Lessons from the Past

After worship was over, in the middle of the Annual Meeting of this tiny church I’m serving as interim pastor, we shared in the work of memory. Earlier that week, I had taped a blue line upon the wall of the church hall with my trusty painter’s tape and chartered those significant events that I could cull from the archives and records.

There was a fire many, many years ago so that some records have been turned into ash but there are gaps in the present too. There are dates overlap from annual reports that don’t seem to have all of the information that we might hope to find but I was able to find when the women’s group started and when most recent bylaws were approved.

Inspired by Roy Oswald’s Discerning Your Congregation’s Future, we shared in what he calls an Evening of Historical Reflection but it was daytime for us and we attempted to do too much too fast. I knew that there was a risk of this. I grimaced a bit inside when the Consistory offered that this would be the best time because there would be so many more people present and engaged, but it was too much. It really should have happened on its own.

This church has had a particularly challenging recent history. I came to be their interim pastor after an abrupt departure of their previous pastor. This is a guy who had come from faraway to be their pastor after their beloved pastor died during Holy Week not too many years before. Theirs is a familiar story of a new pastor not measuring up to the old pastor. Maybe there were other factors that contributed to the abrupt ending of the relationship between this pastor and church. It was one of the things that I had hoped to become clear in this act of memory.

As Oswald suggests, we worked backwards in time. We started with the present and attempted to work through each pastorate which meant that we started with me. So, I asked: what has happened since this relationship began? The responses were all about how it feels now. There were no particular events offered as they would struggle to do moving backward in time but it was mostly about feelings. There is more energy. There is a sense of togetherness. There has been healing. All good things but are these the type of things that we would record in the records of the church history? I don’t know. Then, it was time to talk about that previous relationship with that former pastor. Again, there were more feelings. So many feelings that it was hard to name the events that we might want to name as points of historical significance.

We moved on to talk about another interim and the beloved pastor and everything that was said was about how wonderful these men were. Of this, I have no doubt. They sound like amazing men who loved these people with such depth and power. It’s hard to argue with that. But, I do want to argue. I want to argue because the role of clergy is changing. With the increasing distrust of institutions, there are big questions about the role of professional ministry being raised. Clergy have gotten more and more professional but churches have been less and less able to afford their services (and their student loan debt). Questions have been raised about not paying clergy while others wonder if bivocational ministry should be the new normal. And yet, it is not just financial realities that are changing how clergy function.

Clergy were long ago seen as the theologian in residence and the only one that could offer pastoral care but that seems to be changing as much as how clergy lead. So, I want to argue with these good people about why and how clergy matter. (To be clear, this is my vocation. I loved what I do. I hope there are churches that want to pay me a salary with benefits and a pension in the future. I am called to this as I know that there are other clergy that are just as called to this work as I am.) But, should every church bear that financial burden of paying a clergy person? Should each individual congregation assume that the only measure of success is having their very own pastor?

I look back into the history of this church to see that they shared a pastor with the other United Church of Christ just a mile down the road. They decided in 1931 to dissolve that relationship but the history observes that the congregation always struggled with membership and finances. Would the best option for their future be to reignite that relationship? Are there other possibilities of partnership with the several other United Church of Christ congregations in the area? Is there only one mode of success? Does success only come with calling a new pastor? What might the past teach us?

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