The Spanish verb esperar means both waiting and hoping, two key words in this Advent season. When I am in our second home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, it can lead to some interesting translation issues. For example, when building our home, the foreman would often say that he was waiting (“Señor, estoy esperando”) for construction supplies to arrive. But he also could have meant that he was hoping the materials would arrive. Waiting for an order, I can accept. Hoping for them is a little too passive for me.
Being a pastor in a congregation involves both waiting and hoping. We make plans that we hope will work; develop strategies to implement them; and then go to work. But we have to wait to see whether or not they are effective. Worse, the waiting horizon is sometimes longer than our lives. Some of our plans won’t be realized until we are long gone. So we have to work for something we may not see realized. Moses never getting to live in the Promised Land comes to mind. In a society that craves instant gratification, waiting as part of ministry is about as counter-cultural as we can get. Congregational ministry is not for people who are focused on immediate results.
In this supposedly barren season in the life of the PC(USA), it is crucial to remember that God works through us over the years, decades, centuries. As Mary stood before the cross watching her son die, she had no way of knowing about the history-changing and life-changing results that would ripple over the centuries to follow.
The congregation I served for 30 years was almost closed and the building sold back in the 1970s. Thank God the congregation convinced the presbytery to give them more time for God to work through their ministry. Today, Western Church is a vital, urban ministry where people worship God joyfully, children are educated and the homeless have been fed, clothed and given social services for more than 30 years. If I had been a presbyter back then, would I have had the vision to wait for God to do something with Western or would I have jumped at the chance to generate much needed money for the presbytery’s work? I wonder. Thanks be to God that a majority of presbyters were in no rush to judgment. They decided to wait with God for something to happen at Western Church.
When I see our judicatories selling off property (make that: congregations), I am profoundly troubled. Unable to envision a successful ministry in the old Central Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., our presbytery sold the buildings in the early 1980s to a coalition of community groups. Today, the buildings house a thriving community center and a non-denominational church in one of D.C.’s most vibrant neighborhoods. Others had and implemented a vision we lacked.
When we sell congregational buildings, we usually give away forever our chance to minister in those locations. Our presbytery will never be able to afford a piece of property in the now pricey Adams Morgan area where Central Church was located. Yes, we could start a non-building based ministry. But in urban ministry, one needs physical space to do things such as feeding the hungry and worshipping God. Storefront ministry has been around for a long time. But the successful store fronts always end up buying a larger space for their growing ministries.
The most damning part of our denomination’s property sales is to drive by the sites years later and see some other faith community using them for ministry. Why can others bring them to life and we can’t? The answer lies in a lack of vision and a lack of patience. Patience is a product of hoping and waiting.
In my opinion, the PC(USA) currently has the most talented group of young clergy I have seen in my lifetime. At the top of our denominational agenda should be finding the money to allow them to use some of our moribund buildings for ministry. We may have to reroute other funding to empower these young clergy. They have the vision and conviction necessary to help God fill our dispirited but not Spirit-less buildings with hope, faith and love. Let’s give them a hand.
Yours in Christ,