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FIRST-PERSON: Change: its agonies & inevitability

KENNER, La. (BP)–We have a firestorm raging here in New Orleans. It started the other day when Galatoire’s restaurant fired a veteran waiter named Gilberto for sexual harassment. First, a word about this world-famous eatery which some refer to as a temple of food.

Thirty years ago when I was traveling to New Orleans every week to work on a doctorate at the Baptist seminary, a friend handed me some bills and said, “Go to Galatoire’s and eat their trout amandine. It’s the best in the world.” So, along with my buddy and fellow student J. Roy McComb, I made the trek to Bourbon Street and joined the crowd standing in line on the sidewalk — no advance reservations taken — and enjoyed a great meal. I’ve been back once, but there endeth my knowledge of this legendary restaurant.

When the news of Gilberto’s termination got out, the restaurant began to be swamped with letters from patrons. One diner contacted others who all wrote letters to be bound in book form and delivered to the restaurant. It turns out that losing their favorite waiter was not the only gripe these folks had.

The Sunday edition of The Times-Picayune ran a long cover article on the restaurant blowup and the barrage of criticism the management is receiving. Reporters interviewed patrons — mostly from the elite of the city, you understand (this is not a cheap place to eat) — who each had additional complaints to lodge.

There was the business about the new manager. He’s 29 years old. What could he possibly know of this restaurant’s great traditions? Furthermore, they are now taking reservations, can you believe? They’ve opened up a second floor of the restaurant, whereas before it was small and cozy and diners could sit at a table for hours, lingering over their coffee. In the good old days, a waiter would chip ice for your drinks at your table, whereas now the management has brought in an ice-making machine! One diner recalled days when the eggplant was served with the skin intact, but now it has been removed. “It’s still delicious,” he says, “but I miss the skin.” Formerly, there was no bartender and waiters mixed drinks for their diners, sometimes over-generously. These days, a bartender rides herd on the booze. Add to that the final insult of firing their favorite waiter, Gilberto — who knew everyone’s names, who took a personal interest in you, who had even been known to go back to the kitchen and cook up a special meal for you himself — and it was the last straw.

The editor had to clear off the editorial page for several days. Citizens were incensed at the hoity-toity attitude of the city’s elite who in this post-Sept. 11 world have nothing better to do than complain about the skin of an eggplant and defend a sexual harasser, and wanted to register their rancor. Meanwhile, Gilberto is still out of a job.

Someone came up to me Sunday night at church and asked if I had read the article about Galatoire’s. “You need to read it,” he said, “it’s just exactly like what churches go through.” He was right.

My first pastorate was Unity Baptist Church in Kimberly, Ala., for the calendar year of 1963. I’ve been at it ever since. Changes? How much time do you have? I recall the first time I saw a drum set in a sanctuary. I thought it was like putting a Minnie Pearl hat on the Mona Lisa. These days, my church has a set of digital drums up there. And chairs for the rest of the orchestra. And banners around the wall. And fulltime staffers to deal with preschool and youth and singles and every other segment of the population you can name.

Everyone has his own computer terminal and some carry laptops around. Cell phones. Fax machines. Projectors and screens in church. Drama. And members going out this year to minister in Thailand, Moscow, Tanzania, Romania, Ireland, Peru, China and Australia.

You don’t hear stories anymore of churches that split because some wanted the piano on the left side of the church, or over the color of the carpet. It’s bigger stuff now, like whether we will have a contemporary or traditional or blended worship service, whether to relocate to where the population is or to hold forth on the block where my grand-daddy was the Sunday School superintendent. Shall we change our format to reach the young adults or sing the old songs that the retirees cut their teeth on?

In 40-plus years of pastoral ministry, here is what I have learned about change in the church:

1. It’s real hard, even for those of us doing it. Almost no one enjoys it.

2. It’s necessary if we want to stay fresh and to find better ways to do our work.

3. It’s foolish, however, to make changes just for changes’ sake.

4. The best way to minimize the difficulty of change is to always be tweaking the services and forever be making little changes around the place. That way, no one gets too settled in liking it one way.

5. To be alive is to change. Not to change is to die. The only way the human body stays alive and fresh and energetic is the continual process of regeneration it goes through, replenishing every cell every few years.

6. Every time God calls away old members, by moving van or hearse, and every time new people move in, he is fine-tuning your church. That’s another term for change.

What was it the Lord said? “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins” (Luke 5:37-38).
McKeever is pastor of First Baptist Church, Kenner, La.

    About the Author

  • Joe McKeever