When I began my ministry at Church of the Redeemer, I worried each Sunday that the choir would outnumber the congregation. Everybody knew we had to grow. “We have to grow, you know,” they’d say, with all the enthusiasm of a person scheduling a dental appointment. “We need to attract new members and change,” they would say.
When we moved to New York, my husband, Chris, picked a corner of the city to own. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which commemorates those who died in the American Civil War, is a templelike structure surrounded by formal paved terraces. It’s also a hangout for vagrants and skateboarding teens. Broken bottles, crack vials and newspapers routinely settle into its nooks and crannies.
The events of the last two years have been humbling—even for New Yorkers, a breed not easily humbled. When I first moved to Manhattan, I was often startled when someone offered a complimentary comment about another person, saying that he or she was “really smart.” The pride that went before the particular New York fall was, more than any other human frailty, our peculiar brash pride in putative cleverness, savvy and smarts. Now there is no escaping the embarrassing fact that a lot of very smart people in New York never saw the present economic crisis coming, and that many of those smart people had been participating in the foolish decisions that contributed to it.
Many preachers, facing the summer lectionary in Year B, ask why there are five weeks of John 6. The simplest answer is that the first draft of this three-year lectionary was designed by Roman Catholics, who treasure this chapter and enact it in their daily Eucharist. Subsequent revisions of the lectionary sought to keep at least the Gospel readings untouched.
Like most pastors, I claim that the face-to-face meeting is the best way to do the ministry of the church; also like most pastors, I spend an enormous amount of time reading and composing e-mails. I am driven not so much by my own schedule or preferences as by those of my church members. Many of them use e-mail all day long and expect the church to do the same. If I want to keep up, I have to keep typing.
If it is a little difficult to find your way into Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in the Westchester neighborhood of Los Angeles, it isn’t because there are too few doors, but because there are so many.
In the fall of 2006, when Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, New York, began welcoming refugees from Burma, we had no idea what we were getting into. In the spring of 2007 there were 30 refugees from Burma in Rochester; by 2007 there were 200, and by now there are almost 400, with many more expected. Rochester is a microcosm of what is happening quietly across this continent and in many other nations.
It was Wednesday. Time to visit my youth intern again. I really, really disliked Wednesday mornings. As I walked out of the office, I said, “Be back around noon,” to my administrative assistant. She knew where I was headed and smiled in support.
It’s beautiful when the congregational system is humming along—the church is Spirit-filled, worshipers are bearing each other’s burdens, submitting to one another and rejoicing continually. When faced with major decisions, the congregation seeks the Lord and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. After prayer and copious dialogue, a consensus emerges. Or the congregational system hits a pothole. The decision-making process is accelerated or compressed for a decision that has huge implications for the life of the church; the issues raised are theologically profound and the consequences painful no matter what is decided. At these times, a congregation can see its unity shattered.