Category Archives: church transitions

A Perennial Passion

Ed's Perennial Mr. Baker  loved to teach Sunday School, and he did so for over twenty years with elementary children in one of my churches.  He also led adult studies and a book group, and studied different methods of faith formation in his free time.  He was a man with a passion for Christian education.

But a time came when his lifestyle changed.  He and his wife both retired and were ready for more travel and freedom. So, during my interim pastorate (a time when leadership roles often shift), he decided it was time to step away from teaching– at least, he said, for awhile.

That spring, the church gave each Sunday School teacher a flowering annual bedding plant, as is their tradition.  I had the children hand out plants to each teacher, but on a hunch, I prepared a different gift for Mr. Baker: a flowering perennial.  I explained to the congregation that, although Mr. Baker was stepping away from teaching, he was, at heart, a perennial teacher, and we might see him in the classroom again some day.

The following spring, after a year of travel and relaxation in retirement, Mr. Baker came to my office.  He wanted to talk about the next fall’s Sunday  School curriculum.  I was pleased that he was still interested in faith formation, but wondered what he was really there about.  Finally he confessed: “I miss teaching.  I want to come back.”

He reminded me about the perennial flower we had given him the year before, and told me it was in full bloom.  He even sent me this picture of it, above.  “Like my desire to continue teaching, that plant continues to thrive,” he said.

I have watched lay leaders step away from leadership after becoming tired or burned out.  But beside that challenge is the joy of watching new leaders, who are curious and adventurous, say “I can try that.”  In my former church, I watched volunteers who took over for Mr. Baker try their hand at teaching. It’s exciting to see people learn what they are capable of.  Not every experiment goes well, but we all learn by engaging with the church in new ways; including me!

In Mr. Baker’s case, his absence re-affirmed his perennial passion for teaching; it’s part of who he is and how he lives out his mission from God.

An interim period is a good time to try on a new role or encourage someone else to.  Sometimes, when you take a break from leadership, someone else gets a chance to step in.  Maybe you will find a role you like better than the one you’ve been filling for awhile.  Maybe you’ve never taken a leadership role and it’s time to try it.  Or maybe, like Mr. Baker, you will take a break and then come back to “bloom where you are planted!”

 

The People We Ought to Be

May 15 2013 002“Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in living lives of holiness and godliness, waiting and hastening the coming of the day of God…?   (II Peter 3:11-12)

I am struck, as I read this week’s Epistle reading from II Peter, by the repeated use of the word dissolved.  The writer speaks of the day of the Lord coming like a thief, in a dramatic transformation of the world.  Elements and even the heavens will be dissolved and set ablaze, and everything will melt with fire.

I can’t imagine living day to day with this harsh expectation!  Most of us take comfort in the assumption that the world will be basically the same tomorrow as it is today.  The early Christians, by contrast, looked forward to a cataclysmic change, because they believed it would be a change for the better.

As an interim minister, I’m learning to live in a world a bit more like theirs: one in which big change may happen at any moment.  Some time in the future,  a new pastor will be called, and the whole landscape of the church I serve will change.  But I don’t know when or how.  This is the nature of an interim “calling”.

I struggle with the fear and excitement that comes with knowing change is always in the wind.  How do we anticipate a future we don’t know?  How can I help my congregation plan and prepare for the unknown?  How do I maintain that professional, “non-anxious presence” in a setting where I am invested emotionally?  Do I look forward with hope, or with trepidation?

Here in II Peter, there are hints of what we can do with ourselves in an unsettled time, when we know changes are coming that we may not have much control over.  We may ask ourselves, as God asks us:

In this kind of time, what sort of people ought we to be?

This is a different question than: What should we do while we’re waiting? It is less about what we do and more about who we choose to be.

