State of Our Union

A couple of weeks ago we had our monthly pastor’s gathering for our two circuits, comprising a region of roughly 100 miles or more, running from 30 miles north of me to probably 70 miles south of me.  A couple of dozen churches or so from our particularly denomination comprise these two circuits, and every month, more or less half of us gather together for pastoral fellowship, strengthening and encouragement.  
Each of us comes from congregations with various concerns.  Most of our congregations are on the smaller size (less than 100 in worship on Sundays).  Even the ones that are a little (or a lot) larger struggle with what to do with expenses, rising fixed costs, increasingly older (and fewer) people on Sunday mornings.  These pastors are good guys.  Hardly uniform in style or approach or much of anything else, running the age spectrum from late 20’s to 80ish, both retired and active.  
We come together, and at least once a year we are visited by a leader of our regional hierarchy to update us on how things are going.  The news is rarely good.  At this past meeting, our District representative informed us that within the next 30 years or so, half of the 330 or so congregations that comprise our denominational region will no longer exist.  
That’s 150 congregations or so that are expected to close their doors for good.  
Of the ones that remain, many will continue to struggle under the continued cultural trends of fewer young people attending regular worship (let alone supporting a ministry).  Congregations will continue to get smaller and older.  
That’s a pretty shocking statistic.  We gather in various places around our Circuit to receive the Word and Sacraments from one another, to encourage one another and simply enjoy being in the presence of other men who know what we deal with.  Each one of us hears these statistics though and it is a blow to the heart.  None of us argue.  We can’t.  It isn’t as though we don’t see the signs of it in our own congregations, even the larger ones.  But a large millstone is placed around our respective necks as we return to our own congregations.  Premonitions of the future.  Not precisely prophetic utterances of a Biblical quality or scale, but inevitable extrapolations of trends and cultural currents that have been altering for decades now.  
What to do?  What to do?
Congregations look to their pastors for guidance.  Pastors look to their congregations for inspiration and enthusiasm.  Meanwhile the numbers continue to crunch.  It’s easy to spend the days and weeks between Circuit meetings ensconced in our respective offices.  Planning the coming Sunday’s liturgy and worship.  Preparing for Bible studies and writing sermons.  Agonizing over what to do differently, so that our congregations are not part of the 150 that are expected to disappear.  
This leads often to burnout.  Clergy burnout.  Struggling with immense expectations both external and internal.  Worrying.  So little good news.  So rare those moments of obvious evidence of the Holy Spirit’s continued work in our midst – baptisms, confirmations, conversions.  
A colleague of mine in our Circuit blogged about this issue a couple of times in recent weeks.  The first was in response to our Circuit meeting and the devastating statistics.  More recently, in regard to the issue of clergy burnout.  
His response both times is spot on – what is the role of a pastor?  To preach the Word and to Administer the Sacraments.  To unleash the Word of God to kill and make alive again.  This is our traditional denominational understanding, which is further based in another 1500 years of Christian tradition and practice.  
This is what we say, but it is hardly what pastors are hearing – both from above in the hierarchy and below in their congregations.
Pastors are expected more than ever to be the do-all, end-all of the ministry.  They are to come up with the plans of action for outreach that will reverse or at least hold steady the downward trends in membership and worship and tithing.  They are to be the chief cheerleaders for the congregation’s activities, the primary face associated with their congregation’s community branding and image.  They are chief administrators and guardians of the congregation’s resources.  They are to be vigilant at the bedsides of their ill and dying parishioners, yet always on call in their offices for whomever might wish to speak with them.  They are expected in many ways to have the full and complete set of spiritual gifts, all firing properly and at full power at all times.  All on their own.
It’s a tall order.  An order that many pastors reinforce with their own insecurities and needs.  An order reinforced by many congregations that would prefer to let the pastor make all the decisions, or have been trained by generations of pastors that this is the proper way to do things.  An order reinforced by seminaries and watching other pastors perform their duties.  An order reinforced by the Church’s blind assuming of the corporate model and mindset as appropriate to the work of a fundamentally different organization, so that the Pastor is the CEO, the CFO, the CIO, and any number of additional anagrams.  
