mission

Is there another way? Buildings, landlords, and ministry

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Rev. Mindi

My alma mater is selling its buildings, its beautiful campus, and relocating. At least, that is the plan. It made the news last week. The oldest graduate theological school in the United States is going to sell the campus.

I’ve written about churches and buildings before, our connection to a space, the power structures in place with building ownership, and of course, the fact that the church is not the building but the body of Christ.

Currently, I’m a part-time pastor of a tiny church, with a tiny church building, with a tiny campus on top of a hill, across the street from an elementary school. A building that is just shy of sixty years old. A building with asbestos in the ceiling and peeling paint and ripped brown carpet in the sanctuary.

I also serve with my husband at Open Gathering, a gathered community without a building. And I have a group of young adults in my tiny church that have started to form a new(ish) community we are, for now, calling “Good Neighbors.” One is renting space; the other meets at a local coffee shop/bar (which, actually, is a Lutheran ministry funded from the sale of a church building).

So what’s the big deal about buildings?

We get attached to space and places. Of course, I am going to mourn when my alma mater moves. Not only did I live there for three years, receive my Master of Divinity there, make some of the greatest friends of my life there and learn so much—I happened to meet my husband afterwards and we had our wedding reception there. The background of my wedding photos is the quad at Andover Newton.

But the school can continue in a different place and space. Indeed, for much of the arguing going on about whether online classes are not personal enough, let’s face reality: more and more people are going to school online. More and more of us are getting our core instruction that way. It doesn’t replace the practical—and I feel that a good seminary education that prepares us for ministry is going to get us out into the field more. Interning at local congregations. Participating in local ministries. Doing chaplaincy residencies at local hospitals and mission organizations. That’s what I received at Andover Newton that was most formative for my practical training.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s what we need for our congregations as well: more practical training in the field. Participating with other congregations in ministries in the community. Volunteering at our hospitals and homeless shelters. Visiting one another where we reside and where we work. I have noticed an increase in participation, from both congregation and community, every time we move an activity outside of the church building—Bible Studies in coffee shops. Pub Theology gatherings at a local bar. Caroling at the train station.

But there are buildings that house wonderful ministries as well. All too often, I have seen congregations hold on to the building by renting out every single space every single day of the week. The congregation becomes a landlord. They are concerned about wear and tear on the building but also how much income is coming in.

Our tiny church building houses four congregations. Four! Our building is in use every single day of the week—for worship, for Bible study, for prayer gatherings, for a Christian preschool in the morning and an After-School tutoring program that we run in the afternoon. We also have had Vacation Bible School, as well as a Social Skills Summer day camp for students with disabilities and their typically-developing peers.  A few years ago we planted our first Community Organic Garden plot, and we hope to expand. One thing I have noticed: when we stop worrying about what's going to happen to us, and start focusing on what God is doing through us, we are open to more possibilities.

Sure, we face the same issues. And maybe we’re kidding ourselves by holding on as long as we can. But the difference may be seeking what is the intention for the space we are in. Is it so we can just keep going? Is our renting to others just to sustain us? Or is it possible to be open to other ministries and missions and giving space for them to flourish? What is God’s intention for us? And ultimately, we do have to ask the question: is building ownership the only way to do this?

It's hard to begin to think of letting go of a place where you've had your wedding, had your child dedicated or baptized, or where your parent's funeral was held. It's hard to not have an attachment to that space, and it is a grieving process.

In my congregation, we are asking some of the hard questions now, and we aren’t sure exactly where we are going. But we are trusting the Holy Spirit. I pray that the leaders at Andover Newton are doing the same. For the rest of us in traditional churches with aging buildings, what is the Spirit calling you do to? Because I’m sure when you agreed to join in membership, or if you’ve been there since Sunday School days, that God wasn’t calling you to be a landlord of the church building. God is calling you into ministry.

Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Losing to Gain

By Rev. Mindi

I was called to a small church two and a half years ago, a church that promised a two-year agreement but couldn’t go beyond that because they would surely run out of money. They were in do or die mode, and it was going to be an incredible challenge. It was a congregation that met for Sunday School, worship, coffee hour, and once a month, a potluck supper and a board meeting.

Here we are, two and a half years later, beyond that two-year mark. We’re not much better off financially, but now we have a thriving Young Adult’s group that meets twice a month for Pub Theology, a restarted women’s group that meets monthly for lunch and to support local and global missions, and now an after-school tutoring program for students in need and we are preparing to do a summer day camp for students with disabilities and their typically developing peers. Except for the women’s group, the other three ministries received grant funds. We have also started a community organic garden, an annual Easter Egg Hunt, and participated in many more local missions and community events.

The truth is we still are hanging on the edge of financial sustainability, but the congregation seems to be doing well. We are in this together. We are struggling together and working to give more and to do more in the community, rather than sitting on what we have to survive. It’s been exciting to see.

Sadly, far too often churches, missions and ministries are cut short, told it is because of a lack of funding, but often it is a lack of vision. The inability to perceive beyond what is in front of them, the building closes, the congregation’s members are told to move on, the mission is dissolved, the ministry ends. But what is shocking is that often these churches, missions, and ministries end with thousands—sometimes tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even a few stories I have heard with seven figures—left in the bank. 

 

Did we not learn our lesson from Jesus’s Parable of the Talents?

I was talking with a colleague of mine who has started many churches, and he let me in on a secret: sometimes it is better to go forward with vision and little to no money, than to have money and a lack of vision, which often equates to money with strings attached.  Those strings may be an old guard vision of what church is or a perceived intention of the original givers, rather than being open to the movement of the Spirit in the here and now and the potential for ministry right in front of us.

A wise professor once told me that Jesus does not like big bank accounts on churches. It means we are not using God’s resources as God intended—to fulfill the needs of our neighbors in this world and to continue to share the Good News of God’s Love. But all too often, money sits in bank accounts and churches, missions and ministries close.

I’m really proud of the little congregation I have been called to. They don’t have much, but they are doing a lot with the little they have. And somehow, grant funds have come through and we’ve been able to do more than we could imagine. Even when it comes to the resource of time and people-power—we ended up receiving a couple of volunteers from the community and parents of students willing to volunteer and work with us. The more we dream and act, the more we seem to be able to do—and the worries over finances, while still there, seem less and less every day. God isn’t through with us yet. While we don’t know what the future holds, and maybe we’ve just postponed the closing date—no one can say we sat around worried about losing what we have any longer.

How do we let go of Sunday morning?

By Rev. Mindi

One recent Sunday morning, I looked out over the empty pews and I thought to myself, “what can be done to get people here?” Then I thought of all the “regulars” who weren’t here, and I thought to myself, “What can be done to get the ‘regulars’ to come back?”

Then I wondered why am I so worried about Sunday mornings?

I’d fallen into the Sunday morning trap again—the idea that “church” is the thing we do on Sunday mornings only, that “church” is the place we go for an hour on Sunday.  We’ve known, from the beginning of our movement, as Paul talks about us in 1 Corinthians 12, that the church is the body of Christ. It’s like that old song we sang in Sunday School: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people…”  We all know this, and yet, we fall into the trap again and again and again.

When I looked beyond the empty pews, beyond Sunday, I remembered all the volunteers we had for the last two weekends for our annual Rummage Sale. I recalled all the neighbors who came out, who not only perused our “treasures” but also sat down over a hot dog and chatted with us about their lives. I remember the people who lined up for pies on Saturday morning. I also remembered the Women’s group that gathered earlier that month for lunch, the two Young Adult Pub Theology gatherings, and the bags of donations that appeared in the office for the local women’s shelter.

Why are we so caught up on Sunday morning? Why is Sunday morning still the litmus test as to whether or not a church is healthy or viable?

Money.

Sure, we receive money at our Rummage Sale or other events, but the main way we keep our lights on, pay the pastor (me) and fund the missions and ministries of the church is through the Sunday morning offering.  And if people don’t come on Sunday, they are not necessarily going to give financially—mainly because we don’t ask.

