Monday, October 15, 2012

A Sense of History

It's been awhile, but I wanted to include an article I had published in the local paper last weekend...

“A Sense of History”

                At the end of this month, my congregation, Christ Lutheran Church, will celebrate fifty years of ministry in Falmouth.  This has sent me climbing in the attic and reaching to the backs of the closet shelves that comprise our church archives.  Over the years, members have made deposits of snapshots, newsletters and newspaper clippings that help tell the congregation’s story.  They didn’t want to throw them out, but they also weren’t sure what to do with them, so they placed them in spaces no one else was using where they wouldn’t be destroyed though probably be forgotten.

                I have been pulling them out of their dark corners, unlabeled snapshots of former members  mixed in with photos of current members looking a good bit younger.  I have seen many pictures of the building in different stages of construction and repair.  The story goes that they paid one dollar for a decommissioned military chapel from Camp Edwards, a building they disassembled and rebuilt on Brick Kiln Road.  Judging by the number of pictures of the building, they were very proud of that accomplishment.

                When I was in seminary, studying to become a pastor, one of my professors told me that every time I came to a new congregation I should go through all the newsletters and bulletins I could find; read the council minutes as far back as they went.  He told me that I needed to get a sense of the history of the congregation and that, along with interviews of members, the paper records left behind were an important tool in recovering that history.

                In my first call in rural Pennsylvania, I dutifully went through those records as long as I could stand it.  Council minutes and old newsletters are extremely dry reading.  Did it matter any longer that the council moved to buy one brand of industrial mixer over another in the 1950s?  Did it matter any longer that the Church Ladies’ roast beef supper of 1938 was considered a great success at the time?   So much of the history was made of these seemingly minor details.  I also knew that these minor details were sometimes connected to hours of committee meetings, debate and heated arguments.  I actually met someone who had left the congregation because it had chosen the wrong mixer in the 1950s.  Would my ministry really be another collection of trivial decisions that wouldn’t matter in fifty years?

                I suppose there is a fair amount of pride that goes along with that question.  Like most people, I want what I do to matter.  When I do leave a congregation, I hope that people will think I made a difference as a pastor.  For whatever reason, I have always made the assumption that making a difference would mean major events that would stick out in the memory of the church, not as footnotes in filed away newsletters. 

                On the other hand, the choice of a mixer was probably a major event at the time and the Church Ladies’ roast beef supper of 1938 was for a while remembered as a signature moment the congregation’s life.  More importantly, these events that seem trivial now set more important events in motion.  The success of the 1938 supper led to more suppers that led to the need for an industrial mixer for making massive amounts of mashed potatoes and the fillings for homemade, chocolate-covered Easter eggs which were then sold to raise funds for missionaries.  Those missionaries helped build churches, hospitals and schools in Liberia (in West Africa).  The cumulative effects of those minor events turned into a legacy that was much larger.

                In our current culture, in which congregations are struggling with declining attendance and deficit budgets, many are looking for a quick fix, some major event or novel ministry that will bring new members and new life to the organization.  Yet those faces in forgotten snapshots and voices from the back of the closet shelf tell me that it is the trivial events that actually create the great moments of a congregation’s life.  It is the minor moments that create a culture in which major moments can grow or be dealt with (because major moments are not always positive).

So I take comfort in the idea that what I do now will matter in fifty years, not because anyone will remember my name or a sermon I delivered that was a turning point for the congregation’s life.  I take comfort that I am participating in history in my own minor way, that the events of this day that will seem trivial in fifty years (perhaps that even seem trivial today) can have a much greater impact than I can predict. 

I hope that in fifty years, when the new pastor reaches back in the closet and finds a box full of ancient flash drives and memory cards that no one knew what to do with, she will take the time to look at those digital memories of suppers and worship and festivals.  I hope she will sift through some of the articles and newsletters and assorted records of trivial matters, dry as they may be.  I hope she will find that we were faithful.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Cape Cod Lutheran Challenges

I grew up in Michigan with extended family in Wisconsin.  My experience of Lutheran Christianity was shaped with a strong sense of community.  Some of that experience may have come from my grandparents' church, which was founded by Danish immigrants and saw itself as a haven for those with Danish heritage (excellent pastry at coffee hour, by the way).  I remember gathering together as being important for both support but also celebration.

