Thursday, January 21, 2010

A congregation's hopes and fears

Many of my blog posts the past year have been about the contemporary trials and travails of the church and its congregations. So it seems appropriate that I reveal a bit of my own situation in that regard. The annual meeting of my congregation, Acacia Park Lutheran Church, is coming up. Here is a portion of my report for that event. I’ll comment more at the end.

As I wrote in my report last year, and as I have said and written on many other occasions, Acacia Park’s ability to continue to offer these opportunities [for ministry] is increasingly in doubt. In that we are not alone. Last spring, Metropolitan Chicago Synod Bishop Wayne Miller reported that two-thirds of synod congregations are losing members. Later, one of his assistants reported that the 15% of synod congregations that are growing are doing so primarily by transfer of members from other ELCA congregations. Very few genuinely new people are joining synod churches. Thus, most congregations are growing smaller and older, just like Acacia Park. This story is repeated across the country and across denominations.

This situation has been developing and intensifying for at least forty years. Needless to say, people across the church have been trying to figure out why this is and what to do about it. Most responses have been of the type I first heard described by a Methodist minister: “If it doesn’t work, do more of it.” It is incredibly difficult for organizations to create really new ways to carry out their mission or to redefine their mission altogether (think General Motors). Churches are no different.

For tens of thousands of congregations across the country, this is a time of experimentation and trial-and-error. As is always the case, most such efforts don’t work. Every year an increasing number of congregations run out of time and resources for these efforts and close their doors. Yet some congregations do succeed, or succeed enough that they can continue this project of rediscovering what it means to be Christian communities of faith and service in 21st century America.

As we will discuss at this year’s annual congregational meeting, we are facing serious decisions about the future of the congregation. For many years, Acacia Park has been meeting some of its budget with reserve funds. That spending, plus the stock market’s fall in 2008, has significantly reduced those funds. As a result, the finance committee has proposed that the congregation cut its spending by no longer having a full-time pastor.

It may well come to that but I don’t believe Acacia Park is at the point where it needs to take such drastic action. To avoid this in the short term, the congregation will have to allow use of endowment funds to meet budget expenses. More importantly, however, we need to consider how we can re-make our congregation and its mission in order to become financially viable.

One possibility which I believe has real merit is to transform Acacia Park into a center for community service. In doing so, we would make better use of our under-utilized yet very functional building. Rent and building use fees would provide additional income to support our more traditional ministries.

To make this happen, we would need to explore as many ways as we can to offer programs that meet the needs of people in surrounding communities. These could involve children, the elderly, recent immigrants, those experiencing financial difficulties, providing family and mental health services, programs promoting the arts and education, and creating new opportunities for physical and spiritual health and wellness. We would contact community leaders, schools, and other organizations that are aware of local unmet needs. We would make use of church resources and organizations, such as Lutheran Social Services. We would learn from other congregations that have taken this path (Concordia Lutheran in Chicago has been a pioneer in undergoing such a ministry transformation).

Such a rethinking of ministry would enable Acacia Park to continue to carry out the traditional functions of parish ministry. At the same time, it would create a new mission of service to our community. At a recent pastors’ gathering, a colleague said that the key to the church’s future is for congregations to make themselves essential to their communities. The question then for us to ponder is: What do we need to do and to become in order that people in our community will say, “We can’t do without Acacia Park Lutheran Church?” Rather than succumb to our fears and anxieties, I believe the Bible calls us to be inspired by our visions and our hopes.

The heyday for Acacia Park (as for so many congregations) was in the 1950s and 60s: multiple Sunday services, bustling Sunday school, and active youth, men’s and women’s organizations. All that has changed. Many former members have moved to further out suburbs. The community has become heavily Eastern European (many first-generation), who are not traditionally Lutheran (though most don’t seem to be attending Catholic or Orthodox churches, either). Approximately half the congregation now is retired and many of those are elderly. Most mainline churches in our area are struggling as we are. Many have already closed.

The temptation for congregations like mine is simply to coast to the end. They want to conserve resources in order to offer the bare minimum of services as long as possible. People openly talk of wanting the church to last long enough for their funeral. Then: Last one out, turn off the lights. As I indicate in my report, it is a very common story.

My goal is to offer another possibility. The challenge for Acacia Park and the church generally is to re-imagine its role and identity. What I describe briefly above is one option: to become a community services center which also hosts a worshiping congregation. We have a pretty good physical facility and I think it could work.

The needs are certainly there—and growing. Just recently I read an article about the movement of poverty into the suburbs and how many of these communities are not well resourced or experienced to handle this. Knowing how popular it is in the city, I had been thinking yoga classes might worth a try. Sunday a member, who I would not have expected to hear this from, told me he had fallen in love with the yoga class at a nearby health club. The principal of the school across the street says there is a need for affordable after-school care. You get the idea.

Is this church? Does the tail start wagging the dog in such a scenario? Does it matter? These and other questions keep me puzzling and pondering. Right now, I think the answers are: Yes, perhaps, and no. The bottom line, as I say in my report, is that we would be making ourselves useful, finding creative ways to be of service to our neighbor. I think you can make a case for that being God’s work.

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