Finding God

Finding God
On the pathway to Petra

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 laid 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


I think I know 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.