At some point during this year’s annual meeting at Old South, I experienced a moment—an instance that I can only describe as almost terrifying. I was looking out at the assembled group of good, dedicated church folk and realizing that the church had experienced a momentous shift from last year’s annual meeting—and it felt decidedly ominous.
One person who probably hasn’t missed an annual meeting since he was an infant was not present. He wasn’t feeling well enough to attend. Several people have experienced significant health issues over the last year and appeared frail and diminished. One person is about to move, and another is talking about moving. A few others weren’t present because they can’t easily get to church anymore, because of their health. And, a couple of others weren’t there because they had passed away over the course of the last year.
I felt a moment where I could have easily fallen over the edge into panic. What are we going to do? And how in the world are we going to make the difficult decisions we need to make in the near future?
After the meeting was over and the cleanup completed, and I was alone in the parish house with just a few of the church’s leadership, I said something about my concerns about the change from last year’s annual meeting to this year’s. And, we chatted for a few minutes.
As I was driving home, though, I realized that I had made a mistake. I need to be careful about how I express my concerns. While the panic may be on the high side inside, my outside must not show that fear and alarm.
Here’s where I must put on my non-anxious armor, a be the non-anxious presence that is required if we are to get through what we must in the next year or two. While everyone else can feel and even show panic, I know that I cannot. It’s not a good thing for the pastor to be as panicked and anxious as the parishioners. It won’t work—for anyone.
So, it’s time to get my “non” on, and to find a way fully into a place where I can lead with faith and clarity as a non-anxious presence. How many times did Jesus declare, “Do not be afraid”? A lot. And, that must be my mantra.
Yet, it is a challenge. It’s not exactly a surprise that the church finds itself in such a precarious place. We have known for a long time that this day would come, and I have talked often over many years about the church’s status and what lies ahead. Somehow, though, that we are now at a time for decision-making, I’m finding that it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be. And, it feels a whole lot more uncomfortable and upsetting.
In the midst of my close-to-panic state at annual meeting, there was also the reality that Old South is a wonderful church. People listen to each other. They work together. They engage in good mission. They care deeply for and about each other, as well as extended families and friends outside of the church community. During our annual meeting, as well as the lunch and the worship that preceded it, there was laughter, grace, blessing and joy—mingled amidst the grief that attends the knowledge that the church is in serious decline.
That so many in the wider community not only find no value in church, but seem so casually to dismiss our old-fashioned, strange ways of worshiping a deity (Hallowell is a very secular place, as is much of Maine), is an especially difficult piece of knowledge. The church, while far from perfect, offers a place of care and comfort, of blessing and hope, of grace and community. Its passing will not simply be sad. Its passing will leave a chasm in the community, the loss of a place of significance where very different people gathered to live out an attachment to a weird thing called love, and more than that, a love beyond what we can actually know or understand, a love that offers both respite from and strength for this world in which we live.
It’s time to get the non on, to tackle some very difficult issues, but to know as well that I don’t do it alone. Not at all.