“When do you discuss the drains?”
It’s a strange question to lodge in my mind a good few years later.
It was voiced in a room full of us who were training for full-time for ministry in the church. The class in question was, I think, supposed to be teaching us about the nuts-and-bolts aspects of leadership. A local minister was leading the session, and the questioner (not me) was asking a perfectly reasonable and sensible question. When and how do you take decisions to do with buildings and maintenance and technicalities?
There lies behind that question a strong and often verbalised feeling, one with which I fully identify. Namely that those of us who are chosen from within the church to lead churches are usually neither able to address, nor enjoy dealing with, such things. So when and how do I deal with these parts of church life which are unavoidable but in relation to which I am neither passionate nor gifted?
One way we’ve tried to deal with this at the church I currently lead (a small-medium sized church in urban Cape Town, South Africa) is to do something that first seems to be counter-intuitive: we’ve created more committees. These are all sub-committees of the church council with at least one member of the council on them. Anyone who’s interested in or able in these areas can join them. I am on three or four of them. I don’t touch finance or buildings and maintenance. I just stay in touch as I need to. The result is that I’m much less stressed, more gets done and more members of the church are involved with different parts of the church’s life. It’s by no means a perfect system, but it’s working well for us now in this season.
We can’t, though, avoid everything we don’t enjoy. As our church council meeting came up last week, I glanced at the agenda and realised with a sinking heart that we’d be most likely spending a long time discussing things like tables and chairs. I sighed. I don’t lead council meetings (another decision that has been good for all of us; the woman who leads the meeting is really good at doing so) and I knew we needed to talk about these things. I could just see, however, the tedium coming down the track towards me.
So much for that. What I got was a deep and rich experience of the Holy Spirit; the chairs and tables put us on holy ground.
Our church is located in one of those areas of Cape Town which was affected by the Group Areas Act, one of the legal planks of apartheid which zoned cities by skin colour and forcibly moved black and coloured people to less desirable areas exposed to the elements and with less access to basic amenities. White people had the pick of what remained. One of the few things those removed could still do was travel to their parish church, even if they’d been forcibly removed long distances. So they did that – taking unreliable public transport every Sunday morning to the place of worship of their choice. Apartheid may be long dead, but the symptoms remain. Still these people and their descendants travel to their family’s church. Apartheid couldn’t stop them, so nothing else will.
There was no great resistance to replacing the tables and chairs. They’re heavy and unwieldy, recognised as impractical for our needs. The chairs have been there longer than a parishioner who’s been worshipping in this church for over 50 years. What was an issue was what to do with the chairs – made from fine quality wood, they’re in good condition even now. There was talk of selling them for scrap for the price of the wood; the response to that was that we need to make sure they went somewhere they were wanted or needed – or if we couldn’t find such a place, sell them for scrap and donate the receipts to a church or project with which we are in relationship.
Throughout the meeting stories were told and barriers broken through – people talked about the past and the future, with hope and expectation as well as holy trepidation. It was only after the meeting, in conversation with one person, that the penny finally dropped for me. People who had experienced forced removal from their homes were now rightly seeking to ensure that the chairs and tables, part of their church throughout much of apartheid, were not also forcibly removed. Their removal needed to be positive – not just to make way for an incomer. In the course of the conversation lights went on throughout my mind, scanning the history of our 4 years here, seeing the same theme pop up. Forced removals – named or not – remain a scar which is still visible.
A while back a tentative plan was made to have some days of story-telling in the church; getting the saints young and old to relate the joys and sorrows of life, capturing the triumphs of grace that make up our church’s life. Two weeks ago we had arranged a date for the first of these days; no sooner is it in the church diary then this happens. Chairs, tables, drains and bank balances in 2014 merging with the first-time expressions of hurts and injustices long since past but very much alive.
Few of us who lead and work around churches decided to do so because we are interested in or capable in relation to tables and chairs, spreadsheets and budgets, drains and kitchens. We were set aside for the divine, devoted to the spiritual. Or so we like to think. Much to our embarrassment, it turns out that everything is spiritual, that as one theologian put it:
Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ (Abraham Kuyper)
Christ is all in all; everything, everywhere. He is unavoidable, inescapable. Even in the tables and chairs and spreadsheets and drains.
It’s not wrong to encourage those who are good at these things to deal with such matters; if they suck the life from you, don’t do them if it all possible. They’ll get done better and quicker if I’m not involved. Never assume, though, that where you are is spiritual. It is spiritual, of course. So is everything and everywhere else. Even if we don’t like it, even if the very thought of it makes my heart heavy. It’s still spiritual, and touching it may be the gateway for Christ’s good work.
It shouldn’t surprise us that tables and chairs lead us to be seated on holy ground. After all, our central act of worship is a meal.
Are you on holy ground?
Also in this series: