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Not Saying My Gig Has Been Anything Like Jeremiah’s, But….

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“Now look, I have just released you today from the fetters on your hands. If you wish to come with me to Babylon, come, and I will take good care of you; but if you do not wish to come with me to Babylon, you need not come. See, the whole land is before you; go wherever you think it good and right to go.”   Jeremiah 40:4

I’m beginning to wonder if some version of Nebuchadnezzar’s captain of the guard has been offering me a deal similar to Jeremiah’s.

Perhaps it is so, and I’m like those people you hear about who spend years in captivity, are suddenly set free, but hesitate to walk outside the prison because they’ve been conditioned not to see any other possibilities or are frightened by the sudden expanse of freedom.

 

Jail-cell-open-web

We’ll see.

 

No Date for the Prom, May Go Stag

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Last week I got an email from an East Coast synod staff person that made me smile as I read it.  “You  have been identified through our ELCA database as a possible candidate for  **** Church…”   It has been just about three years exactly since this same staff person first contacted me with an opportunity to serve a congregation and put my name in their call process.  The candidate profile I’d developed at the time had a link to this blog.  A few weeks later, she emailed to tell me the call committee decided to pass on me, in large part because they read my blog and decided I was too liberal for them.  She wrote that she too read the blog and also had some serious reservations about my fitness for ministry based on a couple of guest posts made by Wylie4Stroke.  It was Wylie’s description of hanging out with me at a bar in Denver that caused her the most problems.  But the liberal bent of the blog also caused concern.

I blew the piety test AND the political test.

What she failed to consider, however, was the way in which I was being quite honest and open about those occasions when I’d swap the clerical garb for jeans and a Hawaiian shirt to go have a few beers with some regular, blue-collar working folks—and how I’d willingly share my vocation and my Christian faith with those folks if the subject ever came up.

That’s how Wylie came to be a blog contributor.  He is a character who would NEVER set foot in a church, but is someone who is smart and curious in his own rough and homespun way.  I grew up with guys like Wylie, went through high school with them, worked on cars with them, and yes—shudder—even tapped a keg with them.  Guys like Wylie didn’t so much lose the faith of their childhood as much as they got bored with or stopped believing in the church as a viable group worth joining.

The larger church needs to learn that it’s OK to step outside the insular, pietistic bubble from time to time, and that it’s also OK to be honest about having a few beers in a bar.  In fact, it’s being dishonest about these things that can get a clergy person in trouble.   I strongly suspect you can find a very tragic Exhibit A right here.   People like Wylie are suspicious of piety, and in my experience so much of it has become the equivalent of the shields deployed by Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise.   It’s something to get you through the minefields and meteor storms of life.  So what happens to a group of pious church folks–dare I say clergy– who go away on a church-sponsored spiritual retreat or conference, where they can count on being safe in a closed group outside the fishbowl?  The cigars, beer and booze come out, as does this sort of cute, rebellious attitude.  Someone gets a deck of cards, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a group of folks acting like they’re at that bar in Denver, drinking, smoking and playing poker until the wee hours of the morning.  Not all of them, mind you, but a surprising number.

Me, I always try to make the most of the spiritual opportunities presented by a spiritual retreat, especially if that retreat is at a monastery.  There’s ample time and opportunity to practice a key spiritual discipline—perhaps the most vital one—by entering meaningful, restorative SILENCE.  I was tempted to say “simply entering,”  but as I’ve discovered, there’s nothing simple about being silent, inside and out.   Try it for just 5 ninutes.  Shut off all the noise around you.  Then, shut off all the noise within you.  No inside chatter.  No music in your head.  Turn it all off.  It’s not so simple, is it?

Anyway, back to the situation of the email that  began this whole post.  I read it over, thought for a moment, then sent the East Coast staff person a reply stating that my wife and I are on the opposite coast now and don’t see ourselves making such a dramatic relocation.

Over the past year I’ve interviewed with several churches and have taken trips to Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Texas to meet with search committees. But each time they have chosen to go another way with someone else, and as I contemplate these events, I have to say that they probably made the right choices.   It’s not that I’m not qualified or not good at the pastoral vocation.  In fact, I hold the opposite to be true, that after some 10+ years of church ministry, I’m seasoned in a way that opens the door to what I think would be the best years of my ministry. And in the first 10+ years, I was pretty good.

