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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

“The tree this year is monkeys”

As I write this, we are just hours away from the beginning of what I call “Happy-Thanks-Merry,” that period in the calendar year when secular and religious holidays align to create five golden weeks of charitable giving (and non-charitable spending). It was during this time last year that I heard the single most tantalizing statement I’ve ever heard in a council, session, or board meeting—an elderly woman’s announcement to the group that “the tree this year is monkeys.”

I was sitting with the council, waiting for my opportunity to explain why I hoped this small congregation would contribute to the capital campaign of the non-profit I direct, and even though it wasn’t my turn yet, I had to ask—

“The tree is monkeys?”

Apparently, this congregation’s custom is to have a Christmas tree every year that is decorated thematically with objects of some kind, attached to which are needs that the congregation has for the coming year—toilet paper for the bathrooms or cleaning supplies, for example. The members take home one of the objects from the tree and bring back whatever is requested in the way of supplies. And the theme for that year’s tree, and of course for the decorations as well, was monkeys! Small, Dollar Store, gangly monkeys! I was so clearly enchanted that the woman even gave me some monkeys to take home—one for my office and one for each of my grandchildren! I still think of this as the wisest pronouncement I’ve ever heard in a church meeting—that the tree this year is monkeys!

The thing is, my consulting work is largely with congregations of the “former mainline”—Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and all the other denominations who used to be dominant in this country and now are in decline. The congregations with whom I work tend to be declining themselves, or at best struggling to grow.

Because their congregations are struggling, the people with whom I work are also also usually struggling, revealing by their behavior the anxieties that now lurk at the heart of their faith:

  • shame that they can’t make their church work anymore
  • guilt that they’re letting down the generations that came before them—in some cases their literal ancestors who started the church
  • fear that the congregation is going to close, leaving them with no more font at which their children were baptized, no more pew to sit where they’ve always sat, no more group of friends to cross the aisle and hug on Sunday morning, no more kitchen in which to arrange plates of cookies after a funeral
  • anger that the current minister’s sermons aren’t interesting enough, or he doesn’t visit enough, or she isn’t around enough to bring the church back to what it used to be when the balcony and offering plates were full

But there is something else at the heart of faith in most of these struggling congregations—in each member, there are memories of singular, personal encounters with the transcendent that have changed their lives. Each of us has probably had some kind of experience like these:

  • a moment of deep, abiding peace
  • a fleeting sense of the fundamental oneness of everything in the universe
  • times of deep pain seemingly responded to by a stranger or an pet or a star in the sky
  • a sense of being filled with overflowing, all-encompassing love
  • the experience of unflinching forgiveness

And because these kinds of experiences lie at the heart of faith, then sometimes, even in the midst of anxiety, we discover some remnant of that original spark of joy, that moment when, for each of us, the Wholly Other entered our everyday lives.

So, in this season of Happy-Thanks-Merry, I would like to give thanks for the all the signs I see of that original spark in my congregations:

  • older women in cardigans, elastic waistbands, and comfortable shoes who continue to sing in the choir because it’s where they’ve learned about God
  • red-carpeted center aisles and chancel steps where faithful people have walked for generations
  • children wearing sheep’s ears and angel’s wings who join me in pronouncing benediction on a sanctuary full of people who love them without even knowing them
  • generations of volunteers who have tended the chalice and the tiny cups and homemade loaves, so that small children who’ve managed to secure an extra bite while the cleaning-up is happening in the kitchen come running into the midst of a post-service meeting declaring that they want this bread always
  • elders who take turns finding the year’s pulpit supplies, and who step in to witness to the grace of God themselves if someone with credentials can’t be found
  • all the people who still go to church every Sunday because this is how they live their commitment to their neighbors, and who, when they do plan to be gone, make sure that everyone knows where they are and when they’ll be back
  • Methodists who go to Presbyterian harvest dinners and Lutherans who go to the volunteer fire department’s chili cook-offs because how else would everybody collect the money they need to keep doing their work for the community
  • old ministers who still preach because they still know how and there are still congregations who need them
  • 90-year-old organists (I’ve known three) who continue to lead their friends in praising God until they can’t lift a finger anymore

And thanks most of all to all the congregations everywhere whose members continue to find the energy and creativity to raise money to fix roofs and heat sanctuaries and clean kitchens and put toilet paper in the bathrooms so that the people who need to and want to can still worship, and who, completely unaware of the wondrousness of their grace, sum it all up by saying, “The tree this year is monkeys.”

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.

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