Shuck and Jive

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Billlings, Montana--John

(Conversations with Bob! Better than watching those late-night television preachers! My turn!)

I started at the beginning of January 2001 at First Presbyterian Church of Billings, Montana. This was the congregation in which Lovely Spouse and I were married in 1983. I followed the minister that married us. He had served there 18 years. He was forced out after all of that time. Someday he and I need to get together and share a sarsparilla.

This congregation had its glory days in the 1960s and 70s. It had at one time over 1500 members and was the largest in Billings. It is no longer the case, of course. Huge megachurches on the edges of the suburbs had sprung up taking many members from mainline churches with their elaborate worship services and what not. When I arrived the membership was around 550 and the vast majority of folks were in their 70s or 80s. Yet it had a strong youth group led by a very competent and compassionate youth director.

The congregation was reeling with many conflicts that were not in the open. They wrestled over theology and worship styles, among other things. Little was communicated to the congregation and there were few opportunities for the congregation's members to communicate with one another. I thought I could be the one who would make it all better. I was in over my head.

The worship wars were the first issue. Complaint, compromise, more complaining, more compromising. Gosh folks, shall we take a vote on every song before we sing it? There are congregations that over the years have developed a culture of complaint. It really takes a great effort to develop a culture of gratitude and service. But I think we succeeded in many respects. I think we ended up getting worship settled fairly well.

We did a great deal in terms of opening lines of communication through "Meet the Pastor" gatherings, church chats, the newsletter, regular staff meetings and so forth. 2001 was one whale of a year for our denomination and the country. Amendments from the General Assembly regarding lgbt issues and, of course, 9/11. All of that hit our congregation full force. Within two months after I started, a group in the church demanded that we join with the Confessing Church Movement. The session declined. The group became more recalcitrant. Soon every member of the church began receiving unsolicited copies of the Layman.

I tried to handle all of that the best I could, but from the beginning, in fact I think before I arrived, there was a group that pretty much had it in for anyone who wouldn't direct the congregation toward their goals. I held church chats every now and then to deal with tough issues such as heterosexual prejudice and the war drums for Iraq. It was in Billings that I became involved with the Jesus Seminar. There is a trifecta for you: the heterosexual problem, the Iraq War, and the Jesus Seminar!

Anyway, I realized after about a year and a half, that I was likely going to get my tail kicked. I certainly wasn't interested in having that happen regarding the color of the carpet or for singing too many or too few praise songs. I made a conscious decision to open the doors and get the church involved in the community. I was going to make it fun and interesting. I started up a number of programs.

One thing about a larger church is that you can do a lot of stuff. We had two worship services on Sunday, education classes for all ages and several for adults. Members of my congregation were on the ground floor in starting the Inter-Faith Hospitality Network to house homeless families and give them support as they seek employment and housing. Our congregation was one of the leading congregations. We re-started the Stephen Ministry and added a service on Saturday night, Rock and Roll Religion. This was a fun service in which we would use popular songs. We had a band made up of church members. It was very informal with communion at every service. After the sermon or talk people would share their reactions. We took turns putting a meal together after the service.

I also started a discussion group BLT (Bible Lunch Time) in which as many as 30 folks would gather from noon to one pm on Wednesdays for discussion of various books on theology, the historical Jesus and so forth.

A parishioner introduced me to the work of the Jesus Seminar and invited me to a conference in Santa Rosa. I was impressed with what happened. These were scholars who taught in colleges, universities, and seminaries and were interested in the historical Jesus. The press about them was overblown and negative. I saw real people seriously trying to discern Christian origins. I was impressed with how the scholars worked collaboratively. Many in the congregation really liked that. They were the ones who generally liked me and my sermons. Some people in the church thought this scholarship was threatening and that my sermons stunk.

We reached out to the colleges. We did stuff with other churches, allowed our congregation to be used by people in the community, and reached out to Native Americans. We started to get a large number of new members. In fact, during my last year we received 46 new members into the congregation. Yet the opposition was pretty intense. It was very difficult to know how to deal with it. I kept thinking that we would make it. Just around the corner. Hang in there and keep smiling. But that corner never came.

Finally, after four years, I was exhausted physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I wrestled with what to do. I thought of starting my own congregation, even switching denominations in order to stay in Billings. Yet I did not want to split the congregation. I was determined to leave with good feelings. So I went to the session and made a deal. I would resign with four months severance. They were very generous and offered me six months. I ended up taking five before I started my next call.

I look back over this experience again and again, still today. I think what I could have done differently. Maybe I shouldn't have pushed so hard on this or that. Maybe I should have stuck it out. I learned a great deal about how to manage a church (and how not to do so!) I found my voice. I made some wonderful friendships and although I couldn't seem to bring the church together, I did do a lot ministry with and for individuals.

A church member who was also a hospital administrator said that his job was to come in and make a bunch of changes. This would cause conflict in which he would be the focus point and would need to go. But the next person who came in would be able to move the hospital forward. He said that might have been my role. I have decided to think about my time there in that way. I was a long-term unintentional interim. All the people there are sincere people of faith, including of course, the opposition. We just saw things from totally differing viewpoints. I keep them in my prayers and hope that congregation finds its direction. I highly recommend this congregation to a person with a lot of experience.

Both Girl and Boy graduated from Billings West High School. They did just fine. I have deep gratitude for our youth minster who really helped them a lot through their high school years. It is a great youth ministry that does a lot of things. I got to work alongside my associate (who was really more of a co-pastor). We became very close and were able to do a great many creative things in worship.

One sad point. We were hoping to stay in Montana to be close to family. That didn't work out, but we are pleased that we were able to be there for awhile. There is a lot more I could say, but that is probably enough. I have no regrets. I am happy that we had that experience. It is all part of growing.

On to the mountains of East Tennessee for my last post regarding my faith/life story.


  1. Wow John

    The worship wars, been there, done that, have the scars. The theology wars I've avoided. In Oneida I said a couple times that I wished we would have a fight over something important like the Trinity instead of pews or chairs in the chapel.

    Did you notice that we both tried to fix churches that had already kicked out pastors?

  2. The health administrator seems to have had the right idea (though it's better when that's done by an intentional interim, it isn't always possible).

    I've said it before and I'll say it again: If we're not united in the essentials of the faith, we'll spin our wheels and generate heat on adiaphora (like carpet colors, music styles, etc...).

  3. Chris

    While I agree with you in part about the essentials and adiaphora I think churches fight about adiaphora because 1. the members don't know enough about the essentials to fight about them; 2. it's easier to fight about the adiaphora because then the congregation doesn't have to talk about the really important stuff and 3. a lot of church conflict isn't really about faith issues at all. It is about power, personal issues being worked out in public, and sick family systems stuff, with the church acting as the family.

    What I didn't say in my comments about Oneida is that there was a curious pattern that began in the early 1930's. There were two short term pastors in the 30's, a long term pastor in the 40's and 50's, two short term pastors in the 60's, a long term pastor from 69 to 82, two short term pastors in the 80's, then me. The pastor who followed me has already left. Weird, huh?