For the Birds
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.
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.
Breaking Up is Hard to Do
I have not once regretted getting myself from the couch to the pew. I haven’t found the church for me, but I have found an opportunity to praise and grieve alongside other praisers and grievers. I have been inspired by outreach endeavors and found welcome in a strange city. And amidst all the new, the rhythms of worship have cradled me like a familiar lullaby. However, the collision of new and old, familiar and unfamiliar stirs an unexpected grief in me.
I estimate (with no scientific to back up the assertion) that ≈ 92.7% of people seeking a worshipping community experience loss as part of that process. I lost a worship experience that fed my creative spirit, fueled my passion for justice, and felt rooted in sacred tradition with modern accessibility. I left behind a community of people whom I deeply love, whom I have walked alongside in the heights and the depths and who have walked alongside me. Every time I enter a new sanctuary, I carry the memories of something that will never belong to me again, and that is painful. That’s how I found myself floundering through a hymn to the tune of “How Can I Keep from Singing” (one of my favorites) while sobbing like an over-tired toddler. (When you’re in a new place and trying to fly under the radar, crying uncontrollably during a peppy tune is not recommended.)
I’m not alone in grief being part of finding church. Pretty much anyone who makes their way into a new sacred community is carrying some sort of loss — the loss of a community we can no longer be a part of, the loss of a community that has hurt or betrayed us, the loss of opportunity to have grown up in a faith community to begin with. I am sorry that as a pastor, my enthusiasm for someone new finding their way to my church led me to miss the ache they might be carrying and that I missed the potential need for pastoral care in my process of welcome.
I am sorry that as a pastor, my enthusiasm for someone new finding their way to my church led me to miss the ache they might be carrying and that I missed the potential need for pastoral care in my process of welcome.
It Doesn’t Have to Be So Rough
Church-leader types, if you’ve hung with me this long, I have some tips to ease the difficulty. (These are not suggestions for visitor cards or new member committees but almost universal methodologies for serving those congregants who are leave-taking and home-finding.)
- Recognize that finding a new church home is hard — Imagine how our welcome processes would change if we saw those who venture into our worshipping spaces for the first time as simultaneously fierce but fragile. How would that change our welcome and outreach?
- Practice the art of introduction — I have found myself the most immediately comfortable when I didn’t have to take the bull of introductions by the horns. When pastors are available in the sanctuary prior to worship to say hello and then introduce me to the folks seated around me, it has helped me to feel part of the group from the start. Ushers can be equipped for this as well.
Covid has exacerbated all our church-welcome issues and insecurities. A remedial, “How to Say Hello” session as part of the welcome or children’s message may give your members valuable tools for easing the awkwardness of early visits.
- Practice the art of invitation — It is 1000x easier to visit a church for the first time if you attend with someone who knows where to park, what to wear, and can walk you through any church rituals. In our fear of being pushy, we’ve forgotten how to be invitational. Help your church members reclaim the art of driving a friend to worship and you have eased the newcomer’s angst of wondering if they are a guest or an interloper.
- Equip those who are leaving your congregations — There are several ways we can make the process of leaving and finding less brutal.
- Commission those leaving your congregation for their next phase of ministry so that they know they go forth with your blessing, prayers, and hope they will find their place elsewhere.
- Connect church seekers with potential congregations. If you know worshipping communities where your former congregant might find a fit, email the pastors and past congregation members, introducing them. (It’s almost like an invitation to worship.) If you don’t know anyone in the area, offer to serve as a reference/introducer as your former members find a spot they would like to try.
- Give those leaving your ministry tips for navigating the transition. The process of finding a church can feel overwhelming, but some simple practices may empower church searchers with agency for the process. Ideas for easing those first awkward visits: arrive early for worship, let them know your coming, tell an usher it’s your first visit, and leave your contact information.
This process of church searching has been a humbling one for me and one which I wish I’d experienced years ago when I was still crafting worship and equipping congregational leaders. What has your experience of finding a church home been like? How can we provide a welcome that acknowledges the complex hopes and feelings of those who risk to cross our churches’ thresholds for the first time?