Grassroots Church has been our home church for the past 10 years. It has played no small role in our spiritual journeys and an integral component to our social lives, our parenting approach, the development of our worldview, our approach to social issues and so much more. Through this community’s example, we have learned what intentionality looks like and what can be accomplished when intentionality is employed by a large group of people. Over the past decade, we have been able to wrestle freely with matters concerning our faith time and again without fear of backlash or rejection should we not arrive at the majority consensus. There has always been made room for doubt and questioning and even disbelief, yet it is clear that some unseen Force continues to draw us and the entire community to follow Jesus.
Having both grown up outside of strong denominational ties, Rhonda and I have been a part of many church communities and traditions over the years, all of which have offered something of value that we cherish and that has contributed in some way I’m sure, to where we’re at and who we are today. In all of our experience with the various churches and denominations, there has not been a community that has resonated as deeply and as meaningfully as Grassroots. When we began attending way back when, there was a real sense that we had come home; that we had discovered a group of people with similar faith stories, church experiences, ideas and questions about their faith as us. It makes sense, I think, as we consider how the church itself was borne out of a restlessness and profound sense that church was meant to be fundamentally more than a social gathering. That ethos has carried forth over the past 20 years and is what continues to draw us to this community, as challenging and uncomfortable as it can be at times. Admittedly, there have been seasons in which that fervor for resisting institutionalized religion and social club mentality have waivered, and we coalesce to that which is comfortable and easy, yet that restlessness and calling out of such missteps persists in conversations between community members, messages from the front and leadership meetings until, eventually, we seem to find our way back.
There’s no question that Grassroots has been an integral component of our life and many of our closest friends’ lives over the past decade-plus, which is why the latest turn of events requires no shortage of contemplation as we develop our path moving forward.
A few weeks back it was announced that our current pastor of 5 years and his family have decided to move on to other ministry work in the US. I hold no ill will toward our pastor for this decision – it makes perfect sense on a number of levels. Be that as it may, the announcement comes at a challenging time for our community. This challenge is multifaceted and, from my vantage point as an outsider-with-a-small-leadership-role, seems to have been in the making for a while now, beginning even before our pastor arrived.
The most significant challenge, it seems, is an increasingly community-wide fatigue. There are a number of reasons that have led to this growing fatigue among the community, not least of which has been life itself – juggling jobs, kids, education, etc. while maintaining an organization of 200+ people called to care for each other and the world around us in some meaningful and intentional way. These things are tough for any church community to carry on but I suspect is exponentially more so for independent communities with no ties or affiliations to any larger denominations that might otherwise provide resources and assistance, particularly in challenging times.
Challenging times have certainly been no stranger to our community, surely adding to the fatigue. There have been a number of tragic circumstances take place with church families over the past few years and each has required no small amount of processing and grieving and trying to make sense of things. Of course, this too is a part of any church, but close-knit communities, I suspect, tend to feel the weight of tragedy at a deeper level and its impact long-lasting. Grassroots is certainly that.
Throughout this pandemic, the growing communal fatigue has developed into outright exhaustion. Pandemic exhaustion is a thing in and of itself, of course, what with dealing with isolation and learning to live life within the ever-changing public health parameters imposed on us as individuals. This has certainly taken a toll on the mental health and well-being of the most stalwart. But then impose this underlying pandemic exhaustion we feel as individuals on to an entire community trying to navigate this new COVID context and that exhaustion becomes amplified. No doubt there aren’t any churches that have found these past 15 months a breeze and Grassroots is certainly not an exception in this regard. Caring for the unique needs that COVID has brought about, including the ongoing stresses, fear and anxiety that daily impact community members’ lives, on top of the already challenging need to navigate through these unfamiliar waters has taken its toll on a community’s energy supply.
And it’s not just the exhaustion that concerns me about this community I love. From the few congregational meetings I’ve experienced, struggling to make annual budget goals has been a consistent if not predictable part of the history of our community. Most recently, I imagine this has only been amplified after 15 months of irregular church services, the ongoing building maintenance costs and so forth.
So here we find ourselves, with the pandemic’s end in sight, we’ve a community in desperate need of being attended to, cared for and nurtured in its wake; a pining for church life to resume; a leadership worn down and exhausted; financial challenges and the pastor and his family moving on.
That said, all hope is not gone for a brighter and more beautiful tomorrow at Grassroots. In fact, there is much to be optimistic about. The past 5 years, in particular, our pastor has helped establish a number of processes and structures that will help facilitate transition periods such as this. There is a mission and a vision in our community that centres us and of which will help guide us into whatever is next, allowing us the means of staying on course and living with intentionality. I’m encouraged, too, just by looking back and considering all that our community has endured since its inception, with its many trials and challenges along the way. There’s a tenacity that has been built into the very fabric of this church community as a result of all of this and I see no reason for that resolve to let up now. To this end, there is a leadership team in place whose character, work ethic and sensitivity to what Spirit is doing instills a lot of confidence.
