February 16, 2014

Sadness today

My son led worship at church today. I am one very proud Mom! Not only is he a wonderful musician, but he has such a heart for serving in ministry. He has been part of the worship team at church since he was 16 (now almost 21). In that very short time, he has learned how to handle himself on the platform, play a variety of instruments, and be a part of a larger team of musicians.

He has also experienced some sorrow -- not something that this Mom or any wishes for their child. Over the course of the past three or four years, our church has gone through major staffing upheaval. In 2011, our Pastor stepped down to move on to another smaller church in our city. It was a shock to all of us as we loved him and his family and we were unaware that he was unhappy in his position as lead Pastor.  Nonetheless, in the next year, our worship leader was let go. This was a person with whom my son had become very, very close. In fact, my son was part of his professional touring band and had some wonderful opportunities to travel, play for very large audiences, and open for some up and now current Christian music artists.

In 2012, our church called a new Pastor to the pulpit. With this new person came more staff changes. Over the past year, we have lost some familiar faces and gained some new faces. In all, there has been a lot of change.

It has been no real secret that the last year has been a rocky one for our little church. Faced with escalated costs, shrinking membership, and lower than expected attendance and giving; the congregation was prepped by the Board of Directors that unless something changed radically, there would be additional staff cuts.

At the end of 2013, we ended the fiscal year in the red. As we moved into January, that red line became fatter and fatter. The time had come to make hard decisions.

Yesterday, my son was called to an all-staff meeting. He works part-time at church, helping with facilities. I knew that there was a very good chance that he would be let go. After all, he is a little fish and when the belt gets tightened, sometimes the little fish are the least important in the grand scheme of things.

I also assumed that there would be other staff who would be let go. It only makes sense, really when you think about it. You cannot outspend your income and hope that your income will magically increase to cover your "faith spend."

So after the meeting ended, my son came home and was only able to share with us two bits of news. One, he still had his job. It seems that his skills as musician, audio engineer, general technical/computer person AND facilities worker made him an asset to the church (Praise God!). The second news was that he would be leading this Sunday's worship team.

Of course, I knew what that meant without him having to say a word about it. Our current worship leader was let go.

So today, it was with bittersweet appreciation that I went to church. I have to say that my son did a fabulous job. He is not a worship leader; he is an all-around excellent musician. He is not called to lead worship, but he is skilled so that he can if he needs to do it. He doesn't want to be in that position, and he doesn't feel that he has the where-with-all to be able to be the kind of leader a church needs. However, he gave his all today, and I wept with joy. God has worked in his heart, and He has grown him into an amazing young man. I am proud, and I am thankful for the work God is doing in his heart.

The sadness of the day came when the Board announced that our lead Pastor, worship leader, graphic artist (also a band member), and two part-time staff were let go effective immediately.

That news hit me like a ton of bricks. I was dumbfounded, really dumbfounded. I mean, our Pastor seemed to be doing a good job. He seemed to be giving good messages, and the people seemed to like him a lot.

The other folks, well, I don't understand those cuts but my guess was that they were being paid too much money for the job they were doing or that the Board felt that those positions could be filled with volunteer staff.

After the announcement was made, and everyone left the church, I think the reality of the day set in for me. You see, I have never been 100% supportive of our new Pastors approach to ministry. I felt that he was out of place, and that the changes he made when he came in didn't build up our church, but only served to fracture it and diminish the sweetness of the community spirit that existed before he came here in 2013. Yes, in short, I believed that in one year (from Jan 2013-Jan 2014) our church became a dysfunctional and distressed place. More than half the members left the congregation and moved to other local churches. Most of those people will not come back. There is hope that some of them might, now that there has been a change in the leadership.

Our associate Pastor, the son of our founding Pastor, has remained with us -- through thick and thin -- and through all the staff upheaval and change over the last several years. I never understood why the Board didn't give him the job in 2013. The church was growing, we had great staff in place, and everyone seemed very happy. There was an awkward decision made, an announcement, and then the next thing, our new Pastor was called. It was clearly a decision of the Board, and the congregation obliged because that is what you do in church -- you agree with the Board.

So here we sit today --> a new congregation born out of the storm of the past year. In 2012, when our former Pastor stepped down, it was said that our attendance between three services was at 750. In January 2014, our weekly attendance is down to about 250. Moreso, the weekly giving in 2012 was around 15K. Last week, our giving was down to just shy of 8K.

There were lots of bumps in the road that lead us to where we are today. One came in November when the new Board was elected and a new budget proposed. Weekly giving had continue to drop, but was averaging around 10-11K each week. The new budget proposed the weekly giving to be somewhere around $26K. I am not sure where those numbers came from, but they were so out of line with reality, that no one could believe their eyes and accept it. The budget passed, of course, and again it was because that is what you do in church, you vote yes whether you approve or disapprove the of move.

There were rumors and speculation and questions about why so much money was needed. We are, after all, a small church. Do we really need a 100K children's ministry program?

I think when everything is analyzed, it will be clear what happened to our church. This is just my assessment, and I have deep sorrow about the individuals whose lives have been hurt over the course of time. I wish we could all hit reset and go back to where we were before everything took a turn for the worse. Thankfully, while God may allow a church to be humbled, as ours was; He doesn't always allow a church to close its doors. Sometimes He sifts the chafe from wheat, and lets the thresher do the work of sorting out what needs to be tossed away. I think this is what happened in my church. I think the message that was brought in, the ministry focus and approach -- needed to be threshed. Our community of believers were almost destroyed by an outward influence that disrespected the tradition and foundation of the church, and opted instead for postmodern glitz and glam. There was a hard push to turn our small congregation into another Willowcreek or Saddleback or Bayside.

The problem was that the people who made up our little congregation of believers were not like the folks that attend these mega churches. Don't get me wrong -- I spent 15 years in a mega church. I loved my large Bible church. I loved everything about it. I also spent a lot of years prior in small community churches, and there is something special and wonderful about a close-knit community of believers. I loved my little church too.

In my little church, we had real people who lived real lives. They were not wealthy. They didn't drive expensive cars, drink lattes, and possess the latest tech gadgets. Sure we had people who were very well-to-do (as in any church). Yet, there was something plain and ordinary about our congregation. They were normal people, just normal people. We didn't have airs, and we didn't try to be like the people in CA or TX or IL. Nope, we were just normal folks, plain and ordinary.

The influence that came in suggested that we were somehow not good enough, backwards, too plain, and that to attract newcomers to church we needed to ratchet it up and look the part (slick, sleek, savvy). We didn't like it. We didn't like the hint that our way of worship wasn't good enough or that our genuine approach to ministry wasn't effective for reaching the lost in our community. In truth, we were heavily involved in our community. We were making an impact. We were being truthful to our calling, and our commitment as a part of the Evangelical Covenant Church. We were who we were, plain and simple, and we liked it that way.

Yet to support the new vision, we agreed to try it out, to go along with it.

Almost a year has passed and we are starting over, again. This time, I pray that the people of our church will stand up and say NO when the world tries to steer us away from the message of Christ. We will learn from our lessons, and we will grow a new community spirit. We will live, and we will love, and we will learn how to be His people, working for His cause, and building friendships His way. God is good, so very good. All the time, He is so very good!

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