I’m beginning to feel at home here in Omaha. I have a pharmacy, a preferred Target, and a jogging route I can maneuver without my GPS. But I still don’t have a church. This week’s blog sticks to my new backyard as I reflect on the experience of finding a church home. I would say that church shopping is for the birds, but that’s just cruel to birds. This work is hard!
As I discerned a call to serve as OPSF’s president, a vocational shift that would pull me out of the parish, others have been quick to suggest that I provide pulpit supply. The advisors mean well. They know that I cherish the act of preaching and that a multitude of small churches need preachers, but I have been reticent to jump into the pulpit-filling circuit. I want my own church community, a place where I can settle into the rhythms of congregational life, find a niche to share my gifts, and find my people for the journey of faith. It turns out, however, that I am woefully ill equipped for finding that community.
My entire adult life has been spent in congregational ministry. I never needed to find a place to worship; I’ve always had a paid role in shaping congregational life. If you are not a church professional, this is the spot where I say that much of this post may be glaringly obvious. It is also where I say, “Brave worshipper, I see you! I appreciate you!” If you are a church professional, this is where I say, “The work of finding a church home is excruciating, and we should be aware of that.” Three primary themes have bubbled up for me as I’ve taken on this role of church visitor: (1) finding a faith community is an act of bravery, (2) church-seekers experience loss, and (3) church leaders can make the process of church hunting more bearable.
Pull Out Your Church Clothes and Your Super Cape
I have gone to church every Sunday for approximately 9/10 of my life (1/10 = horse shows and four years of college when rising before 11 AM on a Sunday seemed insurmountable). Not going to church seems completely foreign to me. As one who now finds myself in the role of church seeker, Sunday mornings roll in with my dress picked out and my worship destination selected, yet I feel the inertia of staying in the safety of my apartment cementing me in place. I have moved almost twenty times in my life; I know how to build a community, and I simply don’t want to do it. Church is supposed to be a haven, but it is not that until you find your spot. Until then it’s just one more thing on the to-do list, one more jaunt into the unfamiliar, one more time of putting yourself out there. And if you’ve been doing that all week, staying in your apartment with a cat on your lap is pretty darn tempting. Add to the mix of this that Covid has impacted most of our social skills, and just getting out the door is hard.
I also am navigating this experience solo. I show up alone. I walk into an unfamiliar place alone. I sit amongst families and couples and friends on my own. But I have the benefit of an authority that comes with being an ordained minister and the president of a Presbyterian institution. When I introduce myself, people take notice. More than that, the places I have visited have leaders who already know who I am. My experience is church-shopping lite. Now, I think back to solo worshippers turning up in my congregations in the past — fresh faced college students, new professionals having moved to the big city, recently widowed individuals making a new start — and I have a new appreciation for the gumption required to walk into an unfamiliar worshipping community. I am sorry for underestimating how getting from the couch to the car to the pew is a fiercely courageous act, and I wonder how our approach to welcome would differ if all congregational leaders recognized that becoming engrained in a congregation is a completely different experience for those who sit in the pews than for those on the church payroll.