Monday, December 6, 2010

Journey of Awakening – 18: The Local Church Experiment

From the fall of 1967 to December 31, 1970 I served as pastor of Trinity UCC. Founded in 1957, it had grown under the leadership of Don Stuart to a membership of about 150 members and built its first building, a combination education and fellowship hall with a kitchen and office to the side. It was a typical suburban congregation with a vision of building a large sanctuary for worship as soon as they could raise the funds. Then when their beloved founding pastor left for San Francisco and they called his replacement, Bill Hall, who didn’t share their vision for the cathedral they had their hearts set on, things changed. According to the stories I heard, there were also some personality conflicts. At any rate the Rev. Hall was “fired” after 2 ½ years and the congregation shrank by a third.

When I accepted their call I was aware of some of the history. The Executive Minister of our denomination’s state Conference took me aside and gave me a piece of advice (the Conference was still providing partial financial support): “If you accept this call I just want you to know that you may be their last pastor. Your job will be to either help them stand on their own or end the congregation’s life.” Of course I was not entertaining the thought of failure. I was going to be their savior. I was “Herr Pastor.” Besides, I had been to RS-1. I knew exactly what the church needed.

The Ecumenical Institute had an intensive training program, an 8-week in-residence re-education in theology, Bible, church history, world religions, parish education, sociology, the family in mission, etc. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity but could not get away for 8 weeks, so I attended in 2-week segments over a 2-year period. In addition, EI brought together people from across the U.S. and world in month-long summer “research assemblies,” attended by as many as 1000 people, to work on practical applications of local church and societal renewal. The summer of 1970 was devoted to the theme “The Local Church Experiment.” Clusters of congregations formed in many cities across the U.S. for leadership training and parish education.

Lincoln was not one of those chosen. So I and a handful of others decided we would experiment on our own. In addition to being co-coordinator, along with Terry Wright, a local Methodist clergyman, of what was known as the Kansas City Region, covering Nebraska, Kansas and parts of Missouri and Iowa, I set about re-writing my congregation’s education curriculum and mission statement, with good intentions but not enough compassion for what I was about to ask of my people. Regional responsibilities involved primarily recruiting pastors and lay people to attend the Institutes weekend training courses, beginning with the basic Religious Studies (RS-1) course. This was in addition to my regular pastoral duties and responsibilities to my denomination.

Having convinced a number of young couples in our church to attend RS-1, and capitalizing on their enthusiasm to bring new life into our congregation, we were on the way to re-imagining the role of our church as a smaller, more vital, congregation with a strong educational ministry that did not require the building of a large sanctuary building. But this scared some of the substantial established families who were not able to share our/my vision. When two of these founding families left the church to go elsewhere, some of the others of the “old guard” became discouraged and decided that we were not going to make it as a viable congregation. It became clear that we were never going to build that great cathedral. They could not see that there were other possibilities. We were a small congregation with a vital and growing pre-school-to-adult education program that was beginning to attract young families. That was not in their vision of what the church was or should be. So the church council made the decision, against my pleading with them to give it more time, to close the church.

I was in shock. My own vision for a vital church in mission to the community was called into question. My idea of the Local Church Experiment was being destroyed. It was about to die.

1 comment:

  1. I remember hearing you telling this story. Your prose brought back memories of our gang's various talks on this subject as well as others.