I buried a good friend yesterday. After seven years of fighting metastatic breast cancer, Mary finally lost her battle just as all her friends had begun to believe that she would never leave us.
Mary knew my whole family, which is only odd if you know that mine is a blended family—a husband to whom I’ve been married for only eight years plus two thirty-something boys from a previous marriage. Mary worked for my husband for 40 years, through a variety of positions in three communities. Twenty-six years ago, while in one of those positions, she was my boys’ first school principal, the very first school administrator that they and I had ever met.
Mary was an exceptional person—kind and gentle with children, an inspirational leader with adults, but also a brilliant scholar who left behind system-changing research on the role of school boards in student outcomes.
But most important to me, Mary had an enduring faith in my children. I eventually figured out that she had an enduring faith in all children, but it felt to me as if, through all the vicissitudes of raising non-compliant boys in an educational system that rewards conformity, Mary always believed that my boys were strong and curious children who would ultimately thrive. Thank God she has been proven correct, at least in part because her persistent belief in my boys’ gifts always heartened me. I could keep going as long as someone else believed.
Half full or half empty
As I reflected on Mary’s death yesterday, I realized that Mary and I were good friends with very different perspectives. When it came to people, she always saw the glass as half full, which may explain her faith in my children but which got in her trouble sometimes when people she trusted turned out to be unworthy of trust. From my point of view, it took her too long to see the red flags that signaled emerging issues.
I, on the other hand, see the glass as half empty. I spot red flags as soon as soon as they walk into the room, and it takes me too long to see the signs of blessing.
My concern, the reason I’m investing time in writing an article, is that I’m afraid I do the same thing with congregations. As soon as I walk into bathrooms that haven’t been updated since the days of nine-inch wallpaper borders or encounter couches and end tables that reached maturity in the 1980’s, as soon as I spot bulletin boards in need of curating, poor or nonexistent signage, as soon as I realize that there are very few children and a lot of older adults, I assume that there’s very little life left in the congregation and it probably needs to think about closing.
I also usually assume, too, that members are fighting with each other about something – whose fault it is that the church hasn’t grown in decades, whether the current part-time minister is doing an adequate job, how much of the endowment can be spent this year, whether hosting an immigrant congregation might help pay the bills. Anger is a much easier response to decline than is creativity or change, so I assume that, if I look hard enough, I’ll find members fighting.
And I’m almost always right.
But Mary would have been right, too, in seeing my boys as noncompliant rather than strong and curious. And as a result, they might never have thrived.
A new approach
So in honor or Mary, I want to commit to a new, half-full approach. From now on, when I see that same list of things I saw before, I want to assume differently:
- That there’s something amazing going on the life of this congregation that just hasn’t been expressed yet in bathroom décor
- That all the congregation’s available resources are being used to do God’s work in the community
- That the children at any given worship service are just a few of the children being touched by the congregation’s ministry
- That the older adults are all there because they value each other’s company and the rituals of worshipping together
- That any disagreements are motivated by a passionate desire to discern and do God’s will for this congregation at this particular time in this particular place
- That change is something older adults are good at because they’ve had to change so often already
- And most importantly, that this congregation will be helped to continue and even thrive by my willingness to believe in them
I’m pretty sure I can’t achieve instantaneous, radical change—as far as I can tell, seeing the world as half-empty is genetic. But I desperately want to find a new stance that honors the giftedness that God has set loose in the world even while still seeing the red flags. If any of you are like me, I welcome you to join me in viewing our congregations as half-full.
Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.