The Institutional Church Takes Its Place at Table 61
Three years ago, one of the saints of our congregation decided it was time to move into a local senior living facility. Her husband had died the previous year. She liked the idea of her son and his family filling the house—which felt too big for one—with the coming and going of kids again. She was just plain ready for a change. And the new place was fifteen minutes away from her old house, so just how much change she wanted to take on was pretty much still in her hands.
All things considered, she made a wonderful transition. Her calendar filled up quickly, and it didn’t take the facility staff long to see that Phyllis had gifts of leadership and an approachable manner that made her a font of information and wisdom about the other residents. From the very first, she was happy to help.
But there was one part of her new community that has troubled her greatly: the Community Dining Room.
Not long after arriving, Phyllis was talking with another resident and, by way of signing off, said, “Well, see you at dinner.”
The woman gave her a long look. “Oh no you won’t,” she said. “I never go there.”
Phyllis said she didn’t understand.
“Nobody wants to eat with me,” said the woman. “I’m all by myself, and I’m not one of the ‘in-crowd,’ and I never get invited, so that’s that.”
The woman’s reaction was so surprising that Phyllis found herself telling the story to a few other residents over the next few days. She expected surprise. What she got instead were grim, knowing looks.
Later that week, at our church’s weekly prayer group meeting, Phyllis recounted the conversation yet again.
“It doesn’t feel right, “she said. “We haven’t been in Middle School for sixty years. . . .”
We discussed it. We prayed on it. We discussed it a little more.
Finally, Phyllis said, “You know what? If nobody else will invite these folks to dinner, I guess I will.”
And that’s how Community Dining Room Table 61 was born.
It didn’t take long for people to find out that if you wanted to, you could just show up at Table 61, and Phyllis would be there, happy to enjoy your company. Happy to make introductions. Happy to host a table conversation that everyone got to be a part of. Happy to make sure there was room for your walker if you had one.
And people showed up. Every night. Within a week, people had to be turned away ten minutes after dinner service began. It was one of those simple, but lovely, social miracles that warms everybody’s heart (and, not for nothing, makes for excellent sermon fodder).
So you can imagine the surprise in our prayer group when Phyllis came in, two weeks later, saying she was pretty much ready to give up.
Apparently, some of the other residents weren’t happy. To be honest, they were some of the “in-crowd” that Phyllis had heard about in that first conversation, and they weren’t sure how they felt about walkers in the Community Dining Room. They didn’t think it was right to encourage the new woman from Yonkers with the loud, grating voice. They’d heard that the “Welcome Wagon Committee” didn’t appreciate that its idea for a monthly dinner for newcomers seemed to have been stolen.
“I didn’t mean to make trouble,” said Phyllis, dejected. “I just wanted to make everyone feel seen and known and cared about.”
“Oh, let’s pray on that one,” said one of the other members of our prayer group.
But someone else shot right back. “Actually, I don’t need to pray on this part. Phyllis, I don’t know what those other people are thinking, but to us you are Being The Church. They may not like it. But I actually think it would be wrong for you to stop.”
Everyone else in the group agreed. But it was more than that—more, even, than a group trying to encourage one of its own. It was one of those moments when the group recognized that something truly holy was at work, and that what mattered was to follow it. Period.
And so Phyllis went ahead, anyway.
Fast forward three years later: Table 61 is still going strong, with the help of a team of like-minded hosts. During holidays, they add Table 62 to meet demand. And Phyllis is the President of the Residents’ Council, looking for other ways to make the community kinder and more welcoming.
She went to her new community because she was looking for a change, and she has found nothing less than a new vocation. Starting with Table 61, Phyllis has committed to Being The Church, which for her means bringing life, hope, and friendship to her neighbors.
Last week in Bearings blog, Heidi Shott wrote about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” and its vision of faith lived out in the world—particularly as the institutional footprint of the Church in society grows smaller, and its form and practices shift in new directions.
In the future church now taking shape, the ministry of someone like Phyllis might be particularly recognized for the powerful witness it is, and even inspire others to go and do likewise. It’s hard to imagine a better way to proclaim the coming Kingdom of God than that. What a way to Be The Church.
Yet as her pastor, I’m also aware that so many of her gifts have been nurtured by the institutional church.
Throughout Stephen Ministry training, Women’s Fellowship, Presidency of the Church Council, teaching Sunday School, and active attendance at Sunday Worship and Wednesday Prayer Group, Phyllis has been part of the good, the bad, and the ugly in our faith community for nearly 40 years. She’s given as much as she’s received, if not more.
For what it’s worth, it’s here in the institutional church that Phyllis found her voice as a Christian and pushed through her early surprise and dismay at discovering that even in churches, people (and yes, pastors) do not always live up to the Gospel. During moments of uncertainty, it has been the institutional church that has reminded Phyllis that sometimes, we have to do the best with what we have, and look to God to finish and perfect the work.
The institutional church has helped Phyllis develop her own practices of servant leadership. It has supported her when her own preferred ways of proceeding did not prove effective, and she needed to find new ones. It has brought her into contact with all kinds of people and taught her active listening skills, how to run a meeting, and do an Excel spreadsheet.
It is precisely those lessons, learned in the institutional church, that helped prepare Phyllis for Table 61—and the larger ministry of leadership and care to which she’s been called now.
As we enter a time when “religionless Christianity” may well be coming of age, the institutional church still has important skills to teach and a wealth of insights to bestow. For all its challenges, it is far more than just a cautionary tale or a ride in your father’s Oldsmobile.
The greatest way that the institutional church might bless the new is not to fight it or simply step aside, but to be itself, knowing that the leaders of the future church need it more than they know, and hoping they will remember to take Joseph’s bones with them to the Promised Land.