21 March 2019

Trustworthy, part four: churches' choices

(Part one; part two; part three.)

In 1982, when Judy and I began attending First Friends Meeting, Richmond, Indiana, it had occupied its enormous meetinghouse for 104 years. The meetinghouse didn't just serve First Friends (formally known as Whitewater Monthly Meeting of Friends); for decades it was also the meeting place for Indiana Yearly Meeting and the Five Years Meeting of Friends, now Friends United Meeting.

I wasn't aware of all this when we chose First Friends as our church. We lived up on Quaker Hill, on the near north side of town, we had no car, and First Friends was within walking distance. The church building (with a large addition not shown in the photo above) seemed like it had a dozen doors. We chose the first door we saw on our pedestrian route along East Main Street, and went in. Once inside, we found ourselves in a small room with an enormous vacuum cleaner that looked like R2D2 ... and (thank goodness) another door. When we opened that door, we emerged into the very front of the enormous meeting room, with a whole congregation turning and staring at us.

That congregation soon put us at ease, and after the meeting for worship we were invited for dinner by Barbara and Mike Brown -- the start of our years of deep involvement in that meeting.

First Friends was a complicated place. Ancient patterns, Main Street respectability, and conventional wisdom often struggled with discontent and impatience, with deep longings for renewal. Sometimes we could see that struggle happening within individuals. I was usually on the side of renewal, but, looking back, I can now see where my own lack of experience narrowed my perspective.

As with many churches I've known, there were deeper patterns also at work. Some informal leaders had outsized influence that wasn't reflected in committee memberships. We heard, for example, that this influence included decisions about hiring and firing pastors. The best example of this kind of leadership might have been the meeting's most famous member, Elton Trueblood -- and at this distance it's hard for me to judge whether Trueblood himself demanded influence, or whether it was simply offered and granted to him by his admirers in the monthly meeting. He may or may not have entirely deserved the powerbroker reputation he had among us malcontents.

Another subterranean influence was the First Friends Foundation, an endowment fund whose history and rules seemed to be unnecessarily mysterious.

In the mid-1980's, First Friends began making some new choices. We decided to hold a week-long revival, although being all proper and Main Street, we played it safe and called it a "Week of Renewal." Among our speakers, I particularly remember E. Glenn Hinson of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Baptist Peace Fellowship. I was part of the planning of that week, and then was put on a pastoral search committee -- me, a relatively young newcomer, a self-identified young Turk. Later, Judy was made an elder, and (in partnership with a remarkable older member, John Newman) began disentangling the obscure threads of the Foundation.

Another sign of renewal: when the monthly meeting was asked to take tax refusers into its care, ministering to those of us who were not paying the military portion of our income taxes, I'm sure our (probably) Republican-majority congregation gulped ... but their decision was clear: our church would publicly support tax refusers -- including a presence at any court proceeding, and practical aid if money or property were seized.

Hard times were ahead -- difficult personnel situations (some of which remain under wraps to this day) and, perhaps most dramatically, the honored old building's fatal flaws, leading to a decision to sell the whole storied property for demolition and build a completely new meetinghouse. Somewhere in all that history, First Friends chose:
  • to prioritize transparency and prayer over opaque processes
  • to prioritize renewal over respectability
  • to listen to new voices
  • to take risks
I don't want to exaggerate the ease of the transition. I remember an elderly Friend who opposed a proposal to hold business meetings at another time than the Sunday school hour. She argued -- and I think this is nearly verbatim -- "We tried that back in 1937 and it didn't work." As much as I wanted to laugh out loud, I had to acknowledge that her entire history at the meeting exemplified selfless service.

First Friends had dysfunctions, but it doesn't belong among some of the horror stories I encountered in my travels as a denominational worker in the 1980's and '90's, where physical abuse, rape, and cruel scandals and shunnings sometimes made me truly wonder whether a meeting was even worth saving.

One of the questions on the trustworthy church survey was this: "Have you ever experienced an untrustworthy congregation changing, becoming more trustworthy?" As I look over the column of survey stories and ideas under the heading "What were the actions or factors that led to this change?",  several of the responses were familiar to me from my First Friends years. Some other highlights from the responses:
  • the use of small groups to pre-digest difficult choices facing the meeting
  • learning from unforeseen crises, such as the sudden death of a young person, or a split on the denominational level, or a financial emergency
  • choosing a new leader (clerk, elder, or pastor) with an ability to listen deeply and sensitivity to diversity
  • choosing to become more accessible -- for example, demystifying worship patterns, explaining hitherto tacit rules, providing better maps and signs, carefully training and deploying greeters
  • asking cross-generational questions in sensitive ways; "what has this church meant to you over your half-century here?"
  • preaching and teaching on trust, including from the pulpit
I can personally vouch for some of these ideas, having seen their effectiveness in several cases. But sometimes a more difficult route ends up becoming the only one available:
  • The congregation split. The exclusives left and the inclusive stayed. We stayed.
Many thanks to everyone who responded to the survey. I realize I've only scratched the surface of the data you provided me, but I'll keep working with your stories as I continue to ask myself -- and you -- what it means to build a trustworthy church.

More about the demise of the old First Friends building.

Is missionary work colonialism? A view from Craig Greenfield.

From Israeli military truck driver to army refusenik: Roman Levin's story.

For today's young generation, is climate change equivalent to the Vietnam war for mine? (Or, I'd add, to the danger of nuclear war?) My own conversations point to "yes."

Using history to discuss the future of church-race relations: a conversation with Jemar Tisby and Wesley Hill.

The story of Bonnie Raitt's famous Nick of Time album on its 30th anniversary. I used several of the songs in this album in my English classes in Elektrostal, including this song (video after gapfill):

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