I read in the latest issue of St. John’s newsletter that the congregation is having a difficult time deciding how to respond to decreasing attendance and increasing financial problems. Some in the congregation think their constitution-and therefore the way they make decisions-needs revising. Others want to go back to their spiritual source and get lots more people involved in Bible study. Others wonder if the right personnel are on staff.
I’d like to make three points.
First, St. John Lutheran Church is not unique in its challenges. Every congregation that has been in Forest Park for more than twenty years has faced declines in attendance and has seen expenses increasing more rapidly than income. The difficult irony for many of us in the church community is that, while businesses are booming on Madison Street, we who meet for worship in buildings on side streets in this town often fall a little further behind every year.
Second, congregations often become anxious when they are tested, especially when their survival is perceived to be at stake. Thich Nathan tells a story about Vietnamese boat people. He says that during the Vietnam War, many residents of that country would crowd into small boats in their attempt to flee the violence going on around them. Things would go fine as long as they were in the harbor, but once they got out into the big waves in the open sea, some of these fragile, overcrowded boats would sink.
According to Thich Nat Han, it wasn’t the waves that sank the boats.
What caused them to go under was that the people inside would panic and make them unstable. However, if a few people in a boat could remain calm, their tranquility would become infectious, and the small boat would remain seaworthy even in the open ocean.
When congregations feel threatened, just like individuals they are often tempted to panic and thereby destabilize the very faith community which has the capacity to carry them through whatever storm it is that they are facing. Staying calm in a perceived crisis, as we all know, is hard work. When we feel threatened, we want to either flee or fight. What is needed, however, are people who find the resources to remain calm enough to maintain internal stability even if the forces outside feel overwhelming.
Third, when congregations feel threatened, they often want to find someone to blame. We do that all the time as individuals. Take the Cubs, for example. Last year it was Sammy Sosa. This year it’s Dusty Baker. But often, it’s the system and not individuals in the system that is to blame.
Here’s an analogy. Say your family of eight decides they want to go to Hawaii. You look at the map and realize that you have to travel west.
So, you buy a van, plan your route and have the vehicle checked out thoroughly. You head west from Chicago on Interstate 88 with high expectations, and day after day your family gains experience on how to travel as efficiently and comfortably as possible in your van. By the time you get to the western side of California, your family has become expert at traveling in a van.
The problem, however, comes when the environment in which you are traveling suddenly changes from land to water. When you hit the ocean, the van stops moving four feet into the surf. You get a tow truck to help pull you out, rev up the engine and try to make progress at a faster speed. This time you get five feet into the water before getting stuck.
To continue the analogy, say your family buys a boat and half the family gets sea sick an hour after you leave the harbor. Again, it’s tempting to blame the person at the helm or whoever it was who had the idea of buying a boat in the first place.
Do you see the analogy? Your family has a choice. They can blame someone: maybe the person driving or the person who had the idea of buying the van or the boat. Or, the family can look at the vehicle they are riding in and decide if it is still the best way of getting from here to there. Sometimes the analysis will reveal that the vehicle itself needs to be changed. Sometimes the family will discover that it is the right vehicle for this leg of the journey, and the discomfort they feel is because they haven’t gotten their sea legs yet.
That is what St. John might be doing as it seeks to revise its constitution. It might be an attempt to look at the vehicle that is carrying them and ask if is the best possible organizational structure to get the congregation where it wants to go.
This column certainly isn’t about St. John alone. It applies to every congregation that has a long and blessed history but is trying to remain effective and vital in these changing times.