Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Ten Year Anniversary

I worshiped and preached at the Okemos Presbyterian Church on the third Sunday of Advent.  What a joy that was and for several reasons.  I was pleased to be able to support Rob Carlson, pastor, head of staff, after his second chemotherapy treatment.  I was warmly welcomed by Rob, Alice Townley, associate for congregational life, and the congregationSecondly, it’s a rare occasion for me in my role as General Presbyter to fill a pulpit during Advent.  Congregations are not focused on Presbytery life during Advent, but on choir cantatas and children's pageants, as they should be.  Thirdly, this is an anniversary for me.  Ten years ago in Advent I was saying good-bye to the Montauk congregation and community, and packing for my family's move to Michigan.  It will be ten years ago this January, that I was installed as General Presbyter of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan in the Okemos sanctuary, that first Saturday of January 2008.    

I don’t know about Mary, who was called to partner with God in bringing Jesus into the world, but God provided me with just the right amount of naiveté as to what I was getting into for me to say, “Yeah, I can do this!  I was however spiritually tuned enough to understand, “Yeah, but only with God’s help!”  And that God has done in wondrous ways. 

I knew that the Church was living through a reformation.  But I didn't realize it would be as profound as the one 500 years ago, and hadn't experienced the pain involved, such as closing the new church development project Cherry Valley in Caledonia after such a promising start.  However, when worshiping with the Lyons Muir Church earlier this month, I noticed their comfortable sanctuary chairs which were gifted to them as well as to Pine Island and the Mt. Hope congregations upon Cherry Valley's closure.  A painful ending provided resources to many others.

Likewise, when I stood in the doorway of the North Presbyterian Church in Lansing to decommission that building of its dedicated purpose of Presbyterian ministry, the words I uttered were powerful and hung in the air and tugged at our hearts.  I then walked with the church's young people who carried the church's cross so that it and the congregation could be incorporated into the Westminster Church just blocks away.  They are now North Westminster Presbyterian Church together.  They house Advent House Fellowship, our newest worshiping community of faith, who just was awarded a New Worshiping Community of Faith growth grant from the Presbyterian Mission Agency and matching grant from the Presbytery.  

Similarly, I worshiped with the members of the McBain Church, all eight of them, on a cold Sunday in January when they voted to ask the Presbytery to close their church.  Afterwards, we walked to a member's nearby home for coffee and sweet bread.  Their closure left the Lake City Church without a partner to share a pastor.  After three years, two years with Rev. David Weber, as interim pastor, and one year with pulpit supply and a lot of lay leadership, they called Rev. Jan Jaspers, who serves them part time.  She sensed a tug the spirit calling her attend seminary as she approached retirement.  Three years later we ordained Janice that that ministry.  Her three years of seminary preparation matched Lake City's three years of wilderness preparation for their ministry together.  Who but God could have planned that?  Thank you, Lord!

Probably the most significant project we've done together was to introduce Barry Johnson and his vision of polarity management.  We learned that polarities are neither good nor bad, but simply are, and are as normal as inhaling and exhaling.  Try doing just one of those for more than a minute and see how that goes!  Healthy congregations don't get rid of polarities, but learn to manage them and reap the positive energy that flows from both poles.  We trained 18 leaders who assisted nearly half of our congregations in assessing two polarities in congregational life, tradition/innovation and inreach/outreach.

Living into the 21st Century has been, shall we dare say, like Mary’s pregnancy, which stretches the body, challenges the norms, embarrasses the family and even threatens the family's life and those around them.  So much so that Mary felt the need to disappear from home for awhile and visit her relatives Elizabeth and Zachariah.  And after the King got news of Jesus' birth, the holy family escaped his wrath, the slaughter of innocent children, and sojourned in Egypt as political refugees until it was safe.  Most every one of our congregations has painfully suffered the loss of at least some disgruntled members.  After years of study and discernment, the PC(USA) opened the way for those who are led by the Spirit to welcome LGBTQ persons, and perform their weddings.  The church carefully acted to do so without imposing it on others who don't feel so led.   

I didn’t know ten years ago the frustration and anger, which would come from all sides when some refused to abide with the church's discernment.  Dismissing congregations to other denominations was a painful divorce, first Oakhill, and Quincy Union, then Hillsdale and California congregations.  The schism of the John Knox congregation was particularly painful as good friends divided and parted ways.  Presbytery just approved for the remnant of the John Knox congregation to sell their building.  Remaining in this building designed for a much larger congregation would not have been good stewardship.  It's painfully hard to let go of such an asset, but it saddling new ministry with the burdens with it would have been a non starter.  The congregation will continue to worship there for up to a year following the closing in March, as they discern their future.  In the meantime they will share their pastor's time with the Parkwood congregation.  God makes a way!

