L. Gregory Jones and Kevin R. Armstrong: Where will we bury our heart?
KA: On one corner area is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods with the highest property values. On the opposing corner is one of the poorest neighborhoods with the fewest homeowners and highest crime rate. On another corner was the first racially integrated neighborhood association in the country that has an art museum, a university and a seminary, and on the opposite corner of that neighborhood is a neighborhood that’s now revitalizing through a housing development corporation that a number of our churches helped to start.
The age ranges, the income ranges, the racial diversity among those four neighborhoods strikes one as very odd. How can so many differences be separated by one three-lane road? How has that intersection over time created a very wide boundary of the mind in our city?
Q: Talk about the phone in your lobby. It’s a small detail, but significant.
KA: For as long as I have known there has always been a public phone in the lobby of the congregation. When the building is open from 7:30 a.m. until 9 p.m., anyone can come in and make a local phone call.
Folks can call the doctor. They can make a return call about a job. It’s also been used by locals who are in the drug business, and that’s part of the messiness of what goes on. But it provides a means of access that folks can’t find in any other agency in the neighborhood.
It also creates a sense of ownership to the ministry -- not just the phone but the fact that we’re an unlocked church. Folks in the neighborhood who are not members of the church still regard it as their church and are attentive to what goes on there.
Q: What is the same about the landscape from when you originally articulated this notion of excellence?
GJ: I think there’s still a hesitancy to talk openly about money, whether it’s the relationship of church budgets to the commitments of the congregation to talk about that as a matter of discipleship. We still seem to have a peculiar problem in the United States, particularly in mainline congregations.
It’s part of a broader issue in Christian institutions generally. We think of ourselves as nonprofit, which means we don’t need to talk about money at all, and we think there’s some angel who is going to come in and solve the budget challenges.
Q: Is there anything you would add as you reflect on this goal of excellence? Is there a yardstick to measure it by?
GJ: There are debates in the churches about whether evaluating ministry or congregations or pastors ought to be quantitative or not, whether there ought to be numbers.
We have to get away from either/or thinking; that people who say that numbers don’t matter are often simply wanting to evade questions about why they’re not more attentive to certain issues. The people who think that numbers measure everything also seem to want to evade all of the quiet and hidden ways in which ministry occurs.
Excellence can’t be marked only by buildings, budgets and those sorts of things but neither can they be measured only by the faithfulness of a pastor spending significant time in pastoral care.
KA: One of my colleagues on staff also serves a small congregation in downtown Indianapolis that has opened its doors to the arts community. A group of young people gathered there recently. An artist came in and was teaching them how to use yarn to create a picture of the most important person in their lives.
This 8-year-old girl created a portrait with yarn. Her father visits a couple of days afterward. Walks in. Sees this lovely but clearly child-designed portrait and immediately recognizes himself. He starts crying and, in the presence of the pastor, says “I had no idea that I was that important to her.”
That story gets to me still.
I think that’s one measure of a congregation’s faithfulness -- to connect people who didn’t realize they were important to each other. That congregation also struggles to keep its doors open financially. They have to be attentive to whether those moments can occur, and what it means to tell others that story as a sign of significance of what’s going on there.
They can’t pay attention only to one or the other. It has to be to both.
I think our image at the end of the book -- it’s not ours but was very generously shared by Bishop David Lawson -- is: Where will we bury our heart? Where are the places in our life together that we would want to say: This place, these people, this ministry is so important we’re going to put our heart here?
I think that’s what we hope pastors and congregations continue to ask themselves. How do we live together in such a way that where we are becomes such a place for others and not just for ourselves?