Lessons from the Hilltop

If you’ve ever driven Route 1 in Massachusetts, north of Boston, you’ve very likely seen the Hilltop Steak House—the enormous restaurant with the giant cactus sign and the herd of large plastic cows on the very small front lawn. Perhaps you’ve even stopped there, eaten there. After many years of feeding countless steaks and lobster pies to people from all over the world, the Hilltop has closed.

Back in the 1980s, I worked as a waitress there for several summers while I was in college and then for about eight months after I graduated. Though the tips were not always generous, they came in great quantities. The Hilltop was not known for its high-end, refined dining. Customers were herded in, and herded out—quickly. But most didn’t complain. They got a huge plate with a huge slab of beef (or chicken or seafood) for a reasonable price.

The crowds were often outrageous, with people sometimes arriving, literally, by the busload. I especially remember the long lines that would develop ridiculously early on Friday mornings (the Friday specials included the famous lobster pie) when the restaurant opened at 10:30 am. It’s impossible for me to erase the memories of retirees ordering manhattans before lunch just after they were seated, at about 10:35 in the morning.

The money was good, but the work was hard. Walking trays piled high with steak on one shoulder down the long aisles into a dining room and then the empty (though still heavy) plates back to the dish room (no busboys), for long hours five to six days per week, sometimes on a double shift, probably has something to do with my occasional back problems that plague me now.

I had heard a couple of weeks ago about the Hilltop’s demise, and allowed myself a nostalgic moment—those horrible white uniforms with brown aprons, the line-up of waitresses in the ladies’ room smoking, as well as the friends that I made and the after-work trips to a local drinking hole for something that would help relax the muscles after a long night.

But, then, it really seemed like much bigger news when I saw the closing of the Hilltop covered by last Sunday’s New York Times. The most interesting aspect of the long article in the front section was the report of the large crowds that had started to gather once again at the Hilltop, once news had got out that it was about to close. The story suggested that those who flocked to the restaurant in its final moments did not do so to try to save it, but only to say good-bye, to make sure they cashed in a gift certificate, or to steal something that could be sold on Ebay.

Everyone seemed to recognize that the Hilltop’s time had come, and gone. It wasn’t worth saving. The company that bought it after the original owner died years ago, never kept up with Frank Giuffrida’s crazy insistence on large quantities of good food at low prices. The quality of the food had declined and, significantly, it had failed to keep pace with changing market expectations and appetites.

Sounds a little like the business I’m in. Many churches also have a hard time keeping up with changes in market expectations and appetites. Those who continue to be involved in church tend to like church just the way it is—that’s why they are there. Church is a familiar place in a seemingly constantly changing world. Plus, what changes should we enact in a part of the world where lots of people not only don’t go to church anymore, but appear to be perfectly content in not going?

The closure of the Hilltop Steak House has got me thinking about a struggle that is part of my everyday life—what it means to minister to the church of which I am part, on the one hand, and the church that will exist well into the future, on the other hand. It seems clear to me that these are not really the same thing.

In holding these two realities in my thoughts and prayers reminds me time and time again of what must be at the center of it all: to remain steadfast in our faithfulness to the Gospel. Changes ought not be made just to satisfy changing appetites, nor should we cling to comfortable patterns simply because they are part of our past. Our mission is what’s key.

We are not a business, like the Hilltop, and so we must be careful and thoughtful about how we do what we do, and how we define what it means to offer a “quality” experience. A full parking lot may indicate that our customers are content, and that business is good, but it doesn’t say anything about faithfulness to Christ. We must persevere in prayerfully living our mission, and in being attuned to where the Spirit leads. Whether we stay “in business” for a long time, or just a short time, we ought to be judged not by the standards of business in failure or success, but by faithfulness to the transformational love and hope of Jesus Christ.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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