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.