Feb
03

The Declining Parish as a Grieving Mother

A few months ago I was invited to a clergy retreat for traditional Anglican clergy.  It was a wonderful experience.  One of the speakers was Fr. Peter Geromel.  During the Q&A portion of his talk on “The Comforts of the Priesthood”, he mentioned that parishes that were missing an entire generation of young adults needed to go through a period of intentional mourning before they begin to develop and implement a vision for the future.  During lunch I asked him if he would share this idea with GGWB.  This essay is the result of his generosity.  – Fr. Anthony Perkins

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Miscarried Parishes and Why “Casting the Vision” lacks Pastoral Vision
Fr. Peter Geromel 

With the average congregation now reaching a low average of 45-50 members, the stakes are getting to be pretty high for dwindling churches. In the midst of that, God has not seemed to slacken in calling individuals to become Ministers of the Gospel. The Harvest is plenteous but the Laborers are few is true, but only if you can find the Harvest. For so many pastors, they will be called to “dying” congregations where phrases like “We are a Burial Society” and “The Grapes are dying on the Vine” are oft used.

Into the midst of that “Crisis” (when is the Church ever not in crisis?) enter the church-growth gurus, eager to sell books, book venues, and sell their “how to” savvy to those without Hope. One of the key phrases among these ecclesiastical sophists is to “Cast the Vision” which, unfortunately, has its limitations; indeed the statement’s truth, when perceived aright, dwindles by the moment. The problem comes in not recognizing the signs of the times; it comes in lacking Pastoral Vision. Casting a Vision is fine, if one has an emphasis on “Pastoral” rather than on “Growth”. Yet, so many are focused on Growth Vision that they fail to pastorally see where the congregations are at.

Recently I was told by an elderly woman in the hospital that her brother is often angry, and why? It is because the American Legion doesn’t have enough members to fire rifles at burials. I just heard an ad on the radio asking for people to volunteer to do just that. The VFW, American Legion, and other civic organizations are facing the same obliteration in the face of changing times. Many of our congregants are members of these other organizations. Couple this with the fact that the sins of bitterness and regret are besetting sins for the elderly, rather than the lust, vanity and ambition of their youth, and you have a disastrous combination at Coffee Fellowship.

Some churches attract young families by offering them tech-heavy and entertaining experiences that remind them of the youth groups they were a part of before they reached adulthood. And there are more traditional churches that manage to grow despite the surrounding culture (glory to God!). But for the vast majority of established churches, we are seeing a torch that is failing to be passed, and this is more precisely the problem, not lack of Vision. The sociological trend is identical with that faced by VFWs and American Legions.

Immediately Casting the Vision is the wrong approach because it is not addiction to death and burial and hopelessness that is the problem – not exactly. The thing that is afflicting our elders is something akin to the spiritual devastation that happens after a Miscarriage. You see, the World War II generation miscarried, or feel the guilt of having done so. They birthed and raised their children just fine, they brought them to be baptized, brought them to Sunday school, and the fetal-sized seed of faith failed to implant in the womb of Holy Mother Church or became a decayed spiritual fruit, which went out from us because it was never of us.

We are not afflicted with an addiction to burying the dead, as was the case of Holy Tobit – even if that’s all we seem to do at the VFW and at church. We are afflicted as Rachel was afflicted after the Holy Innocents were put to death and our senior citizens refuse to be comforted.

We may know what to do when a young family in our congregation miscarries, but far too many pastors are so focused on growth that they don’t realize that the congregation is experiencing something a bit different from Lack of Vision. The miscarriage that they feel deep in their bowels is something that is not easily comforted and Casting a Vision is very likely the same as telling a mother after a miscarriage, “don’t worry, you’ll have another.”

That isn’t where God has put the mother who has miscarried. God has put her in a place where she needs to be at the time, which is really not a very happy place to be. Ministers do not enjoy the prospect of going in and sitting with all that bitterness and regret that comes from miscarrying. Young ministers especially want to walk in, straighten out that failing congregation, and lead them on to victory.

In this case Casting the Vision is not the solution, it is part of the problem. Perhaps this is some of the reason for the revolving door of the pastor’s office, where every few months a new face shines forth from the pulpit ready once again to Cast the Vision. If one pastor needs to sit with the congregation for a while to hear their story and to feel their hurt before speaking at all, let alone leading them out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, then a fast succession of new pastors trying the same failed vision-casting tactic is not the answer.

Again, the sooner America’s pastors realize that this isn’t where the congregation is at and that they have to sit with people a while, the sooner the congregation might be ready when the pastor does, eventually, cast the vision and say, “Like so many Biblical characters, you can still have children; you are still young enough.”

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Fr. Peter Geromel is Assisting Priest at Church of the Incarnation and an adjunct professor of Philosophy at Northampton Community College. Educated at Virginia Military Institute, Hillsdale College, Reformed Episcopal Seminary and the University of Dallas, Fr. Peter has authored Sublime Duty: Its Emphasis in The Anglican Way, Christ & College: A Guide from The Anglican Way, and Frankincense & Mirth on High. He manages Traditional Anglican Resources.

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