11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
Reflection February 2, 2020
"Our Church & It’s Future" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This past Sunday, January 26, after our worship and fellowship, we had a congregational meeting to discuss and approve our 2020 church budget. It was during this budget discussion that I made an important announcement, which was already known by our Board of Deacons.
My announcement was that this year will be my last year as pastor of our beloved congregation. Sometime in this coming Fall, I’ll step down as pastor and move on to retirement. After all, I’m already 72 years of age!
As I outlined in my Sunday sermon, lately I’ve been confronted with a couple of significant health challenges. It was a few years ago that I was consulting a dentist in Skokie. I asked him if he thought I should do something about the loss of one of my back molars. He said: “If your runway was longer!” The “short runway” ahead of me has now been covered with a slippery coating of ice!
Again something from Sunday’s sermon: “This past Thursday morning, after my chest CT scan (to better “size up” a nodule in my lower left chest that was discovered in a recent chest X-ray), I was talking with my friend, Vinal, in Wisconsin. I said that my life has often revolved around talking, writing, preaching, teaching.
“There were a good number of years when I went around the country leading retreats, especially for nuns. I’d give 3 or 4 hour-long talks each day for the better part of a week. Lots of talking!
“Now I want to talk less and listen more. This has now become my belated New Year’s Resolution. One of the ways I want to listen more is through reading the plethora of books stacked up around me.
Another way of listening more is through silence and solitude. Now this silence and solitude may eventually take me back to Maui to write what I feel called by God to write. Who knows? But I do believe (with Parker Palmer) that silence and solitude will better prepare me for the transition from here to whatever (or Whoever) is to be found in the silence of death.”
Will I leave the city? Probably! Where will I go? Perhaps I’ll get an apartment near my friend, Vinal, in Wisconsin. Perhaps I’ll move to Maui (if only that lovely island were more affordable!). There’s always a chance that Ireland will call me back to my parental/ancestral home. I want to listen to the voice of God’s Spirit in pushing me into the future.
But what about our beloved church? The deacons and I are pursuing two possibilities. The first possibility is to call a new pastor who would be a part-time pastor. The church is no longer able to afford a full-time pastor. But the church could afford a part-time pastor. The logistics of this would need to be carefully thought out. I personally would not wish to be a part-time pastor even if my age and health permitted such a ministerial move.
The second possibility is to merge our congregation with another church congregation. Every church in our area is facing membership challenges. In the 12 years I’ve served as pastor of our beloved congregation, my main focus was always trying to grow our church. A few of us went door-to-door with thousands of brochures inviting people to our church. Not much came from those thousands of delivered-brochures.
We tried dozens and dozens of new outreach initiatives with little success. While our church grew a bit over the years, we lost to death more members than we gained. We’ve lost to “Sister Death” more than half the members we had when I was called to our church. We’ve lost so many in this past year alone!
A goodly number of our faithful members are no longer capable of coming to church or contributing to our church’s finances. For decades now, we’ve been struggling with finances. The financial situation went from bad to worse. I kept placing this dire situation in every annual report and every letter I wrote for special collections. We had been drawing from our savings for decades. This situation was no longer sustainable.
All of this came to a head with the City of Chicago demanding significant tuck-pointing of our outside walls. Bruce Stark, our lawyer and I were in city court more times than I care to remember. We used up the remainder of our funds addressing this crisis.
This situation was compounded by the fact that we no longer had people able to attend to the needed maintenance of our buildings. I bless Ross Dring and all he did over the many years he volunteered his wonderful assistance. Ross, however, had back surgery in the Spring and is far from being a “Spring Chicken“ - sorry to say!
And then Ross’ “right-hand” man, Art Lynn, moved away. We were so very blessed to have Art‘s expertise over the years. Ross and Art saved the church many, many thousands of dollars in repair costs.
However, our one-remaining boiler continued to be a worry. In the Spring, we had a City of Chicago boiler-inspector come to do the mandated annual inspection. Ross, Bruce Stark and I greeted the inspector and did all we could to make him feel welcome in our boiler-room. Fortunately, we passed the inspection!
It was vividly-apparent to the Board of Deacons that things were in dire straits. They voted to pursue selling the buildings. It became apparent that we would have to either sell our buildings or lock them by the end of this past June.
The only viable buyer that we could discern was Just for Kids, the day-care that has been “renting” our buildings for the past 14 or so years. We didn’t want to suffer the same fate as the Episcopalian church building near us that has been sitting empty for more than a dozen years.
And so the Board of Deacons approved the sale of our buildings to Just For Kids with the stipulation that our congregation could continue using the worship spaces for Sunday worship and we’d maintain a church office in the former counseling office. This seemed the best possible solution to our church crisis. Not everyone was happy about the sale. This is not surprising. Many a sleepless night was endured by many of our church leaders around this decision.
I’m eternally grateful to be have been called as the pastor of our beloved Morgan Park American Baptist Church. I wish I could have possessed whatever was needed to crowd our sanctuary every Sunday. Alas, such was not the case!
I also admit that the past twelve years have worn me down because of all the deaths from our church family and the accompanying sicknesses. I’ve spent so much time in hospital rooms, nursing homes, and visiting shut-ins. I’ve been happy providing this most-critical ministry. I believe attending to the sick and dying is my primary responsibility as pastor of our church. But I do feel weary. My heart has been wounded many times over these 12 years. It comes as no real surprise to me that I have heart issues.
In the months left to me as pastor, I intend to keep doing all that needs doing. I’ll continue trying to grow our beloved congregation. I’ll work with the deacons and all congregants to help discern the future of our beloved faith community.
Coming to my decision regarding retirement was not easy. I deeply care for everyone in our church. I love everyone in our church. We’ve walked together in faith these many years. I’m proud to be the longest serving pastor in the long history of our beloved church, the oldest church in Morgan Park! I wish I could continue serving in some capacity but such seems impossible.
There is work and discernment that needs doing between now and the Fall. We’ll need the assistance of the Spirit of the Living God to lead us and guide us into whatever future God envisions for us. To all I say: Thank You! You have been a blessing to me. You were a blessing to my Beth. I’m more than grateful!
I end with words from Sunday’s sermon: “I’m done with big and complex projects but I’m more aware of the loveliness of simple things: a talk with a friend, a walk in the woods, sunsets and sunrises, a night of good sleep ... Old is just another word for nothing left to lose, a time to take bigger risks on behalf of the common good. (Parker Palmer)”
I pray to use whatever time left to me to take some risks on behalf of the common good!