Finding God

Finding God
On the pathway to Petra

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Attraction of Dinner Church

A pleasant path
Duke Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinner church could work. I pray that it will.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Due Diligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Offer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

Time Creeps Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Time Away

The flags spell out "Beaufort" in sailing language

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

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

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

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

Katherine and friendly budgies (parakeets)
Rachel and budgies


Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Preschool Part of the Story

Path to the Aldersgate playground
About a month ago, the postal delivery truck pulled up to Aldersgate’s mailbox when I was outside. I walked over to get the mail, and the mail man asked, “Is your preschool gone?” Their mail was gone, he noted. Well, yes, I replied; they have relocated.

The Aldersgate Church Preschool (ACP), the very successful “preschool of the warm heart,” had to be considered in the church’s on-going plans.  

Back in February, I had the first of many conversations with our preschool director, Jan. Aldersgate might eventually be placing the property on the market for sale, I warned her.  I tried to be transparent in an on-going way, and so I would update Jan each time the church had a significant meeting and inched closer to a decision. She, the ACP board, and the preschool parents fretted – what would they do? Where would they go?

The ACP board admitted the preschool would disband if construction of light rail began just yards from the playground. But they wanted Aldersgate to wait until construction actually began before placing the property on the market for sale; realistically, that wasn’t going to happen.

For eight years, ACP had occupied our entire education wing (7,000 square feet) rent-free. They paid very little toward the utilities they used or the insurance the church paid. The preschool served primarily upper-middle-class white and a few Asian families. Aldersgate paid teacher salaries, payroll taxes, and expenses, and then the preschool would reimburse the church. This meant church finances were opaque and confusing as large sums of money crossed back and forth. It was a huge source of irritation and frustration for me as I tried to oversee the primary church bank account.   

When I arrived as interim pastor in 2016, I quickly figured out that ACP was a “sacred cow.” Any attempted discussion of the preschool in a committee meeting invited loud, emotional outbursts – which effectively prevented the church from talking about it at all.  

Some people remembered well the removal of the non-religious preschool that had preceded ACP in order to make room for a new “Christian” preschool – and the bad feelings in the community that had resulted. Some felt ACP was taking advantage of the church, and many folks felt ACP wasn’t really a ministry because the families were well-to-do and many of them attended their own churches. Some members felt hurt and puzzled that preschool parents resolutely refused to attend worship except on two designated days a year. Other people felt ACP could do no wrong; that the preschool was God’s gift to the church and the church’s ministry in the community.  

My own feeling was that ACP ought to pay more for utilities but at least they were occupying the education wing, playground, and parking lot, which might have been empty otherwise. Whenever I found myself getting irritated with the preschool, I reminded myself of the scripture passages where Jesus talks about the importance of welcoming children.

Last spring, as Aldersgate seemed more and more likely to sell the property, I reassured Jan that God loved the preschool, and that things would work out for them. I truly believed this.

Things did work out. In late spring, Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Chapel Hill heard the preschool was looking for a home and issued an invitation to ACP, which was accepted. In July, the Aldersgate Church Preschool moved, keeping the title “Preschool of the Warm Heart.”

Can you tell that I’m leaving out portions of this story? It can’t be helped.  Aldersgate gave the preschool almost all of the furniture they had been using, and from my perspective at least, we parted on good terms.

After ACP moved out, St. Thomas More arranged to have the education wing cleaned and repaired, and it is now bright and shiny as a new penny. Eventually it may house a new early childhood education center. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Imagine: Dinner Church

Time for dinner! Stay out of the mud puddles.
Greenwood Creek Picnic Area, Adirondacks, N.Y.

I’ve heard it said the biggest problem confronting local churches is a lack of imagination. In order to embrace the new thing God might be doing, we need to be able to imagine it.  Over the years, I’ve tried to stretch the imaginations of church folk in various ways, but nothing seems to work very well. Before we can imagine it (whatever “it” is), many people need to experience it.  But then it’s hardly imagination, is it?

I had not been able to conduct a practice “house-church” service because I couldn’t find a house to do it in.  It would have been self-defeating to hold it in the church parlor, or a too-small room, or a location with inadequate parking.  But we could hold dinner-church in our own fellowship hall. This we did one fine Sunday in August.

