The typical routine of life at Old South Church means that the Advent and Christmas seasons are followed not so much by the season of Epiphany, but the season of Annual Meeting—finalizing the budget, figuring out and nominating a slate of officers and members of the governing body, planning for the meeting itself (at the end of January), and putting together the “Annual Report.” The Annual Report includes a summary and review of the year just finished, including a report by the Pastor and Teacher.
In order to begin the writing of my annual report, I always first go back to the previous year’s report. What were the highlights that I had outlined? What were the challenges? What went well, or not so well? What was I looking forward to in the next year in the life of the church?
As I reviewed 2018 in these first days of 2019, I found the reading of my review and summary of 2017 to be an unexpectedly unsettling experience. The sense of unease began to make itself known when I realized that I could take my report from last year and simply change the date on the top and I’d be all done—voila! Somehow I had lived through an entire year in the life of the church and nothing had changed.
Did I/we accomplish nothing in an entire year? Did I/we fail to broaden, or deepen, our journey as God’s people?
On the one hand, this may not be such a bad thing. The year could have been full of terror and turmoil (which was my experience beyond the local church, in my relationship with the Maine Conference), and perhaps I should be grateful that it wasn’t. But still, I’m troubled that we seem to be in the exact same spot as we were a year ago—with the same concerns, the same challenges, the same list of good things that we are doing.
When it comes to life in the Church, I expect that we should feel a sense of progress of some sort, a sense of a deepening relationship and/or awareness of God’s presence. In 2018, though, we—as a church—seem to have gone nowhere. As if we are simply treading water.
I can’t escape the feeling that treading water, in the life of a church, is essentially sinking—maybe in slow motion, but sinking nonetheless. The life of faith, individually and collectively, requires motion of some kind—taking risks, trying new things, following what at least feels like the beckoning call of God.
In 2018, we didn’t do that. Instead, I fear that we settled for what feels safe and comfortable. Again, that’s not all bad. After all, the church continued to be especially generous regarding mission. But, in those few moments where I tried to begin a conversation with the governing body regarding some of the issues that are critical—figuring out how a small congregation can continue to maintain two aging buildings (or if it should); how best to utilize our assets and resources, including a large endowment; and, a revision to our mission statement—I couldn’t gain any traction. Instead, we spent the year treading water.
We are beginning to see small clues of what will likely be in the not so distant future a real crisis. Our budget process for 2019 offered significant concerns. While giving remains strong for a church of our size, the number of pledge units is noticeably smaller than it was just five years ago.
Simply treading water, trying to maintain that place of comfort and security, will likely do more harm than good in the long run. To wait for the actual crisis will result in an occasion where we are more likely to rely on panic than the grace of God. I would prefer not to wait for the clanging bell of crisis, especially since we are apt to focus solely on that particular moment of crisis, instead of seeing it as part of a much larger picture.
It’s understandable to want to avoid the unpleasant issues that are so clearly in our midst. None of us ever envisioned being a part of a church facing decline and very likely eventual closure. But, that is where we must go. We must take to heart the clear words of Jesus: do not fear. Not even death.
We are a people of faith, and our faith requires that we travel to places that are not on our “bucket list.” But, to travel this journey, in faith and in hope, is to learn and experience what it truly means to be God’s people, to be church. We have the opportunity to avoid the panic and instead welcome the grace and courage that Christ so freely offers. It’s more than a life ring tossed out to rescue the drowning person. It’s a lifeline that will feed our spirits and will allow us not only to continue to be church, but to move ever deeper into becoming the church we are called to be.