November 19, 2014

How Many Episcopalians Does It Take To Change A Light Bulb?

Over the past several years, we’ve been updating our parish hall at St. George’s, Valley Lee. We stripped some walls bare and fixed the masonry, where needed. We’ve insulated walls and above the ceiling. While we were tightening things up, hopefully cutting down on energy usage, we also decided to add nicer finishes: wood flooring in the offices where there previously was linoleum; tile in the restrooms and drywall in the classrooms where there used to be cement block; nicer lighting in as many spaces as we could, and less expensive light fixtures, too – thank God for LED lights. Project by project, the parish hall is starting to look and function a lot better. 

Like many churches, we inherited a set of facilities built by – and, largely, for – the inhabitants of a previous congregation and, indeed, world. With the exception of our historic church, our buildings aren’t that old. Built in the 1960s, they are young enough to be functional but old enough to be costly. They were built with little and, in some cases, no insulation (energy costs apparently weren’t a serious consideration back then) and featured small, tight, dark rooms designed for that mythical Sunday School of 200+ kids. Until we started these more intentional renovations a few years ago, the best this congregation had done, to date, was re-paint and keep up those Baby Boom-era spaces.

Meanwhile, the world changed. This meant different patterns and expectations of church – including the purpose of church buildings.

And in our case, the church was starting to operate and function in new ways. Today, we are a very different community than the one which built our parish hall. The best part is, with some intentional leadership, we’ve been able to have the conversation about our goals and values today, and how these goals are different from those of previous generations and why those differences matter. We started to update our church spaces not because the world had changed but because the church was changing; because, for instance, we needed to pay greater attention to IT issues and build a 21st century office infrastructure; because, we discerned, the overall presentation of the spaces matter, and new leaders were bringing new and good questions about why things go where.

This is when and where we started to get into the conversation about change.

And that’s right around the time when we started – you guessed it – to get some heat from a vocal few in our community. Don’t get me wrong: the spaces were renovated and, in some cases, completely overhauled, updated, and changed. Yes, we offered clarity in our purposes and, yes, we worked especially hard to maintain harmony in the community. The pushback didn’t deter us from our goal, but this is to say that that’s what this is: hard, hard work. Sure, there’s that joke about how many members it takes to change a light bulb. The only reason that joke is funny is because it’s still really, eerily true.

I was intrigued by Thom Rainer’s post of Nov. 1, 2014 which, like so many of his blogs, went viral nearly overnight. Four of the “Top Ten Ways Churches Drive Away First Time Guests” had to do with issues connected to buildings and grounds: bad signage, dirty facilities, no clear place for information, and unkempt children’s area. Similarly, the Barna Group recently published a report about the ways in which spaces and design – specifically, worship space – is important to Millennials. A friend who recently attended a church growth seminar told me that this particular Church Growth Guru claimed that the appearance and cleanliness of your church’s restroom facilities matters a great deal.

Is this really new news? That spaces and design and appearance and cleanliness matter shouldn’t really shock or surprise us. And we, the institutional church, do need to update and renovate our building facilities, if only clean them more frequently.

But pulling off this kind of common sense thinking, at least in my own experience, hasn’t come without conflict or stress on the community. There are those in our communities who really believe church facilities should do without the finer things. To be honest, there’s some wisdom in that perspective. At the same time, there’s a need for balance. Because there is, at the same time, great mission-potential in updating and renovating and re-designing and being creative with the spaces we’ve inherited. Yes, even if that looks like and, literally, means some degree of change.

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