In both “waiting for” and “hastening” the day, we can consider which of our qualities and gifts are most needed by our faith families.  Patience. Alertness. Confidence in God’s care for us.  A sense of historical perspective.  Openness to surprises of the Holy Spirit.  A sense of humor.  Attention to acts of compassion.  You can think of others.

These are Advent qualities: characteristics that allow us to wait attentively for the new thing that God is doing.  We learn them from people like Mary, who offered herself, body and soul, as God’s handmaid.  Or Zechariah, who chose faithful listening when he was silenced.  Or the Magi, who walked without knowing who or what they were following through the dark.

I wish every church could learn to see every time as “interim time”.  Then maybe we would realize that change is constant, and we would start paying attention not just to what we should do, but to what God is doing, and what sort of people we ought to be in response to that.

 * Photo by the author

The Servant Who Risks and Loses

John the Baptist having a bad day

John the Baptist having a bad day

The parable of the talents is making its annual appearance this week, and I put it before some teenagers I know last night. I handed out wads of cash and asked them what they might do as stewards of it for a year.  One, predictably, said he would spend it on McChicken sandwiches; who cares about the Master?  One said she would open a savings account because, even at less than 1% interest, at least she wouldn’t lose it (she had not, of course, figured in the current 1.7% inflation rate).  One 5th grader said “I would give it back to the Master; it’s not MY responsibility!”  Finally, one young man said he would invest it in the stock market, where he might make a gain, or he might take a loss.  And he could live with that either way.

I want that last guy to lead the church when I’m gone.

The problem with the parable of the talents is that nobody in the story loses their money.  The ones who risk it in investment and trading actually double their money.  I’m sorry, but in today’s market, that is highly unlikely.

I think Jesus should have included a fourth servant: the one who invested the money on an ambitious idea that simply did not pan out.  This servant laid all her money down to create a church where children and people with dementia could worship together, or a farm market with produce grown by teenagers, or a bed-and-breakfast where you pay whatever you can afford.   And the great idea flopped, because the world is not quite ready for all the great ideas God’s people are dreaming of.  And the Master came home and said, “Well done, good and faithful servant, because taking a leap of faith is more important than doubling my money.”

God’s people are starting to dream, at least a little, about new ways of being Christ’s church, and people like this blogger are calling us to take more risks in the church in order to reach those outside our doors.  I agree wholeheartedly!

And I also believe that taking risks in the church is like playing the stock market in one way: we might fail.  We might lose something.  It might hurt.

But that’s okay.  Because whatever happens, we will learn a little more about what steps God wants or doesn’t want us to take next.

To take a risk and double your money is a great thing, and it might happen!  But risking failure is also part of being faithful.

Just ask Jesus.

– *Painting by Geerten tot Sint Jans (1465-1495)

How Can We Keep From Singing?

Boston Harmony World Music Chorus

Boston Harmony World Music Chorus

No storm can shake my inmost calm,  while to that rock I’m clinging.                 It sounds an echo in my soul; how can I keep from singing?                             (Folk hymn)                  

I started singing in church choirs when I was  a teenager.  There I learned to read music and find acceptance among the grown up singers.   It was my church’s choir director who helped me find my spiritual voice again after a car accident that fractured my larynx.  I went on to study vocal music, compose hymn lyrics and sing in choirs at my college, seminary and several churches over the years.

There is a special kind of relationship that forms among choir members.  Something about those rehearsals, with their jokes, irritations and prayer rituals, creates a spiritual bond that can’t be replicated anywhere else.

But my view of the traditional church choir has changed over the years.  One time, I watched a song leader, without any written words,  notes or accompaniment, teach a room full of people to sing a simple hymn in parts.  The effect was electrifying.  I have sung improvisational jazz in groups, never sure exactly what note might come out next, or who it will come from.  I have even been to a “tunnel hum”, standing shoulder to shoulder with wanna-be druids and aging hippies, humming placidly until we all found a common, harmonic drone.  I’ve learned there are a lot of different ways to make sound together, but what really makes it groove is when everyone is engaged in the making of it!

