Two years ago at our January meeting in Okemas, you installed me as your general presbyter. Neither you nor I knew how this was going to work out. I am grateful for the confidence and support you have extended to me. You projected a lot of trust and hope on to me. After six years of two years and good bye to my predecessors, I think you needed and wanted our relationship to work. So I want to begin by acknowledging our milestone, and say, I’m not going anywhere. I love this ministry, this presbytery, and this place we call SW Michigan. I also can say this is hard work! There have been some tough moments. I am no longer the green rookie I was. By the grace of God, we navigated our way through two of the toughest economic years of our lifetime. We did not panic. Not knowing the outcome, we stepped forward in faith. I am proud of our treasurer’s report of a $51,000 operating surplus last year!
Psalm 119:105 has become a meaningful verse to me in this position of leadership. “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” APCE (the Association of Church Educators) has in its seal a lamp. A lamp was given to my wife Eileen in her installation as the APCE president a few days ago. Notice how this model of an ancient lamp is no high powered car head light that shines done the road, but rather as Ellen Marquardt, a mentor of mine often said, “shines enough for us to take one next step in faith.” In this dynamic time, when old patterns don’t produce the same results, we are called to open our hearts and minds to the new thing God is doing in our midst, step out in faith where we do not see, take a risk and trust.
In my training and reading on leadership, I’ve learned that leadership is more about speaking the truth with integrity and love, than casting a vision. We minister in a time when no one as a clear vision of the future. Beware of these too sure about themselves. Rather, God is calling us to be a community of learning, in which we covenant to journey together, inquire, explore, and discern what God is doing in our particular time and place. We must be bold to experiment, test the spirit, by trial and error. The answers lie within each person, each congregation, and each community. There are no cookie cutter patterns for us to follow, except for Jesus himself, the Word made flesh.
We are kind of like Al Pacino’s character in the movie “Scent of a Woman,” a retired army colonel now blind and depressed, angry and belligerent. He exploded to a hired prep school student in a powerful scene, “I’m work’in in the dark here!” But the student challenges him in fear and love, and accompanies him back to life. So we must venture into the dark following Christ, accompanying one another, loving each other back to life, one step at a time.
Having ventured out in faith together and having come down the road together a ways, we can look back and see a few things.
1. We have transitioned our presbytery staff from a talented, loyal and dedicated staff, to a new talented, loyal and dedicated staff. There have been some twists and turns, but praise God, I am so proud of them. I thank God every day for the team we are becoming. We are equipped to communicate with each other and you with Skype, a computer assisted communication. We have a bi-weekly e-bulletin which reaches 600 people. How about we grow that to be 6000 people, or a third of our members? We have a new interactive web site, which has just about everything you can get from our office. But you have to register and log in to access some information. Jane McCookey, our communications coordinator, is leading the way and is offering regular workshops to learn how the these new technologies.
2. The Leadership Team is living into its role as leader of this learning community as they move from a council decision maker to coordinator and leader of our conversations and study. They are doing this by taking responsibility for worship at Presbytery, setting themes and shaping meetings for engaging each other and learning together.
3. Presbytery meetings are becoming more worshipful, educational and inspirational, with focused the business. We were led by church growth consultants Allen Latta and Charles Arn at the Delta Church. We had three regional gatherings last winter with no business but to learn and discuss a matter that divides our denomination. We worked together at our June and September meetings on a ministry plan. Ministry Teams are now building strategies for the identified goals that emerged.
4. Camp Greenwood has moved from the identified patient list and ground zero for our grumpiness to a platform for new and exciting ministry. They had a phenomenal year last year on many fronts with a successful consultation with a PCCCA consultant. The culture of the agency was challenged to shift from micromanaging the camp to policy formation, strategy and funds development. They are taking a bold step this year toward a self sustaining financial plan. They are pursuing alternative funding sources, and have received a $5,000 grant for this year. A new strategic partner has been identified in Alma College with an internship program. They are seeking new ways to support presbytery in our focus of growing our congregations.
5. North and Westminster Presbyterian Churches in Lansing are forging a new ministry together as a larger cooperative parish under Timothy Chon’s leadership, their new designated pastor. A presbytery advisory team made up of representatives from New Communities of Faith, Transformation/Redevelopment ministry teams and COM is in place to support this initiative. They are learning as they go, and taking one step at a time.
6. A new clergy group in Lansing, facilitated by associative presbyter Rich Lichti, has formed to be a learning community together. They are looking at their context and the dynamics of ministry there, seeking news ways of partnering together in ministry, and no longer working as lone rangers.
7. Eastminster in East Lansing, and Brooklyn Presbyterian Churches are in the midst of major capital improvements to there facilities. Hastings Presbyterian Church is in the middle of a $7.5 million construction project on property outside of Hastings with most of the money needed is in the bank. Praise the Lord!
8. We commissioned two CLPs (Commissioned Lay Pastors) last year, not to small struggling congregations, but to serve on staff in two of our growing congregations: Hastings and Spring Lake.
Not everything came up roses.
1. Presbytery stepped out boldly several years ago to establish Cherry Valley Community of Faith, a congregation in Caledonia. Last year we did a most difficult thing bringing that venture to closure. All involved are grieving! We took a risk. Clint and his family took a risk in coming here for this ministry. Not every venture succeeds. Who is to say but God what is a success and what is not. We need to keep our heads up as we pause to learn from the venture. Zoe Wilcox, our past moderator will be leading a group to listen and learn and report back to us in June. Now we need to pray for Clint and his family as they seek God’s calling in what is next for them.
2. We also grieve the death of two pastors: Judy Shaver and Oyo Nsefik, who died before we were ready, God rest their souls. We are never ready for death when it visits us. Death is never convenient. Yet we are a resurrection people. God works in a mysterious way, new life is given, eternal life is promised. Thank you for supporting the Good Sameritan Fund. Over $7,000 was given for Oyo’s funeral expenses and bring Oyo’s family to help them with closure.
3. During these past two years six of our congregations have moved from full time pastoral ministry to part-time, to join the ranks of many others who preceded them. North-Lansing, Concord, Ionia, Stockbridge, Allegan, Mt. Hope. This is not an easy transition. We need to pray for them.
Are we where we want to be? No. Do we have a lot to learn? Yes. Yet God’s call remains and our vision challenges us to grow by faith deep and wide. The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth in the epistle lesson last Sunday, “By the grace of God, I am what I am (or we are what we are), and his grace toward me/us has not been in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:10)
Finally, because of my cancer diagnosis and treatment, I am ever more aware that God calls us to ministry with gifts that are contained in the clay jars, treasure in the fragile earthen vessels of our lives. Our very lives are the tools, the means, the stuff we have to use in partnership with God. May we go forth to do so with courage and faith to give our witness and to show forth God’s glory. Today is my turn to give God the glory for the effectiveness of my treatment last fall. And I thank you for accompanying me with your encouragement, making tangible and real the loving and abiding presence of God on that journey. Thank you.