Wednesday, December 28, 2011
As I visit with my extended family in Pennsylvania, I am mindful of the blessings that come from family and long standing traditions. As I have followed God's call to ministry in Brazil, congregations in Pennsylvania, New York, and now in Lake Michigan Presbytery, these regular visits have provided a grounded center for me and my family. No matter where we may be living at the time, our home base in Paradise, Pennsylvania has been the one constant in our lives. Whether we agree on the issues of the day or not, and in spite of the hair style of the year, here we are taken in, gifts, cookies and laughs are shared.
As I reflect on the past and coming year, I am mindful of the sea of change we are navigating in Lake Michigan Presbytery. New Leadership: Several leaders, who have served Lake Michigan well, are concluding their service as moderators/chairperson/conveners: Linda Knieriemen and Seth Weeldreyer (past moderators), Rick Raum (COM), Jeff Carlson and Genie Cooper (COM Vice Moderators), Doug Nettleton (COM Pastoral Care Sub Com. and Board of Pension Liaison), Nancy Toth (COM Credentials Sub Com.), Mark Jennings (CPM), Tedd Oyler (Budget & Finance/Trustees, Ron Waybrant (Greenwood Agency), Christine Barnes (Higher Education Agency), Janet Van Lear (Administration Ministry Team), Fred Graham (Nominating Committee), Karen Haak (Shepherding Ministry Team). I am so grateful for their leadership these past years, and pray God's blessing on the new leaders who will fill their roles: John Cox (moderator), Jeff O'Neill (vice moderator), Margie Osborne (COM), Helen Collins (CPM), Helen Havlik (Trustees), Bill Sorensen (Administration MT), Andy Thorburn (Nominating), and Steve Magennis (Greenwood Agency). Presbytery Staff: I thank God for the stability of our Presbytery staff as we support these new leaders this year. Here too, we open the to door for change. The staff is upgrading computer operating systems, and to a new copier. A staff design task force is looking at how best to support the ministry and mission of the presbytery with staff as we look to the future. This task force will report to the Leadership Team in April in preparation for budgeting for 2013. Congregations: North and Westminster congregations in Lansing plan for merger in 2012, and the congregation in McBain moves toward closing in July. Congregational Leaders: Our congregations in Stockbridge, Dimondale, Marshall, West Lake in Battle Creek, Coldwater, Schoolcraft, and Decatur are between pastors. Westminster in Grand Rapids and Holland, First have just said good bye to associate pastors and are discerning their staffing patterns. The Albion and Pine Island congregations will say good-bye to their pastors in March and June. Denominational Studies: the 219th General Assembly called us to a study of marriage, and appointed a Commission on Middle Councils, which will report to the 220th General Assembly in July in Pittsburgh. Some conservative oriented Presbyterians will gather in January to organize a new Reformed body. Some progressive Presbyterians will likewise be meeting in February to explore the shape of the "Next Church."
Like it or not, change is in the wind for 2012! So, if like me, you are feeling more than a little bit disoriented and lost by this sea of change, I recommend regular visits home to Scripture, to the Foundation section of our Book of Order, to the Book of Confessions, and to Presbytery meeting/gatherings. May your visits there provide you identity and purpose orientation, a grounded center, and a grace filled, undeserved welcome home, where they have to take you in, and love you no matter what life has thrown at you, or the status of your hair.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
This advent season we await and at Christmas celebrate God's coming to us in Jesus, the light of the world! He brightens our lives, and guides our way. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus invites us to join him saying, "You are the light of the world....let your light shine for others, so that they many see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:14,16).
I give thanks to God for each one of you, for your love of God, for your witness to God's love and light that we know in Jesus, which shines brightest in the darkness, and which over comes evil and despair. I praise God for your love of the Church, for your struggle to understand brothers and sisters different from yourself. Praise God that "the Church's life" does not center around us, but that the Church's "life and mission are a joyful participation in Christ's ongoing life and work" (Book of Order F-1.0202). "Christ gives to the Church its faith and life, its unity and mission, its order and discipline" (F-1.0204). "He is its hope, and...the Church as Christ's body, is bound to his authority and thus free to live in the lively, joyous reality of the grace of God....In Christ the Church receives its truth and appeal, its holiness, and its unity" (F-1.0205). Praise God for the collective impact we have on the communities where our light shines to God be the glory.
Your presbytery staff, which you support so graciously all year long, wish you a merry Christmas and happy New Year!