This year we have focused on strategic planning discerning God's leading.  It is a work in progress, but our listening thus far puts strengthening relationships, improving communication, networking for sharing resources and training, and right sizing and focusing our organizational structure and staff are front and center.  So we go forward with the confidence of the advent hope that God is with us, Emmanuel! 

It is my privilege, honor and joy to serve you.  I celebrate how God works in mysterious ways God's wonders to perform through our ups and downs.  Sometimes it takes the longer view to recognize.  I wish you all a hope filled Advent, a merry Christmas, and a wondrous New Year!  And may God give us all the right amount of naivete' to join Mary in saying yes to what God wishes to do in and through us.

John Best
General Presbyter

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Partnership and Discipleship, the Warp and Woof of our Emerging Ministry Plan

Weavers set up looms with long threads called warp. Then with a shuttle weave a woof thread across the warp. The warp and woof form the woven fabric. Unwoven, they are only strands of thread. When naming our core values this spring, Presbytery of Lake Michigan's Leadership Team began with following Jesus (discipleship) and partnership, the warp and woof of the church of Jesus Christ.

Core Values
"As partners in Christ’s service,
we seek God’s way of grace and justice
through: Inclusion, Formation and Inspiration."
Adopted May 25, 2017

We could have simply made a list of values: Discipleship, Partnership, Grace, Justice, Inclusion, Formation, Inspiration. But instead we put them into a sentence identifying ourselves as partners with a purpose--in Christ's service. Discipleship and partnership became the warp and woof woven through our subsequent Mission and Vision Statements.

Mission Statement
"The Presbytery of Lake Michigan
forms and partners with faith communities
to challenge, encourage, equip and hold one another accountable
as Christ’s disciples."
Adopted August 24, 2017

Vision Statement:
"We envision dynamic leaders and healthy congregations
who are vital to their communities, working together
to share the way of Christ’s love, grace and justice."
Adopted August 24, 2017

Which begs the questions how are we doing?  Are discipleship and partnership evident in our witness?  Are we following Christ's way of love, grace, and justice?  Or are we governed more by fear of the stranger, of the unknown, of the violence we see most every day in the news?  Are we tempted to trust the power of the gun for our protection?  Are we tempted to turn a blind eye to our privileged place in society, to the pain of those living in the margins, to domestic violence at home, sexual harassment at work, to the erosion of the common good for the interests of the powerful few?  How are the warp and weave of discipleship and partnership evident in the fabric of our Presbytery or absent?  Will our identity as members of the body of Christ with different and important gifts to be celebrated and shared with the whole recited at every ordination and installation service calling us to partner Christ's service trump our fear and divisions?

As the moderator of Presbytery and I visit congregations, it is evident that most members don't give much thought to Presbytery.  As our ministry plan for our future emerges over the coming weeks, its warp and woof will be discipleship and partnership!   

Monday, October 16, 2017

Running on Fumes

While driving home the other day my car alert sounded.  I looked at the dashboard, and to my surprise the gas gauge was blinking. Yikes! My mind was on a million other things, in input from the day.  I had started out that morning with a partial tank of gas, enough to fulfill my duties of the day, but was I going to get home?  I had preached at Allegan that morning, then drove to Jackson for an area gathering for our strategic visioning.  I immediately slowed down to squeeze as many miles as I could out of the remaining drops of gas in my tank, because I knew I had a few miles to go before the next service station.  A prayer of gratitude was on my heart as I pulled into the station!  I pumped more gas into my tank than it is supposed to hold.  Whew! I was running on fumes.  I suspect you've been there and done that as well.

I also was pretty well spent.  That night, I was achy tired.  Fortunately, my calendar was open the next morning, so I slept in, lost myself in a good book the Kalamazoo area clergy group was reading.  The weekend accumulation of emails waited until that afternoon.  I filled my tank first.  Last fall, I didn't do that so well and ended up in the ER.  After multiple tests which showed only that I was healthy, my conclusion was fatigue and dehydration after a stressful fall and a strenuous day of fall yard work.

