Signs of New Life in the Midst of Unwelcome Growth

There’s something growing at Old South. Something terrible, horrible, unspeakable. Something that we don’t need or want. It’s like a cold slap in the face, as the community struggles to figure out whether or not it can grow the congregation. Instead of the growth of people, we have growth of an unwelcome organism: mold.

On the positive side (always look on the bright side . . . ), the problem is almost completely limited to the basement of the church—a place that is rarely used and has been easily deemed “off limits.” But, we can’t ignore it forever. Whether we like it or not, it will continue to grow, our unwelcome guest.

In the midst of all of this, though, I’m beginning to sense the opportunity for the church to consider itself in a new way. At a recent Oversight Committee (Old South’s “church council”), as well as a congregational information meeting, something new was clearly afoot.

One Oversight member took charge over the summer of investigating the problem, and seeking bids to remove the mold. The extent of the problem is significant, and the cost as well. That information was shared and discussed with the leadership of the church. Instead of making a clear plan to present and vote on, and then presenting it to the congregation for a vote, we decided to discuss and not to rush into a plan. And, we would share the information with the congregation as a whole, without a plan for them to approve. This would allow people to absorb the information, while we also asked for good thoughts and prayers for how we might proceed. Although we cannot ignore our unwelcome guest, we are not in an emergency situation.

What has come from these two recent meetings—the Oversight Committee and the congregational informational meeting—has been very interesting. In the midst of the expected questions about how the congregation will be able to raise the money, the extent to which we might use the endowment, or what it means for us to consider removal of the mold but not the reconstruction of the space (it was, until recently, the church nursery, though not often employed in that function), and so forth, there were also questions like: Should the congregation spend this kind of money to fix the building? Should we consider trying to sell the building instead? Is it a responsible use of our resources to spend so much money to rescue the physical space in which we worship? Is the building so important to us? What about the needs of our community—the poverty, homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction?

I must admit that I was a bit surprised to hear these questions. Old South has a beautiful church building, and it is truly heartbreaking to consider the possibility that we will try to disengage from the building. But, it’s also clear that the building is a significant liability to us, especially as our numbers shrink. It will get harder to fix things—and things will need to be fixed. The mold will not be the end to unwelcome guests.

The questions that I’ve heard have been deeply important and meaningful questions—about what it means to be the Church, the Body of Christ. And what has emerged is a newly articulated question about the Church separate from our building, our sanctuary.

On the one hand, I am thankful to be in the midst of such a congregation (and, to confess, gratified that it feels like a small part of this reflects some amount of listening to me over the years). But, as much as I am pleased by some of these big, important questions, I am also feeling overwhelmed and at least a little bit scared.

For a few people at least, the building is how they worship and experience God. To separate the congregation from the building will likely feel like a separation from God. This may seem ridiculous to some, but it is very real and very serious. The building is a meaningful place, a place set apart. While many are able, even now, to see the church in the people who gather, rather than the building, there is a sense of the holy and the sacred that will be lost.

My hope, somewhere in the midst of all of this, is that we will experience—whatever the plans ends up to be—a renewed sense of what it means to be the Body of Christ. I know this won’t be easy, and may for some be profoundly painful and difficult, but it is clear that it is not simply in the decisions we make where we show our faith, but in how we reach those decisions. And, if we pay heed to that, we will experience the best kind of growth—growth of spirit, growth of faith, growth of closeness to the Savior who brings us together and calls us to be church.

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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