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
The Leadership Team of Lake Michigan Presbytery and I are reading Gil Rendle’s book, “Journey in the Wilderness, New Life for Mainline Churches,” Abingdon Press, 2010. I invite you to join us. My blogs this winter will center on Rendle’s insights and questions, with the hope that they generate a conversation of learning together. Feel free to share your comments to these and future blogs.
In this book, Rendle joins Jill Hudson, Phyllis Tickle, and many others, who have written to describe the sea of cultural change we’ve been navigating these past 40 years. He identifies the Biblical narrative of Moses leading freed slaves in the wilderness as a story which resonates with our experience. He points out that we are not alone in our disorientation and bewilderment as we navigate our way through a shifting cultural landscape which is global. As Garrison Keillor often comments in his monologues on Prairie Home Companion, the experience of winter is not a private experience. We are not alone in it. Everyone is experiencing these things. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness a couple of generations before entering the promised land as an organized people and nation. In the introduction, Rendle invites us to the wilderness.
Since the 1960s when mainline protestant churches began to struggle, we have navigated the life of faith in what seems a strange and bewildering place and time. We’ve learned a lot, which the book chronicles, and still we wander seeking the promise land. Rendle suggests, “that in our dominate North American bias toward orderliness, we perhaps expect too much from an exodus. We expect that the trip can be scheduled on a clear time line, that leaders will know the right direction to walk every day, that faithfulness will not be challenged, and that everyone will willingly take the trip together without argument. Were such an orderly trip even possible, the fact remains that neat, tidy trips produce little learning and perhaps, in the end, no change.” (p.3)
A major question of this book is, what have we learned so far? In Chapter Two, Rendle draws a map of the multiple directions we have tried in search of the promised land. The first path was learning all we could about church growth: from learning about passive barriers and counting sanctuary capacity and parking spaces, providing adequate signage and accessibility, to considering theological correctness and congregational expectations (a low or high threshold for membership); abandoning denominational identity labeling; marketing and generational niche ministries, to learning from large and mega churches, which seem to be most comfortable in this new cultural landscape. North Americans seem to like our organizations either very large or very small.
A second path has been Church Transformation. The question facing many congregations was not just one of growth but of change. “A basic principle in systems theory is that vital, vibrant organisms must learn how to be study in purpose but flexible in strategy.” (p. 23). Instead of just doing what we always have done, session worked on mission statements to describe who we are and what we do, and vision statements describing what it will look like when we fulfill our goals. A new endeavor by the Alban Institute and seminaries was launched to study congregations. Jack Stewart, a member of Lake Michigan Presbytery went to Princeton Theological Seminary as a Professor of Congregational Studies, a new discipline to understand what makes vital congregations healthy. We tried to describe and measure vital congregations which led to two insights, first, that there was no consensus on the variables of vitality, and secondly, “when seeking growth and vitality, ‘solutions are found within individual, motivated congregations taken one at a time.’ In other words, there was no single answer and no single group of actions or programs that, if adopted would make all, or even many, congregations vital.” (p.26) This led to denominational staff shifting from producing one size fits all programs, to a focus on congregational strategic planning and providing processes for discernment for individual congregations to identify what God is calling them to do in their particular context. We also started looking beyond our church walls to identify our neighbors, to understand them, and connect to our communities. Data based information like Percept and Mission Insight were developed to help us do this. Some congregations joined interfaith community organizing networks to make a difference in their communities.
A third path has been Clergy Development: “It became clearer that the leadership of congregations-especially clergy leadership—was of critical importance.” Continuing education was identified and required in terms of call. “But again it was only a partial advance and could not fully address the perceived problem of being lost in the wilderness. There were systemic and motivational limitations to what could be accomplished through continued education. The systemic issue centers on the reality that it does not help to change the leader if the system in which the leader operates does not also change. Focusing only on educating the leader amounts to a strategy of ‘fixing’ the person when actually both the person and the system need to learn and change so that different outcomes may be achieved.” (p.30) Awareness of personal and spiritual renewal for clergy was also identified. Spiritual Direction was discovered, and the practice of Sabbath keeping. In 2000, the Lilly Foundation began financially supporting Sabbaticals for renewal of clergy and congregations.
