Church Attendance

This was a very unusual Sunday morning for me.  I awoke to discover that I have ‘pink eye’ and, after a conversation with a nurse in the congregation, concluded that it was the contagious kind.  The good news was that I was not preaching today; our student associate was scheduled to preach.  So at the advice of the nurse in the congregation, I did not go share my germs with the good folks at church.

Seldom am I at away from the congregation on a Sunday morning, and when I am, it is usually because I am out of town or sick and not leaving the house.  On this particular morning, I went to the pharmacy to pick up drops for my eyes.  On the drive to the pharmacy, I was certainly aware that traffic was much lighter than on a weekday or a Saturday.  I very quickly jumped to the ‘everybody’s at home- so few people go to church’ train of thought.  Those thoughts are certainly based in some fact; however I noticed something else.  So many people in cars I passed were dressed as if they just might be going to church.  (I wonder at myself even as I make that statement,  because folks in our congregation do not particularly ‘dress up’ for worship — so why would I make an assumption about anyone based on what they are wearing?!)

Still as I went into the drug store, I had several encounters with people who were picking something up and did appear to be going to church.  At the checkout, when I started to walk away without my change, a couple behind me laughed and commented to me about my being particular generous. “After all,” the man said, “it is Sunday!”  When he said that I wondered if they assumed that I was one of those who does not participate in church, and they were very kindly reminding me of the significance of this day. I appreciated the fact that he said what he did.  It was a fun, non-threatening way to remind me of the day.

I realized that we make a number of assumptions.  I was making assumptions about church attendance this morning based on how people were dressed.  I make assumptions when I see the cars in store parking lots — that those folks are not going to church.  I make the assumption that if someone is not in church on a Sunday morning, that they are not in church at all.  It might be that they attend church on Saturday, or on Sunday afternoon.  It might be that they are sick and picking up something at the pharmacy.

Hmmm.  Nothing of great depth here – just hmmm.  We are an assumption making people!

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Children in the Church

One of the gifts of being a pastor is to share in the joy of children.  In the life-cycle of our congregations we inevitably move through times with more children and times with fewer children.  Wherever we are in that cycle, the congregation may be vital in its life and ministry.  We need not fall into the trap of speaking of children as the future of the congregation; and thereby imply that a congregation with no children or few children at a particular time has no future. (It has been pointed out that in our mobile society, very few of those who grew up in a particular congregation are still in that congregation.)  Children are certainly the future of the Church (universal) in the sense that the children nurtured in faith today will be among those who become Christ’s Church in the world.

Primarily, however, children are the present of the congregation and the wider Church.  We are not waiting on them to grow up; to become something beyond who they are in this moment.  Rather, we learn what it means to be human and what it means to be people of faith as we live with every child at every age with every ability.

When I was first called to this inner city congregation, 13 years ago, there was a very active group of children.  Some were the children of families in the congregation, but most were children from the neighborhood whose parents did not attend church.  The congregation needed to take on the responsibility for the nurture and care of these children who had no parental supervision while in church.  I was awed by the willingness and the commitment of some very special adults who were deeply committed to being Church with all the kids — even when behavior was a challenge!

We developed a “Pew Partner” program in which we paired children with adults who would sit with them in worship, build relationships of trust and care over time.  Years later we would see some of these ‘children’ (now grown up) come back and seek out those special adults who been their pew partners. Some of these, though not still active here, have come back for us to meet their young children.

There were adults who made sure that every child who could possibly go to Church Camp was able to go — even when the child’s family could not pay the usual half of the camp registration.  Then there were those adults who made the commitment to go to Church Camp themselves; to be there because we knew that our kids from the inner city sometimes brought extra challenges to the camping environment.

In the midst of it all, I am convinced that we are the ones who were touched by love, transformed by God’s gift in each child.  Especially I — who like things fairly ordered and in control — grew as a result of the relationship with each child.  I’ll never forget the day that one little boy was serving as acolyte.  It was the end of the service and he came forward to take the light out.  Walking down the aisle with the lit candlelighter, he disappeared into the narthex.  Soon there was smoke.  Apparently — as described in a way that only he could put it — there was the fire and there was the stack of left over worship bulletins.  Fire — worship bulletins.  He just wanted to see if they would burn!  The deacons did have the fire out by the time I got down the aisle.

