It had taken awhile—more pastoral visits than I could realistically fit into my schedule, endless committee meetings, strategic lunch, and coffee appointments. But after about three years as Senior Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Washington, D.C., I was beginning to feel like I might be able to try something new and unusual in worship.
This urban congregation, over 140 years old and inhabiting a much-toolarge and increasingly needy facility, had once been a grand Baptist church of Washington, D.C., a place everyone who was anyone went to worship, an important part of the social and political fabric of this important town.
As the urban landscape changed and people moved out to the suburbs and Sunday brunch with the New York Times became the preferred activity of most on Sunday mornings, the faithful people who sat in the pews on the corner of H and 8th Streets, NW, were determined—if it was the last thing they did—to concentrate on the task of getting things back to the way they used to be when everything was going so well at Calvary. Remember those days?
I learned soon after my arrival that my primary job as a young, inexperienced, overly-enthusiastic pastoral leader, was to help the congregation come to terms with the idea that change could be good. At least, that’s the only thing I could think to do, as it seemed blatantly obvious to even me that there really was no other option for keeping the doors open. So, I set out to try to help redefine success, and convincing the congregation to consider an alternative perspective took most of my energy. I likened it to taking a drink of water from a fire hose…or turning an aircraft carrier. Slow, plodding, incremental…change.
That Sunday I finally felt we were ready for something new and maybe even a little bit radical in worship. Very slowly over the course of our time together, the Calvary congregation and I had been piecing together worship that was intentional and reflected our calling as a community. We introduced variations and new efforts very gradually; we worked on subtle changes like tuning the piano, dusting the sanctuary, proofreading the bulletin…you know, things like that.
That Sunday I had planned to hold a healing service, with music and liturgy supporting a sermon on the Gospel text followed by an interactive anointing ritual, where worshippers could come forward to have the minister make the sign of the cross on their hands with oil.
Not very traditional.
I couldn’t wait.
To make sure the logistics went smoothly during the service, ahead of time I wisely asked a small group of dependable worshippers to be prepared to help me during the sermon. Not wanting them to miss the spiritual benefit of the ritual, I didn’t tell them exactly what would happen. I recall saying something like, “At the end of the sermon, we’re going to do something unusual. If you would, please just take your cues from me and be ready to get up from your seats to help the congregation know how they should respond.”
And all went well through the first part of the service. Worshippers seemed engaged, liturgy flowed smoothly, music sounded beautiful; it was one of those Sundays where you could just feel the energy. I remember specifically that I was talking about one of the Gospel healing stories of Jesus, and that the very last word in my sermon, right before I’d planned to introduce the healing ritual, was, in fact, “Jesus.”
Just as I said “Jesus,” however, the fire alarm went off.
If you will, try to imagine the scene. First of all, we were gathered for worship on the second floor of a 145 year old building; no one could hear each other as the old fashioned fire alarm bells were deafening; there was a congregation full of older folks, some blind, some unable to walk, who would now need to get out of the building without the aid of the elevator; there were new people who didn’t know their way around the building so well (it is rather a rat maze, as one person recently described it) and with whom we had never practiced a fire drill. Add all of these factors together with the fact that I had specifically told a group in the congregation I had a surprise for them at the end of the sermon and to wait for my direction…and we all just sat there unsure what to do.
The end of the story is that we all got out of the building eventually. Sadly, my brilliant homiletical point was lost somewhere in the process of screaming, “Please leave the building as calmly as you can,” at the top of my lungs into the microphone and helping to carrying a 90 year old member of the choir down the front stairs.
The worst thing was that I knew all along that there was no fire. I knew this because we worship in an aging urban building whose fire alarm goes off pretty consistently because of some glitch in the ancient boiler/electrical/plumbing/generator/air conditioner/sound system. I later discovered I was correct. There was no fire.
In the eight years I have served as Senior Pastor at Calvary, I’ve had experiences like the fire alarm healing service over and over and over again. While it’s true that hardly any experience I’ve had as pastor conforms to the textbook explanations I learned in school or even the stories of many of my suburban colleagues, I’ve come to understand and celebrate the fact that pastoral leadership in an older, urban, mainline congregation can be uniquely trying and, at the same time, utterly wonderful.
