Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Changing churches, part 2

As noted in the last post, I promised a post about my new church. Before going to the church many times, I already knew there would be differences. I was going from a large, moderately conservative, diverse church with blah carpet and chairs to a small, conservatively progressive, nearly homogenous church with a beautiful interior. I was going from a church with multiple education classes, multiple services, women’s groups, men’s groups, many youth groups and activities, several nurseries, countless programs, a thirty-ish people choir, plus a praise team with many instruments including drums, songs on the wall, and so many people it split into parishes to a church with basically one class, a choir of 8-15 depending on the Sunday, mostly organ accompaniment, sometimes piano, and the occasional special music of handbells, violins, or flute, a couple of junior high students, only one child younger than they, maybe fifteen college students, several graduate or young professionals, and the remainder of the congregation is middle aged or older, a hymn book and a second “modern” songbook from perhaps the late 90s, and small enough congregation to gather in a room at the back of the sanctuary that’s just a hair bigger than my living room for fellowship after each service.

Still with a much smaller congregation, I have needed time to learn names. Thankfully, shortly after I began regularly attending, we got a new minister (oh yeah, I started going there and really liked the minister, and then he retired and a new one began so...more transition) and there was a need for the congregation to wear nametags. I appreciated this as I was getting to know people, and often, if I included my new last name, people would realize my connection and give me a jolly welcome. Weekly fellowship time after the service, coupled with the many potlucks, dinners, and service activities (usually paired with a potluck...haha) has given me the opportunity to meet a lot of the people. For a somewhat shy person who reluctantly mingles, this has been a nice way to break me into knowing a congregation. It took several years for me to find people at the former church, and that was one of my worries coming into this church. They have all been warm and welcoming, make it a point to talk to me, and I am getting to know them.

Also shortly after we married and in my early months attending the church, a group of young graduate students and professionals formed. We meet Thursday evenings, usually over dinner and drinks. We pick a topic, and we talk about it, Jesus, and the world. Sometimes we discuss rest or Sabbath, sometimes we discuss parables, sometimes we discuss prayer and the Holy Spirit. Not only has this met my need for meeting people of our age and forming relationships, but it has met my need for deep, philosophical theological conversations. I was concerned when I left my church that I would not have these or take a long time to build relationships where they were possible. There are no small groups or really many groups to connect to and have these discussions. My former church is known for having theologically sound, intellectually deep sermons and people in the congregation. Words from the pulpit and usually in classes or with other congregants were thoughtful and challenged me. I was not sure I would find the same at the new church. I cannot say I have needed to take my journal to note sermon points, but there are some poignant statements, and often I end up thinking more during and after the service about how I should go out and be in the world rather than the clever thing that was said. That seems as good as filling journal pages. The new pastor is also female, and I have not been a member of churches that ordain women. I know some verses that are not for this and some discussions about culture, time, interpretation. Right now, I don’t think Jesus cares so much about whether I hear preaching from a male or female.

One of the things I really love about the church is the way they love others. You walk in and are welcomed. Someone on your pew will say hello. When the peace is passed, you’ll get a dose. After the benediction, you will also probably be asked to join everyone for the fellowship time. One of my first impressions was of people trying to meet me and make me feel welcome. My second was how this very small church is so active in the community. It sustains an incredible number of projects to care about so many across a wide range of issues. They host PACEM, which my former church with so many more members did too. They collect funds for nets to prevent malaria in Africa, a walk to fight hunger and food insecurity. They send people to fight for social justice and community betterment initiatives. They are always collecting food for food pantries, school supplies for needy kids, toiletries for the women at a local correctional facility, Thanksgiving meals for local families. They host potlucks with suggested ticket prices with proceeds going to an organization helping disabled individuals. The list goes on and on and on. It seems there are always at least four or five projects going on. They dream and list big needs and come in their small number with willing hands to meet those needs. I love that. I am drawn to that. I am a part of that. Christ compels us.

That’s the thing about a small church. Everyone is necessary to make it run. Everyone is on a committee. Everyone is needed to meet the needs of the community. In my former church, I was in the choir for a short while and served on a couple of groups, but largely, I could attend the church and absorb without really “being a part” of the work. I could take it in without being noticed, without really being called to give back. (Of course, they ask you to contribute when you become a member, but for the most part, you could fly under the radar without anyone really checking in on you.) In this church, you go away for a vacation and people check in on your one-Sunday-absence. That is kind of lovely. I cannot hide here. I cannot feel the depression or other emotions, withdraw, sit alone, and then leave unnoticed. They need me here. They want me here. It is a scary and wonderful thing to be needed and wanted, knowing your presence builds up the congregation.   

In fact, I’ve already been given a “role” of sorts. I am in one of the hospitality groups providing refreshments for the after service fellowship time one Sunday per month. The lady who approached me to join her and one other woman is incredibly sweet, and just how could I say no to joining and helping them? I am currently attending a short class (4 weeks) to learn about the church and denomination. It is the precursor to membership, if I choose to join the church. Right now also happens to be nomination time to committees for the church. I hadn’t even decided on whether I would transfer my membership yet but I was nominated to join the trustees of the church. The trustees are the legal body for the church and also sort of an operations team making sure the building logistics and needs are addressed. It is a three year appointment. Though honored, I had to turn them down since I had not decided on membership transfer, and it wanted to read more about the theology of the church. I’m currently working my way through the social principles guide, and what they stand for really resonates with me.

Methodists are methodological. They address all issues you can think of so thoroughly in ways I have not seen at other churches. Pastors are assigned churches. At first it seemed so different than the Baptist and Presbyterian ways of “calling” pastors that I was used to, but now I kind of understand why. Pastors also are assigned a church for around 4-5 years. This keeps the Word fresh, dissuades congregations for putting pastors on pedestals or creating a harsh environment for those who are not at a good fit, and allows for a natural progression of pastoring larger churches. Pastors are shuffled around as needed, which means churches are not often left struggling and looking for a pastor.