Cape Cod is different.  One might argue that the whole society is different, much more focused on the individual.  Yet I think that this trend is a bit more exaggerated on the Cape.  People move here and retire here because they want to be independent.  They are often choosing to live away from family and friends in order to live in homes that are themselves often physically secluded from any center of community.

This trend creates a number of challenges for living as the church.  First, it is hard to keep track of people.  Has this person been away from church for three weeks because he is angry or hospitalized or because he just hasn't been around for three weeks?  Second, it is hard to get people together, especially outside of Sunday morning.  Third, the church often feels like a resource that members are using in their spiritual lives as opposed to a community that might shape those spiritual lives (As in, this week I am going to church and next week I will watch the sunset on the beach.)

In response, I am introducing a series of discipleship challenges to the congregation.  The first is simple, that members congregation might say grace at every meal for the next two weeks.  It is simple but it is also a reflection of a value of gratitude that should set the church apart from our culture.  While our culture teaches us to be dissatisfied and seek more, we are challenged to say, "Thank you," to God for what we already have.  It is my hope that by deepening our lives of discipleship in simple ways, we might also deepen the life of our community.

Friday, March 23, 2012

An important question (and a delayed answer)

Recently we held a congregational forum on the work I have been doing in looking at the structure of our small congregation.  I was pleasantly surpised by the number of people who hung around after church for it.  Of course, I did hold it in the fellowship hall during the fellowship hour so I may have had an audience held captive by their coffee needs.

I have come to understand that the structure that we have used in the past with a church council and standing committees lends itself best to a maintenance approach to ministry.  Although there can be some visioning and experimentation the takes place, most committees just work to sustain what is already going on.  This worked well a few decades ago when the primary need of congregations was to sustain their programs.

Yet we live in another age in the church when we have need for vision and innovation.  The programs that used to work don't work anymore or don't work as effectively as they once did.  As mainline congregations look at declining numbers in membership, Christian education participation, youth group participation, etc. the time has come to try something new.

In my proposed structure, most of the standing committees would be dissolved and replaced by three task-oriented teams: Discipleship, Congregation Care and Outreach.  Each of these three teams would tackle one task at a time such as a new worship service or updating the bulletin or a new children's program.  When that task was completed, the team would then pick a new task.  With the exception of the Team Leader, membership on the team might be for a single task or continuous (trying to remove the sense that one must serve on a committee for life.)  The other important change is that, ideally, the teams will meet on separate Sunday mornings following worship, providing the opportunity for more of the worshipping congregation to take part.

Basic maintenance functions would be assigned to church staff and two functional groups: Finance and Property.  (I'm still not 100% sure what titles to give these structures.  I used "team" to denote the vision-oriented unit and "group" to denote functional units, trying to stay away from "committee"). 

I think the most important question that came from the meeting was whether or not this proposal was just another shuffling of leadership within the congregation.  I wish I had given a better answer to that question.  I believe I said something about how none of this mattered if the members of the congregation didn't participate, which is certainly true.  If the members of the congregation don't take part in the teams then it will be the same people doing the work and the small church committee structure using different names.

On reflection, my answer to that question is that I don't see this structuring as so much a shuffling of leadership as a redefinition of purpose.  The idea that each team will only focus on a single task (rather than trying to complete a list of maintenance duties) is new.  The idea that these teams will be more visionary than functional is also new.  It is my hope that we might bring more people into leadership on short-term projects than the few people who handled leadership for standing committees.

Again, this is all a grand experiment that looks interesting on paper.  The challenge is to see if it will work in the real world.  I was gratified that the congregation agreed to continue this discussion.

Friday, February 24, 2012

More about structure

At our last church council meeting I introduced some of my thinking about small church structure.  My basic belief in all of this is that committees no longer work.  At our congregation we have several standing committees.  Some meet regularly as is proscribed by the constitution.  Some never meet.  Some talk on the phone and call it a meeting.  Some meet when there is something important to do.

I think that the committee system as it stands is a holdover from structural ideas of a few decades ago.  This model worked in the 1960s and 1970s (just like 8-track cassettes), but is not effective today especially for smaller congregations.  Smaller congregations lose time in the committee system.  That is, if you assume that the average member will designate an hour a week beyond Sunday worship (I know some of you offer much more.) it seems poor stewardship in a smaller church to spend those service hours on committee work.  We need to spend the hours that we have on doing rather than talking about doing.

This is not to say that there should be no planning or discussion.  It is to say that we should involve fewer people in planning and discussion and more people in physical ministry.