Our calendars fill to overflowing with meetings, events, activities. The fall start up can be exhausting!  Church calendars are not immune!  Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter are marathons for pastors.  January is always a bear with annual reports, congregational meetings, training of new officers.  Add to this the emotional stressors when members are anxious.  It is a recipe for burnout, depression, and worse.  Other professions have their own rhythms and challenges as well.  But we Americans tend to go and go and go, until our bodies say, "No, you don't!" And we must rest, refuel, replenish the store of joy, enthusiasm, and energy.  I was introduced to chronic fatigue syndrome years back when a church member, who was a beloved medical doctor, was forced by her body to take a medical leave for a season.

Self care and work life balance national issues.  They are a crisis identified by the Board of Pensions confronting many pastors.  We pastors are lolled into over functioning because we are called to ministry and service.  It feeds our egos.  "Look at how hard I am serving the Lord! I worked 85 hours this week!  See how wonderful I am?"  At the expense of our families!  Congregations love it, but at their expense, too.  Over functioning pastors lead to underfunctioning lay leaders.  And bless the poor minister who follows them.  Rather, dynamic leaders don't work harder.  They work smarter!  They regularly step out of the emotional system in which they work, to gain perspective.  They live interesting lives, which gives them more of themselves to share, instead of losing themselves in ministry.  They are dynamic because when they are present, they're attention is with us, and not elsewhere.  They have gas, dynamo, power, in their tank.

How do you fill your tank?  That will be different for each of us.  Church members hopefully are refreshed at corporate worship.  When we are feeling poorly, and life has squeezed the faith out of us, we need to stand with the community of faith and have them profess the faith when we can't.  Pastors, as worship leaders, get some of this while leading worship, but also need to find such communities which feed their souls when they are not responsible for leading.  Presbyteries were created to fill this need.  Who pastors the pastor?  Where do pastors go to refresh their spirits?

October is Pastor Appreciation Month!  Some suggestions:  write your pastor a letter expressing what you appreciate about his or her ministry.   Support a healthy work life balance for yourself and your church staff.  If it's not that way for you in the corporate world...well, the church is a hospital for sinners...we can live a more healthy way.  Frankly, the most successful corporations recognize the benefits of a healthy work life balance and that their people are their greatest asset.  Make sure your church provides your pastor opportunities to regularly step outside your congregation's emotional field for prospective.

If we want dynamic leaders and healthy congregations, pastors and members alike must fill their tanks and witness to a healthy work life balance.  We can do so, because in Jesus Christ we are given  "space for grace!"

Friday, September 15, 2017


"Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit."  John 15:2

My dad was a Presbyterian minister.  When he retired on disability my parents moved into the Woods Home, a lovely home gifted by a wealthy banker for retired Presbyterian ministers.  The home was divided into three apartments. Rev. and Mrs. Byers lived in one of the other apartments.  In their 90's, they had lived there for over 30 years.  One day, in spite of his weak heart, my dad started pruning an overgrown cherry tree on the property.  Rev. Byers, who had planted the tree when he first arrived, saw him, and came storming out of his apartment, shuffling his feet inches at a time, with his canes, two of them, one in each hand raised over his head in protest, shouting,  "You can't do that, you'll kill it!"  I think what he meant was, that's my baby, don't touch it!  Only it had been a long time since Rev. Byers had been able to tend to such chores and the tree was sorely in need of attention.  My dad, gifted with people skills, climbed down the ladder, calmed him down, and explained that the tree needed pruned, and that it would bear more fruit in the next harvest.  It did to Rev. Byers' delight!  And he thank my dad for it.  This family story is a metaphor for what the church at every level is experiencing.   Like the cherry tree which a wise older colleague had planted, the church needs pruning.

I wonder what the writer of the Fourth Gospel had in mind when sharing Jesus teaching, "Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit."  I wonder what the Johannine Community was facing at the close of the first century which brought this teaching to mind?  Earlier Luke and the Apostle Paul chronicled the early church's outreach to the Gentile community, and the push back they faced.  Peter and Paul had "to come down the ladder" and explain why they preached to and baptized those with whom the Torah forbade them to associate.  This text points to the discerning nature of the church and the constant growing edge the gospel demands.

The corporate world calls pruning strategic planning.  The Presbytery Leadership Team, with whom I serve, calls it strategic visioning discernment.  It's not so much what we want, but discerning what God wants.  Asking the questions, who are we now?  What is our mission, calling, purpose?  What is God doing in the neighborhood(s)?  What does the fulfillment of that look like?  How can we join God in it?  What tangible steps can we take to join God in bringing that vision into reality?

