At the end of the rope
Caring for God’s legacy
By Susan Rothenberg
As an adviser for the Unglued Church, a program in Pittsburgh Presbytery for help with church change, I encounter a lot of churches at the end of their rope. It’s a time in a church’s life when it’s important to emphasize the importance of thinking beyond survival, and how the congregation might imagine leaving a legacy for God’s ministry and mission.
Since 2013, I have been working with a very small Pittsburgh congregation that owns a very large building it could no longer afford. The congregation decided to put the building up for sale. Because they were only using the building on Sunday for worship, and in effort to save on utilities and other costs, they decided to begin worshiping with another small church, closer to where many of their remaining members live.
A few months later, the ruling elders of the church were approached by and decided to rent out the building to a non-denominational church who was wanted to establish a new ministry in the area, but couldn’t afford to buy the building.
Although in good condition, the building is surrounded by mostly dilapidated rental houses owned by mostly absentee landlords. The neighborhood, perched on a hilltop overlooking downtown Pittsburgh, is one of the city’s most neglected and under-resourced areas, plagued by frequent gun violence. Just this past August, a 6-year old girl was shot while standing on a porch of a house very near the church building. She died a few days later.
In other words, the church building is not particularly attractive to potential buyers. To date, there have been no offers.
The leadership of the new ministry renting the space, however, sees the neighborhood as exactly the place God has called them to be. Since moving in, they have started a free daily after school program for neighborhood children, which includes tutoring in partnership with Pittsburgh Public Schools, enrichment activities, field trips, and a hot dinner every evening. Once a week, the families of the children are invited to have dinner with their children and other families, and enjoy a time of fellowship at the church. Police officers from the local station frequently come in to serve dinner and hang out with the kids and their families.
The church leadership has created a safe haven in a violent neighborhood, with visible security for the facilities and parking area. They have also secured funding to purchase some of the distressed houses on the street and will soon renovate them to rent to families.
A few weeks ago, the pastor of the new church sat down to share a meal with me and with the remaining members and ruling elders of the small Presbyterian church. Over chicken and green beans, the pastor talked about the new ministry in their old neighborhood. The group of mostly older folks listened intently with smiles on their faces as he told them about the good things happening in the building where many of them had been baptized, grown up, married, and then saw their children baptized and married.
What struck me most was how thoughtfully the pastor spoke about his commitment to tenderly care for the legacy of many generations of faithful Presbyterians. He does not see the ministry as something particularly “new,” but as a continuation of the good work started more than a century ago by people who loved and cared for the neighborhood just as he does.
The transformation happening on the hilltop is only happening because the Holy Spirit showed up and the folks from the little Presbyterian church said, “yes,” to leasing their building to a ministry led by people that don’t look like them or worship like them, and are serving a neighborhood they barely recognize anymore.
But, let’s be honest.
Did they say “yes” out of desperation because they were running out of money and people?
If we’re being honest here, the answer is, “Absolutely.”
Is a non-denominational ministry renting their building the outcome they would have preferred?
If we’re being honest here, the answer is, “Nope.”
Here’s the truth I have learned through this experience and others: often it is only when we have run out of our own ideas that we finally make space for the Holy Spirit to do its work.
Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes reminds us that we’re most blessed when the bottom falls out from under us. The Message interpretation of Matthew 5:3-4 expresses it perfectly:
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”
Let’s be honest.
Many of our congregations are at the end of their lifecycle. Many of them will lose what they believed is most dear to them. The neighborhood they once knew. Their familiar space. Their comfortable way of “being church.” The loss congregations face is real and it is deep. It is loss that deserves to be honored and grieved. To be truly faithful, however, we need to also acknowledge that loss isn’t the whole story or even the end of the story.
The good news is that God is in control. The story does not end if we are willing to say yes to the relentless invitation of the Holy Spirit to continually renew and make new Christ’s mission of healing and wholeness.
At the end of every rope, God promises new life.
Susan Rothenberg is an at-large member of Pittsburgh Presbytery. Formerly, she has served as pastor to a small church in Pittsburgh, and currently serves on the presbytery’s Commission on Ministry. Prior to entering ordained ministry, she worked in marketing, advertising and public relations for companies in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Together with colleagues in Pittsburgh Presbytery, she is a leader of the Unglued Church Project. See her personal blog Lost in Wonder.