Church Buildings Aligned (or not) with Mission

Many congregations with large and expensive buildings are struggling with the question of what to do with their buildings?   Do we stay and re-tool for the future in the use of the building?  Can we afford to stay in this building?  Do we sell the building?  This short quote from Brian Clark (Presbyterian Outlook[1]) was insightful and helped me re-focus on the right question to ask!

Whether the faith community is 1-year-old or has a 200-year history, the building must fit the purpose of that community today. It becomes problematic when the facility begins to dictate the mission rather than serve the mission…..

I struggle with this because the physical assets of the urban congregation I served (the building) is a huge asset for the congregation in serving the community.  This is the reason, in large part, why this congregation didn’t abandon the large and expensive church building many years ago.  The various uses of a church building can continue to be aligned with the mission of the congregation in serving the larger community.  Perhaps not!  It takes a careful discernment process to determine when or if the building ceases to be aligned with congregational mission priorities as a congregational asset.

Something to think about.  I commend this article by Brian Clark for reflection and discussion.

[1]  Mortgaging the Mission of God?, Brian Clark, Presbyterian Outlook, January 21, 2015   —


These cold winter days I enjoy searching through articles and various notes I have stored on my computer.  Among these notes were those about the life and work of Harvard photographer and historian John R. Stilgoe.

I became intrigued with the story of Stilgoe’s life and work after watching an episode of Sixty Minutes back in 2003.  I then picked up one of his books,  Lifeboat:  A History of Courage, Cravenness (or Cowardice), and Survival at Sea1.  While not an easy read, this 300 page book covered the evolution of lifeboats….dealing with how they are made, rigged, captained…and how they have been used throughout the centuries.

Stilgoe recounts in his book centuries of how the image “lifeboat” has become a symbol of human optimism amidst fear and frailty.  He reflects on the fear and anguish in lives of those longing to be saved.  When it comes to boats sinking, we may think of officers saving “women and children first”.   Stilgoe’s research shows that this assertion isn’t all that accurate.  Yes there are heroes.  There are also officers who would save themselves first.  There are horrific stories about what human beings will do in dire times.  As an example, consider the sinking of the Titanic.   Unlike the 1998 movie, Stilgoe shares some of the factual history with testimonies not only about the heroism but also the violence and human turmoil of that day when the Titanic went down.  There is a story of a crew member who just about shot the radio man sending out the SOS call – only to be shot himself by another crew member…..all for his life belt……..and an interesting story about a woman who had to break up a fight among the crew on one of the lifeboats because crew members were not trained on how to use the life boats.

Metaphorically, with so many issues and struggles in the world in which we live, it’s not hard to imagine people who are suffering longing to be rescued or saved.  Some questions to ponder:  What is in our toolbox of resources when it comes to sinking boats (or sinking lives)?  Would the best or worse of you come out if you were struggling on a sinking boat?  What about those times when you have that “sinking feeling” that things just aren’t right?  Where does our faith fit in when it comes to struggles and tragedies we experience?

For me faith in God and God’s continuous presence in and around us gives me hope that the “best of me” will be used when responding to crisis.  What do you think?  I believe God brings out the good in us.  Knowing God is always with us helps take away the fears we have in working through day-to-day struggles.  Money or wealth won’t save us.  Politics, as we see in our nation right now, won’t save us.  Power and influence won’t keep us from sinking.  Is faith in God known to us through the living Christ the lifeboat that truly works – saving us even from ourselves?

On this cold winter day, imagining life filled with struggles I meditate upon scripture and the words of these hymns in my personal toolbox of resources when it comes to days when my life is sinking……

 “Jesus Calls us calls us o’er the tumult

of our life’s wild restless sea;

Day by day his sweet voice soundeth,

saying “Christian, follow me”.

And when it comes to “perils on the sea”:

“Eternal Father, strong to save,

whose arm has bound the restless wave,

who bade the mighty ocean deep;

It’s own appointed limits keep.

O hear us when we cry to thee

for those in peril on the sea.”

