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From the Meetinghouse(s)

Liz writes a monthly article entitled "From the Meetinghouse" for The Monterey News, a monthly publication whose home base is in the town where she also serves as pastor, Monterey, in South County. Here's the one for February, which is called "From the Meetinghouses."

Here's a link to a PDF of the ...News, the article to be found pages 4-5.

Here's the text of the article itself:

I’m the pastor of two churches now. Some of you might know this already: I’m serving in Lenox at Church on the Hill while continuing here in Monterey. I started in Lenox in the end of September. They called me after a quick pastoral search, an almost urgent one. Their previous pastor had had to leave after only two and a half years of service due to a change in his own circumstances. This left the church exhausted and dispirited. They hired me because they were desperate.

Don’t worry. I’m not taking that personally. It takes tremendous energy for a congregational church to search and call a new pastor. That’s the way of our polity, our governance. Congregational churches have absolute autonomy; there is no superstructure powering such things as a search for new leadership. It comes to each congregation to make its own decisions, large and small, which is the greatest blessing of our denomination, but also the greatest burden.

For this, the prospect of Church on the Hill launching another full-scale search after having just spent over a year searching just two and a half years earlier was more than this already small church could do. (Incidentally, Monterey was in much the same situation when they called me now eighteen years ago. It seems I’m a desperate hire all around.) They had lost many among their members to death, and now they would lose as many to exhaustion, a death of the spirit.

Watching it all from so nearby (I live not four miles from the church) was painful. I called our area minister who advises churches in transition (though she has no actual power in that process). I said to her, “Tell them to call me. I’m right here. I always have a sermon at the ready. I can start on Sunday and I have no plans to go anywhere anytime soon, maybe ever.”

It took a little longer than that for them call me, and a bit longer still for them to call me—a few weeks. They had their own processes to honor. But going Sunday-to-Sunday for any church isn’t easily sustained, and it’s no way actually to do the work of ministry out there in the world. You need a solid foundation before you’re of much use to anyone else.

As for being of any use, I do think the world benefits from the presence of the church in its midst. I say this knowing that some of history’s greatest crimes have been committed in the name of Christ, or at least by people who count themselves as Christian. I say this also, though, believing that any organization regularly gathering in order to speak aloud words like “love” and “hope,” “truth” and “mercy” and “justice” can be an antidote to the barbed speech and thuggish way we otherwise seem to revert to, or to have reverted to. I’ve been thinking lately about how once was the time in Western cultures that everyone basically “went to church.” In my lifetime, it’s become the case that as many people don’t “go to church.” I wonder what it would be like, or what it will be like, when there isn’t any church not to go to.

I remember in seminary hearing a sermon by a preacher who’d just lost to death someone who’d always found himself “against” in life. They’d just never gotten along. He was surprised by the grief he felt at this loss. Turns out, his “against” friend had provided a surprising framework for his own living. A thing to be against: it’s a funny way of being also dependent on that thing, but there it is.

“Imagine no religion,” John Lennon famously encouraged. He further noticed, “It isn’t hard to do.” And though he (I think) meant to suggest it’d be a happier, more peaceful world without religion, I wonder if he ever had a moment’s thought for what might be lost.

I certainly have; I’ve had more than a moment’s thought. Twenty years into the ministry, I’ve had twenty years of such thoughts. The Monterey Church lives with a death sentence, though one that keeps being put off. When this congregation first called me, it was clear, there were about ten years of life left in us—in our financial resources and perhaps in our membership. Turns out, eighteen years later, we still have about ten years.

I hope the same is true in Lenox, and I aim to work as if it were true. The fact is we all live with a death sentence, the denial of which is one of modernity’s more bizarre deceptions. That we ever thought in terms of a “settled” “state” of things, over the much truer notion of a herky-jerky dynamism of things: that’s one weird goal, if you ask me. The imposition of a state over the wild ride of a dynamic: I choose the latter (though maybe with a little of the settled in the mix, let’s be honest; we all need to rest assured from time to time).

On another note, it might be unsettling to think of the pastor serving two congregations. I know it unleashed a ripple of anxiety among members here in Monterey. Would this be my first step out the door? Would this be my slowly ghosting Monterey in favor of Lenox? What if I came to love Lenox more than Monterey?

There’s a bit of anxiety in Lenox, too, from what I’ve gathered. Am I hedging my bets by keeping Monterey while also taking on Lenox? Because if Lenox dies then at least I still have Monterey, right?

Here are my answers to those questions. No. No. Love doesn’t work like that: love is love. No, if Lenox dies in my arms, I will be deeply sad, so I’m going to do everything in my power as pastor to have that not happen.

What I think it means is that I get to do full-time ministry, which is work that I love, without having to leave Monterey. This will always be a small church amidst a small “parish,” for thus it has always been. The fact, then, that another small church is looking for a part-time pastor anchors me here for anchoring me also there. It actually feels like God’s grace.

It also means Monterey and Lenox might each understand themselves anew as not working in isolation, but in partnership with a body which furthers their hopefully gracious reach.

And then there’s this: it might save Monterey some money in the long run, as much of my time spent in pastoral work is now shared among two congregations—planning worship, writing sermons. For this shared time, Monterey might be able to pay me half. That’s my hope, anyway.

As it happens, this is an old-timey way of congregational life. It’s only been in recent times that congregations have assumed the responsibility of being “full service,” whole little economies unto themselves, fully staffed, fully programed. Prior to that, churches and synagogues were often as outposts, stopovers of transcendence amidst vast landscapes of the earth-bound. Their pastors and rabbis would ride a circuit, here in the morning, there in the afternoon, somewhere else maybe in the evening.

If that’s where we’re headed again, I’m good with that. If I’m here at ten o’clock on Sundays, and there at four o’clock on Sundays, and throughout the week wherever I’m needed, I’m good with that. Easter morning is another matter, as is Maundy Thursday, and Christmas Eve. But, having cleared one of those hurtles, this past Christmas Eve, I’m hopeful we can make the others work as well. We have a vested interest in the health of the whole—we church-goers, we citizens, we humans. In this small county this is even more immediately the case, that we’re each only as healthy as we all are healthy.

When it comes to the body of faith, the death of one of our congregations is a blow to the whole. And I know there are some who’d say, “Good. The sooner they’re all gone, the better.” But if I am understood as betting on anything here, may it be that my bet is on as many hoping for that death sentence to be postponed yet again.

As for me, I’ll say such words to an empty room before I stop saying them: “Love, hope, love, truth, love, justice, love, mercy, love…”

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