The Presbytery Leadership Team and the General Assembly 2020 Vision Commission both reported to the Presbytery of Lake Michigan at its September 9th meeting.  Visiting General Assembly Co-Moderator Rev. Denise Anderson, and Becca Snedeker Myers, a College of Wooster student and member of the General Assembly's 2020 Vision Commission invites our input to visioning the future shape of the PC(USA).  Presbyterians believe we best discern the mind of Christ together. Please look for an accompanying article in our E-Bulletin on how you can provide your responses to questions, and insights for their discernment.  Likewise, Elder Tedd Oyler, representing the Presbytery Leadership Team, reported identified core values, a revised mission statement and a new vision statement based on those core values.  He invited a Presbytery-wide dialogue on how to live into the vision via multiple area gatherings, and online or mailed in surveys. We invite and encourage your input.  

We pray and trust by the power of the Holy Spirit at work among us to form clear goals, SMART objectives (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-oriented), and strategies to fulfill them.  Please look for an accompanying e-bulletin article "Presbytery Strategic Visioning" for these statements, questions for reflection, for the dates and places of the area gatherings, and for online links and address for your input.

I suspect there are at least four reactions to this: Cynicism "Here we go again." Impatience "Finally!" Panic "OMG, change is coming!" Anger "Not on my watch!"  Like Rev. Byers, we may find ourselves looking out our window and rushing to protect our baby, our dream, our life-long work, protesting, "You're going to kill it."  We are committed that this ministry plan will not sit on the shelf, but will guide our planning, focus our resources, and inspire our life together.

There is an urgency to this task!  From my perspective, I see the church at every level both recognizing the call for adaptive change, AND a nostalgic clinging with metaphorical shaking canes to familiar processes and procedures.  I see over-stressed church leaders straining to fulfill old expectations like the plate spinners on the old TV variety shows.  I see the bodies of committee members cringe, who are asked to think about adding one more thing.  I see pastors get crucified for daring to let go of formerly expected duties, and empowering others.  I hear a chorus of cries for new members to come save the church, as if we don't already have a savior.  I see young leaders, who also are supposed to save the church, scorched by the heat of reactivity to change.  I see gifted new members ignored and rebuffed by the old guard with the litany, "We don't do it that way."  I also see new folks projecting their previous church experiences onto their new church and new pastor.  I see the media slander the church by lumping its diversity into an unloving, exclusive, judgmental version of the church, foreign to most of us.  I see the ranks of the "nones" and the "dones" grow, believing that is what the church is.  I see us shrink from the responsibility of making our own witness for fear of offending someone!  I see Nominating Committees struggling to fill institutional slots.  I see an increasing number of congregations who can no longer afford a full time pastor--16 in our Presbytery at last count.  The Presbyterian Outlook reports that half of our denomination's active pastors will be of retirement age in just a few years.  All of which urgently calls for adaptive change.

On the brighter side, I see dynamic leaders and vital congregations making a difference in their communities.  I see people, young and old, longing to make a difference increasing literacy, decreasing gun violence and human trafficking, serving the poor, welcoming refugees, standing with undocumented persons, recognizing their white privilege, confessing their complicity with policies which benefit them and oppress others, and ADDRESSING CLIMATE CHANGE!  I see church leaders taking a stand, offending members who pay their salaries, joining in protests, getting arrested for the sake of the gospel!  I see us joining others across denominational and religious lines to form coalitions for common causes.  And I see the General Assembly entities, Synod and Presbyteries refocusing on God's mission at the local level.

Pruning is not easy!  Being pruned implies some outside agent looping off precious limbs.  Yet there is a participatory spiritual practice of letting go!  Self examination, confession, repentance, and letting go are major elements of the spiritual journey.  We must come to terms with the past, with our egos, pride in what we once built, with our grief of what we once knew the church to beand let go of measuring success by the past.  Otherwise, our self righteousness becomes a toxic, deadly anchor to God's mission.  Success must instead be measured by fidelity to God's mission.  The purpose of pruning is health, fruitfulness and faithfulness. Faithfulness is measured by discerning, visioning and joining in God's activity in the world.  

Leaders are charged to lead.   Leadership can be dictatorial, functioning in closed systems, or through more open processes and systems. Sometimes, like my dad, we move ahead and start pruning.  We can also come down the ladder and explain and envision the future together.  The General Assembly's 2020 Vision Commission and our Presbytery's Leadership Team are coming down that ladder, opening up the system and inviting your participation. Please join the dialogue!

For more on open and closed systems read David Jones' article "Open" & "closed" systems in the Presbyterian Outlook, July 10, 2017 here:
David once served a neighboring church to mine on Long Island.