 And from Psalm 121:

I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

1.    Lifeboat, John R. Stilgoe, University of Virginia Press, 2003


On this sacred day in honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, I find myself reflecting on the work of the church I served for many years, the Warren Avenue Presbyterian Church in Saginaw MI.   This is a church that affirmed the use of church ASSETS in helping to restoring health and stability in the neighborhood around the church.  This work is consistent with the work of Dr. King in identifying and then using our God given gifts for the benefit of others.

I recall in the mid 1990’s hosting a community meeting in the church gym.  Present at this meeting were St. Mary’s Hospital executives, an ABCD Institute representative (Asset Based Communityh Development) along with neighborhood stakeholders.  This was a turning point for the church in affirming one of our greatest ASSETS was in becoming an active/engaged anchor in the neighborhood.  Next to her people, the church building is the most valuable and visible of assets of the church in the community.   Rent-free space has been offered numerous organizations through the years.  These organizations include the East Side Soup Kitchen; Hidden Harvest;  the Mark Neumeier Youth  Center and Women of Color’s Inc.  This sharing of church assets was made possible in because of this positive, asset-based approach in matching needs with assets.  You can read more about this type of community development at

The Asset-Based Community Development Institute (ABCD) is at the center of a large and growing movement that considers local assets as the primary building blocks of sustainable community development. Building on the skills of local residents, the power of local associations, and the supportive functions of local institutions, asset-based community development draws upon existing community strengths to build stronger, more sustainable communities for the future.

The Asset-Based Community Development Institute is located at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. ABCD has a staff of three individuals, including the founders, John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann.

A book written by Cameron E. Harder, Discovering the Other: Asset-Based Approaches for Building Community Together, asks:

What is God’s mission? Simply put, says theologian and field educator Cameron Harder, God’s mission is to form communities that reflect and embody the life of the Trinity. Discovering the Other is an introduction to two tools that community builders have found helpful: appreciative inquiry and asset mapping. These tools help congregations see that all of life is saturated by the sacred and give them energy to begin living as if it were so. Instead of asking, ‘What’s wrong?’ appreciative inquiry asks, ‘What’s right?’ Asset mapping asks, ‘What resources do you have personally that we could bring to our future together?’ Out of these questions can arise a sense that every congregation is rich in history, people, and resources. Ideas emerge as people, inspired by the Spirit, listen and talk to each other. The leader’s task is to facilitate, coalesce, and connect ideas, to catalyze and stimulate the development of vision. The creative connections lead to programs and projects that will enrich your congregation’s mission. But most importantly, in the process they will engage you with others, with their stories, their hopes, their gifts – to build community. This book looks for God, not only through the lens of such tools, but in the tools themselves. It is an effort to understand how processes like appreciative inquiry and asset mapping reflect the character and community-building style of the God whom Christians worship as Divine community.

In celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., let’s take a close look at our Assets.  Let’s use what God has entrusted our care in building/sustaining healthy communities.

The Value of a Name

I could not, for the life of me, remember his name!   I could picture him.  His name was on the tip of my tongue.  I couldn’t remember his name.  Has this ever happened to you?

It was on Sunday while watching the Bronco’s and Colts playoff game that I spent more than a few agonizing moments trying to remember the name of the great football player and former quarterback of the Denver Broncos.  This isn’t supposed to happen!   This is ridiculous!  What’s his name?

Suddenly, my wife after doing a quick Google search (she also could not come up with the name), declared:  “His name is John Elway.”    Embarrassed!  As a former Coloradoan, I can’t believe I couldn’t remember this name! When we hear the name John Elway, I think immediately of his wonderful sixteen season football career as a Bronco quarterback.  He is now working as the vice-President of operations for the Broncos…as well as numerous lucrative business ventures around Denver.  I knew this stuff.  I couldn’t remember his name!   Unfortunately and sometimes embarrassed, I experience some challenges in remembering names.  I just couldn’t come up with his name.

Why share this embarrassing story?  While John Elway is a name that has a tremendous amount of value in the football world, we each have tens of thousands of names that point to the stories of the people behind these valuable names.   Just in the books we read — think about all the names behind the stories!

