Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Death of a Ministry

Most churches do their best to offer a variety of ministries. Some are fellowship-based, some more educational, some more service-oriented, and on and on and on. And if organized the right way, there can be a lot of energy and excitement in the early stages: people are getting on board with the new venture, look forward to something different, and at times can't believe the church has either never done something like it before or that it's finally happening.

The bigger trick to any ministry is in the sustaining of it. How do you keep up a certain level of excitement and involvement after those initial good feelings have worn off? How do you keep something from becoming an institution; a bureaucratic lifeless activity, or something pathetically clung to by a small handful of people who rationalize that, well, people will show up in droves if you just publicize it more? All manner of tactics may be used when it reaches that point: browbeating, guilt trips, extra shiny fliers, or just running the same trick harder. In the majority of these instances, such things don't work.

I've presided over the ending of such ministries. It came as a surprise to me, but it was one of my earliest learnings about the state of most churches: the same approach to fellowship that involve ladies sipping tea and wearing hats, or the same approach to music where robed people sit separated from their families the entire service don't garner the same eagerness that they once did. Thus, my church has said goodbye to some of these things since I arrived, complete with some of the aforementioned rationalization (and maybe a little insinuation that I torpedoed at least one of them...look, when your choir is down to a half dozen people, half of whom were planning to quit soon anyway, it was inevitable).

I've also overseen the short life of a few newer ministries. Before I more fully understood how younger generations gather in community, I tried to organize a young adult group. As I recall, it met three times and was already losing steam by that third time.

More recently, there's been my pub discussion group. Ever since my first dips in the emerging church pool, I'd wanted to organize one. I loved the idea of enjoying fellowship outside the church walls, of appealing to people who'd more naturally gather in places like those to begin with, and of engaging in dialogue in a more relaxed setting. Call it a hobbyhorse of mine that the church needs to do some different things that seem radical even to its own members (trust me, I heard all about it).

Here's the thing about pub discussion groups, or any new church activity: context is important. This is Ministry 101, really. Most pub discussion groups that I've read about happen in contexts far different than Smalltownsville USA: they happen in college towns or larger metropolises. I don't hear much about them happening in communities like mine. People like their pubs around here as much as anybody, but the thought of a church group meeting in one? The disconnect is glaring.

I have a core group of three people who've come, with other stragglers here and there. This past Friday night, I sat in the parking lot long enough to realize that no one was coming, and I drove back home to eat a late dinner. I don't blame anyone, and I don't even really blame the context or organizational methods or anything else. Sometimes, a certain ministry just doesn't work in a certain place.

I'm not necessarily going to completely bury this ministry just yet, probably mostly because I'm just a stubborn SOB like that. But I can't help but think that we're pretty much done, and that it'll soon be time to say last rites and try something else.

The other side of this is the feelings that accompany such a realization. It may be failure, or disappointment, or frustration, or a certain lostness that really points beyond one faltering group to the state of things in general. For my part, sure, it's disappointing. This was one of those activities that would surely signal that we're adjusting to our new day and age. I didn't put all my eggs in this basket, but the basket was pretty full.

In this instance, I feel a strange calm. Call it maturity or a more seasoned outlook or even numbness, but I don't feel the ennui that I felt in earlier years when something ended up fizzling out. I'm much more willing to admit that this just doesn't work in this place, or maybe at least in the way that I tried to do it. I accept that there was probably a better way, perhaps even without a clear-cut name and meeting time and whatever else. I haven't figured that out yet.

For now, I shrug, process a little with the few core people who did attend, and move on. Really, what else is there to do?