Last month, I sat down at a District Conference lunch table with a pastor I hadn’t spent much time with before, and we had a really lovely chat over our sandwiches and chips. This man has been a bivocational pastor for years, in a part of Southwest Virginia that regularly gets written off as irredeemable in a dozen different ways. He asked about how the new Brethren splinter denomination had affected my ministry and congregation, and then he said “Yeah, those guys tried to get me to come on over there with ’em, but you know I just think the job is about loving the people in your church. Don’t matter much what the church is called.”
It was clear from the few minutes I spent talking with this pastor that he’s really good at that: loving the people in his congregation. And it’s clear that they love him right back. That conversation in itself was hopeful. The glimpse I got of his ministry was hopeful.
I haven’t written about the church much in these little Advent essays, and that’s intentional. For one thing, I’ve written more than my fair share about the church over the years. And, for another, I just don’t find much hope in the (boring) (overwrought) machinations of church these days. But I do find hope in my tiny little congregation, and in the work of loving the people there. In case I haven’t mentioned it lately, I love my church.
If hope is partly about being okay with not knowing what the future will bring, my congregation lives a constantly hopeful existence. The last few years have been intense for everyone, and while Peace Covenant has pivoted and shifted and done intense discernment and made big changes in our life together, it has happened, for the most part, with only small doses of anxiety threading through the system. The congregation is always game to experiment – with hybrid worship, online music, visio divina Bible studies, partnerships with nearby congregations, new outreach ideas, even finagling the congregational governance structure so it fits our reality and doesn’t burn out our people. During the pandemic, we did serious work around white supremacy and racial justice, became an officially open and affirming congregation, spent months learning new prayer practices together, won grants for outreach projects, and sent nearly 1,000 handmade greeting cards to residents of four local nursing homes. That’s a tiny sliver of the life of this community, and it doesn’t even touch on the ways people have shown up for one another with visits and prayers and cookies and meals and cash.
In January, my role as pastor will move from 1/2 time to 1/4 time. That’s a big change, and combined with the smaller attendance and giving numbers, it has produced some anxiety. But already, I can see gifts of the shift emerging: a young adult volunteered to do worship tech on the weeks that I’m not preaching. Leadership is nurturing a relationship with a nearby Mennonite congregation that has tons of potential for shared ministry. Guest preachers are lining up for their chance to join worship. People are stepping up, creative possibilities are becoming clear, and the lightness with which this congregation holds their property, traditions and corporate purpose is coming to bear, once again.
When I first came to Peace Covenant 7 years ago, the phrase that they used to describe themselves was “informal but competent.” Since then, I’ve talked about this beloved group of gracious, committed, faithful people as “tiny but mighty.” I think, today, I’d add another phrase: “anchored but agile.”
Because this congregation knows its purpose, and it does not lie in property management or attendance figures, budget spreadsheets or ecclesial governance. Those are all important pieces of life together, and devoted people spend dozens of hours caring for them. But all those things serve the deeper, larger, all-encompassing work of loving one another and our neighbors well, of witnessing to the expansive love of God. Being anchored in that sense of purpose allows the congregation to weather change, to be willing to experiment and explore, to float on seas of uncertainty without fear of capsizing.
This has grown my own hope. Peace Covenant’s groundedness, openness, curiosity and commitment is hopeful. The congregation is, like nearly every other congregation these days, facing another round of big changes. But they’ve done that before, I think, and the questions these days, aren’t about “whether” or not things will work out; only “how.” And those curious “how” questions are hopeful.