly appearance of an elevated train -- was what spurred my unease? I think it's because the conversation with the county commissioner made the possibility of Light Rail real to me for the first time. 

In early January, I did an Internet search of the Durham-Orange Light Rail. It led me to the web page for Triangle Transit (“Our Transit Future”), which has a link to a virtual tour of the proposed project.  As I watched the virtual tour, I got my first gut punch. Looking unattractive and blocking the view of the church was the least of it – construction of the elevated rail called for the “proposed street relocation” of Fern Avenue, the narrow road that provides the ONLY access into Aldersgate’s building without driving miles on twisty, hilly, residential streets that even I haven’t figured out.  I knew what that meant for a small group of senior citizens who sometimes won’t come to church if snow threatens or it’s raining.

Construction was due to begin in three years, and a construction zone would mean the end of the church.  Why was no one talking about this?

Take the virtual tour yourself; you may have to copy and paste the link into your browser.