Centerpieces adorned the flowered tablecloths that night for the council meeting. A welcome, visual distraction from peeling paint, pipes coated with dust, closets of unused Sunday school supplies — and the thermostat, which reminded us of the original furnace, monthly four-digit oil bills and the Sunday everyone wore their coats the entire service. My suggestion that they snuggle up with the person next to them fell on deaf (and cold) ears.
Three months after calling me as half-time interim pastor, the council was preparing for the second in a series of congregational meetings: past, present, future. The first meeting, "The Past," went well. People easily recalled memories of beloved pastors, bell choirs and Janet's famous coleslaw. Then they discussed the 1960s split over remodeling, the 1970s split over the widening freeway and the 2000s split which, like the others, proved impossible to mend.
To prepare for the second meeting, "The Present," I spent hours meticulously poring over financial and membership records. What I presented was the clearest and most accurate description I could give: "The money will run out in nine months, six months if our biggest giver (an elderly member) dies."
Silence. Disbelief. They knew they were operating on a thin budget, quickly shrinking an already too-small savings account. But nine months?
More silence. Then anger. "I know how much we give, and it's not easy for us, so if everyone would just give their fair share, we wouldn't be in this situation." "You know who's doing everything ... it's the people sitting around this table. I'm tired!"
More silence. And then grief. Not just about Bethlehem, but deeper grief. And the tears began to flow. "I came to this church 50 years ago because my children liked Sunday school. Now, not one of them goes to church. My grandchildren go to church only when they visit me."
On the surface, churches and denominations are in a frenzy, working madly to reverse financial deficits and declining membership or alter themselves to fit demographic changes. But beneath the surface lies profound grief: "I don't understand. My church means everything to me. And it means nothing to my children."
How could we have known how fast our culture would change, how quickly the visions we held of church would become threadbare, obsolete? Yet we have clung to a powerful, silent assumption that our children will receive, accept and pass on to their offspring the faith we treasure, the church we love.
For many of us in the church today, no amount of desperate mending can stitch together those hopes and dreams, nor assuage our loss and grief. However, when grief is recognized and honored, felt and released, something like resurrection happens.
Six months after that meeting, the Bethlehem congregation held its final weekly worship service in their building. Then they joined other congregations for worship and took time to decide about their building and life together. Nine months later, not without tears, but truly without regret, they gave their building to the synod, trusting that the profits from its sale would become a blessing to future generations.
"We give you the church of our past for the sake of the church of the future," the council president said to the bishop. The Bethlehem community now is asking bold questions about what it means to be the church today, while experimenting with being a house church — meeting monthly in homes for food, communion and sharing stories of faith with their children.
Facing their challenges and grieving their losses, the people of Bethlehem uncovered a naked truth: We can't control what of our most treasured heirlooms of the faith — buildings, traditions, even the institution itself — will be received and what will be rejected, what will survive and what will be lost. And at the same time they discovered freedom and fearlessness, joy and new life. This good news is their true legacy.
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers