Magazine article The Christian Century

Clutter Buster: A Church Clears a Path

Magazine article The Christian Century

Clutter Buster: A Church Clears a Path

Article excerpt

YES, WE ALL KNOW that the church is not a building or a steeple. Yet I believe that a church building is often an outward and visible sign of a congregation's spiritual condition. I learned this during my pastorate at Saints and Sinners (not its real name), when I spent more time on property concerns than I had ever imagined possible. Like many city congregations, Saints and Sinners is getting smaller and smaller and losing ground in the struggle to maintain a large aging building. As one colleague put it, "A lot of us are one furnace failure away from closing."

When I first walled into Saints and Sinners, I knew that I was in a worship space cherished by church members. The large brick structure was rebuilt after a fire in the late 1930s. It's a handsome building trimmed in peach marble, with a steep slate roof rising to a steeple topped with a cross. On one comer, oak doors decorated with intricate wrought-iron hinges open onto stairs leading up to the narthex. Light filtered through blue and red stained-glass windows and rested on oak pews and a pulpit of elaborately carved wood.

Even here, though, I saw signs of decline. The altar was covered by a crumpled altar cloth under scratched Plexiglas. A three-quarter-sized plaster Jesus stood with eyes downcast and arms outstretched; on his right hand, three fingers were broken off. The dull red carpet was threadbare in places; when we replaced it we discovered that it was more than 50 years old. Near the entrance was a deep scorch mark in the shape of an iron, probably left by someone trying to remove wax from the carpet.

The rest of the building registered decline more acutely. Painted walls were scuffed and peeling. Carpeting was worn and stained--and clutter was overtaking the place.

I can relate. Like many of us, I'm overwhelmed by my own accumulation of stuff, and congregations are the same. As one colleague astutely observed, people feel free to leave items in church buildings, but no one takes responsibility for getting rid of anything. Partly it's a matter of will and energy. But it's also a question of ownership. Members don't feel they have the authority to get rid of anything. Besides, we tell ourselves mournfully, no one is using the old youth room anyway, so ...

More than once our church received unsolicited "donations"--bags of clothing left on the steps, a tattered, overstuffed chair that we had to call the city to remove. But most of the stuff comes from our members. Usually they have some vague notion that the church will find their discarded items useful or pass them on to someone who will Sometimes the stuff is left over from one of our flea markets. Many members live in small row houses that have little storage space, so they use the church. The parsonage contained two cabinet sewing machines belonging to a member who had no place for them but didn't want to get rid of them. A large part of the church basement was a makeshift workspace that held tools used by members for repairs and property projects--and many other tools stored there by a church member. We also had several members who never came across an object that didn't suggest a likely potential for future use--and then brought it to the church.

When I arrived I explored the building and discovered one large storage closet packed from top to bottom with plastic grocery bags; another was filled with boxes of glass water pitchers. Stacks of milk cartons held empty jars. In the basement narrow trails led through teetering piles of rusty buckets, televisions, small appliances and tools.

The clutter had claimed what the congregation called the Scout room, although Boy Scouts had not convened there for years. A mildewed couch and matching chairs in faded blue velour hid a gorgeous stone fireplace. I found a display case filled with trophies won by a congregational softball team. A large locked metal cabinet contained karaoke equipment.

In a large Sunday school room across the hall, storage cabinets held craft supplies, including yellowing paper and tins filled with thousands of crayons. …

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