Last Sunday, we had an important meeting at church. Long before I arrived as the pastor, this congregation has been trying to figure out what to do with the building. Buildings are a challenge for churches. We can’t imagine life without one — and have such fond memories of particular rooms and corners of the building. Our buildings are indeed sacred. Not so much because we believe God lives only there — but for the transforming events that happen between these walls. Children are baptized. Sweethearts make vows. Loved ones are given back to God. We pledge over and over again to support each other. The space where those things happen matters. A lot.
So, it’s a big deal when we sit down to try to listen to each other about what to do with this building. Because building require constant maintenance — and so, the building requires the biggest budget item next to personnel. They were built to reflect the needs of our faith ancestors many years ago. For our church, that time span is more than 50 years. Back in those days when Sunday Schools were bursting at the seams. But, times have changed and so we’ve gotta figure out what to do about those changes. On Sunday, that was the question before us. What do we do with this structure?
Congregations — especially in the congregational tradition where it is believed that the power lies in the pew rather than in a governing body or a pastor — have a lot of meetings. I am always surprised about how tense these meetings can be. So, I’ll admit I was really nervous going into this meeting. I knew very well that this group of people has had some awful, heart-wreching experiences around church process. I had done everything I could to make room for some genuine conversation — but I really wasn’t sure that their old patterns wouldn’t emerge.
I gotta say: I’m both proud of them and disappointed. I thought that they handled the building conversation really well. I was really pleased with the space that was made to really listen to each other. There was good energy in the room. It was awesome to see especially after what had happened in the business meeting. See, I changed the process on them. They share the heritage of two denominations. And, for the most part, I don’t think they have worked very well together. I love the vision of this congregation that federated because they thought they could do more ministry together — but somehow this partnership has become a power struggle. I maintained my composure in the meeting. But, if you really want to know the truth: I’m disappointed.
It was said to me by one church member that it was successful because we reached an outcome. We elected a slate for each denomination’s leadership. But, the process getting there was painful. Perhaps that’s my fault. Maybe I had more trust in them than I should have and maybe my interpretation of the Bylaws just doesn’t resonate. Maybe I should have prepared them better for this change. Maybe. But, what I saw in that process is an inherent lack of trust. I don’t think that this is actually about process — as I thought it was. Something is still tripping over this family system. Something from a long time ago. Something that causes them to be so deeply concerned about representation and numbers. And I don’t get it. I hear the heartbreak appear here and there but I still don’t understand why it becomes such a power play when it comes to denominational decisions. And it only seems to happen when they are talking about denominations. The hard conversation that I was most scared about was no problem. It was when we tried to elect our leaders that that deep hurt appeared. So, I’m proud of them for working together as a church and beginning a really hard conversation about their building. But, I’m worried. I’m worried that the ways this family relates together across denominational lines will topple the foundation before a new building plan emerges.