The unglued church

Becoming Billy Beane

Getting unglued from old habits

By Susan Rothenberg

I love baseball.Susan Rothenberg of the Unglued Church project

I grew up in a baseball loving family, married a baseball loving man, and have lived long enough to witness the Pittsburgh Pirates’ World Series victories in 1971 and 1979, as well 20 losing seasons. I also love baseball movies, including the 2011 film, Moneyball.

Moneyball chronicles Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane and his unorthodox approach to baseball. The movie also reminds me of conversations happening in the PC(USA) at every level of the denomination. We face a dilemma similar to Billy Beane’s: how does an organization that’s been around for more than a century thrive when it was designed and built for a culture that no longer exists?

In one scene of the movie, Billy Beane asks his staff, “What’s the problem?”

In the PC(USA), we think that our “problem” is membership and money, and our answers are targeted toward more butts in the pews and more dollars in the plates. So our solutions have been about attracting more people: A young pastor! A Twitter account for the millennials! A new Sunday school curriculum for children! A screen in the sanctuary and coffee bar in the narthex!

I wonder if we understand the problem. Maybe we need to learn to live not as those who are perishing, frantically doing whatever it takes to survive, but to live as those who are being saved only by the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

A few years ago, I was ordained as a part-time pastor for a small suburban church. With all the hubris of youthful energy and inexperience, I imagined that I could fuel a rebirth of our aging, shrinking congregations.

Not long afterward, I felt I was spectacularly failing to do what my seminary education had taught me to do and what my congregation wanted me to do – grow the congregation or, at least, stop the bleeding.

No church that has faithfully served Jesus Christ for nearly two centuries should ever be considered a failure.

At one point in my first year, when the boiler blew up right before Thanksgiving and we faced the possibility of spending the church’s modest endowment for a new one, I realized my first call could end with me closing a church that had survived for almost 150 years. Talk about spectacular pastoral failure!

Fortunately (miraculously?), insurance paid for the new boiler. I was grateful to God for the reprieve, yet this close call exposed the vulnerability of my congregation.

I took an honest look at our challenges. Church leadership was tired. A large percentage of our membership were shut-ins. The church had been losing members over the past decade. The community around us was growing older and smaller. Retooling our ministry would require energy and resources seemingly beyond our capabilities. There was little evidence to suggest that the church could continue to support even a part-time pastor and maintain the building for more than a few more years.

I had to admit to myself, if not to my congregation quite yet, the conversation we needed to have was not about survival or growth, but about death and resurrection. Unfortunately, there were few resources to guide that conversation.

I guess I could have asked for help from the presbytery or more experienced pastors. I felt if I asked colleagues about how to help my church “die” with grace and dignity, it would seem I was giving up. Worse, I worried that the people I served would be considered failures or consider themselves failures. No church that has faithfully served Jesus Christ for nearly two centuries should ever be considered a failure.

I was stuck. I continued to do my work with the good people of the little church to which God had called me. For their sake, I was upbeat and hopeful, even as I prayed angsty prayers asking God for clarity about our future.

I began talking with colleagues in my presbytery, many of whom were serving churches in situations similar to mine. All of us wanted to move beyond “survival at any cost” thinking. What would it look like, we wondered, to gather together a group of leaders in struggling churches and imagine a different sort of future, together?

As a result of those conversations, The Unglued Church was born. The Unglued Church is essentially a discernment process to help churches that have become stuck—stuck in their old ways, stuck in old buildings, stuck in a corner feeling alone or stuck in a mindset that tells them they have failed. It’s for churches that are filled with tired members and discouraged leaders. It’s for churches that are facing the chasm of a tomb and are not sure what lies on the other side. It’s an opportunity for pastors and church leaders to find hope in the promise of resurrection. Whatever that resurrection might look like.

Over the next year or so, some of my Unglued Church colleagues and I will be sharing our stories with you. We suspect that they may be your stories, too. We will reflect upon what we learned, where we failed, and where we were blessed to see Jesus at work in the life of our changing church.. We hope you will engage in conversation with us as we seek to discern what God is up to in this world – and in this Church — that God continues to love and make new every day.

Susan Rothenberg is an at-large teaching elder in Pittsburgh Presbytery. She has served as pastor to a small church and currently serves on the presbytery’s COM as well as in leadership of The Unglued Church Project. She is married and has two amazing kids. See her personal blog, Lost in Wonder, Yet Paying Attention