When I first announced a few weeks ago that I would be preaching a sermon on Marie Kondo’s book, one of you very kindly and graciously asked me if I knew that Mark had also preached on the same book this past spring. And I was very grateful to have learned of that. I, of course, soon thereafter, did a search for his sermon and was quickly reassured that he and I were approaching this topic from different angles.
Not surprisingly, his was a reflection on the decluttering that was required of him as a minister leaving a church and a parsonage after more than 2 decades of inhabiting both spaces. When I first decided to preach on this book…drawing on the packet of theme-based worship materials…I was thinking this could be a good topic for the interim time, especially if we look at it metaphorically, as an opportunity for you, as a congregation, to consider what you want to keep and what you are ready to let go of in order to make room for the arrival your next minister.
Plus, I thought, I already have that book
When I first went to look for the book, however, I discovered that I had apparently given it away during a recent book purge. So I went to the library to check it out because I could not in good faith begin a sermon-writing process on decluttering by going out to buy another copy of a book I had already given away while decluttering.
As I was rereading the book in preparation for this sermon, I came across Marie Kondo’s section on the discarding of books in which she says…
“Keep only those books that will make you happy just to see them on your shelves, the ones that you really love. That includes this book, too. If you don’t feel any joy when you hold it in your hand, I would rather you discard it.”
Which is exactly what I’d done
Let it be known that I do not have a passion for decluttering or for books about decluttering. They do not spark joy for me. Not long after we were married, my wife, Cathy, and I discovered that we have somewhat different levels of tolerance for clutter. If she were here, she would say we have very different levels of tolerance for clutter. But we have learned to manage our differences reasonably well. I feel affirmed periodically by articles that identify clutter as a sign of high intelligence and creativity. And a few years ago, I hung a sign on the wall of my office at home, that says: “Those who are organized are just too lazy to look for things.”
But every now and again I do begin to feel somewhat overwhelmed or overburdened by my stuff and I go through a process of decluttering or discarding. I have done this in recent years most successfully with my clothes. I no longer have off-season clothing stored in the attic. My shirts are folded somewhat neatly and stored standing upright in the bureau drawer so that I can see and touch them all, in accordance with Marie Kondo’s instruction.
I have not made such progress with my papers, and I am, frankly, more ambivalent than ever about doing it with my books. All of which is to say that I’m not an expert on decluttering. I’m just an interim minister who thinks metaphorically and believes there might be something important here for the kinds of congregations I am blessed/fortunate enough to serve.
Marie Kondo says, “When you put things in order you discover what you love,” and that “putting your house in order will help you find the mission that speaks to your heart.” And I think both of those things are as true for congregations as they are for individuals. And, it turns out, I’m not the only minister who thinks that.
Mike Gregg, a Baptist minister in Georgia, has written, in an article called “Tidying Up the Church,” that he is…
…enamored with this unique book because [he thinks] it contains practical and psychological crossovers for the institutional church…
It is important for churches to discard the things in their ministries, buildings, and budgets that don’t lead to the overall vision and mission of the church.
And another minister, Karl Vaters, a consultant and author who specializes in small churches, would agree. I’d like to quote from him rather extensively here (from “How to De-Clutter Your Church for More Effective Ministry,” in Christianity Today). He says:
The healthiest churches are relentless about being effective, not just busy. They trim off anything that saps time and energy. They refuse to be burdened by clutter. They do this by following the Closet Rule.
Don’t add a new ministry until you’re willing to lose an old ministry
Note that when he says “ministry” we might instead say “program” or “event” or “committee.” And this really struck me because, in my conversations with quite a few of you, I have heard echoed a longing for the church to provide more opportunities for people to connect with one another – more social events, more adult religious education, and the like – outside of committee meetings. And this is a wonderful aspiration and something that we’ll definitely work on accommodating during this time. But it did make me wonder things like…is there ample room in the church calendar, in terms of building use, to offer more events? And do you have room in your own busy schedules to fit such things in?
Anyway, back to Karl Vaters…
We love having new things [he says], but we hate change. So we add new things without removing old things. This leads to clutter. Physical, emotional and spiritual clutter.
I was guilty of this for many years [he writes]. I would get a new ministry idea from a church leadership seminar or new book. But when I presented it to the church, I’d get black stares. It wasn’t because the church was filled with heel-draggers and vision-killers. It’s because what I saw as an exciting new ministry opportunity, they saw as one more thing to add to their full calendar. The Closet Rule forces us to prioritize…
[He invites us to] Imagine the ministries of a too-busy church as a cluttered closet.
We have all those clothes in the center of the closet that we like and wear regularly. But we also have clothes that make their way to the back and sides – and they stay there. They haven’t been worn in years. But we can’t bring ourselves to toss them even though they cost us valuable space.
Church ministries are the same. Many small church pastors feel like we’re accomplishing very little, even though we’re constantly busy, because we’re trying to do too much.
