August is a month when many New Jersey residents leave their homes for extended periods of time. It’s called “vacation”. Many of those departing for vacation don’t go very far, ending up at the Jersey Shore.
To stand on the beach and watch the action of the waves can be fascinating. You watch the waves come in; you watch the waves go out. Constantly. Minute after minute. And yet – it’s not the same water every time. It’s not the same sea foam every time. Not even the same sea shells wash to shore every time. But the action is the same, wave after wave: the waves come in, the waves go out.
As I have been writing and reading the history pages of the Chimes on behalf of the Sesquicentennial Planning Team, I am reminded of the sea. Ministry happens year after year, for 150 years. Different people; different leaders; different buildings. But the ministry – celebrating and proclaiming Christ crucified, raised and living, remains the same year after year.
Now, if I continue with the ocean analogy, waves can also be destructive. A nor’easter, churning up the waters, can do major damage to the dunes and produce flooding in low lying areas. Sometimes, no matter how well a home owner prepares for the water, the destructive forces are greater than the preparation.
That’s part of our history, too. The country’s financial situation in 1929 and the years following had an impact on our ability to do and sustain ministry. People struggled but many in this congregation banded together to help the church survive.
In the 1980s, there was a major rift in the congregation over whether to build a new sanctuary or upgrade the one we were using. The decision was made to create a new worship space, and redefine the sanctuary for use as a Parish Hall. Not everyone agreed with that decision, especially because it gave us a mortgage once again, but we built and it opened up possibilities for new directions in worship and mission.
All of that peaked in 2006. Since that year, we have been experiencing a decline in our attendance and in our giving, although, up to this year, our giving was still supporting our expenses. In spite of cutting expenses where we can, we are not able to close a financial gap that has widened.
It’s not like the destruction of a sand dune, where bulldozers are brought in to move sand around. It’s not like the destruction of a house where a new house can be built in its place. We will have to make cuts where there is no replacement part on hand. Sometimes, the destructiveness of the ocean convinces a homeowner to relocate away from the ocean. Sometimes the destructiveness of a financial downturn can cause a congregation to forego valuable ministries in an on-going attempt to keep the bills paid.
If you are sitting on a beach reading this, please think about the waves of change that are affecting St. Paul’s. Perhaps we need to be more like the disciples who, in their fear, called upon Jesus to still the ferocious waters. And he did.