Preaching and administering the Sacraments is what we are trained to say is the role of the Pastor, but I doubt many congregations – or pastors – really believe this or really want this.  There are far more hats to be filled.  
And from many perspectives, the very livelihood of the congregation is at stake.  Or so we tell ourselves secretly.  Get the right pastor and your congregation will grow and thrive and be relevant to the community once again.  Get the wrong pastor and you might as well buy the hammer and nails for the coffin.  Again, most people (both congregants and pastors) would disagree with this assumption intellectually and publicly, but many are wrapped up in it out of fear or desperation internally.
Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking.  More and more pews are empty.  Bank accounts grow leaner.  Fear sets in.  Everything feels worse.  Expectations and anxiety and burnout mount.
Delivering the Word that kills and makes alive.  Providing the Sacraments that welcome people into the Body of Christ and allow them a taste of grace and forgiveness – that’s a pretty big task.  Yet it is precisely these tasks that get squeezed in order to make time for the other roles and tasks, whether self-imposed or self-assumed or expected and directed from congregational leadership and the rank and file.  
One hundred and fifty congregations winking out of existence in the next 30 years is not going to be due to pastors not trying to juggle enough balls at one time.  It’s just a fact.  It is the state of our culture at this point in time.  It isn’t a failure on the part of these congregations.  It isn’t that they didn’t preach the Gospel or administer the Sacraments correctly.  It isn’t that their people were bad or rude or unwelcoming.  It just means that there aren’t as many congregations needed as there used to be.  That the costs of maintaining property and structures and traditions continues to rise, and there aren’t enough people to fund these thing
s in 300 congregations any more.
It isn’t a matter of if this will happen, in my opinion.  I think that our estimates are probably spot on.  It’s a shame.  But it’s reality.   Burying our heads in the sand won’t change it.  The only thing to be addressed really, is whether we plan proactively knowing that this is going to happen.  Whether we work together between congregations and pastors to plan a way for this to occur in a way that maximizes continued ministry, or simply fritters and putters away into nothingness.  
It isn’t a matter of success or failure.  It isn’t a matter of faithfulness and unfaithfulness.  In many instances, it may be a matter simply of what appears to be randomness, blind luck.  This one and not that one.  
But two things need to keep happening, and it ought to be the single-minded focus of every member and every congregation – the Word needs to keep going out to as many people as possible, both the faithful and those outside the faith, killing and making alive again.  And the gifts of God in baptism and Holy Communion need to continue to be made available to the faithful.  This has been the work of communities of faith since the first disciples.  Where we do it and when we do it is a matter up for discussion.  
But it is a non-negotiable as to whether it happens.  In other parts of the world churches and congregations are closed by soldiers and laws and orders, and there is nothing to take their place publicly.  It would be tragic and terrible if in this country of incredible freedoms, congregations are closed because of a lack of willingness to do what was necessary to ensure the Word of God continues to do it’s work, even if it doesn’t do it in that particular building or congregation any more.
As pastors, this needs to be our focus.  Not on preserving a building or a set of traditions, but on preaching and teaching the faithful and ensuring the Sacraments are available.  It is the work of our members to determine how this gets done, whether from a traditional full-time pastor or a worker-priest.  Whether in a sanctuary or in a private home.  
This is what matters.  This is what has always defined the Church – faithfulness to this single-minded mission.  Maybe more pastors and congregations need to act accordingly.  Need to focus their resources and time and attention on these things and less on trying to be all things to all people.  Maybe we ought to take heart and hope in the fact that the Holy Spirit is quite capable of bringing literally thousands of people to faith in a single moment (Acts 2:41, 47, 4:4, 5:14, 6:7, 9:31, 11:21, 24).

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