Then there was the day I had call from a neighbor down the street.  She wanted to know about our ‘collecting money in the neighborhood to pay the church bills!”  (This is never a good start to a call from a church neighbor.)  She proceeded to describe 3 boys who came to her door with offering boxes (a second really bad sign!) and told her that they were from our congregation and we needed help paying the bills.  I, of course, assured her that we never collect money in that way, and that I would be getting back to her.  I called a couple of church members who came and joined me in going door to door to do some damage control, and find out who all had been approached by our ‘creative little stewardship team.’

As the story unfolded we discovered that the kids had ‘borrowed’ a few offering boxes and decided to gather some spending money.  By that evening their mom was taking them door to door to make their apologies and their restitution.   Some interesting pastoral conversations were to follow in the days to come.

The children who remain fixed in my deepest memory are Jelissa (5), William (4), and Erica (4) who were killed in a tragic housefire.  It was the horrible, sickening case of a slum-lord who had no alarms and had the back door blocked off.  They could not escape.  The image of Jelissa sitting with me during a choir practice just prior to that dreadful day, and of William throwing his arms up in the air in Church School in Easter morning, saying “He rose up!”   And now these prescious children were just gone from our midst.  As I reached the last of the three little caskets for the commendation in their funeral service, I truly did not know if I could speak the words a third time.  I pray that I never again …

For a few years the congregation was in the place of having very few children.  Now we seem to be beginning again.  Just this past Sunday, 5 year old little girl came running up to show me her new shoes and the little hearts at the hem of her long pants.  Only a few weeks ago, another 5 year old little girl who is autistic and does not speak, slipped her hand in mine for the first time.  I was in awe of this gift of relationship.  There are 3 boys at this time who serve as acolytes and who walk down the aisle with such reverence that the congregation is in awe.  (And not one of them has set the bulletins on fire!)

In the past 5 months, we have welcomed the births of 4 babies.  What a joy it is to bless these newborn gifts of God, and to explore the wonder of it (and the challenge) of it all with these new parents.

I am blessed. We are blessed.  Thanks be to God.

Pastor’s Lectionary Study Group

Like many pastors, I meet weekly with an ecumenical group of colleagues for lectionary study.  This is not the first wonderful group of this kind in my years of ministry; I’ve been fortunate to participate in three of these.  This group meets on Tuesday mornings at 8:30, rotating our gatherings between our different church buildings.  In recent summers, when our schedules are less dependable, we have held our gatherings in a neighborhood coffee shop.

The group at this time includes 2 Disciples of Christ, 2 United Church of Christ, 2 Presbyterian, and 1 Episcopal Church pastors/priest.  We are 3 women and 4 men.  We are gay and straight. We are in our 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.   We are high church and low church and somewhere in between. We are congregational pastors, hospice chaplain, and a director of an ecumenical urban ministry.  Our congregations/ministries are all located within about a 2 mile radius — in the inner city.

The added gift is that our congregations have grown to share in ministry together through outreach, worship, and special events. Just last week, one of the Presbyterian congregations hosted the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper that was a fundraiser for our outreach ministry.  Then all of the congregations shared in our “Ashes to Go” on the street on Ash Wednesday.  And that evening, we shared in Ash Wednesday worship hosted at the Episcopal church.   On Maundy Thursday, we will be at one of the UCC churches.  And on Good Friday, we will all share in our annual “Way of the Cross Walk” through our neighborhood.  Almost 40 years ago three of our congregations, along with another that is no longer in existence, developed the ecumenical urban ministry that we now all support (along with the support of many other congregations in the metropolitan area).

This morning, as we sat together in the library of our Disciples congregation studying our preaching text for this coming Sunday, I could not help but think of the amazing gift of this community of pastors and congregations.  As pastors we support each other personally.  We listen to and challenge each other.  We laugh and we cry together.  We are able to share and help each other work through difficult times in our congregations.  As congregations, we grow and change and deepen in our ministry through relationship with each other.

I have been in lectionary groups that used a research approach, bringing a variety of resources from theological and biblical scholars to the text each week.  That was a good approach.  This group, however, approaches the text through Lectio Divina.  I have grown to cherish the experience of group lectio and the prayerful, always fresh connection to the text that emerges from our time together.

This type of group cannot always be created.  Some groups work and some do not.  There are times and situations that are more or less conducive.  Every group is different.  But I am convinced that, through these relationships, the ministry of the Church is strengthened in ways we would never have imagined.

Thanks be to God for my dear, dear friends in ministry!