The end of the year brings the opportunity for reflection, and I have certainly found myself thinking about the year that is about to end. For my family, the big event of the year was my daughter’s graduation from high school in June (she just finished her first semester of college). For me personally, the event that looms large in my brain is focused in my role as a member of the local school board. In November, the Board voted to support the superintendent’s recommendation to dismiss the high school principal. I was the lone dissenting vote, 6-1. I can honestly say that the experience was among the worst of my life, and continues to live with me in a whole host of painful ways.
In my work with Old South Church, it was a good year overall, with good worship, strong and thoughtful leadership, a new organist and choir director, local and global outreach. During my short sabbatical last summer, we had no trouble covering worship leadership “in house,” with lay people and a retired clergyperson eagerly leading worship in my absence.
Unfortunately, though, we end the year with significant questions and some unwelcome prospects. Among our worries: attendance; how we govern ourselves; and, a mini-exodus.
Attendance numbers have been steadily declining in disheartening ways. Most of those who are now missing from worship are some of our newer people. I’ve heard directly from or about some of those who are no longer attending Old South. The reasons are simple and mostly have something to do with a relative or friend drawing them to a different church. They don’t have negative feelings about Old South, but have found that the church of that relative or friend has its own positive element.
Old South is near the end of a two-year governance experiment. Much of what we’ve tried over these last two years has worked well. But, not everything. The worrying aspect of this is that only a small group seems comfortable in discussing how we continue our “congregationlist” ways with a smaller, older congregation. There is a feeling among some that their preference is to skip over the formulation process. Just give us the sausage, so to speak. Can we skip the making of it part? For stalwart congregationalists, this seems not the healthiest way of moving forward.
Finally, among our bigger worries is a mini-exodus that we know will occur in the new year. The church moderator has recently resigned and is in the process of moving to another state. He has fallen in love and is moving to be closer to his new special someone (he can more easily transfer his job than she can). A married couple (both sing in the choir) has also announced plans to move away. And, yet another person has told me that she is actively looking for new employment—away from Maine.
These are all very significant departures. All are people who have been active in the life of the church, and active leaders in the congregation. It’s hard to think about the church without them. We’ve reached that place where the departure of leaders is clearly noticeable—and emotionally draining.
Old South has faced difficulties in the past, and has weathered them—and, in many ways, it is a stronger community. But, the storms are starting to take their toll. There’s one particular person who can’t begin talking about these issues without weeping.
We begin the year on a precipice of sorts. We are not only worried about the changes of which we are aware, but also the changes that have not announced themselves in advance. Whether we are aware or not, what emotions will these changes stir? Will we feel embraced and nurtured, or abandoned and alone? Where will we find God in the midst of unwelcome changes?
The start of the new year is a new beginning, but is it also the beginning of the end?