Cheryl M. Lawrence: A good death

Carr UMC's new pastor arrived fresh out of divinity school, filled with passion and impatience. But her real ministry, she soon discovered, would be to help the church give up its life for the sake of the gospel.

The first time I stepped inside the sanctuary of Carr United Methodist Church, the dark beauty of the worship space took my breath away. It exuded an air of both wealth and decline.

The cavernous room was washed in royal blue and ruby red from the stained-glass windows. In the dim light, I could see row upon row of dark wood pews and two balconies. There was a communion rail with worn kneeling pads, a tall communion table, faded green paraments, and a high and exalted pulpit.

I never expected my first pastoral appointment to be in a church of such beauty. Little did I know that my tenure would end in the church giving its life for the sake of the gospel.

Fear of the neighborhood around the building played a part in the congregation’s decision, as well as a weary acknowledgment that 40 people could no longer maintain the old building or engage in fruitful ministry in that location. Yet they wanted to leave a legacy.

Over and above everything was Jesus Christ, who seemed to be calling the church to follow their crucified Lord by giving themselves away in love.

Fifty years earlier, Carr United Methodist Church in east Durham, N.C., was a big, busy neighborhood church. But times changed, the neighborhood changed, and the church did not.

Letting go was not easy. My teenage daughter identified the situation well, after about a month: “Mom, these people are so sad.

Some members denied that anything was wrong, but most knew what was happening. They despaired over the all-but-certain prospect of becoming one more boarded-up inner-city church.

Into this situation arrived the new pastor, fresh out of divinity school and filled with passion and impatience.

I immediately set about fixing things. Resurrect the finance committee! Get a new treasurer! Consolidate the accounts! Sell the unused church vans! Raise the payment on the rented parsonage! Retire the 80-year-old secretary! (The last one took a long time to accomplish, and in retrospect, it’s a wonder I wasn’t tossed out.)

But our path to new life wasn’t to be found in financial fixes. Instead, it began when a series of other small congregations approached us about sharing our space. Initially, a nondenominational African-American church asked to worship in our sanctuary on Sunday evenings and provided a monthly offering to cover utilities.

Soon, a large Baptist church knocked on our door, asking for space to teach English as a Second Language to the many Spanish-speaking residents of the neighborhood. If we weren’t able to engage in ministry with the neighborhood, the church decided, then we could at least welcome those churches who were. The offerings didn’t hurt, of course.

Meanwhile, I preached, taught, led committee meetings and offered public prayers that relentlessly asked: Where is God leading us? How can a congregation of good-hearted, elderly Christians reach out with the love of Christ to the least, last and lost?

It didn’t help that the least, last and lost kept stealing the copper out of the air conditioning units, or that the police broke up a crack house three doors down the street, or that a drive-by shooting resulted in a car crashing into the parking lot as people were leaving worship.

Gradually, I began to envision Carr as a multidenominational, multicultural center of Christian worship: many churches in one building.

Not everyone caught the vision, though, and ultimately, God’s vision turned out to be much different from my own. Carr’s few members never completely agreed about anything, and despite my dreams, Carr and the other two churches didn’t have a lot of contact with one another.

Yet thanks to that experience, we were primed and ready when we heard that Shepherd’s House, a new-church start of people from Zimbabwe, needed space. The idea of an immigrant church worshipping in our building was both exhilarating and frightening. Shepherd’s House wasn’t just one more church -- they were United Methodists -- and they already had more than double Carr’s Sunday attendance.

But they wanted to worship at 11 a.m., the same time we did. Where would they worship? Certainly not with Carr; their service was conducted in Shona, the language of Zimbabwe. Our worship styles were literally worlds apart.

Our building had plenty of space on the first floor, but it was in disrepair. With an offer of financial support from a suburban United Methodist church, Carr members readily approved a project to create space for Shepherd’s House on our first and third floors.

After a year of construction, on a beautiful spring day, the Zimbabwean congregation moved in on schedule. For the next year, Carr’s congregation worshipped in the second-floor sanctuary, sandwiched between the Shepherd’s House adults one floor below and their children’s church one floor above.

Our churches shared the fellowship hall, bathrooms and parking lot. The Shepherd’s House children ran up and down the stairs constantly, and I often heard African drums while I preached.

The two churches invited one another to fellowship meals, including a feast of traditional African food and an outdoor cookout. We held several joint worship services, including one on Christmas Eve, with communion and “Silent Night” in both English and Shona.

It was a challenging and exciting time. One moment I would be overcome with joy at all the wonderful things that were happening, and the next, nauseated by the thought of all that could go wrong.

But eventually, the worst, at least from Carr’s perspective, began to happen. Shepherd’s House outgrew their worship space while Carr continued to shrink, as aging members died.

Clearly, it made no sense for a thriving congregation to be squashed in their worship space while 30 people knocked around upstairs in a sanctuary built for 500. I had not foreseen this happening so quickly; when I prayed that God would fill the church pews, I had meant Carr’s pews.

Thus, Carr began a difficult process of prayer and discernment. We prayed, and we talked -- and not always in pleasant ways.

Again and again, we kept coming back to Mark 8:34-35:

“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it’” (NRSV).

For decades, Carr had tried to save its own life and had experienced nothing but slow death. We asked ourselves: What would it mean for a church to lose its life for the sake of the gospel? What would it mean for a whole church to take up a cross and follow our crucified Savior?

We were stuck somewhere between life and death. But the logjam broke when an outside person trained in conflict resolution volunteered a Saturday to help us uncover what was really important to our church -- and what wasn’t. She assigned me a task: to stay silent.

That day was a turning point. She was able to establish that most members cared more about their relationships with one another and leaving behind a United Methodist legacy than hanging on to a building.

Two months later, Carr officers requested an official vote to put the matter to rest, one way or another. When the vote came, a majority of Carr members decided that Shepherd’s House was the right church for that location. They voted to give it all -- building, furnishings and next-door parsonage -- to Shepherd’s House. Carr would relocate to another church in Durham.

After worshipping for two years in borrowed space, Carr closed, dovetailing gently into the church that had invited us to worship in their old sanctuary. It was a good death, giving way to new life in surprising ways.