The Maine Conference United Church of Christ is holding their annual meeting this weekend in Farmington. The big word of the meeting is “change,” with the overall theme hovering (literally) over the stage: “Moving Forward in the Midst of Change.”
In bits and pieces, we have talked about changes that we have experienced and are experiencing—more churches calling less than full-time pastors, church members getting older, and some of the other various challenging aspects of being a mainline, progressive church in Maine, which is, according to at least one study, the least “churched” state in the country (with only27% of the population self-identifying as Christian).
But as we talk about “change” and the necessary requirement that we engage in “change,” which in truth has been a reality throughout the existence of the church, I hear questions such as these:
1. What does “change” really look like and where do we begin?
2. How will we know when the changes we make are “good” changes, and are faithful to the Gospel?
3. How do we engage with change in a congregation full of older, and more tired, members (this isn’t MY question—I’m not sure I would characterize many of my older members as “tired”— but I heard spoken by several people).
One of the most significant observations was offered by the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, Geoffrey Black, who suggested that many of the most meaningful and important changes we need to make won’t do anything to help with the bottom line. They won’t help to bring growth and stability to our finances. It’s important, he offered, that churches understand this dynamic, and its consequences.
I should add that money and finances should not simply be cast off as “worldly” and unimportant, as if we ought to boldly institute changes without any consideration of money. When I have money conversations with Old South’s church Treasurer, especially when money is tight and she is having difficulties paying the bills and making the payroll, I am reminded that money has a faith component.
The road ahead hints at a change that will be profoundly challenging for those currently in the pews. And that is that we may find new paths to religious and spiritual fulfillment that may not actually allow us to remain in the building(s) we have, or to maintain our staffing configurations. Essentially, we must explore what it means for us to be “church.” For the church that I serve, what does it mean to be “Old South”? Is the building essential to our Old South identity or not?
If we were to answer that question today, I suspect that the answer would be, for Old South, that the building is essential to our identity. We must not then, at this time, focus on the role of the building in our lives of faith, since that may very well be completely overwhelming for church members and friends. But, the conversation ought to be guided in such a way that the role of the building is a conversation that we will be ready to have when it is time to have that conversation. For church leaders like myself, we should assume that the time will come when we cannot escape this conversation, so let’s not find ourselves unprepared.
The questions, conversations, and changes ahead must be engaged, and guided, in hopeful ways, helping people to begin to pray over and think about their religious and spiritual lives in new and thoughtful ways. Many churches are already in this place, and some churches have even closed. For many, a church closure essentially means an end to that church. For the future, we must think differently. Otherwise, we will be experiencing closure after closure, not only losing the church, but the voice and expression of our faith. We must not fail, then, to take seriously the challenges ahead, and to clothe ourselves fully in God’s grace which will bring us to where we need to be.