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  • Writer's pictureAlice J Stewart

Gifts, Tools, & the Church

I was recently in a supply closet. There were supplies here and there, and there were some tools. There were a tool belt and a heavy toolbox. The tool belt was handy because I could load up what I needed and have everything at hand for the job to be done. The toolbox was more cumbersome. It had more tools, but it was impractical to haul it around. 

Seeing all those tools got me to thinking that we - as shrinking mainline churches - have our own sets of tools. Today let's think of them as the tools we carry inside of us, individually and collectively. They can include skills and gifts and lessons. 

In our tool belt, we have tools we use so often that we don't even need to hunt for them. A congregation knows in its bones how to whip up a coffee hour. A parishioner knows the Lord's Prayer without looking it up. It seems banal to mention these things, but these are mightily impressive to someone who isn't part of a church. 

Our toolboxes include tools that we have might need to dig around to find. We might not carry them all the time. When a beloved member of the church suffers a significant loss and asks us why evil is in the world, most of us have something useful we've learned about this. 

We may have to think about it for a minute. We may need to remember what our pastor said or recall a bible study when we discussed it. And we may have to pause a moment to put our words in the best way for the situation. But most mature Christians can manage to care instead of cause harm when someone is grieving. 

What do we do when we need a tool but don't have one? We borrow one from a neighbor. Or, at least, that's how I grew up. 

As a church community, when we run into problems, there is usually someone in the congregation who can lend a hand: a plumber, retired bookkeeper, social media maven. We often have these skills in a congregation, but we may need to ask a bit to find them. 

But what if the neighbor doesn't have one? What if we need a tool, but we don't need to use it all the time? We can rent one. I'm a fan of tool rental. I've rented all sorts of things because I only use them once every few years. 

As a church, we can "rent" a person's tool belt as well. Need a website? Outsourcing is what most of us do. Denominational and independent consultants are outstanding outsourcing options for planning projects that are just not in a congregation's wheelhouse. They're usually free, have payment plans, and are always less expensive than hiring someone as an employee. 

Even ongoing assistance can be outsourced. Need an office administrator two hours a week? There are specialized, professional, affordable church office administrators who work remotely all over the country. Honest! 

The two main problems with ongoing tool needs are that some things just can't be outsourced. Printed bulletins and handwritten checks are as hands-on as communal worship and pastoral care. While there are workarounds to bulletins and checks, there aren't for worship and pastoring. 

Our clergy can't clone themselves, although I've seen some attempts. I've known priests who drive to two or three churches on Sundays. I've known pastors who serve churches one Sunday a month while lay people lead on other Sundays. 

Smaller and shrinking churches have tried all sorts of ideas, and we're going to keep trying them. There are terrific ideas out there. There are better ones on the way. 

But we've been asking clergy to carry a lot of tools on their belts. They're carrying even more now. Is it too much? What can we do to help when clergy can't be everywhere for more and more parishioners? 

We can take a few tools and put them on our belt. There are some we can't, that's true. But there is a lot we can. And we may be realizing that there are a few we are going to need to. 

This may sound like asking for more church volunteers. It's not. 

I'm not asking us to volunteer at church more because we've been doing it for ages, and we're really good at it. We can whip together the easy things like bookkeeping and bulletins and the like even if there are only a dozen of us in a congregation. We can even agree on a reasonable budget… eventually. 

No, I'm asking us to learn the things that require us to deepen our commitment and discipleship: pastoral care, preaching, leading a bible study, outreach and evangelism, and others. Mainline churches have a lot of resources for these things, and processes for oversight. We also have a recent history of leaving all this to the clergy. 

It's time we pick up some new tools. We are allowed. We have permission. These tools are gifts the Spirit may give us, and they'll require our effort as well as our prayers and reception. 

There may come a time when our clergy can use every tool in their belt again. And maybe your pastor is perfectly fine! I sincerely hope so!

Regardless, can we commit to learning a new tool? Maybe what we learn won't be needed. But what if the tools we gain *are* needed. What if we can be the hands and feet of Christ? 

It will take time, prayerfulness, and some Googling. Check out your denomination's resources. Check out another mainline denomination's resources. Most are available remotely now. Some are free. 

And if you're interested in a basic preaching class designed for lay people, contact me. I offer a 4-session preaching class… just for you. 

What do you feel called to learn? Clergy, what do you wish you could take off your plate for a bit if the laity were gifted and trained? 


Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

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