But there has to be a good fit between congregation and pastor, otherwise there is simply too much time and effort expended in one trying to change the other and too much emotion spent resenting the relationship.   Life is far too short for such things.  I went into each situation with a desire to receive a call at each place.  At each place I found myself excited at the prospect of being pastor at such a church.  But in retrospect, I was also coming from what I perceived to be a desperate place, a place I was eager to escape, and I saw these places as great potential escape routes.  They were—and are—good, strong congregations on the whole, and I also found I was hungry to have a chance to lead one of them.  While each proved to be a disappointment, I look back and see that in fact there was some wisdom in their decisions to look elsewhere.  At each place there were red flags I chose not to see, some big and some small, which foretold some difficulties in the relationship had they called me.

In thinking back to the Wisconsin visit, I remember my host being as hospitable as possible, and doing everything she could do to make my visit comfortable.  Yet on our way to the church for the official interview with the call committee I saw a Scott Walker yard sign in the car’s back seat.  In the interview she became a suspicious and relentless interrogator, wanting me to explain my involvement in The Colorado Confession.   That was an out-of-the-blue line of questioning, since that document was developed back in ’05 and ’06, and I just attended a couple of information meetings and then signed on to it.  I’d forgotten much of the language of the document, but I wouldn’t back away from its significance or my approval of it.  I think that was the main sticking point for them, though one of the members of the call committee later thanked me for sharing my thoughts on the relationship of the church to our polarized culture.

In Oklahoma, a telling moment came in an end-of-evening conversation with the call committee chair.  He told me he liked what I’d done in arranging a special Muslim-Christian dialogue at my previous church and then told me a story that sounded all too familiar.  One of the church matriarchs was talking politics with him before the ’08 election and warned that if Obama was elected it wouldn’t be long before women would be forced to wear veils and that he would try to place the whole country under Sharia law.  While I was touring the area I got to see all the tornado-sensing equipment arrayed for advanced warning, and also saw a few buildings, trees and fences knocked down by a twister that had touched down a week before I got there.  Despite the exciting opportunities to combine parish ministry with campus ministry, in hindsight, it wouldn’t have been a good fit due to the ultra-conservative climate of the culture and the ultra-dangerous climate of the area.

The Texas church offered the most initial excitement.  It wasn’t too far from Austin, a place I still think of as home.  I’d have been an associate with a guy I had gotten to know and respect while I was in seminary.  They had an active, multi-generational membership and had added a huge gym and rec center on to one end of the church, while maintaining the historic church cemetery at the other end.  Quite literally it had become a cradle-to-grave church and they seemed to be doing a good job of opening their facilities to the surrounding community.  While I was there visiting with the youth director, a community league basketball game was in progress in the gym behind us.  But that conversation stuck with me.  The youth director talked about the difficulty in getting financial support for some creative youth-0riented projects and then noted that it didn’t take any time at all to raise about 65K to add sidewalks and landscaping for the cemetery.   Not a good sign.  Nevertheless, I was stoked to have an opportunity to come in and do ministry in a place where there was such a broad cross-section of young and old, and where they had expanded their worship services to include a contemporary, albeit praise band, worship.  We enjoyed that service, held in the gym, and then went upstairs to experience the traditional liturgy with full choir.  A couple of things stuck out, though I didn’t pay much mind to them at the time.  The first was the rinky-dink and difficult-to-manage elevator they had installed for disabled people.  It was set up more like a miniature freight elevator and one had to make sure everything was buttoned up just right before the elevator would work.  Then you had to turn a key, press a button and hopefully head up or down.  I say hopefully, because getting everything closed and ready was a chore in itself.  A disabled person would have a very tough time using the elevator by themselves, and it was barely big enough to hold a couple of people if there was a wheelchair involved.  I noticed that the traditional service had its fair share of people using wheelchairs and walkers.  On the one hand, I thought this was a good thing, since my wife often needs a wheelchair to get around.  On the other hand, if this is all they could come up with to make the church accessible to disabled folks, it showed that they didn’t care all that much about them.

The handicapped parking in the parking lot was also minimal and not clearly defined.  Someone told me that members needing close-in parking just knew to take one of the parking spots marked “Reserved.”  But what about visitors?  And as big as the place was, I figure that not everyone there actually knows about the ability to take a “Reserved” space.

