Mission First, Buildings Second

Last Sunday, at the request of the diocesan bishop, I facilitated a congregational meeting in a local parish.  Like many churches today, they are struggling with declining numbers. They are also in a search process for a new rector.  And, over the last months, they have been hit by the discovery of huge problems with their building involving water damage, poor construction, and the deferred maintenance over many decades. Not exactly a rosy scenario!

There was to be one Sunday Eucharist which everyone would attend. As the retired bishop, I was to preside and the newly ordained interim rector would preach. The liturgy was well constructed, the sermon appropriate for the First Sunday of Lent, not dealing directly with the issues which were to be discussed at the meeting so as not to seem to prejudice the outcome or discussion. It was a surprisingly upbeat liturgy, although one could detect a note of anxiety just beneath the surface.

After getting our after-service coffee, we returned to the nave where we would have to meet since the basement parish hall was off-limits due to water damage and mold encroachment. The interim opened the meeting by introducing me and outlining the various options before them which the vestry had culled from various consultations with architects, builders, and the diocesan property committee who would have to approve the terms of any loan from the diocese should they choose to proceed to salvage the building.

The options ranged from selling the building and buying or renting elsewhere in the area, doing one of several levels of repair to the building, each of which would cost varying amounts of money, and whether or not they could realistically mount a capital campaign with their small numbers or would have to retire any loan taken out from the diocese by settling for a less-than-full-time-priest for the next three to five years.

When I took over to facilitate the discussion, I opened with a prayer and period of silence to center in and prepare for a thoughtful discussion. I then reminded them, if they needed reminding, that the church was not a building but the people.  The community which had been formed over many years could and would endure no matter what they decided to do about the building.  And I spoke of the fact that the mission was the main thing. They needed to determine what their mission was, and then determine what place the building and its future had in that.

The discussion was truly amazing. No one was angry with anyone else. No one minimized the challenges they were facing.  All options were considered “on the table.” Person after person spoke of what their mission was as a congregation, how they had probably failed to carry out that mission fully, but that this was another opportunity to get back on track.  One new member said, “I’m new here so my opinion is not as rich and deep as many of yours. I just want to say. I l love this building. But, I love the people of this church even more.”

Ninety minutes later, we concluded the meeting by narrowing the options to either commiting to do all the work necessary to really fix the building and look for new ways to use it in mission to the community or to move rather quickly to relocate and look for buyers for building and property and to think of themselves as a “new church start” in a new location.

The next steps will be to send out a summary of the meeting, complete with detailed cost  analyses and a clear statement of the choices before them,  to everyone in the parish including those who could not attend this meeting and ask for a quick turn around as to their opinions on direction. The vestry will meet in a retreat format in about two weeks and make a decision.

I do not know which direction they will pursue.  But I was proud of this Christian community for the seriousness and charity with which they conducted themselves and their commitment to “mission first, buildings second.” And I have no doubt that they will be together on whatever the decision turns out to be.

They had truly been attentive to the prayer with which I opened the meeting: “Almighty God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to the welfare of your people; through Jesus Christ our Lord. ” Amen.

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