Every realtor worth their salt will drive home the idea that location is an important consideration when deciding where to purchase or locate a home, business or for that matter a church. Location insures property values, business opportunities, views and visibility.
I learned this first hand when I was called to be the pastor of The Good Shepherd UCC in Sahuarita, Ariz. The founders of this church, nearly twenty years ago, had a hard time convincing the conference and denomination that a church in this community was worth the time, effort and investment. Location was the issue.
They were asked, "Why Sahuarita?" There were already too many churches in the area, why would they come to The Good Shepherd? They were told the population was aging, you won't be able to attract people, and there was little opportunity for ministry or mission.
I had similar questions my first few years at The Good Shepherd as my family and I struggled in this dry, desert, rural community. Why couldn't we be in a metropolitan area? Why couldn't we be in a place where more progressive minded folks lived? Why couldn't we be in a community where people actually knew about the United Church of Christ and our great history?
Location, location, location just wasn't working for us.
There is something about us humans that causes us to imagine that the grass is somehow greener on the other side of the fence. This wishful thinking doesn't escape congregations or clergy. We are just as guilty as we covet the neighboring church's sanctuary, choir, budget, missions, ministries and the list goes on and on. Sometimes you can even read our lips, "if only I was in a better location, everything would be different."
But as far as I can tell Paul never uttered those words. Paul preached the gospel and founded churches everywhere he went. Location didn't really matter; he wanted churches everywhere with everyone. As our forbearers landed on this continent they seemed to spread and multiply their form of the church and gospel in as many communities as possible. They didn't just plant churches in robust communities with picturesque views, and potential wealthy members. They planted churches in communities that needed their witness and commitment, in places where there was a mission and a purpose.
Time and time again they chose vocation over location - the vocation to share God's love and make that love come alive in each and every community across this land.
Thank God the founders of The Good Shepherd focused on vocation and not location. Over the past 10 years we have found ourselves literally at ground zero of the national immigration crisis. Each year hundreds of thousands of migrants walk through our community as they make their way to work as gardeners, cooks and nannies throughout the country. We have created all sorts of humanitarian ministries to give food, water and medical care to the stranger we find in our midst.
As one can imagine the immigration debate gets pretty heated in our community. The Good Shepherd has had an important role in educating the community about root causes of immigration, having regular meetings with Homeland Security and elected officials, and always keeping a religious voice in the immigration conversation.
Surprisingly, the Good Shepherd has had steady and consistent growth; we just completed a building expansion, became an Open and Affirming Church, and are working on new mission and ministry endeavors because that is our vocation.
The church of today needs to have a laser-like focus on vocation. There is little reason why any location won't do. In fact sometimes the more problematic the location the more promising is the church's mission and ministry, because our God is omnipresent and is found most profoundly in the deepest places of need.
The Rev. Randy J. Mayer is the Lead Minister of The Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, Ariz.