At my congregation on Cape Cod, we have the added issue that we are a small regional church.  None of our members live with in walking distance from the church.  Many don't live in the town in which the church building is located.  This discourages multiple trips to the church building during the week which also makes a traditional committee system difficult to maintain.

My thoughts on this issue are continuing to evolve and I will post updates on this blog.  However, my initial thinking is that we need a structure that is smaller and less formal.  We need a structure that is Sunday-based.  Finally, we need a structure that tends to be task-oriented as opposed to discussion-oriented.

I look forward to your comments and ideas and hope that this discussion might be helpful for other congregations who seek to do the mission of the Reign of God.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Snow Storm

Midwestern Lutherans know more about snow than Cape Cod Lutherans.  They deal with it through the winter and into the spring.  I grew up in Michigan, so I am used to having snow on the ground for most of the winter.  We do have snow on Cape Cod, but it usually doesn't sit around very long.  Also, more than a few inches seems to throw off the DPW.  There are too many little side roads that lead to homes that were build with seclusion in mind.  However, this past weekend we did get a good seven inches of snow on Saturday (January 21).  A number of our members couldn't get out of their driveways so Sunday church attendance was low.  We also had to postpone our annual meeting because we couldn't get a quorum. 

It does beg the question as to whether it was the snow or the prospect of the annual meeting that lowered the attendance.  My theory is that the best attendance at an annual meeting would involve the element of surprise.  Use the awkward moment that happens when there is no Postlude to signal when to get up and leave.  The organ doesn't play.  Everyone looks at one another like a waddle of penguins deciding who will be the first to plunge into seal-infested waters.  No one moves.  The president stands and suddenly, there's the annual meeting and there is no escape.

The picture attached to this post is my car after the Saturday evening plowing.  I think it looks like my car must have committed a great offense such that God smote it with snow.  Either that or it's the winning float in the Mashed Potato Festival parade.  (It's also available for the Marshmallow Fluff Days Parade).

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Windows Continued

So this past Sunday morning (January 8) we did make a decision about the sanctuary windows at Christ Lutheran Church.  The current windows are standard military issue windows, circa World War II, reflecting our building's history as a chapel at nearby Otis Air Force Base.  In the early 1960s, the founding members of the congregation disassembled the chapel after it was decommissioned by the military and moved it to its current location on Brick Kiln Road.

We gathered in the sanctuary, with its pebbled glass, multi-paned windows.  We gathered around technology that the founding members probably couldn't imagine being in the church fifty years ago: a PowerPoint presentation projected onto a portable screen.  This alone was somewhat momentous as it is the first time we have used our projection equipment in the worship space itself.  We have always reserved it for special meetings in the fellowship hall.  The suggestion that the projector might somehow be used in the worship setting has been greeted with general suspicion, as though technology might cheapen the worship experience.  After all, if there is no bulletin, where will the sermon-inspired doodles go?

Our decision came down to a simple vote between two options: a style similar to what we have currently:

And a more contemporary style:

We picked the more contemporary style, I think with the hopes that it will represent a new way of being for the congregation; a sense of greater openness toward the community.

For me as pastor, the best part was that, even though it was not a unanimous decision, the vote was peaceful.  I came into the meeting fearing that there would be passionate displays of emotion (yes, even from Lutherans)  I thought I would have to function as a moderator between two sides, traditional versus contemporary.  I feared I would have to put the lessons of my webinar on conflict management to good use. 

Instead, we voted, we accepted the results and we moved on.  Perhaps there will be some parking lot grumbling.  Perhaps there will be some buyer's regret.  Yet overall, it was a fine moment for Cape Cod Lutherans.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Small churches and structure

I've been thinking a great deal about how to structure a small church.  The Lutheran churches on Cape Cod are smaller than most in the Midwest.  My church is the smallest of the three ELCA congregations out here.  We get caught up in structure: committees, councils and good order.  It sometimes feels like we try to adopt the structure of larger congregations so that we can feel like we are average congregations.  But the structure gets in the way.

I am 5 foot 6.  I wish I were 6 feet tall.  Being in my early forties, I don't think I'm going to get taller.  It makes no sense for me to wear with a 36 inch inseam with the hope I will grow into them.  I will trip over them.  I will look foolish.  I will not get taller.

I would be happy to hear from anyone with good ideas for structure in the small church (or bad ideas that need a home.)