Posts Tagged ‘how to renew a church’

Monday night I pretty much hit the wall, after working nonstop for twelve hours, preparing the floor, and I ended the day by hitting the sack — late. Work tends toward that, a flat ending, following a familiar line that gets you there. The energy line goes something like this: it rises up on inspiration, peaks at perspiration and dips at last into mind-numbing exhaustion.

The job I was on was to restore the old oak floors at the church. The mission was to beautify the world, the vision to create sacred space in which people might be inspired to know God, the question after more than a month of slaving: Was it worth it?

Yeah, it was, but to see that, I had to look past tiredness, I had to overlook the imperfections in the floor which we, as we worked, lovingly referred to as “character,” and I had to imagine a better future, a future in which people will walk in the doors of this church, love it, make a home there, on the floors, and do nothing less than, transform, renew, refinish — like the floors.

The whole process, the original “bright” idea, the collaborative, “lets take a look,” the peek under the old, stained carpet, the discovery of the distressed but still beautiful oak floor, the equipment rental, the sanding and more sanding and more sanding, the realization that we didn’t really didn’t know how to sand an old oak floor, the sanding again, the choice of a finish, the realization that it was the wrong choice, the process of choosing again, the final floor prep, the flawed first coast, the better second coat, the still imperfect third coat, the still imperfect but last-shot-in-order-to-leave–enough-dry-time fourth coat of poly.

Wow! The putting of the pews back in, the screwing them down in the old holes, the standing back, the asking of the questions, the interestingly different responses. It is so interesting, people’s response to change. For those who didn’t engage in the process, the first blush is often negative, in odd and inaccurate ways.

“I think it will be loud.” It wasn’t. “Shoes will put black marks on it.” They didn’t. “It will be hard to clean.” It isn’t. “I hope I don’t fall.” Nope, not slippery.

But when all is said and sanded and coated, there are the encouragers, the perspicacious, appropriate responders: “Awesome job! It looks great! It is so clean! It is brighter in here! This was the right thing to do! I love it! Thank you!”

I not sure how I feel; it’s a mixed bag of emotions, from “we could have done it better” — my own form of negativity — to “I am so glad I had the courage to make this happen!” Yeah, that’s how I really feel.

Life is like that; it’s a push and a stretch and a long hard row, that changes the world, that revisions spaces, that refinishes reality, that makes a possibility for better to be created on top of better.

What’s next!

It’s odd what juts out from the past, in our minds, as we story and restory what we live through. Bits of narrative lift above the landscape, like mountains pushed up by continental drift, and we grab on to these, to make some sense of the past.

The parking lot lights weren’t working, but we were —  seventy to eighty people swarming the buildings,  fixing, cleaning, painting, planting. We were renewing our church. Then suddenly in the outer hall there was a guy in front of me saying, “I’m an electrician. What would you like done?”

“Really?” I said, “That’s perfect! I’ve got something for you.”

I didn’t know his name, and I wasn’t sure how he knew about what we were doing, but there he was, offering free labor, and I knew what to do with that.

“The parking lights don’t work,” I said, and as I opened a closet door on a couple of old, rusted, steel boxes mounted on the wall, I added,  “We think it’s these timers.”

That was enough. He went to his truck, came back, and he was on it. In short order — problem solved.  He replaced the old boxes with new — clean, bright, functional —  perfect mechanisms that light up the church, on command.

I drove home coasting! Happy! Thankful! Surprised.

That day, that fix, that surprise stands out for me because it’s part of a pattern.

It rained. We found a roof leak in one of the church buildings. It was serious — $5,000 worth of serious. There was no offer of free labor. Right around that time, I can’t remember the exact chronology,  a woman came to me after church one day and said that in her retirement settlement she had received some money, and she wanted to give some to the church. It was a check, for $5,000.

It was odd, in a way I like — the numbers were the same.

There’s more.