And finally, though there may be fatigue, there is no shortage of passion for Grassroots itself. Although every Grassrooter I’ve chatted with recently might have a different opinion as to what the next step should be for Grassroots, there is a common feistiness and an energy that undergirds their opinions. In other words, I’m not seeing a lot of apathy or indifference happening and as contentious and challenging as that can be on the one hand, it at least demonstrates that people value our church community and its history and all the work that has gone into making it what it is today far too much to let this be its last chapter.
Be that as it may, we are in for some challenging days ahead of us which leads me to what I believe to be an interim and, potentially, even long-term “solution” to my church’s predicament and which happens to coincide with this week’s #2021WritingChallenge word: lean.
When life pounds away at us as individuals, many of us tend to adopt a survival strategy that utilizes the community around us for support. We lean into those nearest us for encouragement and sympathy, for a shoulder to cry on, for guidance and for whatever else may be needed to help us emerge from the depths of despair our circumstances may have brought upon us. Unfortunately, the idea of leaning against others to help support and sustain us in our time of need receives a lot of flack in our individualistic society as it signals weakness and that we don’t have enough within to conquer our problems. Being dependent on others is a stain on our reputations, something to be ashamed of and so forth. This poor reputation of leaning is in need of serious reparations. It needs to be fundamentally understood as a sign of humility and even wisdom. Those who have opted to disregard this stigma of depending on others and have chosen to lean in to others, whether out of wisdom or desperation, will attest it was instrumental to their own survival.
If this is the case with individuals, I think it’s warranted for a church community in our situation to take a similar approach. We need to reject any supposed negative connotations of looking to outsiders for help and fully take advantage of the resources and supports available to churches confronted with similar situations as ours.
Here’s how church leaning looks practically: we join another church. Currently, we are an independent, non-denominational community church with almost 2 decades of history. As noted earlier, we’ve survived to this point but we’ve now arrived at a crossroads. We need help. The time has come for Grassroots to lean into other organizations to help prop us up in order to become the Jesus community we’re called to be.
So let’s begin with the assumption that, once again, we need help. The last time we found ourselves at a similar crossroads, this need for help materialized in the hiring of a pastor who we essentially burdened with the task of carrying the community forward. Maybe it was not said directly (or maybe it was?) but this is how it seemed to work out practically. Our pastor has spent the past 5 years working diligently at ensuring Grassroots carried on. That it survived and thrived. Of course, he wisely utilized a leadership team and a community to help alleviate the pressure, but ultimately it all seemed to land on the shoulders of one man. This was unintentional, of course, and unfortunate that it played out this way but we don’t have to repeat this course of action.
Individuals can’t carry this weight, no matter how fantastic of a leader he or she may be. And although leaning into other organizations and joining another denomination or church umbrella is not a panacea, it’s a step in the right direction toward alleviating the pressures imposed on the community as a whole. Whereas it is unfair and unhealthy to expect an individual to perform this task, it is not unreasonable to expect an organization to become the brace we need to lean on in this season.
The Meeting House, located in Oakville, Ontario, for instance, is a well-established church with a number of satellite campuses/churches throughout southern Ontario and other arms-length Christian communities that fit under its umbrella located around the world. Its motto, “A church for those who aren’t into church,” seems to capture the vibe that Grassroots has always pursued. In fact, it was this vibe that drew us and many others we know to Grassroots in the beginning. The Meeting House is part of the Be in Christ denomination, an unabashedly Jesus-centric Anabaptist denomination primarily centred around the teachings of Jesus. They provide weekly messages that are not just inspiring but practical and firmly grounded in the pursuit of following Jesus and seeing his Kingdom realized through each of us and through the community itself. These teachings are disseminated through a well-oiled machine to each satellite community and then reiterated and drawn upon in weekly small groups, which is itself a fundamental component of the Meeting House’s overall ministry and the embodiment of their ecclesiology.
The teachings can provide a significant contribution to helping foster and grow the Grassroots community but that’s only a small element of the advantages I see in joining a larger, established church community and/or denomination. Other decidedly non-sexy aspects to an organization, including policy development, governing structure, accountability models, doctrinal positions and so much more are well established and thus can be gleaned and adopted/adapted by our local community. For a community as spent as Grassroots, having these systems in place has the potential to provide incredible support.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be The Meeting House. Maybe it’s another organization with the capacity of taking on a community like ours and providing the bracings needed for us to lean against in order to carry on. Regardless of who or what the specifics might be, the discussions should probably begin now with appropriate personnel, deliberating on potential options deemed most viable and feasible for either side.
All signs suggest our much-loved community is in need of at least entering into serious contemplation of what it might look like to let loose our independence as a community and lean into others as we enter this next season of life together. The heavy fatigue that has defined us for the past few years won’t be lifted until something gives. Leaning on others is not a sign of weakness or failure but rather of wisdom and, let’s be honest, desperation.