I think I’m sharing the most about this church because this one is the one that excited me the most and gave me the most hope that I’d get called to a place that could make the best use of my skill sets.  But it goes even further than that.  These “call processes” as we Lutherans term them, are much like dating processes.  It’s more than resumes and interviews; it’s meeting people, seeing how you like one another, envisioning how it might be if you became the pastor at a church where you’d visit people, be with them in many of the joys and sorrows that mark our lives, and guide them as best you could into the future.  In a way, I found myself falling in love with this place.  It was conservative, but also had that very forward-looking, can-do attitude that reflects all the best you can find in my home state.  I could see some challenges, but I could also see myself being happy there for the next ten to twelve years and doing some of my best work in the process.   I thought we hit it off well, and all my instincts told me that they liked me as well.

So I was really surprised to get back home, to Northern California, check my e-mail and find they’d already decided to pass.  The language was official and offered some encouragement about it not relating to the quality of my pastoral skills, they just wanted a different style of leadership.  But I was severely bummed out.     Again it’s a lot like the dating process.  In a weird sort of way it’s like trying to find a date to the prom, finding someone you really, really like, and having that someone shoot you down because they want to find someone they like better.

At this point, I’m not sure I can endure being part of another call process.  It may not matter, since one can stay on the active clergy roster for three years before being automatically removed if there isn’t a call to a church or other recognized church organization.  Here in the small mountain village of Northern California, this doesn’t seem likely to happen.   But you never know.  There may yet be a church out there somewhere that might have a place for liberal pastor who prefers a Hawaiian shirt to wearing some hollow sense of piety on his sleeve.

Interesting Times in Northern California

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It’s a cool, damp day here in the mountain village, a perfect day to stay indoors and do a little blogging.

The last few months have brought forth some interesting fruit, especially in the the general area of discernment.    We moved out to the village in March, leaving the large metropolis behind.  We said goodbye to friends and family; goodbye to doctors, banks, the gym; goodbye to the eyeglasses store down the street, along with the grocery stores and warehouse clubs, also down the street.

The mountain village sits in a little valley in the Trinity Alps of Northern California.  It’s in the sparsest populated county of Northern California, with not one stoplight to be found in the entire county.  It is a place where the wildlife population vastly outnumbers the human population, and so when one walks outside, the birds don’t just fly off, nor do the deer suddenly turn tail and run.  In a way, this is a sort of place where Rodney King’s plea has become a part of daily life in the village ecosystem: people and critters mostly all just get along.   An acquaintance recently told me about a hummingbird stopping to get a drink of water from her watering hose, while she was holding it and watering her yard.  A bit freakish, but not too over the top in this part of the world.

We came at the invitation of a relative who runs a uniquely historic place that once used to be a stagecoach inn back in the 19th century.  The history endures and it surrounds you as you walk through the front door of this place that now operates as a bar, restaurant and hotel (mini-hotel, given the 5 rooms equipped for overnight accommodation).  The offer was to come and work  at the place and to help guide it into a new future of profitability.  When the offer first came, we heard how booming the business was becoming.  The winter fishing season for steelhead salmon was in high gear and there seemed to be wonderful opportunities to come and lend some elbow grease and creativity in helping that business keep on flourishing.    It sounded good, especially since this news came while I was feeling like I’d been stuck in some version of the Sargasso Sea with my career in ministry.

I was well aware of the risks, but decided that this was worth a shot.  I figured that at least I’d be able to return to some of my work in media and publicity, and maybe go back to doing some live audio for bands that might play at the place on the weekends.

Well, it’s been about 4 months now, and it has seemed as if most of that time has been spent dealing with one frustration after another.  The Bay area tourist-fisherfolk stopped coming at the end of the steel head season.  The restaurant menu is heavily weighted toward such tourist folks, who would think nothing at all of dropping bigger bucks on prime rib and steak dinners.  After some discussion, a few non-beef chicken and fish items were added to the menu, but we’ve not ever had the supply of chicken to actually serve.  As for the poor vegetarians that might wander in looking for a meal, about the best we’ve been able to do for them is to combine a couple of side salads to make a “chef salad.”    Most of the suggestions made to change these things and to make the menu more attractive to local people looking to pay less for a meal have been almost completely ignored.  What is just as grating has been the “I know my business way better than you do” mentality that has kept the ineptitude in place in the face of almost non-existent business.  Since Memorial Day, business has picked up a bit, but only to the degree that the restaurant has made just a little bit of money on only a few occasions.  Otherwise it has been a huge loss.