People initially seemed confused even though I had announced several times exactly what was going to happen.  This was worship, but we would gather in the fellowship hall, not the sanctuary.  Yes, it was still at 11 a.m. Worship would be a part of dinner, not separate from it.  No, we were not going to sing with the piano; I gave the musician the day off. No, we did not need ushers. Yes, it was catered, and no, you don’t have to pay for it. Yes, there will be a delicious, light lunch for everyone, even those on a special diet: diabetic (like me), gluten-free, or low-salt. Yes, we will have Communion, and no, you don’t need your Hymnal.

Amazingly, we had three visitors that day in addition to the several families who brought grown children and grandchildren. Thank God I had ordered more than enough food (barely).  We stood in a big circle, and I repeated instructions. We lit candles, sang “Sanctuary” (off a song sheet), and I gave a blessing.  The catering company had delivered a variety of wraps and salads, and people picked up a boxed lunch and cup of water and sat down at round tables that accommodated six.

I had prepped one “table leader” per table ahead of time, and I also was a table leader.   I waited perhaps 10 minutes after people began to eat, then stood, encouraged people to keep eating, and read Luke 6:1-5 – a brief passage in which Jesus says he is Lord of the Sabbath. I talked for five unscripted minutes in a mostly humorous way about how my own family had observed the Sabbath as I was growing up.  I instructed the tables to discuss the questions: How did or does your family observe (or not) the Sabbath, and did or does your observance capture the spirit of the Sabbath? I worried about the visitors: Would they be able to join in the discussion?  I need not have fretted; the individual table conversations were lively, and the table leaders provided guidance when needed.

When I could see that people were mostly finished eating, we lifted up prayer concerns, had a pastoral prayer, and then began Communion by singing “Be Present at Our Table, Lord.” Everyone knew the Communion responses by heart, and the words sounded fuller and stronger in the smaller space of the fellowship hall.

After Eucharist, we stood in a circle again and sang “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.”  The offering plates had been placed on a table by the exit door, and people dropped their offering in as they departed.  There was a lot of lingering, talking, and good-natured cleaning up; most people seemed to be in a great mood.

However, I was exhausted and felt like my brain had been fried.  The new thing God might be doing isn’t necessarily easy, even for pastors.  I wrote in my journal the next morning, “Everyone loved dinner-church… except me.”  But I could get over it.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Finding Space

There seems to be light at the end of this tree tunnel
Nature trail at Fort Macon State Park, Carteret County, N.C.

The district superintendent was disappointed the house-church idea was not going to fly. Aldersgate members were not disappointed, I told her, but rather relieved the church would not be rushing into the purchase of a house and doing something they were (despite my best efforts) unable to imagine. If interest and enthusiasm for buying a house and going through the permitting and zoning process ever materialized, we could – at some later point – purchase property.  

The D.S. was cautious about dinner church, and she reminded me of something I already knew: Church members tend to have trouble paying attention and remembering specific dates, times, and locations. People likely wouldn’t come to a service that bounced from restaurant to restaurant because they wouldn’t know where to go, even if they were told a dozen times. She advised me to find a set place. 

In fact, I learned that Chapel Hill restaurants in general lack private meeting space and adequate parking. The ones that did have meeting space were horribly expensive, as were hotel meeting rooms and food.

Aldersgate was discussing the dinner-church idea in meetings and bible study. Someone asked – what if we leased space somewhere and had the meals delivered? If the right zoning were already in place, perhaps this was an option. An Internet search revealed a lot of office/retail space for lease or purchase in Chapel Hill, some of which was small houses. I asked Mike, our commercial agent, to help us find a place.

We quickly discovered the houses were not zoned appropriately; the sellers were leaving the re-zoning to the buyers. I crossed out all of those.  A lot of office space was too expensive, and the other tenants might not want a church located there. The less expensive spaces didn’t provide enough parking. Some of the office space was too “tucked away” within complexes where all the offices looked alike. If I had trouble finding the space, other people would have trouble, too.

The afternoon I spent with Mike looking at potential space in Chapel Hill threatened to become a big downer, until he suddenly had an idea. He asked me: “What about ‘Extraordinary Ventures’?  Are you familiar with them?” No, I wasn’t. “Let’s drop in on them,” he said, and so we did.

Extraordinary Ventures is located on Elliott Road in the heart of Chapel Hill, about a mile from our current property. The non-profit leases rooms of various sizes, and they employ people with disabilities. A church had just recently terminated their lease on Sunday evenings, and so EV did have two rooms available then. The parking lot was paved with plenty of space, there was a kitchen, bathrooms, and lots of round tables. We could rent for a 2-hour stretch for a reasonable rate, and set-up of tables and chairs would be provided at no additional cost.

