Some years ago, our family built a home heated by a wood-burning stove. Each night I’d load the stove, carefully set the damper, and hope the fire would last until dawn. Each morning I’d clank open the door, hoping glowing coals awaited. When the bed was glowing brightly, I’d simply drop in some sticks of kindling, add a log or two, and head off for the day. When the hearth was gray and cold, I’d have to start from scratch. But most mornings what appeared at first glance gray and cold, revealed at closer look an ember or two still pulsing with life, however tentative and fragile. Breathing new life into the hearth became just that—breathing. Ever so gently at first: too briskly would blow the embers apart, and too cautiously let them cool and die. Mindful breathing just might coax a sparse scattering of coals into a first tiny and tentative flame, ready for deftly placed kindling, and only then a log or two.
Some churches have become a cold, gray hearth, with nary a sign of life. Others have stoked and tend a full and robust fire. But in between, I am convinced, there are some congregations, maybe more than we’d guess, awaiting a discerning eye to bend close enough to see the glow of scattered embers, breathe gently to invite those coals to burn a touch brighter, patiently await a first leap of new flame, and only then blow with vigor to fan the spreading fire. “Blow on the sparks, even if the hearth looks dead.”
Some years ago, during the months a search committee interviewed candidates to fill their vacant pulpit, I was asked to moderate the official board of a Protestant church in a small town called Amagansett, a church dubbed, not so endearingly, by other pastors in the judicatory, the “Am-against-it Church.” Having proceeded uneventfully through most of the agenda, a clearly younger-than-the-rest board member, speaking with high energy and enthusiasm, offered an idea. To be fair, this idea was short on clarity and detail, but, for one willing to look more closely, had significant potential. More important, it was proposed by a young person, in short supply in this aging congregation. All eyes turned in unison to “Vested Suit Number One,” the parish patriarch, who actually said, “Am against it.” Nothing more. As if orchestrated by some invisible signal, all eyes turned to “Vested Suit Number Two.” And yes, the same words, “Am against it,” without further comment. The proposal was defeated. Within weeks that young man and his family had found another church.
A New Pastor
When I heard that a new pastor had been called to the Amagansett Church, and was told by a colleague what a bright, enterprising, and promising young man he was, I considered issuing appropriate warnings. I chose, instead, to introduce myself with the promise that I would be close by and available, and would pray daily for him, the congregation, and his new ministry. From time to time we’d meet for lunch.
Todd was bright and enterprising, articulate, young, and enthusiastic, but also sensitive and patient, perhaps wiser than his years. He would surely need a substantial measure of tolerance to ready him for his first encounter with “Am against it” numbers one or two. Someone warned him about those who’d likely challenge him on each and every front, which he chose to hear as an invitation to make some pastoral calls. Alert and insightful, he discerned almost immediately some steps to take that might be promising. He visited people in their homes and dropped by where parishioners worked. Genuinely curious about the church’s history, he set up some tables in the church’s narthex and invited folks to bring memorabilia that told the church’s story across the decades. Starting slowly, a momentum of energy and enthusiasm picked up as yellowed and faded photos of a generation or two ago appeared.
The pastor invited parishioners in groups of ten or twelve for coffee and conversation after church. In a quiet, engaging, genuinely interested way, he’d ask, “Tell us when you first came to this church. Who was there to greet you? Who do you remember with fondness and gratitude? How has this church guided you, supported you, taught you, touched you? What challenges did this church rise to over the years? What are its proudest moments? How did the church reach out to our community?”
A New Frame
In response to Todd’s probing, some older women complained, with thinly veiled judgment and annoyance, that the younger women showed little interest in joining the Women’s Guild. Todd asked to be invited to the next meeting, and there he made an ingenious suggestion. “Do you remember the founding story of your group?” he asked. Looks of nostalgia crept across their faces as they began to tell, in increasingly animated ways, the story of their first gatherings, back when these gray-haired women were the mothers of toddlers. Smiles broadened on their faces. “Remember, Sara, you called me and I called you, Lillian, and we all got together at my house for coffee while our babies napped in the living room. That was our first meeting,” Mary reported. “And we each agreed to invite one other woman,” added Lillian, “and soon we were a dozen.” “We began to meet at the church and took turns babysitting,” Eileen reminisced.
Careful not to interrupt, Todd artfully suggested, “Maybe there’s an alternative to trying to get the young women to join your group. Maybe you could help them birth their own group, just like you birthed yours. Maybe you can help them begin a ‘founding story’ that they can retell years from now.” Quizzical looks gave way to an energetic conversation about just how they might do that. Two weeks later, responding to handwritten invitations, the older and younger women met. Two months later the church bulletin carried dates and times for two women’s groups. Todd gently blew on the sparks, encouraging barely glowing embers to become a hearty fire.
A Restored Beauty
One autumn afternoon, Todd couldn’t resist going for a brisk walk. No particular itinerary in mind, providence, he would later decide, took him by the home of Wendell, Vested Suit Number One. The old former fisherman, his cheeks lined by years of facing into winter winds on the water, looked up with a warmer welcome than Todd expected, and motioned him into the yard. He noticed, as he got closer, that the small old boat on which Wendell was feverishly working was, to put it kindly, a long way from seaworthiness. “Pretty nasty, huh?” Wendell smiled, something warmer about him on his own turf. “I found her in the weeds down near the inlet,” he explained. Then Wendell told how that old boat had somehow beckoned to him to drag her through the weeds to his yard and restore her to a former beauty.
“It’s become more of a job than I expected,” he explained. “I’m trying to remove the old paint and return the wood to its original grain.” Neither one proposed it, so it wasn’t really a decision, but just about every Wednesday afternoon Todd found himself wandering back to Wendell’s yard, where the old man methodically continued his work. A second month into their meetings, Wendell showed Todd the old boat, beautifully restored. Only Wendell’s face shone brighter than that freshly varnished hull.