Rendle concludes chapter two with hope. “These decades in our particular wilderness have not been a time of desolation and lost. Instead our story suggests that our time of pursuing multiple directions on our wilderness map has been marked by exploration, hard work, new learning, multiple mistakes, and worry mixed with hope. It has been a time rich in discovery…. The way has not been sure, but I have always been reassured and encouraged by what was once shared with me as a Native American saying: ‘Stumbling is moving ahead faster!’ Being surefooted and correct in the wilderness is not the issue, but being in motion is a critical issue. A consultant friend of mine often pointed out that you can’t steer a parked car. There has to be some motion, some direction, even if wrong or inadequate. For when we stumble on the path currently being followed, it is not hard to catch ourselves and redirect our searching in more promising ways. I suggest that this searching and stumbling, along with its rich discoveries and learnings, is much more descriptive of the past decades than any hand wringing description of despair over what has happened to the church.” (p.32)
What have you learned on your journey of leading congregations?
Have you had experiences in stumbling? Has that moved you forward?
Monday, November 14, 2011
The survey confirms a couple of things. We are doing a lot better at communicating. A few years ago our main contact was with pastors and clerks of session and a quarterly bulletin insert. Today we have 766 subscribers receiving a bi-weekly e-bulletin, which goes directly to subscriber’s email address. 41% of our last issue was opened. The good news is this direct communication with so many church members and elders. Wouldn’t it be great if every elder was subscribed to our e-bulletin to support their responsibility in G-3.0202 of paying attention to larger church? The e-bulletin is a cost effective way of supporting elders in this. To sign up for the e-bulletin, visit the website (see below) and click on Subscribe on the main menu.
Another lesson confirms our demographic, 85.6% of responders were over 51. The good news is that we had 35 responders under the age of 50 and one under 22! We Presbyterians, given our age demographic are not on the cutting edge of technology use. Yet we do adapt, even many of our most senior members. While our e-bulletin is the most used form of communications sent to people, 56.2% had received a bi-weekly issue, our presbytery website http://www.lakemichiganpresbytery.org/ has become the hub for our presbytery life. This is where one may register for presbytery sponsored events, apply for scholarships and grants, and access forms and processes of many kinds. 77.7% of responders had visited our web site.
For some years, we have been producing Congregational Connections, a quarterly bulletin insert. 45.1% of responders never paid attention to them. 55% do at least sometimes. This is now sent electronically to church offices quarterly. How are they distributed in your congregation? In the bulletin, placed in a kiosk, shared in the newsletter? Last year we enhanced the Congregational Connection by publishing a poster to accompany the bulletin insert. We provide two for each congregation. They are distributed at Presbytery meetings. 40% of responders report noticing them. Where are these posters being displayed at your congregation? For more, you are able to download the poster from the website at http://www.lakemichiganpresbytery.org/index.php/cbmembers/filing-cabinet/cat_view/45-archives/31-congreational-connection/66-shepherding . It can be printed at Staples for less than $3 per poster.
The least used form of communication available to us, are online discussions. This is a new opportunity, which only a few of us have tried. Our communications consultant, Jane McCookey set up an infrastructure at our website for us to use. She lead a book discussion on it. But it was confusing to use. Few availed themselves of it, and it exposed us to others beyond the community. So we abandoned that approach. Future online discussions will be done via responses to my blogs or the moderator's blogs, and facebook discussions. This is a cost effective way of connecting with others in the Presbytery around common interests: a book study, a common interest such as health ministries, or concern such as a theological discussion on a topic. You may respond to this report by commenting below on this blog.
Some individual comments included:
“How depressing to find I am now in the ‘next to oldest’ category. Thanks, Survey Monkey!”
“Excellent job and dramatic improvement...keep up the good work.”
“I guess I was not aware that it was meant for me, a lowly church member.”
“I would like to have an easier way to simply ‘ask a question’ and know where to direct this question.”
“The information most valuable is that which connects me to other ministers and service opportunities in the church.”
“Visuals need to be livelier (photos, improved graphics).”
“I didn’t know the Presbytery was on Facebook! I shall check it out. The more that can be done through integrated electronic communications, the better my connection and my Church’s connection will be.”
We are always looking for ways to improve our communications. Please share comments on this blog to give further feed back. Thank you!
Yours in Christ,
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Several of our new pastors and I just spent some time recently with Graham Standish, the author of “Becoming a Blessed Congregation” and “Humble Leadership.” He is a gifted pastor, author and teacher. Our Mediation Team is contracting to bring Graham to Lake Michigan Presbytery in November of 2012 (that’s next year, NOT next month)! He has much to offer us, and I recommend his books to you in the meantime.
In one of his seminars, Standish used the following quotation of David Steindl-Rast, from “Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer,” about faith, which resonated with me. Perhaps it will with you as well.