I learned years ago the value of paying attention to the names of people who assist me in cashing my check or serving my meal in a resturant.   Referencing a person’s name in conversations gives this person and his or her story value.  I promise, calling a waiter or bank teller by name will almost always guarantee better service!  If nothing else the “valuing of a person” by the use of his or her name is a way of saying:  “I appreciate you and what you are doing for me”.

For those in the clergy community, the world in which I live, I point you toward a blog written by Becca Messman — “Three Habits of Highly Effective Pastors[1].  She point out this truism:  There is nothing worse than calling a person by the wrong name!

And in forgetting names we may use the excuse:  “I’m not good with names”.  This is disastrous for pastors.  Pastor’s need to remember names!  While in daily life it’s important to remember the names of people around us, for clergy it’s an important part of our “valuing” the relationship we have with others as baptized members of the body of Christ.

In my last parish I took pride in knowing the name of every church member.  I always tried to call on people with the use of their name.  I am sure it helped that this was a smaller parish and we didn’t have that many visitors.

I also learned that when we had a visitor the value of learning of his or her name as soon as possible….in then using that name the next time I saw that visitor.  With a church in an urban setting, this was vitally important when it came to learning the names of people who would come to the church asking for assisance.  The first door I could open for a visitor was the use of his or he name.

This is also true with children.  We as clergy persons need to value these children by using their names.  Children are amazed that the pastor remembers his or her name!

So are you having a hard time remembering names?   I learned early in my ministry that there is no shame in pulling out a piece of paper and writing down a name.  The use of name tags in worship is a valuable asset in helping a larger congregation become a “community” of people — each with a name!  And this important point:  The first step in recalling the story of the person behind the name is the name itself.

Just some thoughts in thinking about John Elway and another man named “Rod” who just helped me get my car serviced.



I made the decision that my opening blog in 2015 should be on one of my priority objectives for this coming year:  PRAYER.  My focus is the Thessalonians text that admonishes us to “Pray without ceasing”.

Thessalonians 5: 16-18      16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

While I have always held to the idea that prayer can be at any time and any place for any purpose, I am hoping to focus my prayers this coming year on enhancing my awareness of the presence of God working in and through my life and the lives of those around me.  I want to be more aware of God at work in my life experientially and relationally.  I long for an awareness of God’s presence throughout each and every day.

Next to the idea of “constant prayer” is my longing for “simple prayer”.   I have never felt the need for prayers to be long or formal.   Constant, yes!  Constant prayer is in turning my attention toward God in placing what I am doing or saying or thinking in the context of the reality that God is always with me.  I truly believe this.  God never goes away.  God never abandons me/us.  While I may turn from God in my day-to-day activities, I know that God never turns from me.  Regardless what is happening in my life God is always with me.   I cannot help but think of the Joseph Haroutunion book[1], God With us, that holds a prominent place in my library and my heart.  God is always with me and us!

This brings to mind the wonderful Anne LaMott  book, Help, Thanks, Wow[2] – I have been reading and using as a guide/resource for over a year:  I am intentional in getting up in this morning in saying to God:  Help me with this day!  This is tied to my setting priorities for the day that help me to focus attention on what God would have me do and be throughout the day.  Finding my day filled with blessings, I am “constantly” finding ways to say to God and others in my life:  Thanks!  Thanks for my wife and daughter and her family – friends and neighbors.   This list of thanksgivings can easily move to the nation and world and church in which I live.   I am thankful for God’s presence in my life.  I thank God for Jesus.  I thank God for my mind and heart to be doing what I am now doing.  My list continues to grow — Thanks!   Going to bed at night all I can say is WOW!  What a day.  If I have any problems at all in sleeping, I turn to my litany of thanksgivings.  Better than counting sheep, keeping God as a constant focus of prayer always produces peaceful sleep.  This is real for me.  This is my prayer.

Finally, looking again at the scripture from I Thessalonians, I want to dedicate my life this coming year to “giving thanks to God in all circumstances”.   I believe this is the will of God for me through Christ my lord—one of my objectives for this coming year.

What about you?   How do we together connect our lives with God through prayer?

[1]  God with Us:  A Theology of Transpersonal life, Joseph Haroutunian, Westminster Press, 1965

[2]  Help, Thanks, Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers, Anne LaMott, Riverhead Books, 2012