When callings and choir robes collide

Balancing the needs of the church with the mission of the church can be as challenging as balancing the budget. 

By Amy Butler

The other day I was remembering my first involvement in a church as an independent adult. My first grown-up church was a big, suburban congregation with a fancy building and lots of fun programming for college students. I think I liked the college minister, or maybe it was the free dinners on Sunday nights…I can’t remember exactly why I went, but I do remember why I stopped going. 

It was the teal choir robes.

After a few months visiting that church I started working on mission projects with other members. We helped out at a homeless shelter. We painted hallways at a local school. We collected and distributed toiletries to people in need. And in all of these activities I burned with passion for the work of the church in the world. No matter what we did, there was so much more I could see that needed to be done. So my Pollyanna self kept harassing the ministerial staff to organize more projects. They must have ducked out whenever they saw me coming, because I kept hearing that there were never enough volunteers and there was never enough money in the budget and we could only do so much.

It turns out that while I was out self-righteously saving the world and also bothering the church staff, there was brewing internal strife about the color of the new choir robes. Factions formed and controversy swirled, all around the acquisition of those choir robes. It was finally decided that they would be teal. Teal choir robes. 

I was outraged. To me, those teal choir robes became a symbol of everything that was wrong with the institutional church.

How could we be arguing about the color of new choir robes, choir robes we clearly did not need, when there were so many desperate needs in our community? This was not the church, I decided. This was an organization of selfish people who had clearly lost sight of the mission of Jesus Christ.

Fast forward 25 years. Now I am sitting on the other side of the desk in the church office, listening to people who come to me with ideas for mission projects and worries that our church is not doing enough to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. I’ve been listening respectfully, of course (and occasionally ducking out), but I wonder sometimes if these people know what I’m dealing with here. We have an annual budget for the year ahead that so far has resisted balancing. We are stewards of a huge, 150-year-old building that consistently needs major repair. There are costs associated with doing worship in this big city and, yes, some of those costs involve the choir. I find myself frustrated. Perhaps these save-the-world types are unaware of how much money it takes to keep the doors open every single day. If they only could see things from my perspective!

Yes, I was thinking those thoughts just the other day, and I remembered the teal choir robes. I remembered my burning indignation that the church was not being the church as it was called to be. I recall my conviction that we could do it -- we could bring about the Kingdom of God right in our own community -- if only we tried hard enough and made do with the old choir robes.

Looking back at my activist past with the perspective of time and experience, I now feel the need to apologize to those ministers who were struggling with the tension between supporting the church as an institution and underwriting hands-on ministry to the community and the world. But I also feel some longing for the ardent conviction that put hands and feet to my faith. How wonderful would it be to push the electric bill to the side, dismissed, and spend my days organizing tooth brushes for people who need them?

If I had to guess I would say that we’ll probably pay the electric bill next year. And maybe we’ll even get those new choir robes we’ve been needing for years (we really do need new choir robes). But maybe this is a reminder that these concerns are not the only concerns we Christ-followers carry. There’s a higher calling and a bigger task always pulling us forward. We the church are called to respond to the needs of this world. 

Even if we’re wearing teal choir robes when we do it.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.