Church and Patriots

Like other churches in Maine, and perhaps in other places too, Old South is considering a change in its governance structure. We have too many committee slots for too few people, with some people taking on multiple roles on various committees. And, more than that, we have more committees that I can reasonably cover, especially now that I work less than full-time. Even though I don’t regularly meet with all of the church’s committees, there are still too many of them for me.

The change in governance that I’ve proposed, though, is much more than a consolidation of committees, it also reflects a recognition that Old South is in a different place than it once was. Perhaps in the distant past, worship and committee service, and for some singing in the choir, was enough to satisfy spiritual yearnings and a desire to do good work in the community.

Now, in ways that I find exciting and meaningful, Old South folk—though they are getting older and smaller in number—are looking for new ways of being church. They are talking about wanting to get to know each other better, wanting to engage in new paths of mission, and exploring their spiritual selves. Old South is also blessed with amazing musical talent, only a fraction of which is used on a regular basis. Last summer, for instance, one woman organized a ukulele choir and ended up with eight to ten people playing with her during a Sunday worship service in the middle of summer—a sure sign that it was time to try some new things at Old South.

We now have an opportunity to be about the business of reinventing ourselves—of transformation. Isn’t that what the church is all about?

Though I’ve learned in the past that this might not be a good idea, I can’t help but to compare our situation, in a small but significant way, to what’s happening with my favorite football team, the New England Patriots. Truth be told, my love of football, and my devotion to the Patriots, has become more complicated in recent years—the growing evidence surrounding the dangers of concussions, the Spygate scandal, the Patriots’ former tight end in prison for murder (and now the allegations that he may have committed other murders) . . . . These problems have caused me to squirm when it comes to football and the Patriots, but I’m not quite ready to cut them loose.

The Patriots play in the AFC Conference Championship tomorrow afternoon, against the Broncos. The Patriots have reached this place near the top of the AFC heap because of their ability to reinvent themselves, to deal with their very real and very significant losses in personnel, and to figure out how to effectively use the gifts and talents of the players they still have or can get their hands on, and to convince all of their players to work together, even when they must take on new tasks or a new ways of playing their positions—including their celebrity quarterback, who has been transformed from gunslinger to hand-off man (big throwing offense to an offense focused more on a running game).

The Patriots have stared reality straight in the face and they have responded—and now they are on the brink of yet another Super Bowl.

The picture, of course, is a whole lot more complicated. I’m especially mindful that the Patriots have a coaching staff that has a whole lot more power and authority than I have for making changes. And, I probably don’t even need to point out that football and church are very, very different things in almost all aspects of who they are and what they do.

Still, I think it’s worth spending a moment considering what the Patriots have done this season in order to keep winning (though churches cannot think of themselves in the same terms of “winning” and “losing”). Reinventing the team did not happen by accident or miracle. Reinvention happened because of hard work and commitment to the whole, even where some highly paid “star” players had to put aside their personal glory for the benefit of the team as a whole.

Churches like Old South can learn from this lesson. Our line-up is different than what we thought it would be. We’ve lost important “players” and some players, who we assumed would show up at some point, haven’t. Yet, we have the same old playbook, and the same old patterns of existence—despite the fact that clearly have gifts and talents that are not being put to good use and the old playbook is not especially rewarding. We end up doing what we’ve always done, and there is some comfort there. But, there’s also restlessness.

It’s the restlessness that we must pay attention to, for it is in that restlessness, I believe, that we will encounter the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. And, though our average age may continue to climb and our numbers may continue to shrink, we may very well find, and experience, new life, and whole new wonderful way that God is speaking to us and beckoning us to be the church we are called to be.

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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