Finding God

Finding God
On the pathway to Petra

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:
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:
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.