Sunday, December 29, 2013

Pastoring a tiny congregation...

is a mix of fun and frustration.  In the months since I offered my services to the tiny fellowship near my home, I've been blessed by a sense of greater connection to these parishioners and also concerned about whether what I am doing for them is good or hopeless.

At the time I proposed to use my ministry skills to help them deal with some of the holes in their programming (pastoral care and a resident minister who would preach on occasion), I knew I was only able to offer a stopgap ministry for them.  I'm 71 years old, I'm not interested in fulltime parish ministry any more, and I don't want to go to board meetings.

But my call to ministry was persistent and wouldn't let me give up on the idea, so in March of this year I started serving up pastoral care to anyone in the congregation who needed it.  Since that time,  two desperately ill folks have  died and their memorials either conducted or in the planning stages.  Because these folks have never had a resident minister (they've had quarter-time ministers who drove down from Portland to do what they could in a long weekend), they've not been able to provide adequate pastoral care and they hardly knew what to do with someone when faced with a death.  I've felt pretty useful in the pastoral care department and have counseled many a member through lesser crises.

Preaching is one of my favorite tasks of ministry and I thought it would be easy to recycle old sermons in my once-a-month pulpit gig, but it's not.  Some of my old chestnuts are more inane now than they were five years ago.  They might have served a need at the time, but now they're just creaky vehicles of old thinking.  So I've decided I will no longer re-use any sermon which can't be personalized to the congregation, increasing my sense of satisfaction but also my time commitment.

In an effort to serve this farflung bunch of folks in a parish which extends from a small Washington coast town on the north to the bottom edge of our long, skinny Oregon coast county, I've initiated smaller local groups in coffee klatches or happy hours every month, hoping to learn more about people's lives in a smaller setting.  This has been fruitful for the most part and we now have a healthy group of 5-9 who live way south of the county line.  It meets on a Sunday morning to offer a UU opportunity to people who live too far away (more than 40 miles) to get to church regularly.  A coffee klatch in a Washington setting attracts 3 or 4 folks on a Saturday afternoon and a happy hour at a local Astoria pub attracts as many as 12 on a Thursday evening.  Folks enjoy these gatherings as time to be together outside of a Sunday social hour.  And I enjoy them too.

I am trying to just enjoy what I am able to do without overextending myself.  They pay me a small honorarium for my work and are  very appreciative, but I know that giving more than a few hours a month can set up a pattern that sets too-high expectations, leaving them in the lurch if I should need to end my service.  Because it seems unlikely to me, at this point, that I will continue this for more than a couple of years. 

Will there be someone to pick up where I leave off?  The congregation is dependent on the pledges of about 30 people; it rents space from a UCC group; it's primarily retirees and a few small families with kids.  It's not growing much and has little growth future without more ministerial leadership; its layleaders are tired, having carried the ball for many years without much support.  They can't afford to pay anyone an actual professional wage and the ministers who drove down for a long weekend in the past have been frustrated by the limitations of time, weather, and size.

I have considered how we might attempt a social action program of some kind, but with the limits of building access, travel distances, and size, I have concluded that it makes better sense to encourage people to make their individual social justice efforts in their own communities, rather than as a church body.  I've been castigated for this decision by at least one non-member who has told me he's given up on us because of this "failure".  But somebody who lives 20-40 miles away does not want to drive that distance on a rainy night (or day) to volunteer in a body, no matter how worthy the cause.  And to tacitly limit participation only to those who live close to the cause seems to skew the effort somehow.  Also, it would drastically increase the hours I'd commit to them for a pittance of an honorarium.

But we're having fun and I think they're learning what it means to have a minister, even one who can't do everything a fulltime minister might do.  And I'm serving my call, in this small way.

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