Many years ago, I was elected president of a neighborhood church council seemingly trapped in a death spiral — not enough members and not enough money.
The fact that I was president spoke to the church’s problems: I had been a member less than two years, but I was the youngest person within eyeshot by about 30 years.
Regardless of age, we had something in common: We belonged to that church because we liked each other and we believed that together, we could make a difference.
Our church council met monthly, and we initially talked about a new direction. Wouldn’t it be great if we became more involved with our neighborhood? If we established ourselves as a gathering spot for people, regardless of their beliefs? If we expanded our existing ministry providing food, clothing and employment assistance to neighbors in need?
Truth be told, there was no contagion among us to proselytize. That was a skill for others; our skills were maintaining the facility, organizing the service — basically carrying the past forward. We wanted to make a difference in the lives of others, but we only had so much time available in our own lives to make that happen.
And each successive council meeting brought us back to reality: Before we helped anyone else, we needed to find money to pay utility bills, building maintenance and the pastor’s salary — no small chores for 75-100 active members.
The money/mission conflict led to strife among members: Some complained our focus was wrong, saying we needed to care for existing members first. Others wanted no part of that; either we ministered to others, or they were gone.
Trapped between angry friends and crippled by talk without action month after month, we froze.
And slowly but surely, I couldn’t shake a horrible thought: Perhaps our church fulfilled no purpose at all, other than serving as a clubhouse for those of us already there. And although that’s not in and of itself a bad thing, was that really why any of us joined in the first place?
That, of course, is the million-dollar question for the neighborhood congregations of all faiths profiled in our cover story: Why are we here, and what are we doing about it?
As for my church … well, we had our moments, but over the years some congregants died, some moved away, and some just grew tired of the constant pull of reality against the dreams of what could be.
Finally, my wife and I — worn down with guilt and tired of failing to move the needle even a little bit — gave up and moved on, too. It wasn’t our proudest moment.
Our hearts were in the right place, but our accomplishments never measured up. We recognized there was more to do. In the end, we just couldn’t do it.
The church building everyone fought so hard to keep open is empty now, the grass poorly kept by a developer who snapped it up a couple of years ago when the few members who were left flipped the light switch off, threw in the towel, and stopped the bleeding. I was invited to the final service, but I couldn’t bring myself to attend.
Did anyone care that this church failed? I suppose they cared like I did: Some, but not enough. And perhaps like me, they figured there must be an easier way to carry out the mission of making a difference.
Years later, though, I’m still looking.
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