I had never before heard of paragraph 213 in our United Methodist Book of Discipline. The Book of Discipline is a book we study in seminary as we make our way through Methodist polity. It is a book we study when we are preparing for ordination exams. And, it is a book we pull out often when we are preparing for Charge Conference or putting together the new budget. But, I had never before noticed paragraph 213. I never noticed it until my District Superintendent called me recently, asking if I would serve on a paragraph 213 task force.
Paragraph 213 addresses churches that are in decline - churches that are facing an uncertain future - churches that need to be redeveloped, refocused, merged or closed. The paragraph outlines a process of calling together clergy and laity who can go through the church's budget, membership, ministries, and programs - looking to see what might have caused the decline and what might be put in place in order to have the congregation grow again.
For the last three weeks, I have spent each Thursday night at another church in Washington. Gathering with two other clergy and three laity, two from the congregation facing redevelopment, merger or closure, we have sifted through old budgets, old reports, a variety of data, and a myriad of other documents. We have heard a lot about the church - its building, its congregation, its lay leadership and its clergy. And we are nearing the place where we need to make a recommendation on the future of the church. And, it sucks. Forgive me for being so blunt, but I cannot think of a better word to describe this work. It sucks.
How is it that so many of our congregations are in decline? Why is it that so many church's are filled with potential but have not been able to welcome more than one or two or no new members in the last year? How is it that a church started with incredible vision - formed with a secure foundation and a community of people around it really believing in the potential - can ever face the possibility of being out of potential - of needing to close?
I have spent many restless nights in the last three weeks thinking through these questions. I have become the bad guy in the eyes of some as I have questioned different things, wondering how we got to the place we are.
And then I think about a video we watched this week as part of the Baltimore Washington Conference's small groups for clergy called "Discipler Groups." Our video asked about the last time we had a "wet your pants and lose your breath" experience in church. The words are rather blunt. When have you last had a wet your pants and lose your breath kind of experience at church? When is the last time that you got so excited that you could not contain yourself?
I would venture to say that it has been a long time for many of us. Or, perhaps we have never experienced a shortness of breath or a lose control type of experience within the walls of a church. What would it take for us to get to this place again? How is it that church has become so irrelevant, so boring, so out of touch that new people are not coming?
I lost my breath last Sunday. I lost my breath when our time of sharing joys and concerns extended well past the fifteen minute mark. During our time together, we had one young woman ask for prayers because she has just moved to Washington from California, and she is having a hard time adjusting. We had another person ask for prayers because of how often we take the gift of education for granted and yet her sister, a survivor of the civil war in Liberia, is starting college this week. We had yet another person ask for prayers in his job search. And we continued to pray. We continued to be this place where no concern was irrelevant and where no person - new or old - had a voice that could not be heard. And, it was breathtaking. It was breathtaking because the Spirit was so alive and so clearly at work.
Now, what would it take for me or you to have a wet your pants kind of experience in worship? Have you lost your breath lately? Wet your pants?
Come, Holy Spirit. Come and rekindle the fire in all of our churches. Come guide and direct the task force who will make a recommendation for one church and come fill and use every church. May we be short of breath this Sunday and filled only with your breath. Amen!
NOTE: If I ever go another two weeks without writing something on the blog, please send me an email. Ask if I am taking care of myself. Encourage me to let go of some things and embrace again the things that feed me - like reflecting here. It has been a crazy few weeks, and I am in need of rest, renewal and refocus. Thankfully, I'm back!