Measuring a Lifetime of Ministry
The musical Rent posed the question: “How do you measure a year in a life?” This is an apt question for the church, as well. How do we measure a year in the life of a congregation? What metrics might we use to gauge the fullness, faithfulness, graciousness, with which we live our lives of faith over a year? What would we use to make that determination over the entire life of a church?
In the role of General Presbyter, I get to celebrate milestones with congregations. When a child of the church is ordained to be Minister of Word and Sacrament, I am there. When a new pastor begins their ministry at a church, I am there. When a congregation celebrates a significant anniversary, I am there. One of the best parts of my job is taking part in those joyous moments, but those anniversaries often present the best opportunity to answer that opening question.
Inevitably, the 75th, 100th, or 125th anniversary of a church is the chance for the Anniversary Committee to dig through the closets and rediscover relics of the church’s past: pictures, foamboard displays, commemorative plates, and, frequently, a paper church timeline with all the history of the congregation stretching out for thirty or forty feet. These timelines are the sort of things that are added to every ten or fifteen years so that the beginning of the timeline has yellowed significantly compared to the end.
The first time I encountered one of these timelines I was serving a church in Oklahoma City. Another church in the presbytery was celebrating, perhaps, a 100th anniversary and I went to celebrate with them and enjoy some punch. Their timeline was the best I have ever seen, even since that day - perfectly done with exquisite calligraphy and pictures spaced exactly. Seemingly every event that took place in that church, every Vacation Bible School, every pastor, and church educator was featured on this timeline. It was wonderful. The church’s history was placed below a timeline of world events like the Great Depression, the Moon Landing, and September 11th to give historic perspective. At the very bottom of the timeline in five-year increments was the membership of the church written in large red calligraphy. It charted the rise, plateau, and fall of a once prominent church. Witnessing the church members experience their history on that timeline, I always worried that the takeaway would be that red number and not the sum of a hundred years of ministry.
I had a similar but different experience last Sunday at the 90th anniversary of Yale Avenue Presbyterian Church. Their timeline stretched across three walls. A timeline that I suspect was originally created for the 50th anniversary had been added to on numerous occasions since then. I love the history of churches, so it was an engrossing experience to see pictures of the founding of the church, then the move into an old Army Chapel, before the current building was built. It was delightful to see ministry, fellowship, youth events, pastors, elders, baptisms, weddings, and so much detailed over so much space. The pictures depicted a worshipping community that deeply loved one another, their community, and God for 90 years…. and not once did it mention membership numbers or worship attendance figures.
How do you measure a year in the life of ministry? How do you measure a lifetime of ministry?
Rev. Tim Blodgett