Monday, December 21, 2009

First Presbyterian Church of Nowhere

In a conversation with one of my church folk the other week, we were going over the list of primary assets of our earnest but struggling little community. For her, the A-Number-One asset was our building. It's a big and architecturally complicated modernist structure, a building most notable for not having a single right angle where the walls meet. It can be a bit disorienting for new folks. There's a sizable fellowship hall, a cavernous sanctuary, and the requisite slew of bathrooms and multipurpose midsize classrooms. If we we a community of 150-200, it might seem like an asset.

But mostly, over the course of my six years in the ministry here, it's seemed like a) a constant distraction and/or b) a serious pain in the [tushie]. The old roof that leaked had to be replaced in the first three years I was there. The insanely expensive cedar ceilings that had been made to order for the pastor who built the church proved unusually tasty for termites, and many sections of the subroofing were structurally unsound. The AC system that failed every other week needed to be replaced. Energies that desperately needed to be put into the mission of the church were slurped up by the facilities. The endowment that stands as the only reason this ministry continues was tapped, again and again, to keep the building from falling in on itself. It's a common story in struggling institutional churches, but even knowing that doesn't allow you to escape a building's gravitational pull.

This last Wednesday, our cleaning person informed me that the sanctuary stank of sulphur, a sign that either a flatulent Lucifer was paying us a visit or we had a natural gas leak. I went down into the boiler room, where the stench was overpowering. The boiler itself was struggling to light with deep thrumming gasps, as flames belched out around the sides, flickered, died, and belched out again. Emergency calls were made. Emergency kill switches were thrown. Repairs were attempted late into the evening, and a patch put into place.

This last Friday, with a bonafide blizzard bearing down on the city, the temporary patch job on the boiler failed. Again, the stench of gas. Emergency kills switches were again thrown. But though repair efforts went into the early evening, the system couldn't be safely reactivated. So with a week of freezing temperatures ahead of us, the building was without heat. Every portable heater the church owned was given to the preschool/nursery that uses our space, so that the little ones wouldn't freeze before their parents arrived to pick them up.

As we roll into this important week in the life of the church, I find myself wondering about the necessity of buildings and edifices and facilities. Most of what is important about the faith..fellowship/worship/mission/study/service...could be accomplished without a big ol' honkin' building. A collective of little house ministries could manage to get that done, with resources being poured not into building, but into mission.

Sure, a physical church makes some things easier, like hosting events or opening up space for service to the community. Food pantries and clothing closets and mentoring/support ministries really do benefit from having a facility.

Still and all, on those days when the building seems like an all-consuming vortex, I feel a teeny yearning to be the organizing pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Nowhere.