I talked it over with Extraordinary Ventures, and I allowed myself to feel a wee bit optimistic. While they drew up a contract, I planned a “dinner church” in the Aldersgate fellowship hall, to help us all imagine this new thing. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Now What?

I have no idea where this path leads, but it seems pleasant enough.
Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

What do you do when it appears the church property is going to sell, the house-church idea is a no-go, and you need a plan for relocation?

Several members reminded me that the district superintendent had told us we could lease or rent space rather than buying.  But leasing or renting for a house-church had the same zoning and permitting issues as buying a house.

I prayed, I thought, I wrote in my journal, and I talked with others. I also read several influential books I believe God put in my path, including  A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman, and So Far From Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World by Margaret J. Wheatley. For weeks, I had been fighting a failure of nerve, which is the tendency of leaders to give up when the going gets tough – which it always does.   

So Far From Home is not a religious book, but it offers wisdom for social do-gooders, including pastors. The author encourages leaders to stop trying to change the world (which leads to burnout), but rather act with integrity in the world that exists. The book describes a theory of emergence – meaning cultures, values, and ways of being emerge naturally in systems and are influenced by many factors, including technology, people, events, emotions, etc. Leaders cannot accurately predict, control, nor change what emerges, but only respond to it.

For example, our country’s current divisive political culture has emerged from forces beyond our control (including social media). No one predicted it, and it is proving to be uncontrollable. What has emerged profoundly influences the parts that produced it; for example, social media and we ourselves are influenced by the culture which has emerged.

This was fairly mind-blowing for a pastor who tends to want to change things and who has, not surprisingly, experienced burnout.  The book caused me to re-think things.  Here is what I wrote in my journal:  

What I had hoped to change is the existing congregational culture of fatigue – a lack of energy and enthusiasm – which is due to many factors, including the advanced age of members and the church’s recent history.  I need to accept that I cannot change this.  I can only respond to it with integrity, and also to whatever new thing (if anything) emerges. Whatever plans we make for the future will need to take into account the current lack of energy and enthusiasm.”

I realized that becoming a house-church probably would not have worked because the congregation lacked the necessary energy and enthusiasm – and I could not change that, nor could I compensate for it without exhausting myself. In fact, just as the theory implies, the congregational culture was draining my own energy and enthusiasm. By late July, I felt worn out and slightly depressed. 

I retreated to prayer and tried to imagine what Aldersgate could do (besides close, which didn’t seem to be an option), given the age of our members, their fatigue and lack of engagement. What form of “being church” would require very little effort or enthusiasm, was different enough to invite change and spiritual growth, and was attractive to members and potential visitors?

I remembered the e-mail links to articles on dinner church that I had deleted.  Dinner church involves worshiping, eating, and conversing together, and often also involves preparing food together. However, Aldersgate members do not particularly like to cook, and we would lose our kitchen and fellowship hall if the property sold.  I cannot remember if I was praying or thinking at that point, but I had the idea of holding a weekly dinner-church in local restaurants. If we did not buy a house, there would be a lot of money to invest from the sale of the property. Could interest from the investment pay for dinners and also allow the church to give money to good causes? Could members get on board with a format of dinner, conversation, worship and giving away money?

Moreover, an early evening “dinner church” would allow those people who believed they couldn’t worship anywhere other than a traditional Sunday morning service, to attend the church of their choice on Sunday morning and still come to Aldersgate dinner church on Sunday evening. But would they do it? If it involved good food, conversation with friends, and deciding how to give away money, perhaps they could.

Dinner Church was a half-baked idea that began to take shape in the heat of necessity over the next few weeks. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

House-Church Begins to Look Unlikely

Rules and limitations
Asheville Botanical Gardens

As we waited for the Aug. 1 deadline for St. Thomas More to make an offer on the Aldersgate property, several events happened that turned me sour on the idea of a combined house-church and intentional living community.

In early July, I took everyone from Aldersgate who was willing on a tour of two “finalist” houses, the only two houses I could find that fit our criteria.  I was limited in my search – the property had to be outside the Town of Chapel Hill (to avoid zoning hassles), it needed to be somewhat off the street so the neighbors wouldn’t complain, have enough space for parking, be within a 15-minute drive for most of our members, have a beautiful roomy worship area, at least two downstairs bathrooms, and space for an office. Some folks told me they couldn't drive more than 10 minutes nor walk on gravel.