My overall assessment is about the same as the one offered by Sgt. Gunny Highway in “Heartbreak Ridge,” who found himself at the mercy of inept and egotistical leadership who insisted upon blind obedience to their own willful stupidity:

The silver lining in all this is that I’ve been asked to interview for pastor positions in several locations throughout the country.  One invitation to visit and interview at a place in the Southwest came just as we’d finished unpacking our boxes.  I thought that position would work out, despite its somewhat foreboding setting in the heart of Tornado Alley.   As we drove around the town I couldn’t help but notice the skeletal building remains and large piles of tree branches and fencing caused by a tornado that had blown in less than a week before.    I thought we hit it off well, and made a solid connection in my time there, but after three weeks I finally called and discovered they weren’t going to call me.   Once I got over the ego punch, I realized that they had probably made a good decision for both of us.

While they decided to go with someone else, I found the experience had re-kindled my passion for pastoral ministry and the awareness that God and the church had called me into that ministry for some pretty good reasons.

I’ve had a Skype interview with another church and just completed a visit to a wonderful congregation doing exceptional ministry in the Midwest.

Now I wait to hear word on the Midwestern congregation as I go about my business here, trying to eak out some sort of living in a business that has become more albatross than opportunity.   It is frustrating, but I learned something during my last interview experience that I aim to apply here shortly.  I’ll say more about this in my next post.

Tumbleweed Likely to Tumble Down Different Road Soon

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Happy 2012 y’all!  How was your Christmas?  Your Hanukkah?   Your Festivus?  Your New Year’s?

To my colleagues and church friends, how are those annual congregational meetings going?

It’s been quite the break between posts and there’s a part of me that feels badly about not posting the last couple of months.

Yet the hiatus is also a necessary outcome of all the doin’s and not-doin’s that have caused a fair amount of upheaval and general consternation.

Specifically, I’m getting the message that there’s not likely going to be any further opportunities to serve as pastor in the denomination I’ve served for the past ten years.  Maybe it’s just the geography I’m in, maybe it’s the current state affairs with both congregations and synod offices, maybe it’s just a long dry spell that is lasting much longer than I could anticipate.

But the reality of the situation is that for almost two years now, there hasn’t been a congregation that has been interested in extending a call my way.  The other reality is that for reasons that go as yet unexplained, the few interim assignments I’ve been offered have been increasingly  marginal in hours and compensation.   Meanwhile, I’ve needed to be working and my mailbox keeps bringing me news that I have bills to pay.   Without friends and family, this past Christmas would have been a bit too Dickensian.

I’ve loved doing the valuable work of ministry among people for ten years, and I’ve been blessed to do it in three different states.    A pastor wears a lot of hats:  worship leader, chaplain, teacher, student, administrator,  fellow-seeker, friend, and of course, ambassador for the renewing grace and acceptance of Christ.   I’ve been honored and blessed to wear those hats in my ministry.  It’s been a blast when I’ve found that one of my classes or sermons has sparked something in a person, and it’s been amazing when a few people in the church have sparked something in me as well.  I’ve been most privileged to have people invite me into the most intimate and crucial points of their lives so that I might walk a bit of their roads with them to share in the pain and pleasure of those moments.  I’m really glad that my career in ministry began with the chance to officiate 3 weddings in two months.   It’s interesting that my last pastorate ended with a bunch a funerals that culminated in the final funeral for a closing congregation.

These are tough, tough times for the church, especially those expressions of church that were built in the 20th century–the mid-twentieth century, to be more specific.  Congregations across the country are shriveling and dying at an ever increasing rate.  And the ones that aren’t can begin to see some ominous storm clouds on their horizon.  I was out on the front end of that curve; normally I wouldn’t mind being considered as being out on the cutting edge, but when that edge does its cutting this close to home, well………………………

I’m aware that it may not be such a bad thing that nobody wants to punch my ticket and let me climb on board a ship that is taking on water faster than it can be bailed.  It’s just that I spent about 5 years of my life preparing for that boat ride, and spent another ten out sailing.   But massive quakes are hitting the church now, and unless one can find a place with a group that is equipped to roll with those tremors, it’s maybe better to be outside the building while it threatens to collapse on those who continue in their denial with all the stubborness of someone who refuses to accept their own mortality.

