Everything is fine. Just recruit more young families. Check in on the elderly. Post on social media. Try something new—church on the lawn, or at soccer games, or on Thursday evenings. Train lay leaders. Mix up the Sunday music with something contemporary. Start a Celtic spirituality service, or something missional that will make the diocesan newsletter. Do more self-care and all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.
Definitely close the windows. It’s evening. Don’t let the spirits of the dead blow in, especially not the unnamed Black woman in the parish history book whom the town’s first pastor dragged down the road attached to the saddle of his horse. She doesn’t require justice and reparations for her descendants. History is history. The past is the past. Judgment is an outdated idea; no shaming or blaming. God is love. You owe her nothing.
Stay in the office. Tweak your sermon. Update the church website. Dust your divinity school diploma. Subscribe to more e-newsletters: the diocesan one, the national church one, the council of churches one, the seminary one, the innovation lab one, the social justice one, the liturgical one, the preaching one. Maybe start one of your own as a passion project. The future is online.
Close the article you accidentally opened which recounts Greta Thunberg’s warning to a crowd of adults that younger generations won’t forgive them for their inaction on the climate crisis. She’s only talking to politicians, people with the power to make change. You’re just a small-town priest. When you start imagining her arriving as a guest at your church on a Sunday morning—showing her the church’s recycling bins, giving her a copy of your Earth Day sermon, her polite departure halfway through the service—stop beating yourself up. You’re doing all you can! The talk about floods and famines in the coming years—it’s just catastrophizing. The young always need something to fret about.
Keep your worries about the newest magazine article about the dying church to yourself. No one can help you, especially your elders. They warned you that ordained ministry was like getting on board a sinking ship. They shared their decades of research: did changes in the cultural waters cause the leak, or some weakness in the church’s hull? Despite all their research they failed to patch it. What was once a trickle is now a torrent sweeping away seminaries, church summer camps, and full-time clergy positions. And now they’re handing over the helm to you, just in time for them to retire, jump ship, and take their pensions with them. So, if your elders tell you you’re doing a great job, thank them. But don’t let their encouragement into your heart. What do they know, except how to sink a ship? Anyway, you don’t need them. Figure it out on your own, or drown. Those are your two options.
Don’t go down to the basement. The old board games without all the pieces, the tag sale signs, the cassette players, the old velvet youth group couch, the binders and binders of meeting minutes, the aluminum foil angel wings, the felt and rope shepherd costumes—they’re just trash. They’re all rot and no resurrection. They don’t need to be brought upstairs to the light, sorted through, shaken out, thanked for years of faithful service.
Forget that old sales pitch you gave the ordination committee. Don’t recall the memories of your childhood minister staying up until 2 am at the lock-in while you ate powdered doughnuts and played shuffleboard. Forget the sound of Doug with Down’s Syndrome who said the unison prayers a few words behind the congregation and always had Amen to himself. Forget the minister who opened the church thrift shop for you when you were 29, after your girlfriend left and took the chairs and tables with her. Forget the former Pentecostal who packed his prayer shawl and Bible in a bowling bag for Episcopal worship and wore Christmas lights around his neck in Advent. Your affection for them, their kindness, was nice, but that’s all. Those stories got you past the ordination committee, but what the hell can they do for you now? Ministry is about saving souls and social justice, not Chicken Soup for the Soul. Grow up. Get serious.
Go to the sanctuary. Check the register. How’s attendance been? Check the list of lay readers. Are the slots all filled? Check the pews for welcome cards and hymnals. Any missing? Check the Bible. Are the pages set for Sunday? Don’t start reading. Waters parting, dry bones rattling, God dangling from a cross and rolling away a stone, people taking up their own crosses, the renewal of all Creation. Nice stories for a Sunday, but whatever. No one likes people who are too religious.
Get back to work. Make another cup of coffee if you need it. Whatever you do, don’t open the front door. Don’t step outside into the night. Don’t look skyward. Don’t breathe in deeply, like you could inhale the stars and breathe out the cosmos. Joy is not a virtue. Joy counts for nothing.