Cautionary tales

Years ago I was trained in leading a church planning process by what was then called the Office for Church Life and Leadership of the United Church of Christ. Those of us who were trained went out to local churches, usually within our conference, to assist them with setting goals and planning. Part of the process was an informal time of sharing the high points of the history of the congregation. People were asked to recall times when they felt good about their church. Right away I observed that in every church where I led this process, members would recall times when the church was having financial struggles. I heard stories of how the church pulled together during the Great Depression and paid the pastor with produce and farm animals when there wasn’t enough money today a cash salary. One congregation told of a time when they had a fund-rising dinner every week and became a kind of community cafe where others from their town would drop in for pie and coffee when they were struggling to make ends meet.

I visited with other consultants who were trained in the process and we all were experiencing the same thing. When asked to remember the good times in the history of the church, people invariably remembered things that might look to others as hard times. They remembered having significant challenges as being positive.

The congregation that we served before coming to Rapid City has, as important part of its history, the story of how a fire destroyed the church building in 1942. Despite the building being occupied by a church meeting at the time of the fire, virtually nothing was saved. One member managed to retrieve the bible from the communion table before the fames consumed the rest of the building. Despite the nation being at war, they managed to fund funds and labor to build a new, modern, brick building with a beautiful steeple and a much larger sanctuary. Then a decade later, in 1952, a fire, caused by an electrical short, most likely the result of having installed substandard wiring due to wartime shortages, erupted in the upper story of the church. The fire burned the roof off of the building. The water damage from fighting the fire required that the entire floor of the sanctuary be removed. Once again the bible that had survived the first fire was rescued, but there was a lot of damage. The congregation was stunned. They had been planning to add an education wing to their building and now they had to raise funds just to have a roof over their heads. They dug in, raised funds and repaired the building and also added the education rooms, only slightly pared down from the original plan.

There is a story in the congregation we now serve that dates back to 1914. The church had decided to build a new building and the modern brick structure was a real stretch for the congregation. In fact as they prepared for the closing on the mortgage with the national church and the dedication of their new building they had exhausted all of their available funds, yet a payment would need to be made before they could seal the deal. No one was quite sure what would happen if they failed to make the payment, but it was something that they had agreed to do. However, cost overruns and unforeseen expenses had exhausted all of the available funds. A special drive was held. Members were asked to dig deeply. The funds ran short. Finally, the Friday before the dedication someone remembered that the women’s fellowship had a modest savings account. The account was zeroed out, the payment was made, the church was dedicated and future payments to the mortgage were made. That building served the congregation from 1914 to 1958 and stall stands as a church building in the downtown of our community. When the time came to build the building we currently occupy, it was sold, but it continues to serve as a church in Rapid City.

When I get together with a group of boating enthusiasts, invariably there will be a story about bad weather, or boating mistakes, or people falling overboard. I’ve heard stories of people taping garbage bags over boat decks to slow leaks, of missing the step between the dock and the boat and falling into the lake, of kayaks tipped over where it was too shallow to roll the boat, of canoes capsized in raging rivers and a thousand other adversities that have been encountered. I have my own tales of being cold and wet and frightened by the size of the waves and water.

The same is true when I am with a group of pilots. Tales of accidents and near accidents and mistakes made began to be told. It’s true of law enforcement officers and fire fighters as well. It seems to be a part of any group of people with like-minded interests.

One possibility is that we tell these stories because they are instructive. We can learn how to avoid disaster by talking about the things that have gone wrong. A cautionary tale about a lack of preparation or a poor decision can serve as an effective way to learn and to avoid troubles in the future. I think it is also possible that we tell these stories to remind ourselves of the realities of aging. The truth is that my reflexes aren’t as good as when I was younger and I don’t have the strength that I once possessed. It is time for me to be cautious when encountering whitewater and there are days when paddling on a calm lake is a better decision than heading down a raging river. I don’t like to admit my limitations, I no longer am getting better and better at paddling. In fact, if the truth is told, I am slipping a bit. It is the saying you’ll hear at airports: There are bold pilots and there are old pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.

A little caution is a good thing. But we shouldn’t take it too far. When stories of disaster and tales of misfortune become crippling and our fear prevents us from taking risks, we fail to be faithful to our calling. Life is a journey and we don’t complete it by focusing our attention on our own safety only. After all, one of things we need to do is to provide stories for future generations to tell.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!