Looking for the Opportunity in the Crisis

Last week, I read an article from NPR entitled, “The Faithful See Both Crisis and OpportunityAs Churches Close Around the Country.” (https://www.npr.org/2023/05/17/1175452002/church-closings-religious-affiliation) The article outlined the continued issues experienced in the Christian Church and its many denominations. More churches are closing than opening. The percentage of people who list “religion” as important in their lives continues to decline. The average parishioner age is increasing. Etc.

At Old South, we are experiencing all of it. While we may be in better shape than some churches (we still have a healthy endowment, we’ve already “right-sized” our governance structure, and so on), we are struggling with how to move forward. A growing number of our regular parishioners seem ready to disengage from the building that houses the sanctuary, to try to sell it and move worship— and everything else that we do— to the parish house. But, there are a few who are opposed to selling the sanctuary building. For a congregation that is already small, the sense of a possible rift that might cause even just a few people to leave the church has ushered in its own worry and consternation— and inertia.

And then there is the grief. Over the past couple of months, members of the governing board have paired off and have met with those who are not part of the board, to listen and to talk about the challenges ahead. The central question revolves around the possible sale of the sanctuary building. Most people agree that it’s probably time to sell the sanctuary building. The congregation is getting smaller and older while the sanctuary building is getting older too, and instead of shrinking along with the congregation, has become much more in need of costly repair and maintenance. But, the thought of actually going through with a vote and putting a “for sale” sign in front of the sanctuary building brings a deep sense of loss and grief that can barely be contemplated. How did this happen? Why now? Why us? The grief looms large, as if there’s nothing but failure and death. The word “sad” is now used so much that we might rename ourselves “Old Sad Church.”

It has been difficult to lay out the reality of opportunity in such a way that it finds its place alongside the grief. For there are opportunities here. Instead of two aging and needy buildings, we could have one updated and more useful building. Instead of spending so much of our time and energy worrying about the sanctuary building and fretting over the next rain storm (and the water that will make its way into the structure, further damaging walls, ceilings and floors), we could be considering ways of making our parish house more useful to the community. We could spend less time on the demands of our physical plant, and more time on mission.

Some of the anxiety at Old South is connected to the notion that no one will want to buy the sanctuary building alone, that the only way to sell is to offer both buildings. If we end up needing to sell both, then where will we be? To some extent, I can understand the vexation at the thought of somehow becoming a “homeless” congregation. Still, it’s frustrating that we, a congregation of people who claim a kinship as followers of Jesus Christ, the One who died and then rose again, appear to be paralyzed by the challenges we face— instead of allowing our faith to lead us.

Christians throughout the centuries have found themselves in all sorts of challenges and difficulties. So many Christians have found ways of managing the grief and sadness (and anger too), in order that they might grasp onto the opportunities that the way of faith opens up. It’s not an easy or simple thing to do, but finding opportunities in the midst of crisis is really a vital component to the life of any Christian and any Christian community. Easter wouldn’t be Easter if those first followers didn’t open their eyes and their hearts to perceive what was right in front of them— as unbelievable as it surely seemed.

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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