Two thousand nine marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my ordination as a Congregationalist minister in the apocalyptic year of nineteen eighty-four. It is not something I or anyone else will celebrate, for my tenure in that office was short, brutal, and ugly, holding so few good memories they’re not worth the candle of finding among the miseries–except for the birth of our wonderful daughter, Laura. The congregation I served had “problems,” and told me I would be its last pastor if I didn’t solve them. I had three, perhaps four, years to do it. Naturally, my main task was to “grow the church,” for that would bring in money so it could keep in contented operation as a local auxiliary of the DAR. To abbreviate a long and painful story, I joined the line of unsuccessful pastors, both liberal and conservative, who were not able to grow the church on the terms its traditions laid down–and at the end of the road it faced dissolution.
I was reminded of this by a letter from someone sorrowfully anticipating the dissolution of her own congregation–a more “natural” death than mine died, for hers is not mortally diseased as mine was. I think it’s just exhausted. As a former pastor of a dying church, I feel quite strongly that such congregations should be allowed to die–that they, just like human beings, when they see the signs of impending death, need to take reasonable steps to dissolve in an orderly and peaceful way. None should be assumed to last forever, and it may also be assumed that if God wanted them to keep going, he could easily and quickly supply the necessary resources, just as he could give any of us, if he chose, a greatly extended life span. But as a rule he does not–in fact, he endorses happenings that lead us to death. He expects us, when we are able, to make our preparations, and die well.
I wonder, however, how often this happens. The congregational "denial" phases I have heard of are usually extended and painful. Every other member seems to have an idea for a silly nostrum that will help keep the church going, and will be angry at their fellows for pointing out its obvious flaws. There will be charges and counter-charges about whose fault it is, and discussions, often acrimonious, of what might have been done in the past so this state of affairs would not have been reached.
There are always those who see the setbacks that have led to this point as tests of "faith"–specifically, the faith that this church, if everybody just believes, and pulls together, will survive, because God really wants it to–how, indeed, could he not, since we like it? Clearly we must rise to the occasion! But this is foolish, immature talk, and heeding it will only make the suffering longer and more painful. It's like asking why Mother Teresa had to die, or Fr. Zosima's body decomposed in the ordinary way.
During the crisis a very decent and sincere member of my church gave me C. Peter Wagner’s Your Church Can Grow, and was terribly disappointed in me when I told him, "Dave, this is NOT the answer, since it assumes (1) the pastor can exercise influence and authority that this church has, from its beginnings, religiously denied him on “Congregationalist” grounds, and (2) the pastor is willing to function according to principles I regard as sub-Christian." Here I had been talking about faith all these years, and when I finally needed to exercise some by doing what Wagner taught, I fell flat on my face. It is very demoralizing to a congregation when it becomes known that the pastor does not really want the church to grow. Sigh.
If there is anything I learned in my few years as a pastor, though, it’s profound respect for those who manage to do the job, and that’s a very good thing, since I had very little before I tried to do it myself. If you have a good pastor, thank God for him frequently, and do what you can to help him, so that at the end of twenty-five, or thirty, or forty years of ministry, he’ll have reason to celebrate.