The Problem with Deferred Maintenance

Deferred maintenance in the church is like an onion; it has layers and it stinks.

Deferred maintenance is defined as “the practice of postponing maintenance activities such as repairs on both real property (i.e. infrastructure) and personal property (i.e. machinery) in order to save costs, meet budget funding levels, or realign available budget monies.”

In the church, we tend to encounter the practice of deferred maintenance in three distinct ways.

The first way we defer maintenance in the church is the one that comes most easily to mind. As church membership and attendance fail to keep pace with escalating maintenance costs of aging buildings, putting off needed upkeep and repairs is an all too common strategy for balancing a church budget. For a season, this practice allows the church to put off hard decisions about program and staffing but with each subsequent year the hole that is dug gets deeper and deeper.

The problem with deferred maintenance is that it is borrowing upon the promise of the future for the sake of the present. A broken physical plant is a terrible thing to gift upon the next generation.

Understanding the second way we defer maintenance in the church requires us to think about the nature of change. In a healthy system, change occurs over time in incremental steps. This doesn’t mean that healthy churches don’t change dramatically but moments of quantum (transformational) change become part of the natural progression of the community. A certain level of discomfort is valued in a healthy system as is diversity. Each aids in keeping the system on its feet, so to speak, and in developing a culture that asks good questions about its communal assumptions.

7 Hopes for the Church this Easter

There are many reasons to be down on the church. Prominent church leaders appear regularly in the news, too often in the midst of a scandal. Some churches have aligned themselves with political forces, making demands of others veiled in the language of freedom. Religious affiliation and church attendance are trending downward at an accelerating rate with no end in sight.

Still, there are reasons to be hopeful for the church. We are Easter people who remember that only a few faithful souls remained at the foot of the cross. We take heart in the example of the mustard seed. We know that the church desperately needs reformation but we believe that God is capable of providing that and more when people stand ready to co-create a new future.

In watching, listening for, and experiencing the challenges and opportunities I see in the church today, I have the following hopes for the church:

In Defense of Slow Church

With trepidation, I went to a party with old high school friends last week. “Friends,” as a term, should not be taken too seriously. While I attended with a few of my closest and dearest friends with whom I have cultivated great relationships in adulthood, I remember the majority of people there with some ambivalence that verges on antagonism.

In that room, memories swirled: Out-and-out rejection from best friends. Breakups with beloved boyfriends. Shunning a guy who had a crush on me. Crying while practicing cello because of what the neighbor boys said. Minutely managed stratification on the basis of intelligence or social rank or attractiveness or talent or perceived ability.

I also remember it as fast-paced, wildly stimulating, incredibly fun, pride-producing, and emotion-saturated. A week or month could spark a best-friendship; a month in a romantic relationship or unrequited crush felt eternal.

Acute. Dramatic.

Thinking back to these relationships, and especially the childish romanticism that drove so much of my experience as an adolescent, I revel in the present chapter of my adulthood. Drama so rarely enters it. I’ve known all my best friends for five years or longer; most for over 10. I can count on these people. They know me – my child self, my adult self, my childish-attemptdly-adult self. And they love me, crazily, inexplicably, consistently. My fiancé and I are tying the knot after five wonderful, fun, and joy-filled years together. It’s not without challenges. But it’s largely, usually without drama that festers into trauma.

Peaceful. Enduring.

So, church.

Is Your Church Still Listening to Vinyl?

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m in my car heading to worship at an innovative faith community in a south Seattle neighborhood. I’m also listening to an AM radio station trying to catch the end of a football game. I’m a driving contradiction, I know.

Instead of the score, I’m treated to an Associated Press report on the growth of vinyl record sales, which notes their particular popularity with indie rock fans. In the opinion of some of these fans, vinyl provides a qualitatively better sound. The report also described the appeal many experience in the ritual of placing the needle on a record; a physical action which surfaces visceral feelings that aren’t digitally reproducible.

The story concluded by noting the difficulties vinyl record producers were experiencing as increasing demand pressed, and at times outpaced, supply. Despite their rising popularity, sales of vinyl records are still the epitome of a niche market, resting at around 2% of total music sales.

Entrepreneurial investments had yet to materialize revealing some skepticism or risk adversity in the music industry.

This report got me thinking about the church and how we tend to define our practices and rituals of worshiping God, and of gathering in Christian community, in similar ways.

Witch Hunt(s) in Ferguson

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Warrant of Execution for Sarah Averell Wildes, Sarah Good, Rebecca Towne Nurse and Elizabeth How.

Sarah Wildes was a witch. At least that is what the good people of Salem, Massachusetts thought. She was accused, received a hasty trial, and then was executed by hanging for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts on July 19, 1692. The Rev. Cotton Mather, a highly influential minister and prolific writer from nearby Boston, helped to create and nurture the religious and social context that made this possible.

Sarah caught my interest because she was also the sister of my fourth great grandfather. History reports to us that she was something of a nonconformist in a prevailingly Puritan society. As a young woman of 22, she was whipped for fornication and in her 30s she had the audacity to wear a silk scarf–which apparently was also a chargeable offense.

Sarah also was scandalized for marrying her husband John, a widower, too soon after the death of his previous wife, angering the community for this impropriety. Her new husband’s former sister-in-law was the first to circulate rumors that Sarah was a witch.

Are you breaking up with me?

Hello it’s me, your church building. I’m writing to you today to try to clear the air. To be honest, I’m not sure that I understand the growing animosity between the two of us. If I have done something wrong, I hope that you will forgive me.

Let me start back at the beginning. It must’ve been decades ago, but I can still remember when you laid my cornerstone. What a beautiful day that was! The sun was shining, everything felt fresh and new and full of promise. My kitchen had the latest and greatest appliances and my walls had a fresh coat of paint. Most important of all, our sanctuary was beautiful with stained-glass and pews designed to be comfortable but not too comfortable; that feature has sure been handy for many a sermon.

Over the years, I must admit that I’ve gotten a little bigger. Things were booming in the 60s and that educational wing seemed like a good idea to me as well. I’d love to slim back up, but I know you understand how hard it is to lose those extra pounds once you’ve put them on. I really do appreciate all those cosmetic touches we’ve worked on together. I think we can agree that the new church sign was really important even if the reader board messages are a bit crass from time to time.

All that said, can I get to the point? It feels sometimes as if you don’t love me anymore.

The Crystal Cathedral Double-Down

Religions News Service recently ran an article on the restoration and rebranding of the Crystal Cathedral as the “Christ Cathedral” for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. If you head over to that article you can watch a promotional video explaining the church’s vision for the revamped campus they purchased for $50+ million. The campus’ extensive restoration is expected to be completed in 2016.

The idea of faith communities purchasing and repurposing property for ministry is hardly a new thing. Still, the audacious nature of the project seems at odds with the popular leadership of Pope Francis. Cathedrals, in and of themselves, are an interesting concept in the way they’ve historically coupled religious and political power. The potential symbolism of the project for a thriving diocese seeking to reassert itself is hard to miss.

A remark made in the promotional video by Mark Dios, the landscape architect hired for the project, caught my ear.

“So we’ve really thought about how you make a space feel sacred. And how do you do that for the Cathedral? That as you arrive, all of a sudden you are in this moment of awe and you feel the presence of God.”

A few years back, I spent a delayed honeymoon with my wife in Italy. For days we explored Rome and visited as many of the various churches and Cathedrals as we could. So many of these buildings are exemplars of ingenuitive architecture and home to some truly incredible works of art. They are indeed impressive and do fill one with awe.

But I must confess that I was troubled as much as I was moved. Was the awe I felt an authentic experience of God or something more terrestrial? Does it matter how many of those projects were funded by abusive practices that took advantage of the piety of the faithful? If their grandeur inspires good works and generosity, at what point does any bad karma get paid down?

Of course, critiques about frivolous spending might be launched at most any religious building project. Perhaps the building of such edifices, and the awe they inspire within us, reflect something deep and primitive about our spiritual longings–some need for a corporeal locus of worship we can’t quite evolve beyond.

Still, this truth about us is painful when the cost of such beauty isn’t matched by a vitality of ministry to those in need. Let us pray that the Diocese of Orange continues to develop and grow their ministries for those who have not a single roof over their heads to take for granted, let alone one made of crystal.

Photo Credit: Image used under Creative Commons from Alejandro C.