The Joy (and Challenge) of Community

by Susan Nienaber

It’s very easy in our American culture to leave a church. No matter how hard pastors and lay leaders work to keep folks focused on mission instead of individual preferences, church attendance is often a consumer-driven phenomenon. If there is any kind of conflict brewing in a congregation the temptations to flee grow exponentially. It’s not unusual to hear someone say, “That church was no longer meeting my needs.”

The increase in the number of folks who think of themselves as spiritual instead of religious, the high number of churches having a hard time staying culturally relevant, and the temptations of the large mega-churches with their abundance of resources and concert-quality music are all factors that can lead to decline in attendance for a smaller mainline church.

I’m always a little melancholy in the fall. While I love the turning leaves I’m often sad to see summer end. I love to be outdoors in the summer and each summer I find that my gratitude increases as I am so blessed to live in the neighborhood that I do. It’s beautiful and safe which I realize is not the case for everyone in our communities. I am grateful for my garden and that I have the best neighbors who have also become good friends over the past 12 years. We’ve watched our children grow and parents die. We’ve been through a few challenges in dealing with the occasional disruptive neighbor or the acting-out teen. But, overall it has been quite idyllic.

Community Pond

Let me share a story: A few years ago, our neighbors just to the north accidentally built an enormous pond. I say accidentally because they never intended for it to get so big. It has not one but two cascading waterfalls which produce the most soothing water sounds. We try to sleep at night with our windows open as often as possible. It has become a place of prayer and meditation for me. It is pure bliss, and grounds my soul.

The most interesting thing that has developed with the pond is that it has become a source of community. I sit by the pond as much as my schedule will allow. My husband often joins me and occasionally other neighbors come out, bring their lawn chairs and we chat about our lives. We also entertain folks by the pond. Even the critters join us. As you can imagine, the pond draws a lot of local wildlife. Deer, wild turkeys, muskrat-type animals, squirrels and every type of bird comes to drink and play in the pond.

This past summer we had quite the soap opera happening at the pond. Two ducks moved in and made their home with us. My neighbor, Rose (owner of the pond) named them Mel (the male) and Billie (the female). She talked to them and gave them treats. They came to recognize her and they would talk back to her and even call to her when she was in the house. They became very comfortable around us—which I know is not the best for wild animals—but still we loved having them around.

Eventually, a second male came to visit on occasion. As you can imagine, both males became quite territorial. I was talking to Rose one day and she was telling me about a terrible duck fight that happened the day before.

Drama in community

One day as I pulled out my lawn chair to sit by the pond I noticed that one of the males was there and a little while later a second male came and they sat peacefully together on the top of the pond. Now it’s possible that these were two entirely different ducks, but they waddled around the whole area by the pond keeping in perfect step with each other. No fighting that day. And then Billie (the female) came back to take a bath in the pond and peace reigned supreme.

Over the years the pond has become for me a microcosm of the cycle of life. There is birth and death, summer and winter, solitude and community. There are times when everything is quiet and there is harmony, and there are times of disharmony and angst. The pond for me represents the powerful interconnectedness of life. It reminds me of the words of Parker Palmer:

“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’ self. Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other.”

Our religious communities are like the pond. They are constantly changing. There are times when we are close and work well together. There are times when we sense the powerful presence of God in our midst and our activities and worship are filled with purpose and meaning. However, sometimes there is a breakdown in our religious communities and struggle. Sometimes there is a loss of energy and decline. Sometimes we are hurtful to each other and disappoint one another. In our highly consumer-oriented culture, it is easy to give up and leave a faith community when the going gets tough. To stay in community with each other takes courage and hope .

One of my father’s famous sayings was “This too shall pass.” As a kid, I thought this sounded flip. It seemed to minimize what I thought were “real” adolescent problems. But there is deep wisdom in this saying and in the cycle of life together in community. Things will change. Cycles of connection and disconnection occur and we are all getting older. Each moment is precious and I would rather immerse myself in the dramas of community than live in isolation. No community or institution is perfect. Believe me, I tried to find it and kept experiencing disappointment. But, living within the cycles of community brings wisdom and maturity. We grow in community as we experience ourselves reflected in the eyes of others.

Wherever you are in your relationship with your brothers and sisters of faith, be thankful. If it’s going well, rejoice! Savor every moment. If it’s not going well–still, be thankful! Ask God to show you the opportunities embedded in this downward cycle for there is much to learn from the disappointments and struggle. And, in all things keep praying.

Susan Nienaber embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church, and occasionally consults with congregations on issues of conflict, dialogue, crisis, personnel, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.

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