mardi, août 03, 2010

Deadline for the mainline? Commentary from Lancaster

What does it feel like to be a church pastor in a denomination struggling with shrinking membership and roiled by internecine arguments over social issues?
Having served in an Episcopal evangelical congregation in which the debate over gay ordinations and blessings was often right there on the front burner, I am aware of the stress such arguments can exact.
But to get another perspective, this time from an urban pastor in the Lancaster area, I turned to Steve Verkouw, senior pastor at Lancaster's Grace Lutheran Church, 517 N. Queen St.
For the past fifteen years, Verkouw has both observed and participated in the changes that have affected both his northern corner of the city and his denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Verkouw certainly doesn't give the impression that he is depressed by the challenges of an inner city-pastorate in a mainline church -- in fact, Grace Church has grown slightly over the past few years.
But he is clear that where once the congregation could take its city leadership position for granted, thanks to immigration and ranks of the faithful fueled by procreation, now it must chart a very different course, maintaining a Lutheran identity but reaching out in new ways that meet the needs of its neighbors.
Founded in 1874 as a daughter congregation of the colonial-era Holy Trinity Lutheran, the church once stood in a growing neighborhood bounded by farmland and dirt roads. Thanks in large part to the energetic work of long-term pastor Charles Elvin Haupt and a surging immigrant population of Lutherans, the church "flourished as its members took advantage of American opportunities," he said.
Over the first part of the 20th century, both church and Sunday school attendance grew.
Then the demographic changes which transformed cities around America began to affect Grace Church. White members left the city for the suburbs and the area around the church became one of rental units and apartments.
Many mainline congregations in urban areas haven't been able to survive this transition.
A solidly middle-class congregation with pockets of affluence and poverty, Grace was able to remain vital, however, because many loyal members continued to commute into the city to worship.
Having spent six years working in the Rust Belt in northwest Pennsylvania, Verkouw was no stranger to wrestling with the problems faced by urban pastors ministering in evolving neighborhoods.
The first thing he and congregational leaders did, he said, was to try to "build bridges from congregation to neighborhood, and see if people would walk across and become part of the church's life," he said. New afterschool, childcare, community meal and housing programs were begun to reach the various ethnic and cultural groups living near its doors.
In the meantime, Grace chose to maintain and deepen the eucharistically-centered, traditional style of worship, letting rock bands and Christian contemporary music largely pass it by.
Yet "if you built it, they won't necessarily come," found Verkouw. It was then, he began to reflect, that maybe the congregational culture itself needed to change.
Worrying about whether the congregation would die wasn't helpful for evangelism or for the church, he reflected.
Instead, he began to wonder what Grace Church would look like if it modeled a revitalized faith that allows the Holy Spirit to move -- without trying to engineer it.
The church had already renovated the worship area and narthex. Should it add a more deliberate small group structure? Is the church called by God to reflect the neighborhood and work to respect the differences within it?
These are the kind of practical and theological questions Verkouw and his leadership team are asking. In the meantime, like the roll of thunder overhead, he knows that the decision by the denomination to open ordination to gay clergy in monogamous relationships will affect his congregation (though no congregation is mandated to hire gay clergy).
"My contention is that this should not be a church-dividing, because ... it will take time to sense what this really means," said Verkouw. Surveying partisans on both sides, he said "it's always a test of diversity to see how much intolerance you can tolerate."
Meanwhile, the pastor seems thoughtful but not too anxious about the challenges facing the congregation locally or denominationally. His dream for Grace Church is that people will come, not because they were necessarily born Lutherans but because there is something "irresistible, winsome, and deep enough about the Christian message to sustain their interest," he added.
"I'm an optimist -- part of the cycle in a long-term pastorate is inevitable conflict. "
While many clergy do burn out, he said, "my approach is not to be one of those statistics."

2 commentaires:

paul a dit…

I'm a Philadelphia area Quaker, and we're facing the same financial and membership issues as are so many other denominations, even though out costs are relatively minimal.I've just glanced at your blog. Children can be a challenge -- including my stepson is back with us at the moment. Good news part of that -- I am happily married to a wonderful woman. BLW suggested your blog.

Offcenter a dit…

Welcome Paul. Your perspective is always welcome! Do you tweet? If so, what's your "name?"