What if…

We offered other ways for people to give to the church—online giving, card readers, QR-codes on the bulletin?

We encouraged giving at other times, at other opportunities, to share in the ministry and fellowship of the congregation?

We counted our blessings in the people we reach out to, the small groups, and the missions and ministries we offer instead of persons in pews?

And what if… dare I say it?

We changed everything.

What if we weren’t as concerned about being financially viable as we were about the ministries and missions we share in?

What if we sold our buildings, moved to partner with other congregations, or started meeting in public spaces such as schools, libraries, coffee shops, or other locations?

What if we all, when we pledge our finances to the church, also pledged our time, our gifts, our talents? What if we took a share in the work of the church, each of us?

This might mean that…

Pastors could no longer survive on a congregational salary alone. Let’s face it—a number of our pastors are already bi-vocational and many of us do not meet denominational standards for compensation.  It would mean that seminaries would have to completely change because those going into ministry wouldn’t be able to afford the three-year master’s degree, knowing that they would be coming out with debt (five, but often six figures worth of debt). And this is already happening—seminaries are closing, or completely going online. Students take one or two classes at a time while working a full-time job. I’ll say it again: this is already happening.

We would have to all change—the church, the pastor, the body of Christ.

We would have to change everything. But we might be able to do something radical.

We might be able to follow Jesus differently.

I’ll raise my hand: I’m scared of this. I have loans to pay off. I have other debts. I need to provide for my family. But as it is, I serve two congregations part-time. I am surviving. I also love what I am doing. I have begun to change. But it’s time for the church to recognize this isn’t temporary.

This is the new normal.

Silence

by Rev. Mindi

Nation, we’ve had a rough seven months.

Superstorm Sandy. Newtown. The Boston Marathon. West, Texas. Moore, Oklahoma.

And there are more tragedies that don’t make the national news, or at least not to the same degree. The Mother’s Day shooting in the 7th Ward of New Orleans. Other school shootings. Gang violence. Homophobic violence.  Massive fires in Southern California. Natural and unnatural disasters.

It’s all a bit too much for us to take at times. For many of us, our first reaction is shock and shared grief. It may hit very close to home (for us, my husband’s cousin lost their home in Sandy, my in-laws live in Newtown, and we own a home in Southern Oklahoma where we lived just a year ago) or it may just be the shared shock and grief we have when a child, the epitome of innocence and hope and joy, is killed.

For others, our first reaction is to act. How can we help? What can we do? We hear the stories of heroes, the First Responders, the ones who put their own lives in danger to save the lives of others. We hear the stories of teachers who bravely shielded the children in their classroom from bullets or tornadoes. We want to do something that can help and honor those who have given of their lives.

But still, for some, there is a need to say something. A need to speak, a need to put meaning into words. And this is very, very dangerous ground. There was a flurry of activity on Twitter yesterday, much of it deleted today, but the stings of those words are still fresh.

From the right, we hear this is God’s will. We hear Scripture spoken as if to say this is part of God’s plan. We hear words of judgment and condemnation of those who claim to speak for God.Those words, even if one agrees with them, do NOT bring comfort to those who are mourning, do NOT bring healing to those who are hurting.

From the left, we hear blame. We hear messages about climate change, lack of funds for disaster relief, and poor payment of teachers. We hear words of judgment and condemnation towards those who disagree with them.  While one might agree with these opinions, those words do NOT bring comfort to those who are mourning, do NOT bring healing to those who are hurting.

Church, we are called to be different. We are called to be Living Hope.  We are called to both action and silence. 

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”  Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  John 11:32-37

Perhaps our own response ought to be silence, weeping, and then action. Perhaps words are utterly unnecessary, and even harmful.

*You can give through the One Great Hour of Sharing (Week of Compassion) in your local Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), American Baptist, United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian Church USA, Cumberland Presbyterian Church, AME Zion, and Reformed Church in America to help those in Oklahoma with tornado disaster relief.