Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Death [Be/Be Not] Proud

We at the Egg spent a rainy spring day at a meeting of our synod's ministerium yesterday.  In one sense, it was a jolly time.  Our colleagues are a fine bunch, and we greatly enjoy their company, almost without exception -- and the exceptions didn't make the trip.

In another sense it was a bit frustrating.  The chief issue before us is the election of a new bishop next month.  The topic raises some anxiety, and our interim bishop, David Olson, had invited us to talk about it.  He started the ball rolling with an interesting question:  Since bishops are not superheroes, and need to divide their time like anybody else, how involved did we pastors hope that the new bishop would be in evangelism and church growth (as opposed to administration, teaching, discipline, or I suppose tea parties with wealthy widows, like David Niven in that great Christmas movie)?

The question was good, but the responses were ... well, weird.  For perhaps half an hour, we watched our friends get up and talk about their own experience as evangelists.  Dear Bishop Olson thanked them each in turn, and then reminded each of the question that he had actually asked.  Some of this was posturing by aspirants to the Big Hat, but most was not.  People just didn't want to talk about the new bishop as much as much as they wanted to talk about themselves.  It's actually kind of touching:  they find their own ministries more interesting than any other subject in the world, and well they might.

We got a bit closer toward the end of this session.  There was much discussion of whether numbers (attendance, membership, offering) are a good indicator of effective evangelism -- an old question, but one of unending interest, since ministers compare numbers the way investment bankers compare penis sizes.  A member of the synod staff, who does not serve a parish in our city, averred that evangelism is easy, and that the trick to building large parishes is "to get the right people [i.e., pastors] in there."  A young pastor serving the suburbs declared that numbers were actually the measure of a pastor's competence, and that the rest of us were soft for occasionally telling a friend that it wasn't his fault when things went south.

Statements like these bear some scrutiny.  Consider a certain parish we know -- let's call it by a coy nickname: "St. John's," in the mythical realm of "Greenpoint."   It was founded 1867, and in 1918 -- despite competition from another more liberal Lutheran parish blocks away -- it claimed 2500 members, half of them children.   By 1944, as the neighborhood changed and the Brooklyn suburbs expanded, that number had dropped to 758.  By 1963, as the city's fortunes declined, the number stood at 353.  In 1982, it was 116 members, and in 2003, according to the official records of our denomination, membership stood at 33.  That's not a typo, and it's not our smallest parish, either.  (Paging Mt Calvary, in Ruby NY)

My question, then, is whether every single pastor to serve St. John's since 1918 has been the wrong people, or whether, just possibly, there might be other things at work to affect the fortunes of a parish.  (And I have a follow-up question, posed to a former bishop who once told a group of young pastors the powerful story of how a certain colleague had gone to St. John's and "loved them back to life" in the 1980s, making some of those young pastors feel terribly guilty about their inability to do likewise with intractable parishes:  How did that work out in the end?  Hmm?)  

This sort of talk is the worst kind of clericalism.  Pastors are not superheroes, any more than bishops are; expecting us to "save" a moribund parish is just foolish.  The most gifted can catch hold of changes in a neighborhood's population and exploit them effectively.  This can buy time, but it cannot turn back the tide.  Only God can do that -- and, as the reliability of tidal charts demonstrates, God generally does not.

The truth is that between the 1850s and the 1920s, Lutherans in New York City built an enormous number of congregations, to serve enormous communities of Lutheran immigrants.  Within a few generations, as the neighborhoods changed, many of those congregations became redundant.  It is not that the city doesn't need the witness of Lutheran churches -- merely that it doesn't need the same number it once did, many of them within blocks of each other.  This is an obvious fact, more or less proven by decades of actual experience.  Churches close, fairly often in New York, because their time has passed.

But as Bishop Olson said, "The one thing I can tell you is that nobody who admits this will ever be elected bishop."  Much as we hate to say so, he may be correct.  Because since at least the 1960s, bishops and other church leaders have seen the wave coming, and with it a threat to their influence.  Their response has been to deny the reality of it all, to declare that all the church needed to do was change -- to find the right formula of language, worship, social work -- and everything could be as it once had been.  Some inspiring rhetoric along these lines has heartened generations of frightened people, both clergy and laity.  And churches have changed, dramatically in some cases; some very fine ministry has come out of these efforts to become newly-relevant to an altered neighborhood.  But decade after decade and year after year, parishes (including the ones that change according to the prescription of the day) have continued to close -- and often, those closures are accompanied not only by the natural and appropriate grief of the faithful, but also by wholly unnatural and inappropriate hard feelings, blame, shame, and lawsuits.

The denial of death, as you will be told by any physician, is not a viable health-care strategy.  Nor would we at the Egg have much use for a physician who proposed it.  And yet, year after year, that is what we look for from our leaders.

This means, of course, that declining congregations cannot often be effective parts of the greater church's mission strategy.  They expend their every asset (and often, the time and money of the synod as well) in the vain effort to survive, rather than asking how they can pass on their treasures -- a building, an endowment, a treasury of experience -- to those who might use it best.  Because we cannot admit that they are dying, we cannot help them plan their estate.  Biblically speaking, they eat up their seed, rather than letting it fall into the ground.
 
