Vital Congregations Initiative: Healthy Church Life
September 25, 2022
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
II Corinthians 5:16-21
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Healthy church life, the mark of Vital Congregations that we explore today, is not to be taken for granted.
I did not learn this lesson until my first year out of seminary.
I had grown up at First Presbyterian Church in Marietta, Georgia which had not had a significant conflict in decades, if ever. When you read the history book of that congregation, the growth curve of First Presbyterian in Marietta was a continual uphill curve from 1842 until after my father’s retirement in 1999.
There were no splits or significant departures of members for over 150 years, which is very unusual. And my father, who was the pastor, never came home talking about any troubles at other churches. I grew up very active in the church, but not really aware of church conflict. That just was not part of my experience.
The churches I served during seminary, Newnan Presbyterian and my home church in Marietta, were both in a good place when I worked there, so I had no direct experience with church conflict. After graduation, I was called to Fourth Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina, which was also a warm and healthy congregation, but I soon discovered that was not to be taken for granted.
My colleague and mentor, Allen McSween, with whom I served at Fourth, was serving as the chair of the COM. Now, for those of you less familiar with the presbyterian lingo, the COM is the Committee on Ministry for the presbytery, and the presbytery is what we call the group of Presbyterian churches in a certain geographical area. Among the duties of the COM is to deal with any conflicts that are brewing within congregations. Allen would return from his monthly COM meetings just shaking his head over what other congregations were experiencing. Allen would thank the Fourth Pres congregation over and over again from the pulpit and in the newsletters for their warmth and health and vitality.
I learned from Allen in that season that healthy congregations were not to be taken for granted. I learned that health and vitality could be nurtured. And I began to learn just how many congregations go through difficult times.
Truth be told, most congregations go through some level of turmoil at some point during their history. The history of most congregations will include some time of conflict and dissent, because all congregations are imperfect institutions, and all congregation members and their leaders are fallible human beings.
This congregation, Decatur Presbyterian, went through a difficult time in the 1990’s. It was a stressful time for all concerned. The senior pastor was asked to leave. A number of families left the church upset during those years. And the congregation took a long time to recover.
Many of us are eternally grateful for my predecessor, Jap Keith, who helped this congregation heal and become healthy during his 11 year tenure.
From Fourth Pres in Greenville, I was called to First Presbyterian in York, SC. York was in the midst of a troubled time and desperately needed someone to love them. After asking the former pastor to leave and experiencing ongoing drama between some of the long term families and the organist/choirmaster, the church had had an interim minister for a year and a half. That interim, it seems, finally gave up on them, and so a second interim minister was called. In the fall before I arrived there in December of 2007, an elder election was held at First Pres, York. The election went into a two week runoff between two individuals.
Often, when there is conflict in a congregation, it will rear its head in the election of elders. I heard stories of church members who had not been to worship in years who showed up in their wheelchairs to vote in the runoff elder election. My first session meeting with the church was prior to my first worship service. About halfway through the meeting, when a certain motion was proposed, I realized that the session was split right down the middle, and they were literally sitting with one side of seven facing the other side of eight. Thank God for Joel Wood who offered a substitute motion, which passed unanimously.
Fast forward to the next summer, six months into my call, after pastoring amidst conflicted parties, I found myself in my early 30’s at the cardiologist for a stress test. The doctor looked at the results of my tests and told me there was not a thing wrong with my heart, and then he asked me if I happened to have any stress at my place of employment. The metaphor that seemed most apropos for that congregation at that time was an “emergency room patient”, in danger of not making it through or becoming disabled. For several years, we attended to a congregation that had been in conflict. I listened carefully to all parties; I sought to hold them together during troubled times.
What surprised me most is how long it took, how many years it took, for that “ER patient”, that congregation, to move through rehabilitation and out of a hospital situation, and ultimately into health and vitality. 11 years after a certain troublesome session meeting, which was before my time, I had an elder sitting in my office explaining to me why he had not been very active in the life of the church for the past decade.
I tell you this story because I learned long ago not to take congregational health and vitality for granted. Like individuals who pay attention to their diet and exercise, their sleep and stress levels, congregations do not stay healthy without effort and intentionality. In Genesis 1, in the creation story, the Holy Spirit moves over the watery chaos, calling forth order and life.
