Sunday, September 17, 2006

On Pluto’s Feelings and Small Congregations

From the Gettysburg Seminary PO
by President Michael Cooper-White (

After 75 years of appearing on the solar system’s planetary players roster, on August 24th of this year poor little Pluto got dropped from the team. There had long been an ongoing debate about its status among astronomers and others who worry about such things. In part, I suppose, because Pluto was first “discovered” in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh of Illinois, Chicago’s Adler Planetarium rushed to issue a kind of pastoral statement on the reclassification. It noted that “the concept of a planet has changed throughout history.” Before it was realized that our planet Earth orbited the sun, this revolving, rotating very mobile terra firma on which we live and move and have our being was not afforded planet status. Further attempting to soften the blow for our tiny feeble friend who had just been demoted, Dr. Paul H. Knappenberger, Jr. (isn’t that a great name for an astronomer?!) gave assurances that Pluto surely will continue “inspiring and engaging young and old alike in the interesting progress of science!”

Well now, you know that I know that a cold inanimate flying sphere 4.5 billion miles from our terrestrial ball does not have hurt feelings over its reclassification. Pluto didn’t grow smaller, thereby perhaps contributing in some measure to its loss of former status. But if it did have feelings, would Pluto welcome and celebrate or rue and be saddened to now be regarded by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) as a “dwarf planet”? Perhaps Pluto would simply ignore the whole silly debate, and in defiant retort to IAU echo the words of Job 38:4: “Oh high and mighty IAU, where were you when God laid the foundations of the earth (and other planets too)?”

No indeed, planets downgraded to dwarf category don’t have feelings. But congregations do! And millions of members in thousands of small congregations have feelings. There are warm and friendly feelings about the kind of deep and abiding fellowship that is possible when everybody knows everyone else’s name, personal and family history, and often much, much more. While typically unable to muster huge programmatic activity, for many persons small congregations make up for it relational quality, and in enabling members to share their gifts in multiple arenas. Many pastors intentionally forego calls to bigger and better-paying churches because they enjoy and find themselves deeply fulfilled serving faithful flocks in smaller corrals.

But there is the other side, the other set of feelings that go largely unexpressed by members of small congregations. “We’re not important. ‘They’ (especially synod or national church staff) don’t care about us. We can’t afford our own pastor, or maybe even regularly have one fill our pulpit at all. We’re probably dying out here in our little church in our tiny burgh. Sadly, we may have to close our doors before too long. Who will then take care of the cemetery where our loved ones are buried (and where I may be taken before long, too)?

In recent days, I have been privileged to be given a peek through the window into the worlds of some church leaders who really do care about small congregations, and who realize that often their mission outreach and impact, and their benevolence which flows from generous big hearts that beat in the pews of small congregations, are huge. At a gathering of bishops and other synod leaders from Region 8, I discovered the major topic was caring for, supporting and assisting smaller congregations in fulfilling their mission. These regional leaders were joined by ELCA churchwide staff from Chicago who have given much attention and thought to ways small congregations might be helped in discovering sustainable styles of staffing and creative ministry. These folks are motivated by pastoral instincts flowing from deeply driven theological foundations. They take seriously that the church exists where the Word is preached and Sacraments administered (Augsburg Confession VII), regardless of the numbers of hearers and receivers. They take seriously Jesus declaration that where two or three gather, he is in our midst.

Here at the Seminary, we also have a longstanding tradition of taking seriously the people in every place, regardless of congregational size or setting. Especially through our Town & Country Church Institute, hundreds of pastors and other leaders have been prepared and better equipped for service in small congregations. If demographic trends persist and the predictions are borne out, there will be more and more of these communities in the years ahead that are Pluto-sized rather than giant Jupiterian behemoths. Let’s not regard them as dwarf congregations, but as full members of the communion of saints!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

On Fresh Floors and Faithfulness

From the Gettysburg PO
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Fifty years after my first day of first grade, I can still see the shiny floors of Wendell Elementary School as we marched in to begin our educations. The freshly polished planks were products of Henry Soliah’s summer labors. My, how he could make those well-worn wood floors shine! And oh, what pride he took in the overall spic-and-span condition of that little two-story brick schoolhouse entrusted to his stewardship! As the remaining five years of elementary school proceeded, I recall never failing to be impressed on the first day of school by the fruits of Mr. Soliah’s summer spit-shining. “How can he make these old floors shine like that?” I wondered each first fall morning as we un-boarded our buses and dutifully paraded into the schoolhouse with that unique post-Labor Day mixture of sadness that summer was ending coupled with excitement about the new school year up ahead.

What most amazes me in my recollection reverie five decades after first setting foot in that little school house, is that I can still recapture the scent of Henry Soliah’s newly-polished floors. The building itself is no longer standing, having gone the way of thousands upon thousands of small-town schools that have closed or been merged during the past half-century. When I return to the place where my roots remain deeply planted, I can no longer see the old schoolhouse. But here a thousand miles to the east of where it once stood proud in the little prairie village, I can still smell the place, especially in this first fortnight of September. And though his bones have long lain buried in one of the little rural cemeteries near Wendell, I can still picture the gentle faithful custodian Henry who loved that schoolhouse, but even more us ragamuffin pupils whose work boots and sneakers would, he knew, soon undo all his summer labors.

You’d think that after a few years, Henry Soliah might have just given up. Oh, to be sure, for the health and well-being of the students and the school’s six teachers, it was important that the building be thoroughly cleaned over the summer break. But he could have started to let slide just a bit the spit-shine routine that left those floors so polished you could comb your hair just by looking down wherever you might be standing on the first day of school. It would not be so for such a self-respecting Norwegian custodial caretaker! No matter how fast his summer labors would be forgotten come the September onslaught of the Crayola-toting pupils, Henry Soliah’s countless hours of summer sweat-drenched labor polishing floors in that un-airconditioned brick building was worth it to him.

Down the road now five decades, I am sadly quite confident that during those half-dozen elementary school years I never once thanked Henry Soliah for all he did for me and my classmates. So, Henry, good and faithful servant, wherever you are in the larger life of God, I thank you now. Henry’s floor-faithful witness might serve us well as a new school year begins here in our own brick buildings miles and decades distant from Wendell Elementary. Work worth doing is worth doing well. “Good enough” papers and presentations can be polished just a bit longer to really shine and make a professor’s heart sing. So in ministry “out there” wherever you might be reading. Just a bit more effort might make that good sermon really great. Or knocking off a half-hour earlier at the office could put a spit-shine on the face of a family member yearning for more time with you at home.

Finally, here on this hilltop, I thank all my good coworkers for the labors of summer past spent spit-shining campus facilities, filing and catching up on record-keeping, polishing syllabi and preparing lectures, getting ready to welcome all our students to the new academic year now beginning. Henry Soliah would be impressed—and Henry’s would be an opinion worthy of our attention!

Michael Cooper-White, President