Big Questions the New Year Brings

The end of December, after Christmas has settled down, usually brings with it reflections of various kinds—looking back at the year about to end, and looking forward to what is to come, or may come, in the new year.

For me, the new year will bring a lot of the bittersweet, as my son enters into his last months at the local high school. For my daughter, we observed many of her “lasts”—the last strings concert, the last big swim meet, etc.—before she graduated from high school. For my son, the “lasts” will not only be for him, but for me and my husband as well. Since there is no third child, John’s “lasts” will be our lasts as well. It’s a strange feeling.

At Old South, the turn of the year feels strange in its own way. It feels especially odd, I think, because things seem fairly calm and quiet. No major budget battle looms. No great argument over bylaws or governance is on the horizon. Even our move to hold worship in the parish house for the harshest of the winter months—after several years of doing so—has lost (mostly) its feeling of controversy.

We will very likely have some tricky budget decisions to make, and trying to find a new treasurer (our current Treasurer has served that role for about a decade and is eager to retire) will be difficult, perhaps even impossible. In looking back, we’ve lost people who are important to us. In looking forward, though we have a few newer people, we are a smaller congregation than we were a year ago.

The elephant in the room, the issue that no one wants to discuss, is our more distant future, which is a lot nearer than we would like to think. As a church, we continue to act as if both of our buildings—the building that holds our sanctuary and our parish house, where the offices and Sunday school classrooms are—can be sustained and maintained, without any significant impediments.

In addition to some harsh financial realities, we also face some difficult spiritual realities. While Old South has done a great deal to expand its mission and outreach, mostly in the form of raising funds for good causes, both near and far, its sense of itself, I fear, is on shaky ground. I know very well that there are active members of our congregation who bristle at the notion that they attend a “Christian” church. Others appear to have difficulty in articulating why they attend Old South, apart from the fact that its part of a routine and that they have friends there.

Although it has been very good to witness the renewed focus on outreach and mission to those in need—and it is a truly wonderful thing—it sometimes feels like all of that mission and outreach is a way of distracting ourselves from the larger, deeper questions. As a church, we are increasingly comfortable with providing aid and assistance, sometimes with several projects going at the same time. But, it’s less clear why we do so, other than churches are supposed to do that sort of thing.

I’ve been long aware that the congregation holds quite a few people who struggle with basic tenets of the Christian faith. I’ve encouraged the asking of those questions, as it seems better to have them out in the open. But, I sense that many in the congregation are moving beyond questions. They have found answers and those answers involve an estrangement from traditional elements of the faith.

I’ve heard people talk about how the sacraments don’t really mean all that much to them anymore. I’ve also heard people talk about their wish, when they die, to have a “celebration of life,” rather than a funeral, an opportunity for their loved ones to share stories, rather than a minister talk about the promises of eternal life. It’s not that they feel unsure. It’s more that they are sure, and that certainty holds a distance from traditional Christian theology, even in a liberal/progressive setting.

So, as I look back on the past year, and consider what might be next, I wonder about my role as “pastor and teacher” to this small congregation. We have realities to face. We have some soul searching to do. It’s not likely to be easy, or welcome. I think I might rather deal with a big budget battle . . .

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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