What is happening is nothing short of a New Reformation in the 21st century.  Christianity is being renewed and reformed in ways that must just scare the daylights out of those folks who’d planned to just stay the course until they could retire and cash in on their pensions.    And unfortunately, much of the church’s financial woes can be traced to those folks who are in that very process of moving up this suddenly burdensome salary ladder; they may be offering great experience and talented ministry, but they are also part of the reason the church is being hollowed out from the inside.  They can come up with some pretty dynamic program ideas and offer the church some great charismatic leadership, but these things won’t forestall the changes already shifting the ground beneath their feet.   Only a committment to the essentials of life you find revealed in the gospels can be of some help.  There is much to argue about when it comes to those essentials, but for me they’ve  meant an openness to God’s Spirit and a real, honest dedication to the exploration of scripture that is combined with an ongoing pattern of prayer; and these things are fed by worship that connects us to these things and to one another.

Ah, I digress.  The point of this post was to say that it appears one door is being shut.  But in the roiling process of figuring out What’s Next, another door appears to be opening, one I’d never have considered.    If I walk through that door I’ll be finding new homes for all my books, clothes and other pastor-related things I’ll no longer use.   I figure that if God still wants to use my talents in some church-related way, it’ll be in a totally different place than where  I’ve been.  In fact, I’m wondering if this is in fact my calling and my version of Reformation.

The bottom line is that I’ve mostly enjoyed being the one to proclaim God’s grace to folks for the past ten years.  Now maybe it’s time to start living in that grace, and letting it take me through the next door and on to the next chapter.

I’ll be saying more about this, but I can’t say when I’ll be saying it.  So there.  ‘Nuff said.

Barna: Youth Leaving Church After High School is a RECENT Trend

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So says the Barna Group, in its report, “Five Myths About Young Adult Church Dropouts.”     What some have decided is a normative part of transitioning to adulthood is actually a myth, the Barna Group says.  Instead, they trace this trend of youth leaving church to become prodigals, exiles or nomads back to the Boomer Generation:

Evidence exists that during the first half of the 1900s, young adults were not less churched than were older adults. In fact, Boomers appear to be the first American generation that dropped out of church participation in significant numbers when they became young adults. So, in one sense, the Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) were part of the evolution of the church dropout phenomenon during the rise of youth culture of the 1960s….Today’s young adults who drop out of faith are continuing something the Boomers began as a generation of spiritual free agents. Yet, today’s dropout phenomenon is a more intractable, complex problem.

Why the Boomers?  I’ve had a few thoughts on this. 

Another issue Barna addresses is the explosion in communications technology and its widespread availability.   As was the case in the Reformation, people have discovered that they’re able to bypass established channels of communication with new, internet based, wireless technology.  On the big-ticket issues and news of the day people can now  engage in two-way communication rather than remain the recipients of one-way communication.  Also resembling the Reformation is the widespread awareness that institutions have become so corrupted that they no longer behave in ways that reflect the best interests of the citizenry, whether it be a branch of government, a financial institution, an established media channel for news, or an institutional incarnation of church.   Combine these two trends and you quickly realize that the Church can’t continue to stake out the same old ground.  The Church can’t continue to operate under the assumption that people will come to the building and want to join the group there, trusting that this is the best way of finding some higher spiritual truth.   Nor can the Church assume that youth are destined to leave after high school, or that they won’t find any meaningful spiritual growth after they do.

Blessings Received in this Interim Transition Time

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I’m nearing the conclusion of an interim ministry at a Denver church that began only a couple of months ago.   It’s a short one, as interim ministries go, but it’s been one that has blessed me in some unexpected ways.    This is a medium sized congregation worshiping around 200-250 on Sunday, counting both services.  The first service is more of a traditional service, though upbeat in the music and liturgy selected.  The second service is what I describe as contemporary liturgical, with a band and vocalists leading the singing.   There is a healthy mix of young and old coming to worship together every Sunday and there is also a healthy representation of people who have varying social outlooks, from liberal to conservative.  This is unique in my experience, where churches have tended to gravitate toward a like-minded, conservative mindset.

