Monday, October 12, 2015

A Church Comes to a Close ~ 7: Not Prepared for This One!

A neighboring congregation has rolled out the welcome mat for ours.  Our session (and I) visited theirs (and their pastor)  a few weeks ago for an introductory meeting and tour.  They are taking our columbarium, shelves and stained glass window and all, and installing it in their building.  And yesterday, eighteen of our members worshipped with them.
And liked it.
LIKED it?  I wasn't at all prepared for them to LIKE it. 
Five folks stayed at "home" and so I led an informal service in our parlor, but I made it to the other church in the middle of the sermon, with about 20 minutes to go in the service.  Afterward, a large group of us went out to lunch, where I got to hear all the things they liked. 
The numbers of church.  The youth liturgist.  The bell choir.  The final song.  The pastor's animated preaching.  The light in the sanctuary.  The large, multi-generational congregation.  The graciousness of the regulars.
What's not to like?
Several of my colleagues have pointed out that my congregation has been well-prepared for change, prepared to be open and curious and to move on.  It's true; I have preached and taught and tried to model those things, and our session leadership has supported the rest of the congregation in exploring new possibilities.
But I'm not all that sure that I intended for them to LIKE it.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Blessed Interlude

Time to bless animals!  In memory of St. Francis and in honor of our furry friends.

Today I had the delight of helping out at a colleague's church. Two cats, one rat, and many very lively dogs!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Church Comes to a Close ~ 6: Losses

There is our administrative assistant, who has sustained a number of hits fairly recently; the biggest, to my knowledge, being the death of her sister last winter after a long and cancerous siege.  Her job, and (most of all) the relationships it creates, have been big factors in sustaining her life.
There is one of our main volunteers, a 90-year-old woman, who found life anew as a major participant in the life of the church after she was widowed for the second time, a decade ago.  At our meeting last week, she stated that her biggest fear is losing her opportunity to volunteer, to be of service.
Another 90-year-old woman, whose health has prevented her from coming to church for most of the past year.  She has already lost an elderly husband, a middle-aged son, and an infant daughter.  And most of her friends.  Although the church of women's guild tea parties that she remembers is long gone, the disappearance of the entire enterprise is a major blow. 
Another major volunteer, a woman in her fifties now off to seminary. She and at least one other member, an irrepressible older woman, are both survivors of another church closing, only a few years ago.
Our almost inexhaustible clerk of session and her mother, daughter and widow of the founding pastor.  Our clerk has been here her entire life, and her mother for sixty years of hers, except for the brief period after their father and husband retired, when they went elsewhere.   The extent of their loss ~ lifetimes of faithful participation and extensive contribution ~ is so vast that words fail me. 
And me.  I've had a few defeats of my own over the past few years. Now: an entire church.
I woke up this morning thinking of some advice I read a few years ago about taking time off from grief.  Excellent advice.
I just cannot figure out when, where, and how we are supposed to carve out this time off over the next six weeks. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Church Comes to a Close ~ 5: Worn Out By The Thought of It All

There is a building and all of its contents to deal with.  Want a piano?  Want a box of files from 1972?  Want enough china to serve 200?  No, no one does.
There is the post-departure building security in a troubled neighborhood to deal with.  More lighting, says the police department.  Plow and mow, says the Presbytery.  Stay open, says the day care.  Got money?  No, no one does.
There is the neighborhood to which to attend.  Got bus passes?  Got food?  Got grocery cards?  Nope, running out of all of them.  (Well, then, could I have one of the refrigerators? asked a gentleman yesterday.  I don't have food, but I can get a truck.)
There are the members to love.  Where shall we go?  What about my funeral? Who do I talk to, if I need a pastor?   Not here, not here, not me.
There is the pastor to . . . what?  Where are you going?  Will the Presbytery find you a church?  Are you staying in town?  Are you ok?  No idea, reduplicated.  (That is a funny term from seminary Greek.  How the hell do you RE-duplicate anything?  I don't remember what it means, but I still find it humorous.)
And now: The presbytery is hoping we will have a reception after our final service (with which the presbytery will end our congregational life and which no member wants to attend), and wants to celebrate the THREE churches we are closing in our area in the next three months with a presentation or Powerpoint or something or other at the November presbytery meeting. 
So . . .  while you are running to the hospital to see members briefly felled by stress and while you are trying to figure out where you rent a dumpster and while you are listening to "I just can't believe it" (reduplicated) and while you are trying to figure out what to do about your health insurance, would you mind making a Powerpoint of high enough quality for a large crowd?
Oh, and hey, Pastor, don't forget about Self Care!  OK?  You'll do that, too, right?


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Congregation Comes to a Close ~ 4: Columbarium

I have been writing letters.  To the exercise classes and AA and NA groups that meet in our building, to tell them the dates by when they must move on, and to the folks who have left the cremains of their loved ones with us.  For some years, the urns were stored in the bell tower (in which no bell resides) but, more recently, a beautiful little columbarium was built off the chancel.  Oak cupboards and a backlit stained glass window; a lovely space to visit.
A neighboring Presbyterian church has offered to remove our columbarium and install it somewhere in its building, so probably most of our cremains will go there.  But we still have to send a letter to everyone to explain the situation and ask what they would like to do.  Some are current members, who will receive a personal note from me on the form letter. Many are themselves long gone from the congregation, and perhaps from this world.  Some will no doubt come looking a few years hence, and frantic calls to the Presbytery will ensue.
I have presided over many funerals since becoming a pastor four years ago, and many interments of caskets and urns.  I have also continued my own little worldwide journey with ashes of my son in hand, most recently to Canada.  Most people look inside caskets; few, as far as I can tell, look inside urns. Although mothers do.  I'm not sure that the sense of the world flung out of orbit ever leaves us after that first look.  "Bone of my bone," as a dear friend said to me about our children.  As with most things related to the deaths of children, scripture offers cold comfort.
Despite the stress involved in learning to scatter ashes so as to render them, and the activity itself, invisible in spots where others might raise objections (and sometimes the humor as well, as we  finally experienced it, in the form of an early morning campus paintball game on a day when we were sure we would encounter no one), I prefer the winds and the wilds to urns locked in a an interior space.   And this latest experience has turned out to transmit its own stressors.  My own reaction where cremains are concerned is a relaxed one, but you never knows how others will respond.  One person's calm is another's horror, and vice versa.
I need to remind myself that the conversations that lie ahead will be holy ones.

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Congregation Comes to a Close - 3: Anything Going Right?

What's going well?
That was the first question our consultant asked us yesterday when the congregation met for a conversation over a potluck luncheon. 
It seemed that each of the four round tables of people came up with one similar answer: We are all still coming.
True enough.  Attendance has not dropped at all.
And, I added, people are still doing the work that needs to be done.  We still have ushers and communion servers and liturgists and Powerpoint operators.   And people made lunch!
Perhaps lethargy.  Perhaps denial.
But, on the whole, I think folks really do want to be together as they have been for as long as they can.

Morning Mindfulness

I don't know that I have ever taken out the trash mindfully, but today I did.  Sort of.
I know about mindfulness but, as with so many things, what I know does not translate into what I do.  Yesterday, I picked up a little book on mindfulness, which is probably why . . . the trash.
The book contains an introduction by Jon Kabat-Zinn, whom I think of as the father of the modern mindfulness movement in the west; at least one of the writers is from Oxford University; and it sets out an eight week plan ~ just matching the time our congregation has left.  Seven weeks plus the Thanksgiving Week after our closing services, when I will probably be numbed by exhaustion.  So it should be a good book for me.
This morning, on my pretend day off, I had imagined myself lying around in bed, reading the introductory chapters.  But at 7:15, I realized that I had forgotten about the trash, and leaped out of bed and made a dash for the window.  The garbage collectors were a bit late, so I hurried into a sweatshirt and running shoes and ran downstairs.
And then I mindfully took out the trash.
Remembering that it was down my own front steps that I tumbled nearly two years ago and broke the ankle that still hurts when it rains, and thus moving carefully.
Grateful that the garbage collectors come and pick up trash and recycling.
Recalling autumn afternoons with my grandmother, who burned the trash, hers and ours, in an outdoor brick incinerator, a structure which always held a certain fascination for me.
A better beginning to the day than yesterday, when I was so pre-occupied by thoughts of the coming morning at church that I took my blood pressure medication twice, both before and after my shower, after which I had to sit on the toilet lid and google overdose information.  (I take so little that the primary side effect of times two has been the many, many trips to that toilet and others in the 27 hours since, as my body relives itself of the extra water.)
But here I am, writing and eating my poached eggs.
It is not so easy, mindfulness in 2015 America.