Monday, March 8 proved to be an interesting day at Trinity, a large United Methodist Church, located just outside of Richmond, Virginia.
The day started with an unhappy fire alarm panel projecting a high pitched warning sound. This was followed by the discovery of a leaking hot water heater, a boiler in alarm, and a back up battery for the church’s internet server failing.
As songwriter, John Phillips, wrote in his ode to Monday—“Monday, Monday can’t trust that day.”
Monday usually gets a bad rap, but if you are the caretaker for a sprawling church building, things can go wrong any day of the week.
To top those little building challenges off, I had to prepare for our monthly Trustees meeting to be held via Zoom later in the day. I’ll give our Trustees credit, they have embraced the Zoom technology. This has allowed us to keep tabs on our building and grounds during the pandemic.
Made up of volunteers from the congregation, Trustees bring a wide range of experiences and expertise to the table. In all my years of working with Trustees, we have worked through a variety of challenges and requests. While reaching consensus isn’t always easy, the discussions and the lens used to assess situations is vital to that process.
For this meeting, a number of standard items were on the agenda. But, our senior pastor tossed into that mix some questions related to COVID-19— how were we positioned for a much anticipated reopening?
As important as those questions were, this group of Trustees had two critical decisions in front of them: approving the final phase of our exterior signage project and whether to go a step further in considering a renovation project to help our kids ministry.
The Trustees were coming off a successful renovation project. This project had carved out from existing space a new center for our middle and high school age youth.
Sometimes, in my role as Director of Operations for the church, I gently nudge the curiosity of the Trustees. In this case, could that successful energy from the youth center be harvested to renovate an existing space for our kids ministry?
While our wing for children has served us well, it is showing its age. It looks tired, worn, weary, and dated. A fresh coat of paint is not the answer.
That wing suffers from what I call “congregational tired eyes.” Tired eyes simply means that a congregation has become too complacent about how a section of the building looks including its functionality. Tired eyes are not healthy for a church—they limit growth.
Our Trustees had a good discussion about the merits of renovating a section of the building to help our kids ministry. This discussion was pushed along by a written summary report from our Kids Director. She and her team of parents had recently completed a listening and dreaming session with the same architect we had used in designing the youth center.
With an understanding of the urgency of the need for creating this space, the Trustees approved allowing the architect to develop a very basic scope of work that could be shared with a commercial builder. This would give the Trustees an estimate of the cost of the project.
For a couple of years, our Trustees have been inching toward the finish line for completing an interior and exterior signage project. This need came from work with a consultant and assorted church leadership teams. Our building is cumbersome for a first time guest, and even members can have trouble navigating.
During the pandemic, we were able to remove all of the old interior signage and have all of the new signs installed. The new signs are a significant improvement, and they also include way finding signs at key entry points and intersections.
Preliminary renderings of exterior signs from the signage company had been submitted to the Trustees to review. From that first examination, some tweaks were made, and now the Trustees had the final proofs to review and approve.
The vice-chair for the Trustees led this discussion. She had been involved with the project from the beginning. Her leadership and diligence had kept the project moving.
As noted earlier, Trustees bring a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and expertise to the group. And the discussion about the exterior signs was going well until a Trustee brought the words—Flemish bond into the discussion.
The Trustee was referencing the brick pattern used on every square inch of our building’s exterior. Flemish bond is a very traditional brick pattern and an expensive one to install.
For this Trustee, he was concerned that the shape of the proposed exterior signs were nontraditional—the signs were not square or rectangular in shape. He believed the proposed different shape of the new signs would be a distinct and significant contrast to the traditional Flemish bond pattern.
As you might imagine, this observation created quite a discussion. Our co-chair diplomatically countered the Flemish bond assertion with some insights from the designer of the signs.
And having been a part of the signage project since the beginning, I was asked to offer an opinion too.
My response tried to focus on what seemed obvious to me—how many members of our church or even a first time guest would recognize the brick pattern as Flemish bond?
I think most guests are going to say what an attractive building, but only a handful might say it is attractive because of the brick pattern selected by the architect.
Additionally, I stated that only a few people might say—“the shape of those exterior signs is in contrast to the traditional Flemish bond brick work.”
More comments and discussion took place, and finally a motion was made for a vote.
The non-traditional shaped signs were approved.
Even though the traditional shaped signs were not approved, the Flemish bond observation did offer valuable insights about vision, perspective, experiences, and tradition.
Churches are steeped in traditions.
But sometimes, I sense that churches can become too anchored to those traditions. In some instances, traditions can become an inflexible paralysis for a church. If this happens, churches can become very one dimensional in everything that the church offers.
Some church members are like that—one dimensional. They only participate in one aspect of the church. That is their only interaction in the life of the church. This in turn can limit their vision and understanding of the church.
Ideally, Trustees need to be able to see and understand the church they serve from a variety of angles and lens. A one dimensional mind set from the Trustees could prove to be debilitating for a church.
Flemish bond, traditional shaped signs, non-traditional shaped signs was a good learning experience for the Trustees.
But is there a deeper lesson here for churches?
I think the answer is yes.
COVID-19 turned the world upside down. Churches are and were a part of that flip.
Perhaps, this pandemic has given churches an opportunity to rethink, re-examine, and maybe recast their futures.
What can churches learn from the traditional Flemish bond as they contemplate the patterns of their pasts?
Could this be a time to appreciate that our well-established patterns have sustained us for years, while also asking will these predictable templates continue to sustain us into the future?
More importantly, isn’t this the moment to ask—if we are going to continue to connect with people and build relationships with them are those time honored traditions going to connect with people who have never had a church life or church to call home?
While important, my hunch is those traditional Flemish bonds, the predictable programs, the worn-out facilities in a church need to be gently jolted like a seismic shift in tectonic plates.
A one dimensional vision, grounded in the past is not going to sustain a church in this post-pandemic world.
After that 90 minute Trustee meeting, I was ready to go home—ready to put a challenging Monday behind me.
But, I was also appreciative of what Monday had given me—Flemish bond— a lesson in vision from the past and the future.