Maybe there was a time, decades ago, when serving on a church board meant that you could pretty much guess what folks in your congregation needed and what you should try to provide for them.
But realistically, ministry today (as probably then) is practiced on a wildly uneven and vulnerable landscape of emotional and spiritual needs. For your church board, telling the truth about this vulnerability—and making decisions that engage it directly—should sit at the heart of your ministry. How does your board support staff to reach beyond ‘constituent services,’ to value and care for those who feel, at best, on the fringe of faith and faith community? How does your mix of formation opportunities, programs, and worship content display an appreciation for the struggles of faith within and beyond your congregation? And how does use of your building demonstrate that you are committed to the most vulnerable of your community?
In her “Hymn to Church Basements,” contemporary Korean American poet Joan Kwon Glass finds the most vital ministry in the ‘rock bottom room’ of a church building.
Hymn to Church Basements
by Joan Kwon Glass
This world loves a grand cathedral:
its righteousness and pulpit,
purported sanctuary of redemption,
holy spire & stilled saints,
history of fire & painted glass.
Pews where congregants pray & worship,
troubled by questions they hope someone
has answers to.
They wait on their knees to be forgiven.
But where are the songs of praise
for church basements?
That lower level, that rock bottom room
sunken & reverent with flickering lights,
water-stained ceilings & coffee-stained carpets,
its full moon of chairs that appear
every night at 8:00 because a crackhead
made a commitment.
We don’t kneel in church basements.
Instead, we squat against walls
& stand arms crossed in doorways.
We sit slouched & messy, look each other in the eyes
& say, I am an addict and I don’t want to die
& oh God, is this not a kind of miracle?
I prefer my angels banged up & salty,
chubby from eating cookies instead of shooting dope.
They pull splinters from their wings,
hug the newcomer too tightly,
shake their heads at me when I don’t raise my hand to share.
No matter how tough I try to look, no matter how long it takes,
they say keep coming back, kid.
Tonight, the addict who overdosed last month,
the one who had to be revived with Narcan,
is making the coffee.
Talking of twelve-step groups, Frederick Buechner wrote:
Nobody lectures them, and they do not lecture each other. They simply tell their own stories with the candor that anonymity makes possible. They tell where they went wrong and how day by day they are trying to go right. They tell where they find the strength and understanding and hope to keep trying. Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another—to be available at any hour of day or night if the need arises. There’s not much more to it than that, and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.
You can’t help thinking that something like this is what the Church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be Big Business. Sinners Anonymous. “I can will what is right but I cannot do it,” is the way Saint Paul put it, speaking for all of us. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).
… No matter what far place alcoholics end up in, either in this country or virtually anywhere else, they know that there will be an A.A. meeting nearby to go to and that at that meeting they will find strangers who are not strangers to help and to heal, to listen to the truth and to tell it. That is what the Body of Christ is all about.
Would it ever occur to Christians in a far place to turn to a church nearby in hope of finding the same? Would they find it? If not, you wonder what is so Big about the Church’s Business.
Your responsibilities on your church board include managing an intricate balance of competing interests, priorities, values, and needs. Often the hardest thing for a congregation to do is to offer space and attention to a constituency not yet present. Or to a constituency hanging by a thread in their life or faith. Where does this concern fall in your board’s priorities? Where is the safest place in your building for the vulnerable among us (and in us) to feel safe? Where are there opportunities to “pull splinters from (angel’s) wings?”
Which lines feel most important to you in Glass’s “Hymn to Basements?” Can you say why?
What is the “miracle” of a twelve-step meeting, according to Glass? How about according to Buechner?
What would a hymn to your church basement lift up?
What feels especially Big (and what feels worrisomely Small) about your church Business right now?
Where in your last church board agenda was there room for the vulnerable, both inside and outside the congregation? How about in your next agenda?