Any church that’s been around for a while as long-standing ministries that are loved and used all the time. They’re front and center. But we also have ministries that have not aged well. They’ve stopped working, but they still cost precious time and energy. They’ve been shoved to the side but they still take up valuable space. And time. And money. And no, I’m not talking about ministries that may have just a few people in them [he says]. Size has nothing to do with the value of a ministry. It’s about effectiveness.
Then he provides a list of questions for congregations to consider:
• What ministries have ceased to be effective?
• What ministries cost more money, time or energy than they’re worth?
• If we were starting the church today, would we do this?
• What ministries don’t fit the mission or vision of the church?
• Can this ministry be refreshed, or should it be ended?
• What are we doing that we wish we didn’t have to do?
Once a congregation’s members and leaders have had a chance to reflect on these questions and their answers to them, Vaters would say the congregation has three option for each of these ministries or programs. You can choose to renew it. You can replace it with something else that that is more effective. Or you can simple end it and say goodbye.
I haven’t been here long enough to have a sense of what your answers to these questions might be or to even make suggestions of my own. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. But I do believe these are important questions to ask near the beginning of the interim time. For this time of transition is a perfect time to reflect on so-called congregational decluttering.
You have a unique opportunity here. You’ve said goodbye to a minister – and to be honest, in a very real sense, to two ministers – who, through their collective presence for more than 25 years, have helped to shape the culture…and the direction…as well as the programming…and structure…of this church.
When Andrea started her ministry here, I understand this was a much smaller congregation. I don’t know exactly what the membership numbers or attendance numbers were back then, but from what I have understood, this was at that time more of what is called a “family-size” church, and family-size churches do things in a certain way. The focus is often on survival. Decision-making is usually based on doing things the way they have been done in the past. Communication is often informal. Few policies or procedures are written down because “everyone knows” how things are done.*
One of Andrea’s – and perhaps especially Mark’s – contributions over his many years here was to help the congregation grow into what is known as a small “pastoral-size” church. Communication in a pastoral-size church is more complicated than in a family-size church because there are more people with whom to communicate. A mere handful of people can no longer do all that is required. Not everyone does know how to do things here anymore, or who is supposed to do them. And so, under Mark’s leadership you began to really get organized. You formed more committees and learned how to share the work. You began writing more policies and procedures to disseminate the tribal knowledge. New ministries were begun, some of which spun off into successful community organizations.
Many good things have happened here during this time. And all that is to be celebrated.
But again, now you have an opportunity to consider…
What in the congregational culture was Mark and Andrea’s and what is authentically yours?
What habits or ways of being were influenced by their presence that may not represent who you are as a congregation in their absence?
What initiatives or programs were driven by their passion and what it is that you care about most deeply?
What sparked joy for them and what sparks joy for you now? What do you long for now that there may not have been space for previously?
In the passage that served as our reading this morning, Marie Kondo writes about how it can be difficult to decide to discard things. And “when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, [she says] there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.” She suggests that we ask ourselves, about everything we touch, everything we consider, “Am I having trouble getting rid of this because of an attachment to the past or because of a fear for the future?”
The interim time is an opportunity to ask what it is, if anything, that you have held onto – even though it may not spark joy – because of your attachment to the past, to what was, to what always has been?
And what have you held onto – even though it may not spark joy – because of your fear for the future or your longing for stability?
And what, if anything, have you held onto – even though it may not spark joy – not necessarily because of your own collective attachments and fears, but because of the attachments and fears of your long-term ministers?
And keep in mind that not everything we possess – either in our homes or in our congregations – will necessarily spark joy. Not all paperwork sparks joy, but some of it you must keep in order to maintain a household. Likewise, not all activities in a church spark joy, but some of the work must be done to maintain the institution…we’re just talking about decluttering the non-essentials.
Keep in mind, too, that the congregation that will be in search for a new minister next year is very different in some ways from the congregation that was in search for a new minister back in 1992. It’s up to us, now, to discover or uncover the specific ways in which that is true…to clarify what sparks joy for you now, what you’re collective sense of purpose and mission is now, what you collectively long for now, how you want to be together now…and to begin to let go of those things that don’t support those things.
And if you don’t do this work during the Interim time? Well, let’s just say I came across a cartoon this past week of a small person standing before a gigantic trash bag…with a caption that read: “The life-changing magic of shoving everything into a huge hefty bag and leaving it for somebody else to deal with.”
And you don’t want to do that to your next minister.
And so I invite you to join me in thinking about these things over the next few months, whether you’re a seasoned church leader or a relative newcomer. No matter who you are, you’re part of the collective whole, and your perspective is an important one, as we move forward together along this interim path.
*After preaching this sermon, I was informed that the church was very small when Rev. Marc Salkin arrived, but that it had grown quite a bit during his tenure. The congregation may already have been “pastoral-sized” by the time Andrea was called, although still a bit smaller than now.