From the intentional living perspective, the house needed to have several bedrooms well separated from the church’s worship and meeting areas, and private gathering space for those living in the house. We also wanted to have the loved one(s) of a hospital patient living in the house, which further complicated living arrangements. 

The first house we visited was an empty mansion on seven weedy acres with a gazebo and a non-functioning fish pond. It had a grand entrance and three floors including a huge finished basement. The property was located on a major road in the rural buffer, was not visible from the street, had plenty of space to park, and was within about five miles of the current building. Even though there seemed to be an exciting potential for a partnership with a non-profit in the basement space, my gut reaction was: This place is too big, too expensive, and too much to take care of.

I am not superstitious, but when I discovered an enormous snake skin next to the fetid fish pond, I had a bad feeling.

The other house was about a three-minute drive beyond the mansion, but the drive there required several turns on windy narrow roads. It was smaller, less expensive, quite lovely, set off the road, and seemed well-suited for our purposes -- with the exception of the windy, narrow roads.

I closely watched church members wander around both properties, and I was struck by their lackluster demeanor.  These were people who wanted to please me, but they had almost no enthusiasm for imagining a house-church.

The next day, the smaller house snagged a buyer and went under contract.

The day after that, I received an e-mail from Dustin, who was my informal zoning consultant. He had met with government officials about a different project and was able to lay out the zoning and permitting process Aldersgate would have to follow even outside the Town of Chapel Hill. It was doable, he was willing to help us, but the process would take a minimum of a year and involve multiple meetings with committees and government offices.   

I was not willing to start the process without energetic support from church members, which did not exist.

There was one last blow, and it pains me to admit it.

All along, I had assumed (somewhat uncomfortably) that the church could somehow fly under the radar with the whole project. Some of those I had consulted advised us to call any house we might purchase a “parsonage” because assistant ministers (Divinity students) would be living there.  A small group of people coming together to worship on Sundays was not going to bother anyone – it would be like having a weekly bible study in the house. I was advised: Don’t mess with the zoning; go outside the town limits and find a suitable house not visible from the road.

Then, into my e-mail dropped a document-in-progress from St. Thomas More announcing that church’s plans for the Aldersgate property as well as Aldersgate’s tentative plans for the future.  Father Scott wanted me to look it over and make any corrections. The document felt like a bombshell. St. Thomas More had not yet made an offer for the property, and the realization that a sale might really happen – and soon all of Chapel Hill would know about it – felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach.

“We can’t fly under the radar,” I thought. Truthfully, I shouldn’t even have considered it. If there were going to be a house-church, we would need to do it by the rules.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The (Dreary) Focus on Numbers

A misty backyard path to no where
Wintergreen, VA
A declining church easily becomes focused on its lack of growth.  Aldersgate members often bemoaned the church’s failure to recover its pre-conflict attendance numbers – even though the church had been declining for at least a decade. A year ago, everything seemed to be right for growth: There was a new pastor, a good worship service in a beautiful new sanctuary, the fellowship hall was large and generously shared with the community, we were a welcoming congregation, and there was always the fabulous preschool (and the mystery of why the parents never came to church, despite all our efforts to welcome them).

Why were there hardly any visitors in worship? Whole months passed without a single visitor. We couldn’t use the explanation that finding our parking lot was difficult (although it is) because dozens of recovering alcoholics, preschool parents, and voters found the parking lot with no problem.

I kept telling members to relax; it takes time to get over major conflict, and new people would come. Growth happens as a result of being faithful and friendly, I said. However, I also was puzzled by the lack of visitors and eventually began to ask God and myself: Is this about me, or about the church, or about the location, or about the worship service, or…. what?

The probability of light rail fell like a boulder into my prayerful consideration. If there were few visitors now, just think what would happen when construction disrupted the only street that provided access to the parking lot!

My question eventually changed to: “Is God providing some sort of opportunity here?” Our church questions changed to: “Should we sell the property?” and “If we do, what then?”  House-church emerged as a potential solution primarily because the district superintendent supported it, and the Missional Wisdom Foundation and Duke Divinity seemed willing to partner with it.

The same church members who had bought into the myth of: “If we build it, they will come” in regards to the construction of the new sanctuary, now asked me about how Aldersgate could possibly grow if we were located in a house where gathering space would be limited. I replied that the church should stop worrying about membership growth and start being concerned about faithfulness. If we became a house-church, we would need to define what faithfulness looked like in our context and then focus on living into that.

