Finding God

Finding God
On the pathway to Petra

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Church Conference

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

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

Friday, August 18, 2017

Decline Unto Death

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

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

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Rocky Road

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

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

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

On the Right Track

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

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Finding a Path Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Meeting with the District Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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