Many pastors I know, especially those who are part of “Main Line” franchises, are saddled with buildings. I’ve been saddled with several of them over the years. I know whereof I speak.
Not all buildings are burdens. They can be assets. The buildings I’m talking about are big, ornate buildings that in their shabbiness reek of deferred maintenance, that suck up more resources than their congregations can afford. These buildings are sick sacred cows, the subject of long meetings with much wringing of hands and suggestions that “if we continue to pray, God will provide”, all to be repeated at the next meeting. They are the slayers of mission, and of much other congregational life.
As fashionable as it is to talk of “sacred space”, the larger truth Jesus taught about it is that no one place is any more or less sacred than the rest. It’s sacred everywhere.
As we reflect on this week’s news of the US embassy being moved to Jerusalem, we might recall that Jesus scandalized his disciples when he told them that “not one stone will remain upon another.” Even that space would cease to be “sacred” in the way people usually think about religiously sacred places.
Jesus’ prediction about it was wrong. There are still stones standing on other stones there. It is still a “sacred” place. But the question is, why Christians should think of it as sacred. Sure, Jesus was crucified there. That does not make it sacred. Most of what Jesus said and did was not in Jerusalem.
When people in churches talk about buildings, they often talk about how special it is because family members, maybe they themselves, “were married in that church”. “That’s where we baptized so-and-so.” “I grew up in that church.”
It has the aura of sacredness because a lot of God talk happened around those events. But people talk the same way about memories of camp Wannahockaloogie when they hear it’s closing. This is not to minimize the value people place on memories of special times in their lives. But any church member who objects to the sale of a church building on grounds that they were married in it ought to be offered the opportunity to buy it and maintain it on their own. Sell it to them for $1. Think of the money you’ll save in next year’s budget. You’ll be way ahead.
Ok, but the franchise doesn’t work that way. I get it. I’ve been there. You can’t sell it to them for $1. The rest of the congregation has the vote stacked against you on that motion. They all think it’s sacred, they were all married there, and it already belongs to them, not you, and they’re maintaining it. Sort of. And in that regard, they’ve ceased to be a church to take up museum curation in their spare time. That’s why they want to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places – even though the history of the building, as significant as it is to them, is not nationally significant. What is left for a Pastor to do other than pray for fire?
You probably can’t sell the building. But just because it’s a big deal for them, doesn’t have to make it a big deal for you. As much as possible, ignore it. Let the museum curators take care of it. You are a pastor. You are responsible for what is sacred, which is this: “Wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in my name.” Which may or may not be the building on any given day.
Where people (and it may be – probably is – a small minority) are wanting to get together to do Jesus stuff is where you concentrate your time and energy. If there’s a choice between going to yet another hand-wringing session or an evening at the soup line, that’s a no-brainer. Soup line wins. Every time. If there’s not a choice about which to go to, then it’s your job – because you’re the Pastor, that’s why – to create an alternative. You only need 1 other person to make a “gathering of 2 in my name” happen.
Will the building curators threaten and bluster? Yes. Will they tell you that they’re paying you to “lead them to a way forward”? Likely. Will they “speak all manner of evil against you” because of your insistence that you are going to do Jesus things rather than attend their meetings. What did you expect? Jesus said they would.
Your job is not to coerce them to your way of thinking. They are free to make their own decisions, to do what’s important to them, to spend their money on what they like. But here’s the good news: according to Jesus, so are you!
Find the 2 or 3. That is where the life, energy and joy is.
Picture by Freaktography