Pastors love telling their call stories. It seems that most of us know the exact time, the exact moment when we first felt that nudge from God telling us we had bigger fish to fry.
For me I suppose it didn’t really start with the wedding cake. It really all started with my mom making sure my three siblings and I got to church, at least for special Sundays. We were very involved in our Ukrainian Catholic congregation and learned Ukrainian dancing. We were taken to catechism class for the prescribed year but at a Roman Catholic School (Mary, Queen of the Universe- I love that name.) When a nun came to our front door one evening carrying a box with a clear cellophane window containing a bright red confirmation gown just the right size for me, my mom firmly turned her around explaining that in OUR church babies were confirmed into the faith when they were baptized. I can still vividly picture the expression on Sister Mary Elizabeth’s face dropping so quickly that I almost felt an urge to wrap my arms around her waist and tell her everything would be ok. I was disappointed. I would have loved wearing that red gown.
Seeing those Roman Catholic nuns at Mary Queen of the Universe so close up made me want to be one. I thought long and hard about being a nun, marrying Jesus and wearing ‘his ring’. Sigh….
It seemed like it would be an ok life when I was nine or ten years old.
But my mom had to have been the biggest influence on me as I grew up. My mom was VERY religious and that meant she even went to church on days she didn’t have to. The irony is that if you asked her if she was religious, she would have denied it.
She often gave us a choice about going to church with her on those extra church days. My choice was always to go and not so much because I just had to be part of the special worship service but because I didn’t ever want to leave my mom and I never wanted her to leave me. (One time she was getting ready to go bowling with her bowling league. And frankly she deserved time away from her children. The writing was on the wall that Wednesday night. She’d already told us no when we asked if we could go too. I went out to the car and found the door unlocked so I opened it and climbed into the back, hunkering down on the floor in front of that long back seat. My mom, always very astute, probably watched all this from the living room picture window. All I knew was that some how her ma-dar told her I was there so as she opened the car door she said simply and firmly, “OK Alana, get out of the car.” I was crest-fallen.)
I didn’t realize the significance of those special worship services we attended on occasion during my childhood. I know now that many of them happened during Holy Week. The sanctuary was darkened and mostly filled with short, stout babushkas wearing black dresses and looking sad and serious. They would lie prostrate on the floor during parts of the service. And at one point in one of these special services mom and I stood in a long line of grandmas waiting for a chance to go by what was probably a paper-mache cave, very large and realistic, with a plastic covered two-dimensional image of a bleeding Jesus lying inside. As we walked past we leaned in and touched the image or even more often, kissed his wounds. More prostrating always followed this.
Like any good Catholic teenaged girl, I turned away from the church. The whole thing just seemed silly to me for a while except for the brief time when I dated my boyfriend Jimmy, a Roman Catholic who I would sometimes go to church with on Sunday mornings.
By college though, I was completely gone from the church. Too busy wearing bell bottoms and flannel shirts, working through the night on art projects for my college classes, going to church seemed a ridiculous idea. What was the point? I certainly didn’t believe in God though even then I was searching for something. I wrote a paper on Taoism and it seemed like a very good idea for staying connected with my spiritual nature. But I was just too busy even for that.
It wasn’t until after my first child was born that I began once again to feel a need for some sort of religion. David, my husband, raised Methodist, was not at all interested so I went to church by myself and though I had no idea at the time, chose a very liberal church, the First Church in Oberlin, United Church of Christ, which was walking distance from our home. I chose it because Carol Longsworth never stopped inviting us over the years.
It wasn’t until an interim minister who was there for a year or so between ministers asked in worship one Sunday if any of us had ever thought about going into ministry. She was the first woman I’d ever seen in the pulpit and that made an impression. I sheepishly raised my hand along with only one other person in the meetinghouse.
About five years later, a caterer and restaurant owner by that time, I was delivering a wedding cake I had made to a very tiny church in the country. I set the cake down on the table as I’d been directed to do. I carefully placed the fresh flowers I’d brought for decorating the cake between the layers and around the bottom layer. I loved the way those cakes looked after they were all finished and ready for the reception.
I don’t remember if I asked if I could see the sanctuary or if I just gravitated in that direction but as I stepped through the door I was awe-struck. It was a tiny sanctuary; much smaller than the church I was attending in Oberlin. I’m guessing now it had a capacity of fifty at most and that would be fifty tightly squeezed in barely room to move people. I stood in that spot in complete silence taking in the darkness. The sunlight created elongated colorful shapes through stained glass windows onto the floor near them. The altar gleamed with modest painted gold detail. And I stood in that spot feeling a sort of chill; a sort of knowing washed over me. Time actually slowed down and I remained in that moment for what was probably too long a time to the church-ladies waiting for me so they could get on with their work in the kitchen. As I prepared to leave, as I turned back to the door, I said to myself, “This is exactly the sort of church I want to pastor.” And at that very moment I knew what I needed to do.
If you had asked me a year ago how to merge three churches I would have looked at you with confusion and a big shrug. I have been certain however, that in order to get three long-lived churches to become one new church the churches must first really WANT to change. In fact, over the past several months I’ve become, I’d say, somewhat of an expert on the subject of church mergers. It is not an easy process.
To reach this goal it is necessary first of all to assist the churches in discovering that God has a new mission and new ministries for the churches. If a church has gotten very small and isn’t attracting worshippers then clearly the vision, core values and mission of the church need work.
One of the three churches in this consolidation did not have a very close connection to the Spirit of God. An ethnic congregation, the members had settled into routines that mostly involved watching the pastor in the pulpit on Sundays, singing the same old hymns they’d sung for years, violently protesting even subtle changes, and preparing ethnic foods to sell to create income to help the church survive. The entire mission was to support the church so it could continue to do more fundraisers to support the church so it could do more fundraisers to support the church so it could do more fundraisers….. You get the idea, I’m sure.
It had become difficult to feel God there. Because of the small numbers, there seemed to be quite a bit of gossip, back biting and judgment. The culture was not a healthy one. This has changed somewhat as it has been made clear to members over the past few years that the church belongs to God, and not to them. Some chose to leave once their sense of ownership was called into question. All in all, the church feels healthier.
One day I walked into the social hall of this same church to find lots of the dishes, kitchen equipment and kitchen supplies spread out on a few tables with a sign, “Take what you want.” One member of the Dorcas Guild, as the guild cleaned the kitchen, had decided that the church would never again be able to do large dinners so made the decision on the spot to start getting rid of items deemed too numerous for the church to ever use. When questioned the response was, “We can do what we want with this stuff. Afterall, our parents and grandparents bought it all.” There is a more exact name for all that stuff on the table, and that is “church assets.” Consolidating churches helps one to understand better the importance of church assets.
When a group of church members see the church as belonging to them and not to God, then something has gone horribly wrong over the years. Sadly, this is pretty common in churches. We church members seem to be a lot about hammering in our stakes and claiming territory to the detriment of a church’s culture. It makes it almost impossible for new people to feel as though they’ve come to the right place.
Since the decision to merge was voted on this past summer we’ve been moving more quickly. One of the three churches was a latecomer, and that has required us to do some back peddling. But, all three churches bring many gifts to the table and at this stage I’d say our greatest asset is knowing that God is directing us. We pastors and church members alike feel a very strong sense of excitement at the way the Holy Spirit has filled us to over-flowing and caused us to want to do a new thing. It IS exciting. It’s a fascinating process. But it’s also a little scary.