This quote by Willie Dee Wimberly of The Open Door Community perfectly sums up my attitude about why we ought to be involved in organizations that seek a better world.
In my 26 years as an ordained minister in a mainline church like the United Church of Canada I have seen hundreds if not thousands of volunteers give themselves to a cause larger than self. One of the many reasons I can’t bring myself to complain about the hours I work, the salary I am paid or the demands of this work is that every day the folks doing the work beside me are volunteers who contribute their time, talent and treasure to this effort. How can a 52 year-old man complain when an 80 year-old volunteer arrives at the church first thing in the morning, works all day and then drives home without any pay, little thanks and an aching back? I can’t.
I am blessed to have this work, have this community to work with and most importantly serve a mission or cause that is so fulfilling. I am proud of the work I do, but more importantly I am proud of the people I do it with and the mission we all serve. But with age comes perspective and one thing I have learned is that while the mission endures the institutions that harness that mission change, many die and many more emerge to meet different times and places.
There was a time in my career when I thought my role was to keep this institution afloat. But the mainline churches have been in decline long before I was ordained. The signs of decline are easy to see; aging membership, reduced attendance, less revenues, churches closing, morale low. As new ministers are called to serve individual churches you hear the yearning for a saviour, someone who will emerge with a plan, or a gift for preaching, or a gift for engaging youth, something that will arrest the arc of decline and replace it with an explosion of new growth. There are just enough examples, a handful, across our country, to keep this dream alive. But there are only so many John Pentlands, Lisa Vaughns, or Anthony Baileys to go around. The truth is most of us in the mainline ordained ministry are not charismatic figures, most are introverts, good listeners, excellent pastors, but not the type of personality or skill-set who help grow a church by reaching out to the spiritual seekers and searches in our communities.
So what are we to do in these times of decline? Some leaders in the church try to find easy solutions; lay leaders say that ministers aren’t what they used to be, as if the model of ministry in the 50’s and 60’s would work today. Some clergy say that lay leaders are cliquish, afraid of change and uninterested in the latest theological trends, as if these things don’t also describe we clergy. But what of the assets that remain, the thousands of volunteers in churches across this country, the caring ministers who serve the church, the buildings that are often underutilized, the money raised each week, are there not countless ways these assets could be harnessed by a mission to make an even more lasting difference?
Today in the mail I received the last newsletter to be produced by The Open Door Community of Atlanta. For 35 years a small committed band of disciples have managed, staffed and funded important work for Atlanta’s homeless community. They did everything they could to make this mission work and they succeeded. Think of the lives changed, both those who offered the shelter and those who received it, the relationships changed all concerned. But now, 35 years later, that small band of disciples are older, frail, and lacking the energy they once had. They had hoped a younger group would come along and assume the responsibility of leadership. Younger people did come, volunteers for a time, but they did not stay. The neighbourhood also changed, gentrification emerged and the homeless population are no longer located in that area like they once were. So the core leadership are moving on, selling the building they collectively purchased 35 years ago with their own money, using the proceeds to move closer to their grown children and grandchildren, wherever that might be.
Which brings me to the quote from Willie Dee Wimberly, “We gonna do the best we can 'til we can't”. What is the shame in proclaiming that we did our best and will continue to do our best until we can’t any longer? Why is that attitude so wrong? What I like about it is the lack of nostalgia, the lack of blame, the lack of defeat. We do what we can until we can’t any longer. How refreshing! No one wants a mission statement that reads “we survived” or “we are bitterly still trying” or “we’d succeed if only they tried harder”. Instead people who work and volunteer want to serve a cause larger than self, one where we keep the thing that brought us to this work in front of us, keeping our “eyes on the prize”.
And when we are done doing all we can we can rest in the assurance that our lives matters, that other’s lives mattered, that life has purpose and we know this because we were there, doing our best.