–by Pastor Mike Middaugh
My first experience with a truly transient culture was on vicarage in Chicago. At St. James Lutheran, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, I spent a year learning and practicing pastoral skills. It was a year of growth and change in many ways – Sandi and I had just gotten married, we moved to a new city we had only visited once, and we didn’t know a single person when we go there.
We quickly made many new friends, both at the church where I was serving, and with a number of Sandi’s Northwestern classmates, but one thing that I was taught by my supervising pastor from the beginning was that this was a transient culture. People moved in and out of the neighborhood, and in and out of the city quickly and often. Because of work demands, a relatively young population, and the many different educational institutions and internships, good friends could move away with little or no notice. Even those who did stay in one place led busy lives and could be out of town multiple weekends a month.
For a church body, this created some challenges. Volunteer responsibilities and leadership roles had high turnover, Bible Studies and small groups could be well attended one week, and nearly empty the next, and members could become disheartened as friend after friend moved away.
I thought a lot about this phenomenon while in Chicago, and in many ways, Sandi and I have lived this reality ourselves. Because of seminary, vicarage, our time in Minnesota, and now in DC, we have packed up our stuff and moved 7 times in the past 9 years. 5 of those moves were distances greater than 300 miles. As a result we now have friends scattered throughout the country, some of whom we would dearly love to spend time with (including family) but whom we almost never see.
Life in the DC area is much the same. In fact, as this article shows, the Capital Region might be the most transient in the country. Here at Calvary a number of new worshipers have joined us in the past two years, many of whom are new to the area. Likewise, we must also know that we will lose some, not because of congregational problems (we hope) but because their life takes them elsewhere.
So how do we deal with this?
From experience I can say that it is always hard to lose good friends. Building relationships is an emotional investment, and even though moving doesn’t mean you will never see each other again, it is still a heartbreaking change. Additionally, when it comes to church community, I think there is an important personal connection we share with those standing next to us as we worship, or kneeling alongside us as we commune. Part of congregational health relies on intimacy and the ability to feel close with one another in a deep way.
So, as a church in a transient area we must expect that saying goodbye (and hello) will be a way of life. It will always be tough and take something out of us. But instead of lamenting this pattern, or blaming problems on the fact that “people keep leaving,” I think there are several ways we can mentally embrace this mobile existence.
- People may leave, but the impact we have on one another never does. I found this to be incredibly true of both my time in Chicago and Minneapolis. As I left those two churches I know that the people there shaped me and changed me for the better. Various close acquaintances have taught me great things I might not have learned without them. They have blessed me with their love and care and examples of faith, and I hope I may have left something with them as well.
- Transience creates opportunities. Upon realizing the transient nature of the world around us, we should examine our own church practices and culture to make sure we are ready for those moving into the area. Relocating is hard in every way. Landing in a new place can be exciting, but also scary, risky and lonely. Are we looking out for those who may be new? Are we doing everything we can to provide community and compassion for those in the mist of life’s changes?
- Transience is made easier by understanding eternity. Saying goodbye will always be hard, whether it is a good friend moving away, or a loved one passing on. But as Christians we rely not just on this life but on the next – we know that goodbye is not forever. This may sound cliche I know, but I do think it helps in terms of dealing with transience. As I think about the churches I have left, my prayer is that I was God’s instrument in someone’s life to strengthen their faith for a time. And this isn’t just true because I am a pastor, it applies to all of us. As we care for one another, build friendships, and offer support, we also carry each other through life’s challenges bolstering one another’s faith along the way. For this reason, community is God’s gift. We should trust that even in the midst of transience, the Holy Spirit teaches us what to say and brings the right people together at the right time so that we might help each other through today until we reach tomorrow. Even if there is a good friend I may never see again, I trust and pray that God was in the midst of our relationship for a time, and that he sees them even when I don’t.