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May 1, 2013

Morning Coffee: Who Says?

by Rev. A. J. Iovine

This blessed Wednesday morning, the sun is shining, temperatures are rising, the birds are chipring, all the while the Borough of New Milford is out front of church cracking up the sidewalks. Several weeks ago, we received a notice at the church informing us that the Borough was going to be coming around sometime after April 10 to continue repairing all street corners and installing tactile cues (those red bumpy pads on street corners that are installed to help the blind navigate when walking). Today, the Borough is installing the pads on the corner nearest the Firehouse. The project should be completed by this afternoon.

Who Says?

In my time as a member of the clergy, I’ve had this feeling that the fraternity of clergy is not very close. Even within the LCMS, there are factions of ordained clergy who will not commune with other ordained clergy for one reason or another. But when we get outside of the LCMS, I have found clergy to be friendly, but we’re not ‘close.’ We all have our own church issues to deal with and we struggle in our ways with the hardships of ordained life.

When churches go through generational and/or numerical changes, ordained clergy people go through immense struggles. We see the troubles on the horizon, but the hows and whys of the problems always overtake the what-can-we-dos. At times, collegiality between congregation members frays during times of generational change and uncertainty. Eventually, this uncertainty can be overwhelming to congregations and clergy people.

Last night, I had a lengthy conversation with a brother clergyman who is going through some real struggles within his congregation. To me, it sounded a lot (at least structurally) to be very similar to the challenges we face here at Saint Matthew’s. Though not an LCMS congregation, the issues of lower attendance and an older populace in the pews that his church is facing sounds very much like our own.

As we were talking, I heard a lot of myself in what he is facing, not just pastorally as a clergyman, but as a man called to lead a church and how these difficulties can take an emotional toll on him and his family. Our struggles here at Saint Matthew’s are not new. While we’ve had good times during these past several years, that is financially and numerically, our 2013 has not started out like we had hoped. Our numbers are down. The number of events we used to hold have been cut back. Even our annual Strawberry Luncheon, an event that started before Saint Matthew’s was established – an event that helped fund the construction of our former church, is not being held in June because we do not have enough volunteers who could do the work. Our education of youth and adults has been hit hard.

As we talked, he said something that hit home.

“I am really thinking about getting out.”

When I heard that, the New Yorker in me sprung to life. That’s the easy way out – leaving a congregation in a lurch is not what our Lord has called people into the Holy Ministry to do when times get tough. He called us to be His under-shepherds of His people – to preach, to teach, to love. He called us to tell the Gospel story of Jesus, a story that leads to repentance of hearts…a story that leads to faith. He didn’t call us to complain or to worry. He, our God, who gives us all things to keep these bodies and souls fed and nourished with the food of life (namely Jesus Christ), wants each of us to face these difficulties with joyful and faithful hearts.

It doesn’t mean these problems can’t be fixed.

It just means we have to trust and serve our Lord. It means we need to repent. It means we need the love of God as clearly seen through the forgiveness of sins.

The challenges we face as a small congregation can seem insurmountable. Yet with the power of our Lord, nothing is impossible.

When I let this fellow clergyman have it, for me my own words served as a reminder. Back in September 2005, just a couple of months after I was installed here at Saint Matthew’s, we held an evening meeting at church to talk about “What’s Next?” We discussed the Vision process the church went through and various ideas that were raised through that work that were meant to firm up the foundation of Saint Matthew’s.

The congregation wanted additional worship opportunities.

The congregation wanted more events to focus on the mission of the church.

The congregation wanted to grow numerically.

Well, after seven years, I can honestly say that we’ve done those.

Name another LCMS congregation that worships 7 days a week? A friendly Roman Catholic priest was surprised to hear that our worship life includes so many opportunities. “You Lutherans don’t usually do that sort of thing, right?,” he asked. The answer is easy: No, Lutherans don’t usually worship daily. But here at Saint Matthew’s – we do.

Name another congregation of our size that started a community food pantry, working with our local borough leaders and those of other pantries, that not only helps families with food, but also people going through hard financial times? We’re not a large church, but the monies that you’ve donated, the food items you’ve graciously given, the time you’ve spent helping others in this ministry endeavor – name another congregation our size that has done so much with limited resources?

When I started here, our worship attendance the first three months averaged 30 people for our one worship service on Sunday morning. Today, there are Saturday nights when our worship attendance nears that number alone.  Yes, our overall attendance has been down, but it is way up from when we started working together in 2005.

Of all of our problems, we can thank the Lord that He still believes in our ministry to the lost and unchurched, our ministry to the needy, and our ministry focus of proclaiming the salvation of souls through faith in Jesus Christ alone. For our Lord continues to richly bless us, though we may not be the largest church in our community.

Facing the future, we all see the glaring warning lights staring us in the face.

But who says we can’t change?

Saint Matthew’s faces issues, no doubt. We’ve been in New Milford since 1895. That’s a long time for a congregation to exist. But who says it can’t stay viable for decades, for years to come?

Do we need to face our challenges head on? Of course. But who says we need to tackle these challenges with fear in our hearts?

I mean, who says that Sunday School has to be on weekends? Why can’t we dramatically change our youth ministry by shifting Sunday School to Friday night and offer dinner for families so children and parents can learn about Jesus and what He’s done for us?

Why can’t we convert Fellowship Hall into something more ‘homey?’ Who says we can’t worship downstairs on Wednesday’s and offer exciting worship opportunities?

Who says we can’t enhance our music ministry with a new instruments and a new choir?

Who says we can’t introduce that health team we’ve talked about for so long, or the team dealing with at-home cooking for families? Honestly, there are a number of people at Saint Matthew’s who are involved with Weight Watchers or who use those in-home food delivery services or who are trying to eat healthier. How many people at church are taking medications for various health issues? How many people have battled cancer? How many are facing tough health roads ahead? Couldn’t we meet at a point during the week to be an encouragement for all?  I know that some will challenge me with the “well, where’s the Jesus in those ideas?” Come talk with me, and I’ll show you!

Who says we can’t? Who says our days are numbered?

By the grace of God, Saint Matthew’s has been opened since 1895. We’ve faced plenty of challenges in the past and we will face them in the future.

However, we must face them with God’s love in our lives. Let’s put fear aside. Let’s work in His harvest field.

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