In 1989 I accepted my first pastoral call out of seminary. I loaded up my family, all of whom were Westerners, and headed to Racine, Wisconsin, where I was installed as the pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, a church deeply influenced by Jan Hus, the renowned Czech theologian. The church had 178 members, a small church by the standards of that time and, therefore, appropriate for an inexperienced recent seminary grad like myself.
The ministry was short-lived as both they and we discovered that the West and the Midwest were culturally different and I was not up to the challenge. After nearly four years of ministry we all decided that the most healthy thing to do was to separate and allow our family to move back West and allow them to find a pastoral leader who was a better fit for them.
I largely lost touch with the people of Second church over the years. That is, until this past week, when I received a letter forwarded to me by one of the former members. I read the letter both with a tinge of sadness and a dose of pride and gratitude. The letter was written by the current pastor to the 47 remaining members of the congregation announcing that the church building had been sold.
Obviously the decision to sell had already been made as the letter indicated that the sale had gone more quickly than expected. The letter was an invitation for members to show up at the church one last time, offer prayers of gratitude for the ministry at that site, take small mementos as physical reminders and offer one last goodbye.
But the church didn’t close!
The letter also indicated that the congregation would continue to meet virtually until they re-emerged from the pandemic. And then the pastor assured them that they would then decide where and how they would meet. The church building was sold, but the congregation would continue to thrive.
In an email exchange with Rachel Yates, Milwaukee Presbytery executive, she said that there are hopes that Second will pave the way toward re-imagining a new model of ministry. Because the congregation didn’t dissolve the proceeds from the sale of their building remain with the people of Second. Now, as they look to the future they don’t have a set building to return to, but they do have a sizable financial portfolio that will allow them to re-imagine ministry and re-invent themselves.
Ms. Yates said that the leadership of Second began to see the pandemic as an unexpected blessing. As the pandemic lingered on they realized that they didn’t have to have a building to be the church. They could still connect with each other. They could still engage in and commit to mission. They could still pray. They could continue to be faithful.
Ms. Yates added that already two of the congregations in their presbytery have traveled a similar path. Both of them sold their buildings and began worshipping in senior living centers where their members and the residents of the facilities both join for worship. The congregations continue with new people and in a new setting made possible by releasing themselves from the burden of their buildings.
I would imagine that those decisions have freed up thousands of dollars that no longer need to be dedicated to building maintenance and now can be used for a reimagined mission in the community. Buildings can be a great blessing for ministry. They can also, at some point, become more of a burden.
This is a tough time. It is tough for each of us personally and tough for our church communities. But this particular moment also gives us a rare opportunity—an unexpected blessing, as the people of Second say. Many of us are already continuing to do ministry without the benefit of a building. We don’t have to imagine what it might be like. We are already doing it.
This is the moment to ask the following the questions:
- “Is our church building more of a burden or a blessing?”
- “Does our building restrict us from being creative with mission or does it provide the foundation for creativity?”
- “What will serve the mission of Jesus Christ most faithfully—the use of our building or the proceeds from the sale of the building?”
- “Is the future of ministry in our community based on bringing people to our building or will it be based on us getting out into the community?”
- “Are there other congregations ready to re-imagine their ministry in light of the pandemic with whom we could partner?”
- “What are the unexpected blessings of this pandemic?”
As I said, I read the letter from Second Presbyterian Church with a tinge of sadness and a dose of pride and gratitude. The sadness was associated with the attachment that I know these people must still feel for the warm sanctuary, the organ and choir loft, the large lawn where brats and fresh corn were served at their annual picnic, and the symbol of God’s love on that particular block of Racine.
But I also felt a dose of pride and gratitude. Now that I am a presbytery executive, I know that the future of the Presbyterian Church will be built on the faithfulness of congregations who have the courage to let go of ministry as they have known it in order to be open to ministry as God might be shaping it. Second Presbyterian Church in Racine, Wisconsin is one of those courageous congregations.
To the faithful people of Second Presbyterian Church I personally say:
Thank you for trusting me as I awkwardly got my start in ministry over thirty years ago. And thank you for your faithfulness. You taught me a great deal about life and ministry in our short time together. I continue to learn from you. I continue to take pride in our shared faithfulness.
I believe that your story is not over yet. In fact, it might just be the beginning of a whole new chapter for you and for all of us.
Well done. I am proud to be associated with you. I am proud to be part of your story.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades