Monday, November 24, 2014

Committee on Ministry Support

I want to introduce Sarah Schmidt-Lee as the new secretary for the Committee on Ministry and Pastoral Transition Coordinator.  In this week of Thanksgiving, I want to express my gratitude to Kurt Kremlick, Jr. for his many years of service as COM secretary.  Kurt's experience and wisdom has been much appreciated and has been a gift to the COM, to this Presbytery and its congregations. The COM meeting Tuesday, November 25 is the last meeting for which he will be responsible for keeping the track of things.  He will continue through February providing orientation, training and support for Sarah as she learns the nuances of the role.  Kurt will then continue as an adviser to the COM team, which reviews it's documents through June, 2015.   Thank you, Kurt!

New to this position is the coordination of pastoral transitions.  The COM appoints a transition counselor to each congregation, which is between installed pastors.  There are many steps and documents to track and file during this process.  Sarah will join me in coaching and supporting the work of these transition counselors, Sessions, and PNCs, doing Congregational Leadership Connection matching, and reviewing candidate background check reports.  I will continue to do executive reference checks of candidates and supervise her work.

Sarah is the daughter of PC(USA) mission partners and lived with them in Japan where they served for 10 years.  She is a graduate of Regent College in Vancouver, British Colombia-an international, interdenominational evangelical seminary, served as pastor of the Westernville Presbyterian Church in Utica Presbytery in upstate New York for seven years prior to moving to Kalamazoo with her husband Barrett Lee.  Barrett is the pastor of the North Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo.  They have two young children.  In Utica Presbytery, she served on the Committee for Preparation of Ministry for 6 years and the Committee for the Equipping and Empowerment of Congregations which she chaired for 5 years.  Also, noteworthy, she followed a 38 year pastorate at the Westernville Church!  She presently serves as Presbytery's recording clerk, on the Administrative Commission for the First Presbyterian Church in Albion, and is on the Presbytery's Pulpit Supply List.  Welcome, Sarah!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Aroma of Christ

In my last blog I wrote, "the church that we have known and loved is dying."   Scary sad statement!  Let me elaborate!! Central to my faith and the church's faith is that "Jesus suffered, was crucified, died, was buried, descended to the dead, but on the third day rose again"  (the Apostles Creed)!  Christ won the victory over sin and death!  If the church is Christ's body in the world today, then should we be surprised by suffering?  No!  Should we fear dying?  No!  "In life and in death we belong to God" (the Heidelberg Catechism).  This is our creed!  Our trust is in God who gives us life and who gives new life in Christ.  "Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ" (Romans 8).

To the church in Corinth, a highly anxious congregation in the throws of considerable discord, the Apostle Paul wrote, "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.  For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life."  (2 Corinthians 2:14-16)  Preaching on this text to an aging anxious congregation recently, I asked, "What fragrance are we spreading in the sanctuary and neighborhood because of our knowing Jesus?  And said, "Fear is not the aroma of Christ."  

In my office I sense a heightened anxiety in many of our congregations.  It's stewardship season.  The early tallies of pledges are not promising.  How in the world will we meet next year's budget?   The aging demographic trend in many of our congregations is beginning to catch up with us.  Families leave because the pastor's too conservative, because the denomination is too liberal.  Church budgets and leaders are taking it on the chin from both directions, and the pillars keep dying!  A harsh new reality is beginning to settle in, that we can't do what we have done in the same way.  And it challenges our sense of identity. This panic can be a constructive wake up call to adapt to faithfulness in a new context, a new beginning, a new vision for sharing the gospel with a new people, and claiming our secure identity in Christ given in our baptism.  Or it can degenerate into a destructive toxic smelly mess that attracts no one and repels everyone!   PNCs long for a young leader and Sessions a program to attract young families as elixirs to save their congregations, and then expect the new folk to venerate and sustain the church practices we know and love.  There is something askew in this picture!  Do we worship God who gives life, or do we venerate a church or camp or program, which shared the life giving gospel to us?  People can smell that at the door like mildew in a basement.  Jesus warned "new wine will burst old wine skins."  Alas, I've been witness to burst old wine skins for most of my ministry.  While the fastest growing demographic in religious poles are the "none."  "The harvest is plentiful, the laborers are few,' who will fashion new wine skins. 

"Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession."  Friends, the Church of Jesus Christ will be just fine.  It may die as we have known and loved it.  But God's spirit will raise it up in new forms that make sense for a new day.  The church has regenerated multiple times.  The scattered persecuted congregations of the early church, later flourished to social prominence then retreated into the monastic movement as safe havens in a dark time, and so on.  The seed is planted in the soil, breaks open and sprouts new life in God's time.  

"And through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing Christ."    At Lake Michigan Presbytery's retreat in September, Ray Jones encouraged us to engage our personal stories of the transforming power of God in our lives, to engage the neighborhood where God has planted us, to be intentional about nurturing a relationship with someone outside the church community.  At our November 8th Presbytery meeting, Chip Hardwick described the new cultural post modern, post Christendom, post Christian context in which we live, which no longer supports church's ministry.  We can fight it. cry about it, shake our fist at it, beat our selves up because we feel like failures, OR we can be about living out our identity as children of God, as disciples of Jesus, doing what Jesus did, discerning what God is doing and joining God in it, spreading an aroma of love, grace, justice, welcome, safety, like the home cooked thanksgiving dinner fills the house.  

At  the November 8th meeting of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan, participants were exposed to the fragrance of the:   
  • Ministry of our Youth:  as we gathered in the Muskegon sanctuary for the meeting, we were greeted by a video of our teenagers who participated in this fall's Urban Plunge, October 31-November 2 at the First Presbyterian Church in Holt.  See video at this link:
  • Ministry of the Marginalized:  Rev. Barrett Lee preached and told the story of the North Presbyterian Church, our covenant partner.  For years our shared mission dollars has been and continues to support North Church's ministry with marginalized persons, many of whom are challenged with mental illness.  They have 30 years of experience ministering to marginalized persons.  The Holy Spirit of God is preset and fills their sanctuary and worshiping community with a love.  They say to each other every week, "God loves you and I love you, and there is nothing you can do about it."  Then invite us to come and catch the spirit among them, to learn from their experience, as we seek to reach those in the margins in our neighborhoods. Speak with Barrett about a pulpit and pew exchange.
  • Ministry of Young Adults:  The Jackson cluster of churches are learning from several young adult interns, pre-ministerial students at Spring Arbor University.  Supported by a Presbytery Deep & Wide Grant, they want to help build a network of young adults, and help us learn how to connect with their peers. A special issue of Presbyterian's Today focusing on Young Adult Ministry where available at the Resource Table.  Speak with Rev. Jim Hegedus or Rev. Lynne McQuown to learn more about this ministry.
  • Ministry of Solidarity:  through the Synod of the Covenant's Mission to the USA program, Father George Mahklouf, a Palestinian Antiochan Orthodox priest born in Jerusalem, shared his story and perspective of the crisis in Palestine with us in plenary and then in an open space conversation.  He spent time with the Westminster/Portage, Decatur, Jackson/First and Kalamazoo/First congregations.  Palestinian Christians seek our solidarity.  Father George left DVDs and the ecumenical Kairos declaration with our Resource Center for our study.  Many people question the actions of the 221st General Assembly.  The office of the General Assembly has assembled resources on this subject at this link:  
  • Ministry of Camp Greenwood:  The Greenwood Agency reported a difficult financial year.  They anticipate an $35,000 deficit this year.  At an open space conversation, members of the Leadership Team and the Agency and others discussed this financial reality, the value of camping ministry, potential alternative futures, and the stewardship question, are we being faithful?
  • The Question of Marriage:  In another Open Space conversation, Chip Hardwick described the 221st GA actions on marriage.  The fact is the definition of marriage as a civil contract between an man and a woman, as stated in the Directory for Worship in our Book of Order is no longer true.  In more and more states, whether we agree or not, this is no longer the case.  The 221st GA is calling upon the presbyteries to address this new reality.  It has already given through an Authoritative Interpretation, freedom of conscience to pastors in states where same sex marriage is legal, to officiate at such weddings.  This has caused much strain in the church. The A.I. and the Overture sent for our consideration  both give relief of conscience for pastors and Sessions who do not decide not to do so.  Lake Michigan Presbytery will vote on this overture on April 14.  I encourage people to study what the overture actually says.  The Office of the General Assembly has pulled together several resources here:
Though anger, confusion, fear, anxiety, sadness, depression, grief may abound for a time...we are human, I give "thanks to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.  For we are the aroma of Christ."  May it be so for us!