Consider some of these challenges and opportunities of urban ministry:
Urban congregations have a unique opportunity to be flexible. I suppose in general the life of faith should be held with a rather loose grip, but ministry in an urban setting often fundamentally opposes flexibility. From a theological standpoint, we follow an ever-creating God whose Spirit came to the first church and blew like a mighty wind through their little preconceived ideas, but the reality of how we do church in many established, urban congregations is rather, well, staid.
Witness: it’s over 2000 years later, and our churches are full of a little more than preconceived ideas. We have buildings—big ones. And constitutions (with by-laws). We have boxes and boxes of books from the church library that somebody’s-father’s-uncle-donated-because-he-was-a-minister-that-we-can’t-throw-away-or-the-world-will-end! We also have the way our pastor of 32 years (who retired in 1971 but we still talk about him every Church Council meeting) always did it; four generations of one family who are members in this church (though nobody still attends and some live in another country last time we checked …); and memories of how it used to be when the sanctuary was packed and everything at church was PERFECT! (Wistful sigh.)
So what happens to a church filled with tradition when we determine that we want to be faithful followers of this ever-creating God who blows in and turns everything on its head?
Well, it’s a little unsettling, to say the least.
It’s unsettling, yes, but it’s also a fundamental exercise of discipleship to follow Jesus faithfully and to hold our traditions loosely. This is an important skill to cultivate in the Christian life in general, but perhaps urban congregations with years of tradition feel this challenge especially acutely. As a result, we have the unique opportunity to practice the quality of responsive Christian living, to honor tradition and history while still making room for the rushing wind of God’s imagination.
Newer congregations founded on the latest cutting edge ideas might not have the same immediate opportunity. But us? Not us! Instead, we have files and files stacked in the archive room on the third floor, and we know exactly what would happen if the wind of God’s Spirit got anywhere near them….
Urban congregations also have the special gift of required intentionality. Because our congregations are so unique in facilities, setting, and history, we consistently face opportunities to redefine ideas, tweak typical approaches, modify the traditional prescribed, pre-packaged program.
For example, our congregation, like any other, is filled with people recovering from surgery or welcoming new babies. Like all good church folk, we enjoy casserole dinners provided by caring members. But the reality of our urban situation is that our congregation is spread out over a 75-plus mile radius, and some of us get to church by car, but many walk, bike, or ride the Metro. Delivering full casserole dishes and returning empty ones is a logistics nightmare almost too difficult to comprehend in this city. Good thing our deacons have devised a very intentional process of assigning cooking responsibilities to some who deliver their contributions to a central location, which are then picked up by someone else who lives near the person receiving food, who then delivers the meals. And, everybody is required to bring their food in disposable containers which do not require returning.
It’s the reality of being the church in a huge urban setting.
Or…what would happen if we wanted to start some sort of small group Bible study network in our church? We’d certainly benefit from such, but none of the curriculum out there seems like a fit for us.
Again, our geographical challenges overwhelm us. It’s not reasonable to staff the church office late every evening, and most folks live in tiny, city spaces. Many of our members travel rigorously for their jobs and cannot commit to 36 weeks of three-hours-per-week required meetings.
In this situation, again, our congregation experiences the gift and challenge of being very intentional about how we live the life of church together. Instead of creating new programming that adds to the time crunch of already overtaxed church members, we look very intentionally at where we already have strong participation and investment. Why can’t our choir or our weekly children’s music activities take on the qualities of a spiritual small group experience? What would happen if we met together in a local restaurant during happy hour on the way home from work? I wonder if folks who take yoga might like some centering prayer together, too?
With the special challenges of a ministry setting to which mainstream programming and materials don’t often apply, we urban churchgoers have the gift of approaching almost every situation with new eyes and intentional thought. What would happen if we looked at it another way? Is there a spiritual or missional reason we’re doing this, or is it just because we’ve always done it? How might we approach this if we completely changed our perspective?
