Using Only What’s There


I have a favorite moment in the movie Apollo 13; it is dear to my heart and serves as a wonderful analogy for those of us in the church.

You may remember it: the space capsule is damaged and orbiting the earth; the astronauts are in communication with the ground but only at a distance.  There is no face-to-face interaction at all, but it is the responsibility of the ground crew at NASA to help the astronauts make it make home safely.

The ground crew is in a room, gathered around a table looking at possible options, when a guy bursts through the door.  His arms are filled with all sorts of flotsam and jetsam – tubes, boxes, and the like.  He drops everything on the table and says, “This is all they’ve got up there in the capsule.  We have to figure out how to solve this using only what they already have.”

See, I love this moment.  As a newly minted minister, it helped me figure out how the church can best function.  So often we look at a master plan, or a constitution, or the newsletter from 1987, as a starting point for putting the life of the church together.  We look for people to fill roles and needs. This can backfire when there is a gap – and then it can turn sad (*sigh* remember when George was still alive?  We always had a clean baptistery when George was alive.) or the panicked (Quick!  Tell the evangelism committee to set their sites on a tenor!  Preferably one who can also ring handbells!).

But remembering that moment in the movie caused me to have my own realization about the way the church can look.  So now, I try to make sure that when someone new joins our midst they start thinking about what it is THEY bring to the table.  Then on a regular basis, we all get together and empty our collective spiritual gifts pockets onto the table and we see what’s there.  That’s what God has given us – ergo that is what we will use.

Now this can be a crap shoot.  For example, I pastor the only church in Kentucky – nay perhaps the country – that has a dearth of sopranos in the choir.  No, really.  But we press on.  We find that there are gifts available that weren’t there five years ago; someone offers to design a new logo, start and maintain a Facebook page, empty the recyling bins,  teach a course on Myers-Briggs and spirituality.  We also find that there are roles that were around twenty-five years ago that don’t need to be filled – and it is a fact that my husband, even as the spouse of the pastor, cannot be the president of the Women’s Mission Circle.

An Apollo 13 approach to church growth and planning may seem a trifle odd.  But if anyone can figure out a way for us to think outside our mission statements and our long range plans – it’s sneaky old Jesus.

By Molly Smothers

Molly Smothers is an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ denomination. She has pastored congregations in Harrison and Montgomery counties in Kentucky. She lives with her husband Leon on a farm in Rowan County, where she has been the minister of First Christian (DOC) for the last five years.  She enjoys klezmer music, and shaving yaks.

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8 thoughts on “Using Only What’s There

  1. I love that analogy and might just borrow it 🙂 My pastor does this and she has led her church in a way that the whole church does the same. I walked in the door, but she kept me in the room and they all sat me at the table. It is an awesome, awesome thing of which to be a part. There is a lot of “there” there and God brings people together who need to be brought together. We just need to be willing to “empty our pockets” 🙂

  2. Amen! Our church eliminated all committees and cut the board to three elders, three deacons, five officers and the pastor. When the administrative assistant resigned, we started using volunteers: ditto for the organist. The result is a thriving little church on the verge of becoming midsize. We’re debt free and extremely mission-driven. God has given every church what it needs to live out its calling. All we need is the faith to be who we are instead of who we used to be!

  3. You are so right. I would also add that we cannot give what we don’t have. Spiritual gifts can’t be financed on credit. I’ve seen myself and others try to do that; all we have done is hurt ourselves and poison the gifts.

  4. WOW – What a concept! Accepting people as they are and accepting what they have to offer as a gift.

    Sounds like some-sort of radical new theology. We had better find some way to regulate it before it gets out of hand and ruins everything.

  5. Thanks for this post. I’m part of a church that has immeasurable gifts, but a lot of us miss the positive in our midst because of “how things used to be.” The choir thing is a challenge at our little burg in Illinois– there have been times that we’ve been outnumbered 7 altos to 2 sopranos. That just means that the 2 of us get to sing really loud. 🙂

    • Norm: 7 altos! Eek. I DID have a church member ask me if a ‘dearth’ of sopranos was akin to a flock of geese or a litter of puppies. Where’s the little burg in Illinois?

      • A voice from the pew — who says we have to have a choir? Why not use the people who like contribute their gift of singing to help lead in worship in a way that does not depend on x number of sopranos, y number of altos and so on. They could sing together to teach the congregation new hymns, songs and musical responses. They could lead the congregation in singing during the worship services. At times, they might be able to “borrow” a soprano from another congregation and do an anthem featuring the visitor along with the other singers. I think that we need to think beyond performance music in worship anyway. Singing together is a powerful force for bonding the congregation. I think that it is a mistake to shortchange it by using a lot of performance music. Granted, you may need to lead your congregation into change such as fewer choral anthems — we don’t like to have big surprises — but with sensitivity and creativity on the part of the minister. I think that it could be done.

  6. Pingback: On Dating , Neediness, and Congregational Transformation | [D]mergent

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