Lastly, I love that they determine the year’s budget based on giving pledges rather than prior year spending or just what they decide they might spend. I have been at churches who come up quite short at the end of the year compared to what they planned to spend and what they did spend. It is hard, there is a lot of pressure on congregants to empty pockets the last weeks of the year, and there are sometimes difficult cuts that have to occur. I do not mean that churches should only know what people intend to give so they have an excuse not to pray or trust God for their needs. This model just seems to allow the church to move in freedom within their budget because they have a decent estimate of what to expect. The people also seem to pledge their money to the church for the next year and then are quite generous with needs and outreach on top of their regular giving.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Changing churches

In the midst of this year's changes, I have mostly talked about marriage, which it seems many are interested in, and changing jobs. We were facing another change I did not talk as much about: deciding on a church. For months we did not talk about it, and I did not feel the need to bring it up since he was applying to jobs that would mostly require us to move. Moving would mean we would not need to decide on one of our churches. We would only need to start compromising after we moved to a new town and started church "shopping" together.

As it turned out, we got jobs in the area and stayed in town so we did have to have those conversations. We could continue going to separate churches. He was open to attending both churches or rotating. He suggested going to the early service with me at Trinity and then going to choir practice and to sing during his church service. He was currently the head of the church council at his church, which is a commitment he made before we had decided to or when to get married. His minister would be retiring in July, and a new minister would arrive. Matt’s main job as head of the church council would be to oversee the transition of ministers; thus, he would need to stay until at least the summer of 2016. Though he sits in the choir loft during the service every week, I wanted to start our marriage worshiping at the same church. After some discussions of various ways we could resolve the issue, some time, and prayer, I decided I would attend his church.

Over the last couple of years, there were several reasons I had begun to consider visiting other churches. This would be a good opportunity to step away from the church I'd attended for over ten years. However, I did not leave Trinity easily.

I loved the sermons. The theology, the classes and opportunities, the concept of the parishes (though my parish was small, with mostly older adults who lived 30 minutes away, and had no activities for quite some time), the music, the liturgy. I had been a member of this church for over a decade. It took me a very long time to get to know people and find friends. The first years were actually pretty lonely and difficult, but the last six or so, I had little pockets of friends I had gotten to know along the way. Often we would see one another at a service and make plans to go for brunch or lunch. Or we would check in on life. A move meant I would have to be intentional to keep the relationships. Going to a new church, knowing I would sit in the pews alone, meant starting over. It was so hard starting at Trinity in the relational department, I was nervous to have to do the hard work of starting over. His church was much smaller so there were a lot less people to pick from for friendships and most of the attendees were either college students or older adults. I worried it would be another lonely time. Learning names, mingling, figuring out my place there other than “Matt’s wife,” and a number of other concerns. But it’s been worth it. The move has been lovely. I won’t say it has been easy or has not had its own bumps, but it’s been lovely.

I will talk about that in the next post.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Out of the carpool lane

I have lived in Charlottesville for 11 years, but Matt has lived here for 17 years! He moved to town for graduate school and stayed in the same lab, moving through a couple of positions after receiving his PhD. (By the way, I always wanted to marry a doctor and at one point long, long ago told a friend I'd "settle" for a "doctor doctor" but I really just wanted one of those "other kind" so virtual high five God for answering that very long ago desire I'd forgotten.) Remember back to the post where I shared how we met? Then maybe you remember he had been receiving, through his department's mail list serv, emails from me at least weekly regarding seminars and events for almost 7 years before we met.

Some of our first dates were in the hospital cafeteria for lunch. I ran into him sometimes between dates, which was amusing and exciting and nerve-wracking during those early, awkward days of dating someone. During busy weeks we could not see each other for several evenings, we would make a point to meet for lunch either at the cafeteria or a restaurant at the nearby Corner. When a snowstorm forced us to start our Thanksgiving vacation early and head separate directions, we spontaneously went to the Thai restaurant to celebrate my birthday and see each other before 5-6 long days apart. Proximity really worked for us.

Working in adjacent buildings also meant we could take a walk, pop over and deliver a coffee or a cookie, have a quick chat about important issues, etc. Some weeks I got to park in the garage nearby too so leaving after work together or to run out for a brief wedding meeting was a real perk. We married and started carpooling...sort of. Some days we would ride together to the garage or the street and walk to the bus stop together, ride the bus, walk to work, and then head to our respective buildings. Other days we were not going to have the same evening plans, we still parked near one another on the street and do the same walk, bus, walk, hug in the elevator, and head our own ways. We did the same in reverse several evenings per week and took the time to catch up and chat about our day.

Except this week. This week we have gotten in cars and driven in different directions. I walk to the bus stop and take out a book, reading until I get off the bus and walk to the office. He drives a longer distance, probably listening to a pod cast, and parks just outside of his new building. You see, he took a new job and left the university life. I'm so proud of him and looking forward to seeing how he enjoys this new direction.

But also, I miss starting and ending most of my work days with my favorite person. I miss our little strolls to the bus and then to the office. This is how we began our married life, our learning to live together and journey separately together. Some days we walked in silence as morning-Andrea was slow to join the world. Some mornings we joked and made up stories of people or happenings. One day we yelped and ran a few paces together when a squirrel pelted us with acorns.

After four months, we have gone our own ways. This is not a lot different than life before July, but it's a less fun trip to work. Going into work with him somehow eased me into the day. I am going to miss leaving surprises on his desk while he is at lunch or a meeting. I am going to miss him popping into my office to say hello or bring me something when I am sick or to take a little walk. They were little things, but sometimes the little things are the big things.