“To have faith does not primarily mean believing something, but rather believing in someone. Faith is trust. It takes courage to trust. The opposite of faith is not disbelief, but distrust, fear. Fear makes us cling to anything within reach. Fear clings even to beliefs. Thus, beliefs can even get in the way of faith. In genuine faith we hold our beliefs firmly, but lightly. We trust in God, not in our particular understanding of God. That is why people of deep faith are one at heart, even though their beliefs may differ widely. When beliefs become more important than faith, even small differences create insurmountable barriers.”
Fear and distrust abound these days in the culture AND in the church! Faith is the remedy, and the Someone who we trust, who is our solid rock, our true north, and in whom we are united in baptism and given our core identity is the holy Trinity!
Thursday, July 14, 2011
On June 30-July 2 in Indianapolis 1700 Presbyterians attending 10 different conferences enjoyed three joint worship services and plenary together. These times together gave us a sense of our numbers, diversity, and unity. The worship services were planned by the Racial Ethnic and Immigration Group. One of the innovative techniques used to demonstrate and celebrate the richness of our diversity was to incorporate a small group of six racial/ethnic worship leaders gathered around one microphone. During the reading of liturgy they repeated a selected phrase of a statement everyone had just read in English, each in their own language one after another. The effect was powerful. The technique caused us to pause and pay attention to something important just professed, giving time for it to linger in our hearts and mind. It demonstrated the richness of our diversity as the different languages swept over us, but also our unity in professing it together.
Another worship technique used, which I also found very powerful, was the use of brief excerpts from the Social Creed for the 21st Century. The 218th GA in 2008 approved this creed for worship and study. In each service we read an excerpt, then saw a brief video with visual images and music relating to what we professed, followed by a unison commitment statement. This connected what we profess, the challenges in society, and our commitment to action. It connected worship with the life in the world and discipleship.
I was also impressed with the diversity and power of the preachers: Mark Labberton, Assoc. Professor of Preaching at Fuller Seminary, a non-Presbyterian seminary on the west coast with an evangelical focus, opened the conference with a wonderful sermon on Matthew 28:16-20 drawing fresh and unexpected insights out of that foundational text know as the great commission. Labberton lifted up much ignored verse, “When they (the eleven disciples) saw him (Jesus), they worshiped him; but some doubted.” He reminded us that God calls and empowers and commission us like them, worshiping and doubting disciples, to go make disciples of Jesus who do what Jesus did and observe his commandments, his way with God's help. What did he do and command? To not judge, but love your enemy, forgive those who have hurt you, serve the needy, recognize the overlooked, welcome the stranger. This is radical trans formative behavior that changes lives, families, communities, the world! We do so not alone but empowered by God. And yes, God begins and continues to do so with doubting disciples like us.
Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, known as a liberal bastion of the east coast, followed the next day after morning prayers with a keynote address based on the life and experience of John Calvin. Drawing the parallels between the chaos and confusion of the Renaissance and Reformation and our experience today, she examined Calvin’s witness and theological astuteness in that challenging time as support for the challenges we face. Fifty years after Calvin, the church and human aspirations had expanded such that no one could have conjured up beforehand. Through that time Calvin stayed awake and stood with his feet planted and refused to close his eyes to the chaos. Based on Calvin, Jones’ social theory, strategy and recommendation to us, who live in similar times, “Just breathe! Stay awake! Take in the moment! Cast off from your shoulders the idea that it is up to you to change history. It is happening anyway with us or without us.” Our task, she suggested, is not to force history, but to stay awake and in the saddle holding on to the reins of that horse, trusting God.
J. Herbert Nelson II, Director of Public Witness, at the PCUSA Washington Office, a third generation African American Presbyterian minister, brought the conference to a rousing conclusion with his sermon "Moving from Success to Significance." He addressed directly the angst of the denomination over our lost mainline prominence in society, and anxiety over our recent ratification of Amendment 10-A. He challenged us to stop worrying about the church, our image and success, and be the church and make a difference in the name of Christ. Then he told the story of discussing the state of the church at a family meal with his mother and 102 year old grandmother, both Presbyterian pastor's spouses. Asked what they thought, his grandmother, assured him the church has lived through so much before, it will do so again. Then he stirred us, as so many African American preachers can, with a rousing call to make a difference.
