Thursday, May 24, 2012

Stuff and Baggage

Summers, especially as I look out the window wistfully today, are both wonderful and short. We each have to find our own way to partake in the awesomeness that is summer in Vermont. For Lynn and I, that means kayaking our ponds and lakes, and camping. We have a camping trailer we pull behind my truck and we steal weekends away when we can, even though it usually means racing to Randolph Center on Sunday morning for church from wherever we’re situated. When possible, we enjoy being close to water, and an evening campfire. It’s not roughing it, by any means, but being ‘away’ and close to nature and the primal forces of fire and water restore my soul. 

It is time for a new camper this year, and we’ve had one on order that we’ll pick up this weekend. That means for the last couple of weeks we have been emptying out and cleaning our old camper that we’re trading in. Oh, the stuff we found! Emptying a compartment, I found a box full of stuff that had been placed in this trailer from its predecessor years ago – and hasn’t been touched since. Guess we really needed that stuff.

And that got me to thinking. How much ‘stuff’ are our churches carrying around, taking up space and effort and time and resources and not doing anything to further our ministries and mission? I suspect we all have some things, in one degree or another. For some of our congregations it might be the building itself – of a size which could support a worshipping community of 250 in which today’s congregation of 20 seems almost lost. And what sort of a drag is supporting that building, and how does that baggage steal energy and resources away from mission and ministry?

Now it’s quite possible that a congregation which today stands at 20 active participants can be revitalized into a worshipping community of 60 or 75. In fact, that’s an important part of our vision for the future. But it’s a lot less likely with the building hanging over their heads. And even with a successful rebirth – does the new congregation need a 200 year old building that’s still three times as big as it needs to be?

You know what I long for? The day that we stop using the words church and building as synonyms. We can be church, we can do church, we can birth a church, we can renew a church – and none of those things requires a building. Our buildings are a tool – and if that tool feels more like baggage that you are dragging around - or is dragging you around – well, that’s not a very useful tool.

Here’s some homework for you. Take a close look at your church’s budget, and figure out how much of it supports your building, how much supports staff, and how much goes to mission and ministries. You might be surprised at how much you spend to support and maintain your building. Money that could ensure your pastor’s compensation package meets Conference guidelines, or that your other staff earn a livable wage, or additional support you could give to your missions.

I know it’s hard to separate our hearts from our heads when discussing our buildings. They have a hold on us that’s difficult to look past. And that’s the problem – they may well hold us in the past, and prevent some new thing that could happen in our midst.

At a gathering of Conference staff to talk about church vitality and new church starts, I heard a startling thing: A majority of all new church starts have put language in their constitution that prohibits the ownership of a building. If they have a worshipping community of 50, they rent a space for 50. If they grow to 150, they move to a space which will hold that. If they later shrink, they can adjust again. How liberating. They know something we could stand to learn.