Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Church Conflict Does Not Have to be the Norm

Sunday was a big day for my congregation.

We discussed selling part or all of our church property as a part of our call to revitalize ourselves.

And there were no raised voices, no angry calls for separation, only reasoned consideration, passionate points of view, and a willingness to listen and understand.

When I arrived here almost five years ago, we were averaging only a fistful or two of people on a Sunday, with equally meager tithes and offerings flowing into the church coffers--so meager, in fact, that the search committee that voted to recommend calling me told me that they could potentially only afford me at full-time wages for two years.

And, like I said, it has been almost five years since that conversation.

Which means that, financially, we've actually improved in terms of our solvency and viability.

The problem for us is that it hasn't been enough--through no fault of any of us, really.  First Christian was one of the first churches planted in Longview back during the Roaring Twenties, and true to that decade, it was built with the intention of being a church with a bit more moneyed membership.

But then the crash of 1929 happened.  And while Longview recovered just fine, and had its economic golden years during the mid-to-late 20th century, the combined hits of NAFTA, CAFTA, the Great Recession, and the exodus of the executives who actually ran the pulp and paper mills that our town was built around all left Longview with much less money than it once had.

This loss of wealth has extended to many of its churches, with some churches merging with other congregations, cutting back on staff, or closing altogether.

I say none of this to air any sort of dirty laundry--quite the contrary, being able to talk about finances is something we Christians simply need to be better at and more comfortable with doing.  And churches should be able to talk about how to best utilize their resources, including putting some of those resources on the market, simply as a matter of course in the pursuit of good stewardship and care of what they have been blessed with.

Rather, I say all of that to preface, in point of fact, my very real and genuine pride with the congregation that I serve over how they have taken to the many adjustments that calling a pastor like me has entailed.

For me, what has been toughest is that even though these adjustments have led to very real and very heartening growth--both spiritual and quantitative--in our congregation, the financial growth has not followed; indeed, financially, we are not much different than before.

I understand how that singular reality could be taken as a damning indictment of my ministry here.  But I was not called to be, or taught to be, a fundraiser.  The implicit promise we have taught our pastors is that if you grow the church, the money will follow.

The problem with that promise, though, is that it is completely invalid if the money has been sucked dry out of your beloved town.

And so we are considering liquidating part of our static real estate assets--namely, our secondary building that houses a preschool (unaffiliated with us) in one half of the building and classrooms and our office space, including my office, in the other half.  The office space is the only part of the building we use regularly--I teach two Bible studies in one of the classrooms on Tuesdays, and otherwise, we use our side of the building for storage.  We are also deliberating what selling the entire property--in order to re-plant with a new building elsewhere in town--might entail.

Those discussions, while consisting of passion and strong emotions and yes, some disapproval, have never become overly contentious, or out-of-hand, or emotionally wrenching to endure.  Our board of directors deliberated over months in their meetings and did so in a genuine sense of Christian discernment and unity.  Our larger congregation has shown nothing but the same sense of purpose and kindness in spite of the difficulty of the decision that is before us.

And it wasn't through rocket science or brain surgery that this atmosphere of patient deliberation was fostered: it was borne out of an ironclad commitment by church leaders (myself included) to transparency, a willingness to actively seek questions and inquiries, and a commitment to making everyone feel heard.

Again--nothing in there that doesn't seem like a no-brainer.  But I'm always amazed when I hear about a church not practicing those disciplines.  I realize maybe I shouldn't be, that the systems in many congregations are unhealthy and have been so for a long time.  But I pastor a congregation that has, like almost every other congregation, had conflict at times in their past.  It can be dealt with healthily.  It can be overcome.

So let this be a word of reassurance to my colleagues in ministry, to other Christians, to other churches: hard decisions, tough decisions, big decisions really can be done in an atmosphere of understanding and dialogue.  I know it doesn't always feel that way in a world when comments sections are always filled with vitriol and when the presidential race is being led by a demagogue who openly brags about the size of his junk in presidential debates.

Think of it as a way in which we need not necessarily be of this world, even as we are in it.  We need not be of that sort of anger and fury, that manner of madness and indignation.  The Way of Jesus represents a Way different than that of the injuries and pains we inflict upon each other.  It represents a Way of hope for the future of God's kingdom, of belief in the people trying to build that kingdom now, and above all else, a love that is not subject to surface-level conditions.

My congregation is showing me a way forward right now.  I cannot begin to say how proud I am of that great truth.

Longview, Washington
March 9, 2016

Image courtesy of my church's Wikipedia page

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