Let me tell you what happened

It’s appointment season in The United Methodist Church.

From now until June, you’re bound to see social media posts from pastors thanking God for their time at their church. The bishop, they’ll say, has appointed them to a new church. As United Methodists Christians with Facebook accounts, it’s something we’re used to seeing. I know I check our conference’s website to make sure my name doesn’t pop up as one who is moving!

All that to say, that I’ve been reflecting on pastoral appointments.

There’s a first conversation I dread having at a new church. It’s one I’ve had at every church I’ve served. To be sure, I don’t initiate it. There are many things I want to talk about, but this isn’t one I enjoy hearing.

I call it the “Let me tell you what happened” talk.

All relationships have difficulties. Marriages do. Families struggle with one another all the time. Work relationships have difficulties. Sometimes, it’s even hard to get along with the cashier at the grocery store.

And even church families have rifts.

When a new pastor comes along, she doesn’t know what’s happened between members. Or he doesn’t realize how long it’s been since feelings were first hurt. So, somebody has to fill them in with the juicy details, right?

Sometimes, the conversation is necessary. I don’t want to give you the impression I don’t care how people have hurt one another. I do. That’s a part of a congregation’s story. I’m not pretending there isn’t any friction among members.

A lot of it is petty, though.

And I don’t do petty all that well. Maybe that’s a growing edge for me.

Remember that time Moses struck the rock twice? Water came out for the people and their livestock to drink. No sooner had everyone had a drink, Moses lost his chance to see the promised land.

When we study that story from Numbers 20 we tend to look at the anger of Moses. But what if Moses wasn’t only angry? There’s an idea that begs us to ask, what if he was grieving?

Read the story again.

In one sentence, Miriam, Moses’ sister dies. In the next sentence, the people rally against Moses and Aaron.

Let’s assume the story reads that way on purpose.

If so, the people hurt Moses. They didn’t mourn his sister or acknowledge what her death meant to him. They were much too concerned about their well-being. They worried more about their livestock.

If I were a new pastor to that congregation, I’d want to know about a story like that.

The real pain a church has experienced together will show. That’s what needs to be addressed. Not that a new pastor is coming to save the day. Some might think that’s their job. That kind of mindset can add to the damage already done. Sometimes, though, new eyes can see healing others cannot. Someone who hasn’t been fighting as long can help bridge the restoration of relationships.

That’s a virtue of the church, after all. It’s good when we live in unity. We can’t do that if we’re too busy hurting one another. There are real steps to healing. Real steps. Hard steps. Sometimes, real hard steps.

No pastor wants their congregation to live in disunity because we’ve brushed our pain under the rug. Who do you need to forgive in church? What stories do we need to acknowledge?

Let’s seek reconciliation together.

Stay blessed…john

Church visitors

Yesterday, a couple visited our church for worship. They are members of another church we’ve served before.

It’s cool when you see familiar faces like that. Out of the blue–out of the pandemic.
Confession: I avoid the urge to parade those visitors around the congregation. If it were up to me, I’d introduce them to everyone myself. To me, it’s like introducing family.

I’m not sure who would be more uncomfortable after a while if I did that. The couple or the church?

If you ever get the nudging or the opportunity to visit with an old pastor of yours, do it. It’d make their day and bring back good memories.

Stay blessed…john

When churches close

A few years ago a church marquis caught my attention. It read something to the effect of: Our final worship service. Come worship with us.

It was their final worship service, and I felt led to be there. When I told my wife how I would spend that Sunday evening, she gave me that strange look.

I’m grateful I went. I know it sounds sad for a church to close. Indeed, there was grief. But there was also the strong reminder that God’s kingdom always outlasts us. I left encouraged by God.

As it turned out, I knew a pastor who served the church before. I spoke with him and a few others there who were former pastors of the congregation. I asked the simple question, “What happened?”

It was a familiar story. All-too familiar. An aging congregation with little membership growth. The point that stood out to me was the growing list of building maintenance issues. The building became too much of a financial burden.

Again, that’s pretty standard. It’s so common Hollywood has produced movies that start with that kind of plot: a church is in desperate need to repair the roof and the boiler. Only a miracle could keep the church from closing.

More and more of us have noticed this prevailing story. There are some who offer easy step-by-step models to turn around a church in trouble. “Just do this and stop doing that,” they might say. It worked for them they’ll tell you.

Now, to be sure, there are things a lot of churches need to stop doing and things they should start doing. That’s an ongoing conversation that needs attention and courage.

For today, though, let’s consider something.

It’s becoming more obvious that the form of church most of us are familiar with is already changing. I’m convinced my children’s future worship will be significantly different than the worship we’ve known as a family.

And that isn’t a loss for me. I’ve never been one to hold on to the form of worship. Instead, it’s a kingdom reminder.

If my children will worship at all in the future, what we do today has to have meaning. Have I prioritized more the form of worship or the point of worship to them? The focus of worship or the enjoyment of worship?

One could get the impression King Solomon jumped in and started building the house of the Lord. The way 1 Kings 6 reads, it was time and he started building. But there’s more to it than that. He prepared for this. For years, he prepared.

Before that, for more than four hundred years, the people of God did fine without a Temple. But this was something new God wanted Solomon to do. Or not; some people suggest God didn’t want one.

Then the Temple was gone.

That’s what temples can do.

Whatever worship will look like in the next decades is both out of and within our control. For all I don’t know about what will be, I can tell you something for sure. We need preparation. Whatever’s next won’t just fall out of the sky.

We can help those after us follow God’s lead by helping them prepare.

What are we teaching about worship? How are we expressing worship? How does worship shape the community of faith God wants to build?

See? This has always been more about merely going to church.

Stay blessed…john