“What if I volunteered to be the church custodian?”

There is a story behind this question, as you would probably guess. In 1989 I was appointed to start a new United Methodist congregation in Jackson, NJ, a town of 106 square miles. If you have a road atlas that lays New Jersey out across two pages, look where the staple lands; and that’s probably Jackson — absolute dead center of the state.

An exciting appointment, Jackson had been experiencing explosive growth of young families. But the three church charge that had been there for years was not attracting these new folks (only one of the three had running water, one had an outhouse that was still in use). All three churches were struggling financially and trying to support a full-time pastor for the charge.

The three churches were given the choice – merge and create a new congregation, or the conference will start a new United Methodist plant to reach these new neighbors. None of the three wanted to give up their beloved buildings, so the new church start was put in motion; and I was selected to be the pastor of the “mission in Jackson.”

One of the three churches decided to close as the new plant was started, and it sent three couples to help get the new church going. The congregation celebrated the last worship service in their little sanctuary, locked up the church and the outhouse; and that was it.

After about a year had passed, we decided we would see if we could sell that little church building before it deteriorated from non-use. The day the for-sale sign was placed in front of the church, I got a call from a man who lived on the street. He proceeded to tell me with anger and frustration that we couldn’t sell that church; his grandfather had helped build the church and had been a trustee of the church. He had gone to the church as a child, but I knew that he hadn’t been to the church in years.

I tried to explain how selling the church was a good thing. People would get in and fix it up. I explained that abandon churches tended to deteriorate quickly because no one was in then to see problems and fix them, and they were ripe fruit for vandalism. That’s when he said those words I’ll never forget:

“What if I volunteered to be the church custodian?”

Somewhere inside me, some little filter clicked into the off position — like the safety on a gun.

“Barry (not his name), let me get this straight. You want to be the custodian of the church now that it’s closed, and people aren’t coming anymore? The church that isn’t open anymore doesn’t need a custodian. It needed you when it was struggling to keep its doors open, struggling to be in ministry with the community. That’s when this church needed you! It needed your time; it needed your talents and your gifts. It needed someone to take care of it when it was still a church, and where were you? Now it’s closed, and you want to volunteer to be the custodian. It’s too late, don’t you think?”

Barry got the last word in: “I can see this conversation is going nowhere!” and he hung up the phone on me. And that was the last time I ever spoke to him.

Years later, a mutual friend said Barry felt terrible about the way he had spoken to me and that he had hung up on me. I told this friend that I wasn’t hurt by it and that I was probably more direct with him than a pastor needed to be.

There are so many lessons for us in this story:

  • Don’t wait until your church has died to realize it needs you to take care of it, to support it with time, talent, and money.
  • Remind your congregation “the church is not a building, the church is a people.”
  • Ask the question: “If this church closed, would anyone who was not attending here notice?”
  • Consider borrowing a “For Sale” sign and putting it out in front of the church. Like it did for me, it might provide for an interesting teaching moment.