The most striking feature of congregational life here is the obvious commitment to young people and the actions that the church takes to bring that commitment to life.    How does that show itself, you ask?  To me the most powerful display comes during Holy Communion, where children come forward with adults to the altar, where the outstretched hands of  the 82-year-old wait alongside the outstretched hands of the 2-year-old.    It’s one thing to talk about the importance of sacramental identity in the lives of the baptized, it’s another thing to see that identity lived out like this, Sunday after Sunday.   Speaking of baptism, the tradition here is to invite children to gather along with the baptismal group around the font, and so they come to sit on the floor and watch as a new brother or sister is welcomed into the family of God in Christ.

There is also a children’s sermon at each service, and there are times when Sunday School craft tables are moved into the main hallway so that the kids are visibly in the mix of church activity.  They need to do this sometimes to get some needed extra space, and they’re not necessarily thinking about the significance of kids making Noah’s ark decorations adjacent to adults in fellowship conversations.   But it is significant and speaks to an unconscious competence in making sure that children know they are a valued part of the church community–and that the adult community knows this as well.

At yesterday morning’s early Sunday service, a bell choir provided special music, and I remember it as having one or two young people ringing bells with the group.  The difference in worship styles between early and second service is truly life-giving.   I come out of the first service feeling full, because I’ve participated in rich worship rooted solidly in our Lutheran tradition.  I come out of the second service with a good spirit-buzz; the band plays the “Now the Feast and Celebration” with a strong back beat and some solid guitar licks.

It’s been a surprising time of blessing for me to serve as pastor there while their pastor is on sabbatical leave.  When I say blessing, I think I also mean healing.  I’d not considered the ways in which I’d been knocked around and down in my earlier experiences.

I’ve had what can best be described as positive mirror images to some unhealthy, negative experiences that came my way practically from the moment I came out of the seminary chute and into my first call.   They’ve affirmed that the church can be a healthy, vibrant place and also that I can be a healthy, vibrant pastor.

My preaching is getting better; and I’m enjoying it again, from the preparation phase all the way to the delivery on Sunday.   Bible studies are as fun as they’ve ever been, and the folks who come are well-read, curious and insightful in their own right.  Our studies have become collaborative journeys involving the whole group, by far my favorite way to do it.

Back to preaching.  I think I’m growing in the ability to proclaim grace in the framework of law and gospel, and do it in ways that respect and honor the diversity of folks gathered for worship.     I’m also becoming more spontaneous and this has helped me shape the message in different ways so that the early risers hear something a little different from the second service folks.

At the moment, I don’t know what’s next for me after this interim ends at the end of the month.   It’s easy to allow that uncertainty to grab hold of me in negative and fearful ways.  So I focus on the blessings at hand and the blessings in hand.  And in faith, I go forward into whatever God might offer me next.

Traditional Club Memberships in Steady Decline–Including the Club Called Church

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This is one of the big-ticket issues in The Way Things Are Becoming, or The Great Emergence, to use Phyllis Tickle’s language.

The social clubs established in the late 19th through mid-20th centuries are now showing steady and apparently irreversible decline in membership.

Consider the hallowed Scouting movement brought to the U.S. by W.D. Boyce in 1910.  Its numbers have steadily dropped as reflected by this chart found at Scouting for All:

Back in 2009 The Janesville Gazette reported that the Wisconsin Jaycees dissolved their Janesville, WI  charter because they no longer had enough members.  This same article described similar fates unfolding amongst the Optimists, the Lions, the Kiwanis and the Rotarians.

“Years ago, when you were in a certain business, you almost had to belong to a service club, but it’s not that way anymore,’’ said Cindy Miser, then the Janesville Optimist Club Treasurer/Secretary.

That statement takes me back to another statement made out on the Great Plains a few years ago, one spoken by a retired, long-time pastor of a flagship church located in the heart of a small city.  “When I first became pastor,” he said, “the advice I got from my senior pastor was that I had to join a service club.  I looked around and found that the Rotary Club had most of the folks who were on city council, the school principal–folks like that.  So I joined the Rotary Club.”

It probably seemed like good wisdom back then to do exactly that.  It was a time when joining a club was the thing to do, a time when people found a larger sense of meaning and purpose in their club memberships.  And since clergy were considered part of the upwardly mobile professional class (definitely white collar!), the Rotary Club would have been a good fit.

