This past week I was in Long Beach, CA. While there I went on a tour of the RMS Queen Mary. This cruise ship was active and sailing the Atlantic between 1936 – 1967. As one of the fastest ships of any type at sea, Queen Mary was used to transport soldiers to and from Europe during World War II. At one point Hitler put up a bounty of $250,000 to anyone who could sink the ship!
An interesting feature of the Queen Mary was the number of redundant features of the ship. The bridge or wheelhouse is where the captain and staff would control and steer the ship. There were three duplicate back-up wheelhouses in case the main bridge was damaged. There were four propellers powered by four different sets of turbine engines. The rudder was 18 feet tall and weighed 150 tons. It took hydraulics to control it. But in case the hydraulics failed, one of the wheelhouses was all manual. This meant it would take three men to turn the wheel that controlled the rudder! There were multiple engine rooms. All this redundancy was in case something broke down at sea. With redundancy of systems, even if something went wrong it would not be cataclysmic.
As the mainline church contracts and declines in membership, one of the results is the loss of redundancy. For some churches things are stable, but many other congregations are experiencing exhaustion. Where there used to be a pastor with one associate, now there’s just a pastor alone. The bench of volunteers to replace those serving on session, as deacons, and in Christian education is thin. More churches are shrinking the size of their sessions, while others are petitioning the stated clerk to allow the same people to renew beyond their six years of consecutive service. As a result, fewer people are serving longer terms. They are getting tired. Simultaneously pastors are preaching more, have added hybrid worship to their task list, and are spending more time doing pastoral care to an aging congregation. This type of care is more demanding and emotionally exhausting.
The real fear of change is that we fear loss. Losing the redundancy that was built into the life of the church and other institutions of ministry has meant letting go of a way of doing church. This way includes the assumptions on which we were trained and taught, and the best practices we were taught to implement. What else must we be willing to let go? What changes will we need in the Book of Order to better reflect the church we have today? What assumptions about membership and who can serve need to be adjusted?
The way forward is to learn our way out. It will mean workshops, seminars, retreats, books, and being part of cohort groups as we constantly ask, “Who are we?”, “Who is God calling us to be?” and “Who is our neighbor?” In her upcoming book, the Rev. Joy Douglas Strome talks about approaching the challenges of ministry. She writes: “Did you ever watch a dog with a bone? They are relentless. If the bone is hard they work at it and work at it and eventually wear it down. They can’t see anything else but the bone. It is in their mouth; they hold it in place with paws that shouldn’t work that way. They only see the bone before them and their singular, urgent work to do. Church development is no different.” I believe the future of the church will need pastors, leaders, and volunteers who are willing to be relentless toward our challenges as we learn to be the future church.
Rev. Craig Howard