This is the trail to the top of Bradbury Mountain near where I grew up in Durham and Lisbon Falls, ME. My love of hiking comes from this place. There were too many picnics to count and the view from there "all the way" to the town next door (where later I went to high school) was probably one of the first expansions of my horizon.
I am taking a break from hike-posting. It will probably just be a day or two. The reason is simply that I have work to do for my job. This is the job that theoretically has nothing to do with this blog...mostly. Of course in some ways they are related. After all life is not compartmentalized into "work and home" or "spirit and mundane". This morning I have to sit down and do some studying. The new church year is almost upon us and--like most church years these days--it presents us with a slightly higher degree of difficulty that the year before.
Just a couple days ago we had our first Parish Committee meeting to plan for the fall. As is common every time, there were problems to be worked out and some victories to be celebrated. This year we have financial worries, worries about attendance and worries about how to sustain our small volunteer base. Our programming is shrinking, too. We are living in a world where people don't join things like they used to. Houses of Worship are struggling and dying not so much for theological or political reasons, but because people are turning inward. We are in trouble for the same reason the Rotary, or the VFW, or any other voluntary association is in trouble. Folks don't think they need to join with others for sustenance. They stick to their own now. Life is becoming transactional rather than connectional. This is to the world's detriment.
My Sister-In-Law Hanne pointed out to me recently that online social networks are becoming the new "third place" set between work and family. They are mere shadows of the institutions that brought us together in past but that doesn't seem to matter. It is easier to exchange pleasantries with some acquaintance across the country than it is to chat with our neighbors. We can ignore our Facebook friends, after all. That is not the case with three-dimensional people. Also, like many toxic third places (the church has certainly been a party to this over the years) they are more about making us feel bad; pointing out perceived inadequacies rather than celebrating our strengths.
Anyway, maybe I am being a curmudgeon. Whining won't alter things. Also, I do actually believe that something better is coming. We will draw back together. However, we are living in a period of transition that won't necessarily end soon. Those of us who have committed ourselves to healthy community--religious or otherwise--are in the position of envisioning what comes next and making our old groups (they may not be old institutions by the end) adaptable and flexible.
On the side of Mount Welch in NH they have put up this stick barrier to protect the sensitive "crevice ecosystems" that are struggling to survive. You walk to the right of the sticks to do your part for this fragile part of the natural world. I wonder what adaptations we can make to protect and nurture the places where we gather.
So this is why I am doing this project: I am hiking and gardening, playing music and writing because the old way is falling away but the spiritual life is still part of a full life. Membership or even affiliation with a specific religion has fallen below 50% in this country. That alone is not something I worry about. What I worry about is where we can still find connection in this changing world. For me, I find it in the ways that I describe in the Walks Blog. In my mind this is more than "what I did on my summer vacation." It is a spiritual exercise. I am trying to find meaning. I hope that you can find meaning, too.
The purpose of these essays--and I have few illusions concerning how many people will read them--is about exploration. I joined the church in high school and it has been a part my life since, but reaching outside its doors for meaning has always been part of my life. Now I am entering another year as pastor of a small, loving, non-creedal, progressive congregation. That said, I am drawn to see what there is outside our doors even more. I want to report to everyone what I find. We actually may not be a church so much as a group, anyway. This is about serving as the scout for that group to whatever comes next.
Of course, what actually becomes of this group--this congregation--I serve is not for me to decide. Our future is being made by thousands of tiny personal decisions. That is how groups work--the healthiest ones anyway--and the process of discernment belongs to everyone. Here is what I wrote in my report for the Parish Committee concerning my upcoming sabbatical:
As you know, I believe that the modern church is in the process of fundamental changes that will ultimately leave it unrecognizable. Pessimists would say it is dying. I prefer to think of it as transforming. However, it does mean that some churches will die and others will shrink as we adapt to the new world we live in. Again, I have talked about this pretty consistently for years so I won’t get bogged down here.
The question for us is how we adapt to lower budgets, lower attendance, and lower commitment in general. I will be (as I have been) doing some reading and reflecting on this subject while I am away and you will hear about those reflections upon my various returns. I hope you will see me as a resource during this time of transition.
Here is the thing: What Eliot Church becomes is mostly dependent on what you make of it. As staff we have led, advised, and imagined this congregation toward a future. Ultimately, though, it is you who marks the path and walks it. As always I will be encouraging you to think about what is most important to us as a congregation and what we can do to maintain excellence in those areas while understanding that we may become leaner than we have been before. Our congregational polity puts the responsibility for direction on the congregation, itself.
Anyway, Thanks for listening. I have a warm pot of coffee and a lot of reading and planning to do. My sabbatical is indeed coming up and these explorations are a big part of it. I do not plan on sprinkling much about the church into my posts. I certainly haven't yet! I do hope, though, that you find something useful either here or elsewhere on your journey. In any case I will be reporting in when I can...
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.