But here is a sad reality: United Methodists (in my experience) are so used to being preached to, lectured, taught, and harangued about church growth, that we are unable to let go of growth as our primary goal.  It’s easy for churches and pastors alike to judge ourselves as “effective” or not, based on numbers. I have spent years considering this, and I have reached the conclusion that the denomination’s focus on growth is often about institutional survival, something I don’t think God supports. 

Eventually, I began to ask members, “Why do you want the church to grow?” And I pushed – Is it really about “making disciples,” or sharing Christ’s love, or bearing witness to God’s kingdom? Or is it actually about getting more people to help pay the bills and do the work of the church? These were distressing questions because we all knew the real answers.  

It’s a tall order for a declining, mildly panicked church to focus on faithfulness rather than looking for the next quick fix for growth. And no wonder. Faithfulness often requires change.  A new preschool, a new sanctuary, a new fellowship hall, a new paint job, a new sign, and even a new pastor all fell under “quick fixes” that required no change to the congregation – and obviously did not work for the desired church growth.

I wondered more than once if house-church were, even for me, the next quick fix. I don’t know the answer to that, but I believe one reason folks had difficulty embracing the concept of a house-church was that it would require us to change. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

New Expressions of Church

Some ancient things endure
Petra, Jordan
Throughout the spring and summer, as Aldersgate explored the possibility of becoming a combination house-church and intentional living community, links to articles on alternative forms of church began appearing in my e-mail. Sometimes a person familiar with our situation sent the link; other times, the link came from Duke Divinity or a United Methodist organization.  The district superintendent also gave me the address of a website called Fresh Expressions: http://freshexpressionsus.org/.
Church is changing, although some "new" forms of church are actually quite ancient.
There are so many new ways to be a church! Farm Church, Simple Church, Dinner Church, Pub Church (also called Theology on Tap), Jogger Church, Mountain Biker Church, Coffee Church (pastor is called “pastorista”), and Café Church were some that caught my attention.
There are videos of Coffee Church and Café Church that make them look too chaotic and gimmicky for my taste. The churches devoted to outdoor exercise made me feel tired (I didn’t find a “tennis church”). Often, these new forms of church are endeavors launched by large churches trying to attract millennials.  
Farm Church in Durham captured my interest, although it’s not something I personally would want to do. As near as I can tell, people meet to pray and read scripture, and then get their hands dirty in the soil – planting, gardening, and harvesting fresh produce to give to poor and/or hungry people. These are Presbyterians (PCUSA), but I had to search to find that. Check it out: www.farmchurch.org.
I’m surprised that some young Methodists in our conference seem to be on the cutting edge of Theology on Tap, or Pub Church (or some people call it “beer church”). My, how times have changed.
Simple Church sort of blew my mind. According to the article, Simple Church began when a declining U.M. Church in Massachusetts wanted to close but instead was sent a young “planter” pastor, who re-organized them to be a dinner church eating potluck suppers with Eucharist on Thursday evenings.  A 3-year grant initially paid the pastor’s salary, but now the church tries to supplement congregational giving through baking and selling bread. The five elderly members who stayed with the church through the transition eventually dropped to just one. ONE! But in three years, 70 new members joined.
The thing that haunted me about Simple Church was the mere five original members who tried it, and the one member who stayed. I suppose the 3-year grant allowed the pastor to keep at it. This speaks to a church’s inability to change, I think.  Three years down the road, there is something new and wonderful – but Simple Church struggles because the pastor is full time, and the church has an annual budget of $100,000. Seventy new (young) people don’t tend to give that kind of money; hence, the baking and selling of bread. I’ll bet it gets old.
I kept turning over the article in my mind.  If the money were there, could a church really shrink to five members? I was concerned the potential “Aldersgate House” membership might fall dangerously low, at least in its early days.
Links to articles on Dinner Church kept landing in my e-mail, and I kept deleting them. Dinner Church is dinner and worship combined – much like Simple Church. Most new expressions of church involve a weekly congregational meal and Eucharist -- two practices original to the early church that were combined in its earliest days (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). In Dinner Church, gone is the sermon and most of the singing. Instead, the focus is on meal preparation and conversation around individual tables. The idea wasn’t all that appealing to me because Aldersgate members are elderly and don’t much like to cook.
Eventually, I gave the concept a closer look. 

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.