During the first years of my marriage and when my children were young, part of our annual family vacation involved a trip to the Outer Banks in North Carolina to spend time with extended family. Over the course of our visit, we usually attended a Saturday mass, as my husband’s family is Roman Catholic. At that time, the local church was not far from the beach, a bit of a ramshackle building, as it was really only used in the summer months when loads of Roman Catholics vacationed in the area. Clergy were usually visiting, retired priests. It was unclear how they got there, whether they were assigned or they were lured there with the promise of the proximity of the lovely, vast beach of the Outer Banks.
I don’t remember any of the priests I encountered when I attended mass, except one. This particular priest led one mass during one of our vacations, sometime in the 1990s. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but I what I remember with clarity is that he spoke and behaved in a way that exuded a clear weariness of the world, of humanity, and of his own journey as a clergyperson. He was a man in the throes of despair. At or near the end of a long career in ministry, he found himself with not a hint of joy or even contentment. It was clear that he was bereft of any sense of having done well as a shepherd amid the flock.
I remember feeling, at first, pity for him. Something had gone terribly awry with his relationship with his own ministry. And, then I started to think about my own self, near the beginning of my ministry and hoping that I would not find myself in my later years full of misery, despair and weariness, similarly bereft of the sense of a job well, if imperfectly, done.
After about thirty years in ministry, the last sixteen at Old South, I wouldn’t say that I’m feeling fully in the throes of despair. But, I can feel the weariness creeping in.
At Old South, we have been dealing with, on a variety of levels, the reality that faces many mainline Protestant churches in these days. Attendance is lower. The average age is higher. With a smaller group, it’s much more challenging to sustain and maintain the buildings in which we gather. These issues and problems are not new, nor are they unique to us. In fact, several churches in our area have been forced to close. Churches very much like our church.
The weariness begins to make its presence known whenever we have a focused conversation at governing board meetings on what we should do and how we should respond to the serious, unwelcome, issues we face. Conversation after conversation includes largely the same conversation, despite the fact that we’ve been at this for years. Several of those who are willing to speak at these meetings say the same thing, time after time. And, there are a couple of people who say nothing at all, never contributing their thoughts, feelings, or concerns. It’s as if we are a group of people who cannot listen to each other. And have closed ourselves off from the movement of the Spirit in our midst.
It’s not that it’s completely terrible. Having the conversation is certainly better than not, and there have been small glimmers of progress. But, over time I’ve begun to feel that the group has developed an unspoken attitude that a willingness to discuss is enough, that they can avoid action if they can just keep the conversation going. And, they keep the conversation going through a variety of methods. There’s yet a crucial piece of information we should gather. There’s an idea we haven’t adequately explored. Etc. Etc. There’s always a reason to push off any decision to move the conversation into action, or at least a plan toward action.
The issues we face are just as unwelcome for me, but it’s crystal clear to me that Old South must act, and move forward. Otherwise, the church will find itself spending more and more of its resources to maintain its buildings, especially the very demanding building in which the sanctuary is located. It is a lovely place in which to worship, but it is much too large for the current congregation. The requirements of attention and funds of the sanctuary building will drain the church of resources that could be used more wisely and more faithfully elsewhere.
All of this leads me to feel sadness and frustration, not simply about the inability to listen, perceive, trust and act. I also find myself wondering about my role as pastor. Herding the flock can be an awful lot like herding cats, but I’ve waded through other perilous times with more of a sense of fulfillment, that the work, though hard, was good and meaningful.
Now, it feels much more precarious. Or, maybe it’s just because I’m older and feeling a loss in the patience department. Perhaps. But, it also feels like there’s a fraying connection to what it means, deeply and powerfully, to be a community of faith, a people of God—now and into the future. Is our common witness and identity focused more on what the church once was or how we wish it to be, rather than how we share God’s love, care and hope as we are, and how we are called to be?
That we appear to have such difficulty in maintaining a communal sense of who we are as the body of Christ is an enervating prospect. I may now have a better sense of what and how that weary visiting clergyperson on the Outer Banks was feeling and thinking. Though I didn’t express it at the time, I am grateful for that priest and for the memory I have of him. It keeps me from slipping off into the oblivion of despair, where one cannot minister effectively. The work is hard, yet I also know that I have a companion who offers to lighten the load and ease the burden.