As part of our site remodel, we ripped into the old nursery, the  old carpet,  the broken furniture, the chipped walls, the horrific curtains. About that time an older couple began to attend the church. One day, after church, he came to me and said, “You mentioned needing a couch. What about this one?” and he showed me a picture torn from an ad.

“Great,” I said.

“What day would you like it delivered?” He asked.

I remember a couple of us ripping off the protective plastic and cardboard that covered the new couch when it was delivered. Then we just gasped and hooted. It was gorgeous, the perfect shades of brown and dark brown to match our newly painted nursery. The babies and their moms would now repose, in style! Then he bought two more new couches. It was like Christmas, a furniture Christmas.

There were also the cabinets, in the upstairs kitchen. They were a piece of work, right out of the seventies, pine, burnt with a blow torch, and then coated with thick shiny layers of polyurethane. They looked like what they were — remanents of a fire!

What to do?

I went down to Dixieline,  the home repair store just down the street from the church, and asked if there were any cabinets that had been brought back from a job, something that hadn’t worked out, and were being sold for less than they were worth. There were some, but I was told I would need to talk to the manager.

So I made an appointment. I went up to his office, upstairs, nice, impressive. We talked. I’ll always remember his question to me. It took me back. I wasn’t sure how to respond. The cabinets were gorgeous, a whole bank of them, and drawers and doors beyond what I had expected.

He looked across his big desk at me in his big office and asked, “What do you want to pay for them?”

My mind raced. If I said too much I would miss the chance for a deal. If I said to little it would be insulting. They were worth between $1,500 and $2,000, by my best guess.

I said, “We can give you $200.”

“Good,” he enthused. “I’ll have them delivered for you next week.”

The other day I was in the upstairs kitchen. The cabinets are in, installed free by a local cabinet-maker who not only donated the labor, but also gave us the counter tops for them.

I could get used to this. I have.

A donated landscape design by a local landscape architect, a restoration consultation by a woman specializing in historic building remodels, the no-cost installation of huge, new sanctuary windows by a man who had formerly worked for a glass company — all this and more has landed our our doorstep. Surprise!

At every turn we have been given — gifts.

When we decided to install new lighting in the worship center we were looking at an $8,000 project, at least $16,000 if we paid for labor. We didn’t. All the lights were purchased at cost through a friend who works for a lighting company. All the labor, hours and hours, plus the use of a lift were donated by an amazingly generous electrician and a few of his friends. All the labor, days of it, free.

The lights in — beautiful, functional, lovely, perfect for the building.

A patio garden — the dirt, irrigation, labor — free!

A hardwood floor sanded and refinished, free except materials.

The painting of the interior of our worship center — free, even those difficult upper levels, brushed in by a local professional painter, done safely, nicely, a gift, more than we could have asked for

There is more, but the more that really sticks out to me is what has been added to us that is human, not mineral or material.

A renewed site, a growing congregation — we needed staff to care for them.

We went to our local seminary and asked for an intern.

In asking, we were taking a risk. We weren’t controlling who we would get, we didn’t know the outcome, we didn’t even know if we could afford it, we just knew we needed help. We were a continent, of people, drifting.

That was two years ago.

The result of that inquiry is now on paid staff, well-funded for this next year, uniquely suited to our needs, trusted by our people — she is perfect for us! I almost don’t feel surprised anymore.

Things stand out, in the past, bits of narrative rise up, pieces of our continuing story. Our past has a pattern in it. The pattern is good. One could almost draw certain conclusions — that  it was orchestrated.

We have.

Renewal is stubborn, especially at the fringes and edges and the corners of the former. Think of what it takes to restore a classic car or a classic church.

A while back, I was in room 5 at my church, which is a classic,  and there it was, where the tile met the wall —  clean! I remember when it wasn’t.

When I took the job as the pastor of the church four years ago, a nice herd of children attended the private, Christian preschool that operated there.  I loved coming to work to children.  I loved being surrounded by those precious, diminutive, destructive monsters. While I could see that they were vectors (the runny noses and coughs) and carried diseases, I’d had my shots and they were super cute and said funny stuff and gave me chances to tell stories and laugh and get hugs and comfort them when they cried for their mothers, which they did a lot, especially late in the day.

