Ministry in Context

Tacky's vision of success

My old pal Pastor T. Albert “Tacky” Carlson was in town visiting his in-laws over the holidays, so we got together for a cup of coffee and some catching up. Tacky served at Melanchthon Memorial Lutheran Church down the street before giving up on snow shoveling and taking a call to St. Susan by the Seashore down in Florida a few years ago.

“Not much of a winter you’re having here,” he greeted me, clad in a classic Norwegian winter sweater and slurping on a peppermint mocha with a piece of lemon pound cake half eaten in front of him. “I’m kind of disappointed. Makes it hard for me to rub it in about Florida.”

“Might be brown, but we still think it’s a good day when the mercury reaches 30,” I surrendered.

We chatted about family and friends a bit, then got down to the serious business of conversation.

“How are things at St. Susan these days?”

“Terrific. Just terrific.”

Since Tacky, an upper Midwest Scandinavian by birth and heritage, is not given to shows of excess enthusiasm, I was amazed.

“Tell me more.”

“Worship attendance is down 50% in the last two years, and there are only enough children in the Sunday School for one big class. We don’t have any kids in confirmation any more, and giving is plummeting so much that it’s all the church can do to pay my salary. So things are terrific.”

Trying to figure out what was going on here, I stalled for time.

“How did you achieve all this?”

“Well, there used to be three worship services, and we cut it back to one. Fortunately I had kept all my old sermons from Melanchthon Memorial, so I just started with the ones from the late 70’s and I’m going ahead from there. We moved Sunday School and Confirmation to Saturday mornings at 7:30 a.m., so that we’re not competing with worship and I can get to the golf course by 9. We used to go visit people who had visited at worship, but we’ve stopped doing that. We just more or less ignore them now. Matter of fact, I don’t visit anybody any more. And we stopped updating the church website. That was too much trouble. I guess it’s still there, but nobody ever does anything to it.”

“Tacky, I don’t quite know how to say this, but…do you really think this is being successful?”

“Sure it is, Stanley.” (He always calls me “Stanley,” because he has seen my name show up that way on pre-printed name tags so often.) “You gotta be up with the times. I read this article in the Huffington Post a while back that basically said that if your congregation is growing, you must be selling out to sentimentality and the consumer mindset. It said that if you’re really faithful to the gospel, your church will shrink because people are resistant to the truth. So if you’re shrinking, you’re being successful. Well, I figure we’re as good at shrinking as any church in Florida. I used to feel guilty because we weren’t growing, but now I know that shrinking is the thing to do, and I feel much better about myself.  Now tell me what’s up with those Vikings.”

You can always count on Tacky to have his finger on the pulse of what’s happening. It was good to see him, but if too many churches succeed in the way that St. Susan’s by the Seashore is succeeding, we’re in big trouble.

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