The Longer Story
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | October 24, 2019Hi friends, like many of you I’m ready for autumn. Not a tease of autumn, where it dips to sixty degrees on Tuesday but is ninety-three again on Friday like we had the other week, but honest-to-God day in and day out sweater weather. Even as I’m writing this, the patio door is open in our apartment and the sun is just a bit too warm for late October. Cooler weather will prevail eventually, and I’ll get to wear my favorite hoodie all the time. But right now it’s still uncomfortable a lot of days.
When the seasons change, we change with them. We adapt. Our wardrobes change from sleeveless shirts to sweaters; our front yards fill with Halloween decorations; our Facebook pages change from back-to-school photos to decorative gourds and pumpkin spice memes.
Congregations have seasons, too, and these likewise require us to adapt. This is where we are at St. Liz right now: we’re in an in-between time, waiting to see what this new season is exactly. We’re shorter on program space than we usually are, and we’re still navigating our two service Sunday schedule. This past spring, for example, was a season of obvious abundance: tons of kids in Godly Play, lots of consecutive Sundays with a packed house. And let’s not forget Easter! Over 200 folks joined us for worship that day, and 44 of them had to sit outside the building—not outside the worship space, outside the building.) At least one family who calls St. Liz home turned around and left because there was no room for them. That lack of space, even on Easter, is something I hope never happens again.
Now, however, we feel as though that abundance is a thing of the past. We’re short on program space because of a curve ball we got in August, and we are worshipping at different times. We’re not having fifteen-twenty kids every Sunday at Godly Play. And since we’ve got two services, during worship the energy in the room feels different—feels less. This is doubly true at the 11am, which looks and flows exactly the way our 10:30am service used to, only now nearly three dozen of the folks who were packing the house this past spring now worship at 8:45am.
All of this feels like a loss of momentum, like things aren’t going well anymore. It feels like our summer leaves are falling off. I’m writing to remind us that this season was always going to feel this way, that all of this is normal, and that the feelings of loss, while very real, are also temporary. They will ease over time.
Remember: while fall is a time of losing leaves, it is also a time of bearing fruit. New folks continue to find their way to us, and folks who’ve left for one reason or another continue to find their way back.
While we’re continuing to see fruit, this is still an uncomfortable season. Some of us are sad about the change, some anxious, some inconvenienced. Remember, though, that this is one season in a much longer story. For example, since September 8th of this year, we’ve had six non-Confirmation Sundays with two services. In those six Sundays, our 11am service has averaged 71 attendees. (Counting Confirmation Sunday, which was big at 11am, skews that number to 77.) After the seams-bursting, 100+ spring we had, that drop to 71 feels like a huge loss of momentum. But remember: we’re averaging 71 people at one of two services. It was only five years ago (2014) that an average Sunday at all of St. Liz’s Sunday services was 71. In reality, our total average Sunday attendance in this new season is more like 103.
I want to repeat that: a few short weeks into our two-service schedule, and at only one of our two services you’ll find as many people as you would have at all of Sunday worship five years ago.
Godly Play has a longer story, too. Given that we don’t have the use of our regular building and GP is temporarily meeting during the 8:45am service, there aren’t nearly as many kids attending right now. Four or five a week isn’t unusual for the past couple months. But remember that it was only three years ago that the norm at Godly Play for the whole year was one to three kids. We’re lower than we’ve gotten used to, sure, but this is temporary. There are kids waiting in the wings for when we’ve got our designated space back and Godly Play is between services. All their friends are at St. Liz; they’re excited for GP to return!
That’s a little of what the data suggests right now, but to borrow a phrase from one of our Bishop’s Committee members, we shouldn’t go to Vegas on these numbers. We are still very, very early in our life as a two-service congregation. We—and I—still have much to discern, and much has yet to reveal itself to us. I’m still pondering, for example, what the best form for our 8:45am service is. I’m also looking for musical help and trying to normalize what the volunteer roles are for that service.
The truth of the matter is that we need to give this a lot more time. We must be still and know that God is God. Do what I do and take deep breaths as needed (which can be often!) Love your friends. Keep an eye on the longer story, the one with a rich past and a far richer future than our current anxieties and limitations. This is true for our ongoing adjustment to two services as well as for finding a way to regain and increase our programmatic space. We are people of the resurrection. We can and must play the long game.
When Bishop Reed was here earlier this month, he said something to me during one of our meetings that he repeated at the 8:45am service. It has stayed with me. He said something like, “At St. Elizabeth y’all are being brave. You’re trying two of the hardest things a church can do: adding a second worship service, and changing the time of the original one.”
I confess I didn’t know that these were “two of the hardest things a church can do” when we started this, but I believe it. I’m still figuring out how best to live and move and have my being as part of a two-service congregation. What I want you to know is that I am proud of you—I am proud of us—for persevering in the midst of our current discomfort. I am convinced that all of this—the unfinished feeling, the in-between’ness, even the anxiety and our grief—it is all simply part of what faithfulness looks like for us right now. Don’t forget why we’re doing this: because God has reposed the Holy Spirit abundantly in you, and folks in our area continue to seek out our community as a haven of worship, friendship, and living, active grace. This is part of God’s call to us.
The changes we’re experiencing, and the discomfort that comes with them, are simply the season we are in. This season has its own challenges and its own opportunities. And it, too, will one day bloom into something new.
As ever, I am grateful to be your priest.
 This accounts for the folks I know of (3-5) who have been attending both services; I have not counted them twice.