Living with frustration

The small Congregational church in Reeder, North Dakota has now closed. Its end didn’t come because it ran out of money. It ran out of members. The congregation got smaller and smaller until there simply wasn’t critical mass for worship services. Towards the end, there were a few big funerals - the kind that fill up the sanctuary and overflow into the fellowship area. In a town with a shrinking population in a county with a shrinking population the story of the church came to its closing chapter just after the church celebrated its centennial. In fact the celebration of its 90th anniversary was larger and better attended than the centennial celebration.

We had the privilege of serving the congregation a quarter of a century earlier when it was a lively small church. The official membership was reported in the mid forties. Average worship attendance was nearly the same. The community was small enough that if someone was missing, there would be a quick check in to make sure that someone else knew what was going on. It might be a shopping trip to Bismarck, or a medical appointment in Rapid City, or a get away to Deadwood for a weekend. It might be a sick calf or a broken piece of equipment. Whatever the reason, someone else always seemed to know what was going on. Once, when no one knew, a phone call had to be made before we began worship, just to make sure everything was OK.

It was a great congregation for a new minister, fresh out of seminary. There are a lot of things about the live of a church that can’t be taught in the academic setting. A small congregation can be a great teacher. I remember the panic in the pit of my stomach when a controversy erupted in the congregation. I was worried about splitting the church. A sage elder in the congregation reassured me: “Nobody is going to quit. Everybody knows that we need all of our members.” The prediction was accurate. Nobody quit. The disagreement was resolved and life went on. Once, for an evening program we spread newsprint on the tables in the fellowship hall and had everyone draw a chart of family relationships. When we got done there were three family systems in the congregation. One was ours, which at the time was just the two of us. The other two were interrelated families that comprised the entire remainder of the congregation. The chart explained a lot about the church.

From that experience, I made a resolution early in my career that I would seek to never solve problems or challenges in the church by getting rid of people. As my career progressed, I encountered some really challenging personalities. There have been times when I had to stand up to bullies. There have been members of the congregations I served who sought to force my resignation. There have been times when I have felt that my life would be much simpler if a certain person would just quit the church. But I’ve tried to remember, “Nobody is going to quit. Everybody knows that we need all of our members.” I’ve tried to be faithful to that vision.

For the most part we have been successful. A couple of times when I felt I had to stand up to someone in the congregations I served, I managed to do so without completely alienating that person. People have left the congregations I have served, but not generally in fits of anger. There have been multiple controversies that have been resolved without losing members. On multiple occasions persons serving in prominent positions have had to step aside, but have remained active members of the congregation. We’ve moved employees from their positions without anger or rancor.

It hasn’t always worked. Once we set up an intervention for a church employee who was suffering from alcoholism. His drinking had resulted in multiple arrests for driving under the influence. It was interfering with his performance on the job and limiting his ability to work with children in the church. We informed him carefully that if he entered treatment he would have a job when he got out of treatment. If he did not enter treatment, he would not have a job. The result of the intervention was not pretty. He went into a rage, quit his job without notice, and threatened all kinds of reprisals. We stood fast. He continued on his path for several years before finally seeking treatment.

I’ve felt bad about that ever since and wondered what we might have done differently. The reality was, as is always the case, behind his addiction was pain that had not been addressed. I was unable to help with the pain. I was unable to be pastor to that particular person in the ways that he needed. The church is a human institution and imperfect in its expressions. We try, but there are times when we fail. Unlike some other institutions, however, we confess our failures each week. We apologize when it is needed. We practice humility where some people and institutions only practice pride and anger.

For the most part the practice of not solving problems by getting rid of people has served me well in my career. I can, however, name several occasions when we didn’t succeed in maintaining our relationships. I need to remember those times as I serve in various capacities in our community today. I serve on the board of a local nonprofit that is experiencing multiple crises. The board often does not have the information it needs to do its job. The employees are quick with excuses, but slow with change. There have been times when I’ve felt that the best thing to do would be to wipe the slate clean and start over with a new set of people. I know, however, that such is not the solution. Frustrating as it is, I continue to find ways to serve as an imperfect person in an imperfect institution.

Life continues to offer enough challenges to keep me from becoming bored. It also offers enough reminders so that i cannot forget that I have my own limitations as well. Beyond that it offers enough possibility that I do not lose hope and that may be the most important gift of all.

Copyright (c) 2020 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!