That is what the Spirit of God intends to do, to bring order out of chaos. One of the marks of Presbyterian polity is to do things “decently and in order”. Doing things decently and in order means that we share in decision-making and leadership, that we don’t attempt “end runs” around the session, that we attend to our common mission and orderly processes.
People often say that it is easier to get forgiveness than permission, which may be true, but that attitude, over time, erodes trust and unity. Members and leaders of a healthy congregation will patiently follow the processes, will communicate forthrightly, will take time to get on the same page, in order to maintain trust and unity over time.
Consider the opposite of health within a church or institution. The opposite of health includes dysfunctional processes, toxic relationships, irrelevant priorities, chaotic meetings, failure to communicate well, everyone or every group choosing their own path, no one working together toward common goals.
When a church or a seminary or a business or any other organization is experiencing such dysfunction, it will affect everyone negatively and hinder the mission of the whole for years to come.
In studying the theme of this mark of vitality this week, I realized that I do not share with you often enough how grateful I am that you are a healthy congregation. I am grateful for how many of you tell me that you pray for this congregation daily and for its leaders. I am grateful for how you take to heart the stated mission of this church, which is “to share Christ’s love for the world”, and that you seek to live our bicentennial goal – “every child of God belonging, engaging, being transformed”.
I am grateful for the patience and prayerful discernment with which you make decisions.
I am grateful for how you encourage and support our pastors and our staff.
I am grateful for how generously you give your time, how you keep showing up to serve and to lead.
I am grateful for your financial generosity, that allows the church to have a sustainable budget, even through a pandemic and into a post-pandemic world.
I am grateful for how open you have been to change.
I am grateful for your continued readiness to serve our community.
Such health and vitality requires attentiveness and awareness. Health and vitality requires us to ask ourselves regularly “Are we who we say we are?” And “Are we who God is calling us to be?”
Health and vitality within a congregation begins with prayer and worship, continues with shared decision-making, is supported by a shared mission and purpose, is led by healthy leaders, is maintained by orderly policies and processes, is sustained by faithful stewardship of buildings, finances and other resources, and is marked by shared joy and deep gratitude.
In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, he wrote We regard no one from a human point of view. In the Christian community, we judge no one “according to the flesh”. We judge no one by worldly standards. Instead, we seek to have the eyes of Jesus Christ.
We seek to look upon one another with compassion and understanding. We seek, as the church, to live by different standards, by the standards of the kingdom of heaven.
Paul writes If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old passed away. Like taking off old clothes, old ways of being, and putting on new clothes, we seek to be dead to sin and alive to God.
In Christ, newness is possible. Forgiveness is possible. Reconciliation is possible. Health and healing and wholeness are all possible in Jesus Christ.
Paul continues: All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation. The ministry of reconciliation is the ministry of bringing folks back together, of restoring relations as much as possible, of making compatible that which had heretofore been uncompatible.
How do we do this? How do we do this in a season when our nation is as divided as ever? How do we do this when far too many churches have split or have declined due to conflicts? In a conflicted, divided world, how do we continue to live together in health and vitality?
Paul reminds the church in Corinth that they are to be ambassadors for Christ… and that because of Jesus Christ, they may even receive the gift of embodying the righteousness of God.
Consider what it means to be an ambassador, to represent the ways of Jesus Christ in all we do. Consider what it means for the church to embody the righteousness of God, to live not by worldly standards, but by heavenly standards, to live not in competition with, but in collaboration for, to live not holding onto grudges or despair, but to live with ready forgiveness and steady hopefulness.
We are human beings, after all, susceptible to all the winds of change and subject to many conflicts that are common to our world. But we have been given the gift of God’s love. We have received the saving grace of our Savior. We have been offered the guiding presence of God’s Holy Spirit.
Therefore, therefore…we are enabled to live with and address the changes and conflicts that will come in a manner that is pleasing to God, in a way that continues to fulfill our received mission.
In closing, I read from Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae.
The first verses of this text are often used at the end of a wedding, as a charge to a couple newly married. The last verse of this text is often used at the ordination and installation of elders. Each of the following verses is a helpful reminder of how we are to live with one another in a healthy and vital Christian community.
Hear the Word of God from Colossians 3:12-17
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.
And be thankful. (Be thankful).
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church