Worse yet, there is a theological issue in this mess.  One suspects that for many Christians, the faith does serve as a massive engine of denial:  Jesus will make the cancer go away.  Jesus will keep my Grandma on life support so that she will never die.  Obviously, most of us know better.  All pastors and nearly all laypeople know, from frequent experience, that death comes.  To pretend otherwise is both foolish and un-Christian, because death is central to our faith.

If we deny the reality of death, we deny the Cross itself.  Jesus did not seem to die, as some heretics once insisted; he died.  And his death does not keep you, me or Grandma from dying.  Death is real.  It is simply not the ultimate reality, represented for us by the empty tomb and the new Jerusalem.  

In a similar way, the pretense that a parish, once established, has the right or even need to exist forever is a denial of reality, and it prevents us from proclaiming the ultimate reality:  death, including the death of a local community, is a thing which cannot be evaded, but not for that reason a thing which should be feared.  Our parish churches and their worship are precious and deserve our love; but they are not feast for which we live our lives in longing: the liturgy of the Heavenly City, where saints and angels gather around the throne, and they gaze upon the Lamb of God. 


6 comments:

penguin said...

having been there, and having said these same things (though far less eloquently), i must say: WELL DONE!!!

Anonymous said...

Dear friend - as someone who was present at the gathering, I must wholeheartedly agree with everything in your post - there is a however - however, we cannot just sit back and use the excuse that "my parish should die, so I shouldn't do anything or try anything" As someone who was anticipated by the Bishop to be the last pastor of this congregation which was in decline for 30 years and which is now, as a colleague stated, "an established congregation" there is hope - and there is validity to the right person-right time-right place theory.

My frustration with the group was the creation of the "other" during BIshop Olson's question, "Do you want to grow" - The responses were not only as you stated very accurately above, but also -- - We are not like those congregations that are growing - we are not like those congrgations who care about numbers - we are not like those congregations that worship 5,000 on a Sunday - thank God we are not like them and we will not be like them, until we die.

As pastor of a congregation that is both growing and one that takes very seriously the numbers game - we need to remember that numbers are people and we are both called to reach people and we are called to grow. Change does not just happpen - it needs to be fed.

As we prepare for a long and potentially extremely interesting three days this week - please keep this Synod and the entire church in your prayers as we attempt to start anew in this corner of God's vineyard - may it be so !

Father said...

Although I have a little trouble following Anonymous's post, the gist is clear and speaks to a genuine and disturbing truth. As much as there are people who so dread the thought of death that they cannot admit its reality, so too there are people who believe that every illness is terminal. This is especially disturbing when it is the physicians -- by which I mean pastors --who misread the symptoms and create a panic.

When I write that we need to admit the reality, and inevitability, of congregational decline, I want to be clear that I do not mean all congregations. Many are healthy, and some can be restored to health (the one I am presently serving is an excellent example of the latter). I am calling for a rational, even slightly dispassionate, and above all fact-based approach to mission and ministry in New York.

Father said...

Oh, and another thing. I do not agree that there is much validity to the right-person-right-time theory, at least when we are talking about profoundly troubled parish situations (as opposed to mildly conflicted ones, or those that are simply shrinking). It would take more space than this to provide evidence, but suffice it to say that the "right person" identified by bishops and their staff is not infrequently a charismatic narcissist able to create a cult of personality which cannot outlive his own ministry. (There are exceptions, but they are rare.)

But I do agree with a complementary theory, which we might call "wrong person-wrong time." That is to say that a tough situation -- whether we are talking about numerical decline or the far more significant issue of internal conflict, can certainly be made worse by the presence of a pastor whose personality enables the pathology. It isn't a qualitative judgment on the pastor's professional or personal characteristics, just a recognition that ministry does have a lot to do with the way a pastor's personality interacts with specific parish conditions.

All that said, however, I believe -- based on close observation of declining parishes -- that only the most extreme variations in pastoral style have an effect which even approaches the effect of demographic change.

Father said...

Oh, and another thing. I do not agree that there is much validity to the right-person-right-time theory, at least when we are talking about profoundly troubled parish situations (as opposed to mildly conflicted ones, or those that are simply shrinking). It would take more space than this to provide evidence, but suffice it to say that the "right person" identified by bishops and their staff is not infrequently a charismatic narcissist able to create a cult of personality which cannot outlive his own ministry. (There are exceptions, but they are rare.)

But I do agree with a complementary theory, which we might call "wrong person-wrong time." That is to say that a tough situation -- whether we are talking about numerical decline or the far more significant issue of internal conflict, can certainly be made worse by the presence of a pastor whose personality enables the pathology. It isn't a qualitative judgment on the pastor's professional or personal characteristics, just a recognition that ministry does have a lot to do with the way a pastor's personality interacts with specific parish conditions.

All that said, however, I believe -- based on close observation of declining parishes -- that only the most extreme variations in pastoral style have an effect which even approaches the effect of demographic change.

Anonymous said...

I quote you sans "Oh and another thing:)" You said - "I am calling for a rational, even slightly dispassionate, and above all fact-based approach to mission and ministry in New York." ABSOLUTELY It feels as though we desperately, in some situations, need to stop attempting to be nice and sweet with congregations who are siphoning the life-blood out of pastors and doing things that verge on, if not crossing the line, of illegality. It is my prayer that our new Bishop can exercise his or her authority with compassion and yet be able to say NO MORE.