One of the changes we’re seeing in churches today is the decline of the church choir.  This article* documents how church choirs, including some of those large, contemporary ones, are on the wane.  Choral directors, pipe organs and sheet music are costly in a church that may not even have enough money to pay the pastor.

Since many people like me learned how to read music by singing hymns, we may be losing a vital place for music education, as well as the potential for those unique spiritual friendships built in the choir loft.

Some churches are holding fast to their choral traditions, and I am hopeful that, if they are flexible and resilient, people who love music will return to find the joy in group singing.  Other churches are expanding their idea of sacred singing to include choral flash mobs like this one, Taize worship, “threshold choirs” that sing to the terminally ill, or simply a renewed emphasis on robust congregational singing.

Without music, worship will lose its vitality and without that one place in society where people gather to sing, our communities will lose some of the glue that binds them together.

How does your church make music these days?  Are you listening to others make music, or are you finding a way to chime in?  Do you think sacred music is a luxury or a necessity?

*Thanks to Joe Duggan at Congregational Seasons for sharing this article!

P.S. Here’s a great movie to watch about the importance of singing together, and the bond it creates.

(Photo licensed by Creative Commons)

 

A Parallel Start in New Orleans

Carrollton UMC

Carrollton UMC

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  (Jeremiah 29.11)

On a recent mission trip to New Orleans, I visited Carrollton United Methodist Church, where two brand new pastors are dreaming of a new venture: a parallel start.

My group was visiting a senior center that is housed at Carrollton each day, providing lunch and classes in sewing, Spanish language, tai chi, and more.  Guests play Bingo and lounge in the church’s windowed breezeway when the programs are over.

But the senior center is now the most significant ministry occurring at the Carrollton church.  A couple of small non-profits share the building, and they once built showers to host workers who came for Katrina clean-up.  But now the worship community is down to about 30 people and there is a sense that the building is haunted by its own unfinished business: how to be vital not just as a community gathering place, but as a church.

So the United Methodist Church has infused this congregation with funds to hire two new full time pastors, Sione and Billy, who had both started working there the day before we arrived.  These two have the task of maintaining the current organizations that house the building AND launching a new church development there at the same time.  That’s sometimes called a parallel church start.

Our hosts gave us a tour of their meandering building, which in some parts still has the lingering odor of standing flood waters. Its rooms are a mixture of forlorn memories and promising potential.  A large parlor will be used for worship by the older congregation.  The hall pictured above has been used for children’s programs, but badly needs a face lift and some blades for the ceiling fans.  There seemed to be kitchens everywhere we turned, including one in a closet, but none of them looked fit for preparing a large meal.

The closet kitchen

The closet kitchen

In every room, the two new pastors saw hope.  They were imagining how the rooms could be repaired, revived and filled with new ministry, the way Jeremiah did when he imagined a future for his fallen city :

Thus says the Lord:
I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob,
    and have compassion on his dwellings;
the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound,
    and the citadel set on its rightful site.  (30.18)

There is no way to move forward in these times except with bold imagination.  But a little money really helps, too!  Kudos to the UMC for investing in the future with these two ambitious leaders.  May God bless them with a future and a hope.

There is not much out there to read about parallel church starts.  From the Episcopal tradition, check out this article, though it’s a bit outdated.  And this recent DOC newsletter mentions a parallel start project in Washington.  If you have more examples of parallel starts, please send them my way!

The Church After Katrina

Camp Restore/ Prince of Peace

Camp Restore/
Prince of Peace

Last week I went on an unforgettable mission trip to New Orleans and encountered a couple churches that gave me a lot to think about.

One was Prince of Peace Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.  In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast from Texas to Alabama.  Over 250,000 homes were destroyed, plus businesses and community buildings.  Prince of Peace, once a thriving church and school, was flooded.  But with assistance from the wider church, its expansive building was renovated and converted into a volunteer camp, now called Camp Restore (a separate non-profit agency), which brought in thousands of volunteer workers to do hurricane clean-up.