After years and years of facing situations for which traditional solutions have little relevance, I’ve begun to see this quality of our unique ministry setting as a gift. We think a lot more about why we do what we do because we have to. And because we know why we do things a certain way, we have the rare gift of clarity around our mission, vision, and identity.
In addition to weighty tradition and unique programmatic hurdles, an older, urban congregation also faces ongoing challenges related to material stewardship. Many of us, for example, find ourselves responsible for large, historic facilities that, while they suited the needs of the congregation that worshipped here in 1898, are sometimes an overwhelming financial and practical burden for the congregation inhibiting them now. How many times has the pastor of an urban congregation heard (or uttered) the wailed lament, “We should just sell the building and move!”?
Ancient boilers, crumbling plaster, historical preservation boards, downtown developers…we urban pastors and congregations spend inordinate time struggling to make good decisions about how we manage life with the facilities we’ve inherited. But because of these unique challenges, we also are given the opportunity to learn and practice creative stewardship.
It’s very nice, for example, that someone in the church in 1920 thought it would be a good idea to build a full-sized stage, subsequently outfitted with a red velvet curtain and full spotlight system, in yet another large hall in the church building. Strangely, it seems, the demand for such facilities is currently not that high in the worshipping congregation. But the trustees are still required to keep the space clean, safe, and functional while we all sit around alternatively questioning the judgment of those gone before and wondering how on earth we can ever keep this up.
But what if we were listening to NPR one day and heard a story about a local nonprofit who helps kids learn to sing and perform but has suddenly found itself homeless, thanks to budget cuts in the school system? Could we explore a new way to think about our space, engage in relationships with partners who might be interested in sharing resources with us, expand our congregation’s mission and presence in the community by cooperative, creative stewardship?
Well, maybe we could!
When we apply creative stewardship to our urban congregational situations, we suddenly find things we used to think of as liabilities transformed into invaluable assets. How many congregations have the opportunity to partner with the creative efforts of others living out collaborate missions, all the while expanding our own understanding of how the Gospel message relentlessly transforms us, our city, our world? How few faith communities have the gift of facilities ten blocks from the United States Capitol building, in one of the busiest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.?
While we used to think of our situation as hopeless, sinking fast, barely sustainable, creative stewardship allows our perspectives to change and offers us the opportunity to live in hopeful potential rather than desperate futility.
All of these gifts and so many others punctuate the life of an older, urban congregation, but we keep hearing messages that tell us the way we do church is not the way of the future, and that our best option is to conduct a beautiful funeral and get on with doing church in a more modern way.
But when perspective shifts, it becomes readily apparent that the gifts and potential of the urban ministry setting are numerous…bountiful…unique! Here we sit, with years and years of tradition undergirding us, ready to move and be and explore everything God has for us. We have been given tremendous, richly wonderful gifts for sure.
This past Easter was a crazy day at Calvary. For one thing, due to a miscommunication no one had remembered to turn on the water in the baptistery. The pipes are old, you know, and it takes hours to fill that tub full enough to get someone completely dunked under…we turned them on as high as we could and hoped for the best.
One of our members who struggles with mental illness happened to be having an episode, during which he told the associate pastor to #*@# off during the Passing of the Peace. And right as we sat down to eat Easter lunch together in the fellowship hall…you guessed it…
The fire alarm went off.
I will here admit I was not happy. This was not the Easter Sunday I’d worked so hard to plan. But after we got everyone safely out of the building onto the sidewalk out front, I paused to take a look around.
There they were, the whole Calvary family, enjoying the sunshine together, passing babies around, posing for pictures in Easter finery. I heard folks chatting with passers-by on our busy city street, inviting the firefighters to join us for worship some Sunday, and laughing together as those who had been around longer told newer members about that time when Pastor Amy was preaching and the fire alarm went off right at the end of her sermon….
After the building was cleared for reentry (it was a faulty announcer panel this time, go figure), we all marched back into the fellowship hall and sat down, again, to Easter lunch.
Everybody is still talking about the Easter Sunday fire alarm, but I see the smiles and I can hear the pride in their voices this time. We know who we are now, and we embrace it: an older, urban congregation right in the middle of a huge city.
And, how very, very blessed are we?