I tend to like the generic noises children make,  the hum that they collectively emanate, punctuated with the yelling, laughing and crying. I especially like it when I’m not immediately responsible for it.

But there was a problem with the school, and so we said a prayer over it — and buried it. It was a private day care operation that was leaking money in the recession, threatening the financial solvency of the church. It had been in existence for forty years. It had thrived, filled the patio with children, helped parents who were working, cared for the children of the church, but it was done, (no children from the church even attended anymore),  and so were we.

The church board discussed it, discussed it again, and again, made the decision, grieved the loss and let it go. We paid the director and the teachers severance and vacation pay, told the parents and children about why we were quitting and closed the doors — at Christmas — on a huge mess. Four big rooms and an office complex of mess.

The preschool classrooms hadn’t had an update in 20 years. They were full of over-painted children’s furniture — red and blue and white paint-encrusted wooden benches, bookshelves and cubes for backpacks. This inexpensive, even homemade furniture, was all paint-chipped, kid scratched and dirty. And so was the floor —  filthy.

We trashed, sold and gave away the school — except a few nice tables and chairs. We gutted the rooms. Huge truck loads went to other schools, and  to the dump. We sold a ton of stuff at a garage sale.  Through this we saw how it is at the end of the end of things institutional.  At the end of visions, dream and institutional successes is a junk yards and a dump. Dumps are full of the ends of schools and businesses and homes and lives. It’s sad, and it’s necessary, and it allows something new to begin.

Once the rooms were almost empty, we painted the walls, scraped paint off the windows,  and tackled the floors.  The floors were the worst. The piles of furniture, the weight of time, the tendency not to see the familiar, the lack of funds — all  this had left the floors layered with filth.

We removed the base boards, and we got on our knees at church, not to worship, but to clean, which is a form of worship, and with our heads bumping the walls, we confronted the spaces where the universes had overly accumulated. I remember it well. I remember the night we employed every means known to man and woman to scrub wax, grime, grit, gunk, hair, insect body parts, dust, paint and whatever disgusting residue human children leave behind them  —  off the floor.

We ran an old buffer with a massive yellow, electrical umbilical cord (we found it lurking in an old closet) over the floors, grinding away at the dirt embedded in the tile. The buffer was wild and could get away from you and clobber the wall,  or your leg, so we let one person run it while the rest stood back and laughed. Once I got on it and rode it, to increase its wieght, and another guy ran it on a spot that just wouldn’t come clean. It did. Then  we got out scrapers and razor blades and scrub pads and attacked the edges and corners. I remember telling the volunteer crew stuff like, “Let’s hit that spot again,” or “I want it better than that.” I remember being fanatical about getting the dirt up, even coming back on my own over the next few weeks with a razor blade, scraping yellow wax and brown grime.

Then I paid to have the carpeted areas cleaned, twice!


Last week I went into room 5 on a Wednesday evening. It is the church’s new vision, “The Connection,” a place for children and their parents to learn, to recover, to renew.  The room was full of children, so many they were spilling out the back door. Four or five adults hovered over them. There was a quiet hum of voices with a background track of sandpaper running over wood. The children, all who attend the church, were making pine box derby cars.

I walked toward the end of the room where we had attacked the tile floors. They shone. Curtains covered the beautifully clean windows at the end.  I looked back at the children and walked  back through them, just for fun. They showed me their cars. One gave me a hug. She always does. She’s my friend. She used to attend the preschool.

As I left for the evening, I glanced along the wall where we had confronted the most stubborn layers of dirt — good, clean, repurposed.

There is something about a vision, about a church,  about God, about an old room, about scraping up the past, about making a clean space for something new.

I like it; I like the good that exists at the scraped corners and at the clean edges of the present and the future.