Camp Restore has become a thriving center that provides bunk style housing and meals and matches volunteers with work sites where they do everything from hanging drywall to playing bingo with senior citizens.  They average over 3,000 volunteers per year.

Meanwhile, Prince of Peace is a tiny shadow of its former self.  At one time, they housed over a hundred members and a busy Lutheran school.  Since Katrina decimated the population of their community, they are down to about ten members.

I asked Bill, the church’s president, what it was like to experience such a massive loss of members all at one time.  “Well, honestly,” he said.  “We had other things to be thinking about.”

Those “other things” included the clean-up and restoration of an entire city.  “The only people who stayed,” Bill explained, “were the people who still had a house, a job, or a family here.  Everyone else left.”

Today, Bill occasionally stands in line to eat breakfast and meet some of the volunteers that crowd his church’s sanctuary for meals at long dining tables.  Recently, after years of meeting on Sunday mornings, the tiny congregation decided to try worshiping on Wednesday nights.  They invited the volunteers to join them, and the first Wednesday they tried it, they ran out of communion elements, because they weren’t expecting so many people in worship.

I had the privilege of worshiping alongside the congregation one Wednesday during my stay, and was joined by about 30 other volunteers.   Although in many places, Missouri Synod Lutherans do not share communion with people of other traditions, we were all welcome to kneel and partake at Prince of Peace.

I had to wonder what the Prince of Peace congregation is made of: they have survived one of the fiercest hurricanes in history and stayed in place.  Yet they have also take a huge leap into new territory, allowing their building to be transformed from a traditional church and school into an entirely different kind of ministry in rapid response to an emerging need, making all the sacrifices necessary in order to do that.

What can you and I learn from this tiny, amazing congregation?

 

 

 

Trees for Tomorrow

A 200 year old hickory tree

A 200 year old hickory tree

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” – 1 Corinthians 3:6

My husband Charles grew up eating hickory nuts. Hickory trees grow in parts of Wisconsin and there must have been some on one of the family farms because his mother always had hickory nuts to bake into brownies or sugar cookies, and he loved them.

As an adult, now in his fifties, Charles has lost both his parents. But he has not lost his love for hickory nuts. So, a couple years ago, he ordered ten hickory tree starts from a nursery. He cleared a piece of brush-covered land about 3/4 mile from our house and put them in the ground, a long ways from any water source. He encased them in little cages to keep the deer and bunnies out. All summer, we empty 5 gallon pails of water off the back of his truck to water the starts when the weather is dry. All winter, he looks across the pastures and wonders if those little trees have become snacks for hungry wildlife.

After we planted the hickory trees, we did some research and discovered they are slow to mature, but he expects that, if they survive cold winters and dry summers, they will begin producing nuts in about 40 years. Yes, 40.  He will be in his 90’s then. Hopefully, he will still have a strong set of teeth.

In an interview, a faithful church leader once said this to me: “My period of leadership is ending soon, and I sense that my church is in decline. What can I do now to leave a legacy that will help them get through this phase and move on to a better future?” One hunch was that she could help train younger and newer members with leadership skills. She also had a wonderful, “non-anxious presence” that served as a model to others, and her encouraging leadership style was infectious.  That’s a great legacy!

Whatever that leader leaves behind, she is asking the right questions. How can we be useful now in ways that pay off in the long term future? It sometimes seems we are casting seeds in the desert, unsure whether anyone will come behind us to water them, whether those seeds will be allowed to grow up as wheat among the tares, or ever produce a harvest. But seeds are seeds. It’s up to us to plant, and it’s up to the next leader, and God, to make them grow.

What has God given you the capacity to plant, or to water, in your faith community today so that it may still bear fruit in the distant future?

*Photo by G.W.  Bill Miller