Thanks be to God for all these voices in the church. It's a Big Tent. My apologies if I have misrepresented any of these worship leaders.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
“I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel…I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:3-6)
Sunday, February 27, 2011
This past weekend 80 middle high youth and 20 adults from a number of congregations in Lake Michigan Presbytery gathered at the First Presbyterian Church, in Holt for a special gathering. The planners of the event called it a "youth mix." Participants spent the weekend together enjoying fun activities, and growing as young Christians. The Holt congregation and I showed up for worship on Sunday morning. The youth led us in music and with liturgy they had prepared. The theme of the youth mix and worship was "That's Racin', based on Hebrews 12:1 "Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us."
After worship, Rev. Miller, visibly exhausted, moved on to what was next, leading a new members' class. Making most of the opportunity, he introduced me as a "polity lesson," and as one who gives a face to the Presbytery. In my role, I get to explain who it is that we are as a Presbytery and what it is that we do together. That day, at First Presbyterian Church in Holt, the Middle High Youth Mix was the face of the Presbytery, the perfect example of our living out the Presbytery's mission statement, which states that we are "sessions and congregations together seeking God's leading, sharing God's love, and spreading God's light."
For a weekend, a 100 disciples of Christ came together from our various congregations and did what they could not do on their own with the same results. They had a large group experience in the church with their peers and had their faith stretched for having come together. They talked about spiritual things exploring the love of God. They learned that they were not alone in their seeking after God, nor were they the only ones needing the love of God, or wanting to serve God. Along with "a cloud of witness" of those who have gone before us, we are in this "race" together. It isn't always easy. There will always be obstacles and we must persevere through them AND it is easier to do when you know you are not alone! As Rev. Miller, the preacher for the day said, "That's racin'."
Youth have a way of draining energy from adult bodies, as Rev. Kirk Miller, the host pastor, eluded when recognizing the adults who helped make this possible. "They are the ones with the tooth picks in their eyes." Yet, youth ministry also has a magical way of re-energizing adult's spirits, that keeps veterans like the honorably retired Rev. Wayne Conners, keep coming, even after a career of youth ministry. There is something exhaustively delicious about the energy and the hope children and youth give us.
Thanks to all who made this event possible!
Grace and Peace,
Saturday, January 15, 2011
I also ponder the role of religion and religious passion in our public discourse. Many are turned away from religion because of religiously motivated differences and violence. In this context, I think we Presbyterians have a lot to offer the nation and world. We are a passionate people, who do not agree on all matters. This is part of our heritage and witness. We were split twice in the 1700’s and out of that struggle was forged an historic principle, the acceptance that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” that the church cannot bind the conscience of an individual in matters of salvation. We debate matters on which we disagree, but we are governed by the majority and protect the rights of the minority. Living faithfully and peacefully in disagreement is our Presbyterian way. This is our story as well.
My beginning sense of call to serving at the presbytery level was first awakened in 2006 when the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force reported at the 217th GA in Birmingham. The P.U.P. task force, made up of members representing the theological breadth of our diverse church, surprisingly produced a unanimous report. They did not change each others’ positions, but they did change their stance toward each other from disdain to respect, and from anger to love. By engaging each other in Bible Study, getting to know each others' personal stories and motivations, they came to respect each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. They modeled for the rest of us how to disagree faithfully and called upon us to engage each other in similar ways. They gave witness that love and unity are not the same things as agreement and unanimity. Their report and witness changed my life. I believe the P.U.P Task Force will be remembered in church history as a major witness of this time. In this era of incivility, we Presbyterians have a witness to give.
As a resource, I commend to you Frances Taylor Gench’s book “Faithful Disagreement: Wrestling with Scripture in the Midst of Church Conflict,” published by Westminster/John Knox Press, ©2009. Frances is a New Testament Professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary and friend of mine, who served on the P.U.P. Task Force and was a major contributor and resource person in leading their Bible Study together. Frances also was the Bible Study leader for the Association of Executive Presbyters conference in in 2008 and 2009. Not surprising, the struggle to disagree faithfully is nothing new under the sun, but part of our human and sacred story in Scripture.
Many wonder these days what it means to be Presbyterian. I suggest that we claim the story of our heritage and give witness to faithful disagreement.
As one who once served the church in Cooperstown, NY, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and on this NFL playoff weekend, I conclude with the wisdom of the late George Carlin on the difference between football and baseball. In football, a battle is fought in the trenches, a smash mouth brawl, while quarterbacks fire missiles to receivers penetrating enemy lines, and where winning requires infiltrating the enemy’s home goal which they defend at all cost. Whereas in baseball, which is just as competitive, and which was once called our national past time, the only goal is to go home. Spring training is just around the corner!