The Rev. LeeAnne Watkins, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul, Minn., wrote a thought provoking article describing how the church continues to invest in activities that no longer produce results. (“This Just Isn’t Working,” Christian Century, June 13, 2012, p 10-11).
Most pastors or committed members of a religious organization would recognize their congregation in this honest assessment of the church. Watkins described how and why her congregation canceled adult education opportunities and midweek services because nobody attended them anymore.
Here in the South, we might express grave concern over the lack of interest in these two, perhaps equating such vital activities to the canary in the mineshaft. If people are no longer interested in gathering on a Wednesday evening or for small groups, can the first wheezing death rattles of the Sunday morning worship service be far away?
But I’m sure the same was said about the cancelation of Sunday evening worship, a vital component of most congregations in the 1950s-1970s, but now largely a thing of the past.
I do not know Rev. Watkins’ congregation and this article is not intended to cast judgment on their choices. When she writes, “I feel like I’m selling something that people don’t want — and then getting mad at them for not wanting it,” most who have given lives to God through the church have recognized this frustration.
One of the keys to vitality in any congregation is recognizing when a once-popular and effective ministry needs to be taken off life support and given a decent funeral. This is the most difficult thing to do because it feels like failure or disloyalty to a previous generation or even to God. It may be difficult to pull the plug on a ministry established by a former beloved pastor or one of the church’s greatest generation. Sometimes we plod on out of sheer grit.
But there are only so many hours in the day, only so many volunteers, only a certain number of causes and concerns to which one can devote oneself. There’s only so much energy and so much money to go around, and sometimes the hardest thing to do is to maintain another generation’s ministry when the current generation has no heart for it.
I remember the feelings of relief when one congregation realized that the biannual bazaar, yard sale, craft fair and bake sale was a black hole sucking energy from the congregation. This ministry, once a joyful and hugely successful endeavor that raised thousands of dollars for missions, had become an albatross where nobody wanted to be in charge of a mammoth affair with dwindling volunteers. It took some courage, but the ministry finally ended when one honest person said what many were thinking: “We’re tired of doing this.”
Does this sound familiar? New life may be just around the corner when a congregation once again devotes itself to something fresh.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.