“Go on your way. See I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” (Luke 10:3)
[DISCLAIMER – This is a parable – a story about something relatable to tell a wider truth. I’m not looking for a new call.]
After this, the pastor entered the small town to meet with leaders of an insular congregation for a call interview to become their next clergy-person. The church leaders were upfront that the congregation had needs, and the people of the community who were not members of the church had long lost interest in coming to worship with them. The congregation was aging, shrinking, and they had trouble connecting with young families and keeping them involved.
The chairperson said, “Finances are around here tight. People are leaving or dying off. We’ll never have enough to survive and it is probably some of the newer people’s fault... But we are glad you are here; so do what we tell you, don’t change anything, keep your head down, don’t stir-up any trouble, take any stands or create any controversy. We want to be comfortable and for you to make us feel safe. Work twice as hard as the last guy with less resources and unrealistic demands. Not to worry; we’ll blame you if things don’t turn around soon and become better than the glory-days we all remember when the church was full, money was not an issue and we all got along as the best of friends.”
“What is this congregation passionate about?” the pastor inquired of them. The response droned on for about forty-five minutes concerning the cracked and faded beige wallpaper in the room in which they were sitting that was pulling up in the corners.
The pastor re-framed the question by asking what kinds of ministries they were doing that they found meaningful, what service opportunities they participated in, what initiatives to make connections in their town outside of the congregation they were pursuing, what ways they were putting their faith into tangible action in the neighborhood and at home, how were they mentoring/disciplining/supporting one another, and a host of other questions. They collectively responded. “We tried all that stuff once. We don’t have money for it now. We told you, we just need someone to take care of us and keep things the same.” The chairperson then went into a long rant of needing to protect the church’s assets; especially the aging building that was also being utilized by outside community groups that met there and messed with their stuff.
The pastor paused and listened.
An eager member broke the awkward silence, “We do have an ‘all are welcome’ sign,” she said, pointing to a rickety sign that was lost behind a million pieces of dated announcements on a bulletin board. She continued, “it is really important we have that sign, so people who look like us, talk like us, dress like us, and think like us will know they can come here and pay our bills.”
The pastor asked, “How many new people has that sign brought in?” Nobody knew the answer, so they stood around and hunched their shoulders looking for the pastor to tell them, “good job on the sign.” They shot each other glances when the pastor said nothing in response they started talking about the wallpaper again.
They spent the better part of three hours together. Not once did anyone offer snacks or refreshments.
“Let’s get down to business” the chairperson of the call committee said, passing the pastor an envelope. Inside was a number that was half the salary this pastor was currently making. The conversation got tense when the pastor told the group that it didn’t sound like they were all that interested in doing ministry. Their mission was to keep their club going. “But we just got new tablecloths for coffee hour!” one member protested. The pastor then explained that based on both the information they had researched prior to meeting and by walking around earlier that day that there were all kinds of interesting new people moving into town, that the game fields were full of activity, there were some cute shops and places to eat on Main Street, there were parks and green spaces to enjoy and that there were real needs of struggling people in the community that this church could address by collaborating with other local organizations to help.
They looked at the pastor with blank stares.
One member handed the pastor an old photo directory full of names and faces of people that had died or moved away or simply lost interest in this congregation. “What are you going to do to get these people to come back?” he said.
It was time for the evening to come to a close.
The pastor gracefully thanked them for their time, and after exchanging other pleasantries headed for the door. On the way home the pastor called the bishop and said that while the town looked really interesting and there was some great potential for ministry there, this congregation was not a place they would like to consider serving. The bishop later got a letter from the call committee complaining that there were no good candidates for pastors anymore and that the congregation was going to cut their mission support completely until a suitable candidate was found to save their church.
Read Luke 10:1-11.