In the Faerie Tale Theater version of Cinderella, which I watched innumerable times as a child, Jean Stapleton plays the Fairy Godmother. Just before disappearing into thin air, she wonders out loud, “What’s reality? Does anybody know?” I quoted that line a lot. Years later, I find myself asking a similar question in my daily ministry.
We are in the hope business, as Christians. We believe in resurrection and abundance where others only see scarcity. But as I have previously helped close a church and have always felt called to churches with smaller membership rolls, I often find myself leading in the face of challenging trends in membership, attendance or contributions. I am torn between a realistic view of a situation and a perspective infused with mountains of hope. Does reality consist of the hard facts before us or is it more about the hope our faith teaches? Or some combination of both?
When I look at a dismal balance sheet or dwindling attendance numbers, I see a reality that we need to face. I try to encourage leaders to take a hard look and consider what choices could be made in response to these situations. As I seek to lead faithful discernment, I am never one to say, “Just have faith, God will provide.” God does, of course, provide. God provides for our spirits and our communities. But “God is not Santa Claus,” as a dear church member used to say. God does not usually make money appear out of thin air or offer up 50 new members without the congregation having done anything to invite them in. Nevertheless, facing up to these very common difficulties of modern church life is no fun. It confronts us with our own mortality, or at the very least, with the prospect of change.
Sometimes these challenging conversations, though, come off as if facing reality means that we are without much hope. I truly feel called to invite congregations to look at the full picture of their life together: the beauty of their community, their strengths as a congregation and the places that call for serious discernment or change. I always try to find ways to permeate those conversations with hopefulness and a positive tone. But those efforts sometimes fall flat. People tend to respond with worry, instead of with wonder and a commitment to figure out God’s call forward.
In recent days, I am rethinking my approach. Perhaps it is not that I need to add more hope into these conversations about challenging realities. Perhaps I need to ensure that I am grounding these conversations about our reality in the broader context of hope in Christ. Certainly everything we do as a congregation ought to be grounded in that broader context. But day to day, in the midst of nitty-gritty details, I sometimes have to remind myself and those I serve about that hope and those promises. I need to offer that reality as our starting point: We have hope above and beyond and outside of any of the minutiae. We can rest in the grace of Christ Jesus. We are bound together in one body and one spirit. That is our hope and our ultimate reality.
When we go back to the numbers and the questions about a church’s identity and purpose, will still need to discern and act. But those smaller realities take on a different meaning when we see them inside the light of Christ’s hope. Then, we remember that whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God. We can act with trust that God calls us to abundant life – full of bold service, reconciliation, earnest praise and compassionate care – no matter the realities of our pews and bank accounts.
EMMA NICKEL serves as interim pastor at Beulah Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. She is passionate about congregational ministry, trying new recipes and keeping her baby’s naps on schedule. She lives in Louisville with her husband, Matt, and their young daughter.