When Rev. Tim Jackson was appointed to lead Vestal United Methodist Church and Magnolia Avenue United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, they were dying congregations whose buildings were empty most of the time.
Vestal UMC had a Christian education building that had sat empty for three years. It hosted no Sunday school classes, no youth group, no vacation bible school. And, in pursuit of all that God was calling these churches too, Rev. Jackson made sure it never would again.
Rev. Jackson partnered with city officials, interior designers, and private firms to turn the 7,500 square foot, three-story building into 18 double occupancy apartments for people aging out of foster care. As a person who had experienced homelessness when he was young, Rev. Jackson felt particularly close to this need, and saw it as a way to do God’s work in the city.
This is a feel-good story that demonstrates all the good churches can do, and is good news for a group of young people who now have access to safe, secure housing. But you know who it isn’t really good news for?
The congregation at Vestal UMC. Not because the new residents are any kind of an issue, or because they needed that space, or any real cost to them, but because transforming the building meant acknowledging, in an irrevocable way, that not only did they not have a childrens and youth ministry now, but they probably never would again. They would probably never have a wave of young families joining the church, they would never have a youth choir or a big Christmas pageant.
To make the best possible future for these eighteen young people, Vestal UMC had to bet against their own.
Can you imagine the church council meetings? The perhaps unspoken reality of what a decision like this meant for them? Can you imagine the bravery and the vision it would have taken to make it anyway?
Churches often get easily seduced by good-ole-days thinking that promises that when this particular moment (football season, the pandemic, this pastoral transition) is over, the church will return to some perceived glory days where every chair is filled. Vestal UMC’s decision to permanently convert this large Christian education building into housing is making a group public admission of the reality that the days when they would need such a building are never coming back.
And that building would be used for the glory of God, regardless.
That congregation seeing what God was calling them to for their future meant being willing to give up on what God had called them to in the past. As many institutions look towards the future, they’re forced to reckon with these trade-offs in more subtle ways – do we invest money in existing programs or new ones? Do we maintain this storefront, or find a new one? – and, in organizations with the padding of foundations or institutional support, it’s easy to avoid making tough decisions.
Vestal UMC is an example of how sometimes the toughest possible decisions are the ones where God has the most room to work.
This week, look around your organization and consider what God might be calling you to give up on to make room for something new, and try to imagine how accepting that you are never returning to the good-ole-days might give you the permission to create even better days ahead.