Friday, April 22, 2016

The Total Lack of Sexiness in Church Revitalizing

On our apartment balcony, C and I keep a miniature Japanese maple tree that we have nicknamed Ishiguro (as in, the Japanese-British writer).  It is a beautiful bit of verdant greenery that we have for ourselves in a paradise of green spaces here in the Pacific Northwest, and it makes our rented digs feel a little more like a home.  Even the dogs love Ishiguro--more than once, they've tried to help themselves to some salad from the poor tree's branches.

A far greater danger than my little pooches' chompers, though, was the deadening of almost half the tree--partly due to weather, but mostly due to the fact that, as it turns out, I am a downright awful babysitter of plant life whenever my wife is out of town.  Of Ishiguro's two main branches from the center trunk, one died, and it had to be sacrificed in order to give the living branch a real chance.

What remains of Ishiguro, though, is flourishing now: the leaves, branches, and trunk are all as brightly green as ever.  A part of the dead branch remains, though, and it stands in stark contrast: it is a dark brick red, unable to regrow, renew, or revitalize itself.

But shedding that branch's leaves and auxiliary branches is precisely what had to happen.  The medicine--an amputation, really--was bitter, but the tree itself was better off for us having done so.

Of course, I could have been better at providing for the tree to begin with--which is sort of the point.  Ishiguro could not have ended up as a better metaphor for the job I had signed up for--revitalizing a lovely, and beloved, local congregation that had, like so many other mainline churches, been battered down by decades of decline.

Earlier this month, this congregation that I have now served for nearly five years voted almost unanimously to put its secondary building (which houses education classrooms as well as the church offices--including mine) on the real estate market.  It was not an easy decision--after months of deliberation by our board of directors, they came to a consensus that this step was necessary, so I floated it at our annual general meeting in January.

During Lent, we had a series of congregational town hall meetings to discuss this as well as other possible steps, such as selling the entire church property and re-planting elsewhere in town or cutting back on personnel (including moving to a part-time pastorate) and seeking more opportunities to rent our buildings out to other organizations in town.

We took a straw poll and then a formal vote, and each time, it was overwhelmingly to put the education building--where I am sitting, typing out these words--up for sale.

And it made perfect sense.  This building has just turned sixty, and like the main sanctuary building--and the church buildings of the same longstanding, long-suffering churches whose assets, memberships, and hopes have all dwindled since their midcentury heydays--it has a lot of deferred maintenance, and the immediate maintenance and repairs that did have to be done were increasingly expensive.

Meanwhile, while part of this building is rented out to a local preschool that does fantastic work with our commnity's youngest children, the classrooms in the rest of the building were used either for storage or for our daytime and evening Bible studies one day a week (Tuesdays).

That's it.  And that's simply no way to make the most use out of a valuable resource that you have been blessed with from previous generations.

So, like Ishiguro's one branch, we had to acknowledge that this particular part of our church had been dying off, and that in order to allow the church itself to flourish, we had to pull that one dying branch apart.

That isn't the image you usually think of when you hear about 'church planting,' and for good reason.  The idea of planting, or re-planting, a church is that you are trying something fresh and new, straight from seed or seedling form.  It implies growth and nurture, and while sometimes there really is such a thing as addition by subtraction--be it a plant's branch or an entire building--that isn't quite so attractive to lift up or even talk about.

Yet lift it up and talk about it we did, and I believe that we have come out better for having done so.

It was not sexy, or attractive, or fashionable ministry.  There is no enticing, trendy word for it, like "missional" or "relevant."

But it was important.  It was meaningful.  And by the grace of God, we did it.

Now, we move onto the next step.  Searching for a buyer for our humble little branch of our church property.

I remain hopeful, prayerful, and mindful of God's providence.

Ishiguro taught me how to be better at that.

Longview & Vancouver, Washington
April 22, 2016

Our poodle-bichon Dame Frida Koala graciously insisted on posing in front of Ishiguro (complete with the remnant of the dead branch, which you can see behind the live branches) for this picture.  She says, "You're welcome."

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