Wednesday afternoon tea became a weekly ritual, with Todd and Wendall chatting with easy rapport and growing trust. They reminisced one day about how the old boat had brought them together. Todd asked, “I wonder what the natural grain of Amagansett Church looks like.” Wendell laughed and said, “Bet we’d have to peel off a lot of paint to find out!”
To everyone’s surprise, Wendell, originator of “Am against it,” became Todd’s advocate. A teenager who played the guitar agreed to lead a praise song to replace the middle hymn–unheard of, unthinkable, except Wendell had nodded affirmatively when the idea came to the church board. Someone dared to propose a dance for the youth in the church hall, and Wendell seconded the motion. The vote was unanimous.
Everyone noticed when a newcomer arrived at worship, because it happened so seldom. Suddenly there was a lot to notice. A young couple with two kids arrived, and a single mother with teens. It had never occurred to church members to invite neighbors to worship, and no one paid much attention if a moving van arrived down the street. That changed.
The sweet aroma of arriving casseroles had not wafted through the church kitchen in a decade, but regular covered-dish suppers drew more folks each month. That hadn’t been Todd’s idea, but grew out of a conversation among those cleaning up after a coffee hour. They appointed themselves as a committee and planned the first gathering. A middle-school teacher, an infrequent worshiper, became a regular and offered to start a Sunday evening youth group. There weren’t enough children yet for graded classes, but a retired teacher found a curriculum for a mixed-age class and recruited some mothers to assist. Lay leaders were starting to catch the spirit, informal teams linking with board committees to recruit helpers, start programs, and plan activities. Todd had a chance to sit back and watch.
Todd saw the glow. If he had not bridled his creativity and harnessed his enthusiasm, the resistance and resentment would have overwhelmed him. It is tedious work, peeling off layers of paint, more than you’d guess as you begin, careful not to cut too deeply, awaiting, and then gently coaxing forth natural grain. Easier, of course, just to throw on another coat of paint. Todd’s first glimpse at Amagansett Church might have seemed like looking into a cave with disturbing tomblike qualities. But he called into that cave in a way that new life emerged, awaiting gentle, life-renewing unwrapping.
Todd’s story, as I have told it, can seem romanticized and simplistic. As he lived it, it was anything but. Basically confident, positive, and resilient, he was no stranger to feeling disappointed and disheartened. More than once he’d updated his résumé with moving on in mind. Fresh in his memory were those times when he nearly “lost it” in frustration and fatigue. He had a towel at hand to throw in at any time. Members of the church were similarly challenged. At a celebration of Todd’s fifth anniversary as pastor, they reminisced over lunch about those years, some confessing that they had thought of leaving too; too many new ideas, too quickly, a circle of longtime members admitted. Newer members chimed in that they wondered at times if the old-timers would ever change. They’d almost given up, they acknowledged, when all went so slowly.
This work is not easy and the outcome is never assured. It takes a steadiness of pace and staying power. I see congregations stir fresh vision, generate new excitement, reorganize for mission and ministry, seeming so close to renewal and revitalization, only to snap back—”so close” being as close as they get. People who argue that the church is dead are persuasive. And some churches are! But it takes a knowing, discerning, penetrating look of pastors and laity together to perceive those barely glowing embers, to believe a fine grain lies beneath layers of paint.
There may be individuals within these apparently lifeless churches in whom a sense of possibility lingers, who await gentle, hopeful encouragement. They need steady pastoral leadership, preaching tuned to idioms and realities of their everyday life, patient and attentive pastoral care. I am convinced that more than a few churches at risk of being written off as dead or dying have a hearth faintly aglow with embers ready to be breathed into flame. And I am encouraged, because Todd isn’t the only Todd I know.
Adapted from Gifts of an Uncommon Life: The Practice of Contemplative Activism by Howard E. Friend, Jr., copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Gifts of an Uncommon Life: The Practice of Contemplative Activism
by Howard E. Friend, Jr.
This book of ten essays is a breath of fresh air, a source of inspiration, a wake-up call, and a bold challenge for pastors, congregational leaders, and church members—both active and lapsed—who long for a new perspective, even a touch of creative irreverence. Howard Friend offers forthright, at times disarming, candor as he shares his personal pilgrimage of activism rooted in contemplation.
Pathway to Renewal: Practical Steps for Congregations
by Daniel P. Smith and Mary K. Sellon
Pathway to Renewal offers pastors and congregational leaders a framework for understanding and addressing the deep cultural shift facing the people of a congregation during congregational renewal. This book will help leaders make sense of where their congregation could get stuck and guide them in thinking through what needs to be addressed next as a congregation seeks renewal.
Imagining Church: Seeing Hope in a World of Change
by Gary and Kim Shockley
Drawing on their more than thirty years of pastoral and church consulting experience, the Shockleys illustrate the power of imagination using personal stories born of their own quest to be faithful in ministry. They also show readers that imagining church is a shared experience among God’s people. When we imagine the church, we are co-creators with the Master Designer, Chief Architect, and Greatest Creator, and can help others imagine church. They remind leaders, “If you can’t see it, neither will anyone else.”
Choosing Partnership, Sharing Ministry: A Vision for New Spiritual Community
by Marcia Barnes Bailey
Partnership invites us on a journey that can transform us as leaders, as human beings, and as the church. Bailey invites pastors and congregations to a new understanding of ministry, leadership, and the church that challenges hierarchy by fully sharing responsibilities, risks, and rewards in mutual ministry. Partnership unleashes the Spirit to create a new vision and reality among us, moving us one step closer to living into God’s reign.
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