But Ms. Miser’s statement also takes me back to the childhood experience of  church at a booming congregation in a conservative branch of U.S. Lutheranism during the late 1960’s.  A lot of up-and-coming professionals gravitated toward this expression of church and brought along their wives and families.  Granted, it was more likely that the wives “carried the male” back in that day as much as they appear to do today.  But in that church, well, women had their place–St. Paul said so, after all.   The men were active and involved, as I remember.  But I also remember that this church seemed like a place where the up-and-comers climbing the rungs of the white middle class all hung out.  As I remember it, this all-white, mostly affluent congregation aspired to a sort of greatness that could best be summed up in this dream picture:

Here’s the problem:  Ward, June, Wally and the Beav all went to church on Sunday.  Then Monday, June popped over to the Garden Club meeting once the boys were off to school.  Tuesday, Ward had his Rotary Club luncheon, where the Mayor got to make his pitch for community service projects the Rotarians could take on and deliver.  Wednesday, Beaver had Cub Scouts and Wally had Boy Scouts.  June, of course, was Den Mother, while Ward was Scoutmaster.  Then, back to church on Sunday, where June taught Sunday School, and Ward served as Elder.  Wally was trying to sort out his feelings for the attractive young girl in his Teens class, while the Beav was learning about the men in the fiery furnace from a teacher with a flannel board.  Meanwhile, the lines blurred between their Sunday church activities and their involvement in the weekday clubs.   All of them seemed necessary for the production of good, solid citizens; all of them offered beneficial social connections and friendships; and all of them seemed to be essential pillars for a healthy national society.

So what happened?  First, there was this little issue most of us have come to know as The Civil Rights Movement.  Right behind that issue came another little issue, The Vietnam War.  Then, some social reject worthy of scorn from all “decent” people everywhere, a fellow by the name of Daniel Ellsberg, released The Pentagon Papers.  Why, those classified documents had no business being published in a newspaper–never mind that they revealed a government that was lying to its citizenry about the direction of the war.

Social institutions responded to these perceived threats to Good and Decent (and white) America.  The Silent Majority elected Richard Nixon–twice.   Mainstream clergy often prayed for the success of the American mission in Vietnam, ignoring the great ironic truth exposed by Mark Twain’s “War Prayer,” written nearly six decades before, back when the U.S. was waging war in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, in my local, booming, conservative Lutheran Church, my pastor took a hard stand against rabble-rousers and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He preached in a fiery sort of way, and his message probably got rehashed at Rotary and Lion’s Club meetings the following week.

Down South, the respectable clergy from respectable houses of worship were compelled to publicly admonish the organizers and demonstrators of the 1963 Birmingham Protest, especially that outside agitator, Martin Luther King, Jr.   King responded with his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” a shout-out for compassion and action rooted in solid biblical scholarship.  King’s letter essentially stripped the red-white-and-blue veneer off the nature and purpose of the church in ways that were difficult to avoid.  But people did just that.  The system was humming along just fine, thank you; if only the uppity blacks and longhairs and feminists would just fall back into line.  Meanwhile, there were those social clubs to attend; pour enough energy into their service projects and it just might stem the tide.

Yet, the bottle had been opened and the genie was gone, if he ever was really there in the first place.  Perhaps people were just starting to awaken from a genie-induced hallucination.  Whatever the case, the trend for decline, the massive turning away from traditional, institutional organizations, had been given a starting place.  Traditional social and service clubs had begun the decades-long process of being pink-slipped by the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Wally and the Beav, who just didn’t see the value in them anymore.

The church, to the degree it has aligned itself with the principles and values of social service clubs, continues to suffer the effects of this unstinting, pink-slipping.  The effects have spilled over to practically every expression of church, whether or not that expression has bought in to the club mentality.  While it’s a tough thing to swallow for many in the church, the decline of a club called church is likely a good and necessary thing as we enter a period of history in which the stakes seem perilously high.  The “My Country- Right or Wrong ” club church that meets primarily to see one another– and to maintain the idealized remembrance of a status quo– just isn’t equipped to offer much more than palliative care for its declining membership.

Next up:  Expressions of Church that might leave good marks on the 21st century.