Yours in Christ,

Postscript:  My dad, a consummate gardener, died 15 months later while planting tomatoes in the garden.  I was 19 years old.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Experiencing Awe and Fostering It in Others

Susan Beaumont, a senior consultant with the Alban Institute, shares in her newest article research on the benefits of the human experience of awe and reflects on ways of fostering awe in people.  See the article here:  Beaumont writes how awe is inspired by beauty.  Experiences of awe draw us out of ourselves, cause us to pause to take notice and recognize we are but a small part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Overlook at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore
Awe is what draws us to visit National Parks this time of year.  They are national treasures.  Over the years, I've visited many of them.  Whether it is watching Old Faithful at Yellowstone in Wyoming; standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and trying to comprehend what eyes see; hiking trails at Zion in Utah; taking in the grandeur of Yosemite in California; driving in dizzying high altitudes of Glacier in Montana, and Rocky Mountain in Colorado; sitting by a campfire in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, or being socked in the fog at Acadia in Maine, something special happens deep in us at these places. Here in Michigan, we have the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.  Standing on the top of Sleeping Bear dune and looking out over Lake Michigan recalibrates perspective.

It was ten years ago when I sensed God calling me to something new.  It was about this time of year when I first learned about the Presbytery of Lake Michigan and its search for a general presbyter.  Part of a new call includes the grief work for what is being left behind.  I wrestled with my attachments to the Montauk Community Church, the community and friends there, whom I loved. There was for me the added grief of leaving the awe inspiring landscape there.  To be blunt, who doesn't love a water view?  I had the extraordinary privilege and honor to serve that oceanside fishing, resort community.  They provided me with a manse with a ocean view! With a five minute walk to the beach!!  With an ocean view from my church office desk!!!  They paid me to live there!!!!  What can I say?  Yet, after eleven years of ministry there, God had something new in mind for me.  And the Presbytery has kept me busy enough ever since not to think too much about it.

Life is not all a mountaintop experience.  God calls us forth to serve.  However, my experience in Montauk taught me about awe.  Unless one is spiritually dead, no one enters Montauk without experiencing a sense of awe.  When one drives into this village from the west on Montauk Highway, all of a sudden an ocean view opens before your eyes.  The universal response of residents and visitors alike is a wonderful sense of awe, joy, peace...recalibration.  Getting to Montauk takes some effort, can be tiring and frustrating.  All that instantly evaporates.  You say to yourself, "OK, this is why I'm here."

During my tenure in Montauk, I had the chance to visit Iona.  I learned there the Celtic concept for this. They call it "a thin place where the distance between heaven and earth is tissue thin."  This gave me language for what my Montauk neighbors knew instinctively and helped me connect with them.  Stricken by the natural beautiful of the place, I led vesper services during the summer at public overlooks where we marveled at the sunset over the water.  I led prayer walks on the hiking trails, stopping here and there to reflect on something we noticed and to break into song, giving thanks to God.  For two summers, I led a 7 a.m. Sunday service on a popular resort terrace overlooking the Atlantic.  With the financial help of the Presbytery, I invited Dennis Dewey, a gifted Biblical story teller to come for a week.  We set him up at various public places where he told water and fish stories from the Bible.  The magic draw of the storyteller attracted a crowd at each site.  At the Lighthouse he led us responsively with Psalm 136, the crowd responding with the refrain, "for his steadfast love endures forever."  At the harbor docks he told the story of Jonah and the call of Peter, Andrew, John and James.   On the beach he told the story of the risen Jesus making breakfast for the disciples.  At the village green, the story of feeding of the five thousand.

What moves you in awe?  How do you foster the experience of awe in others?  Please do read Susan Beaumont's article and be blessed.
And have an awe filled "Awegust."

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Stories of Welcome

Rev. Dr. Leanne VanDyk
WELCOME was the theme of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan's June 13th meeting hosted by the Buchanan Presbyterian Church.  Dr. Leanne VanDyk, a member of Presbytery serving as president of Columbia Theological Seminary,  challenged us with Paul's charge to the Church in Rome, "Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God" (Romans 15:7).  However, the work of welcome is not as easy as it sounds.  It has backbone and substance to it.  The Apostle Paul then gives greetings to a long list of names in chapter 16.  Leanne then unpacked the stories underlying Paul's greetings. stories which the first hearers would have recognized as the hard work of reaching across the aisle.  Some of relationships were probably as complex as the ones in our lives. We are called to welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you to the glory of God, especially when it is hard.

Then Dr. Doug Kindschi, director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University, and elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, shared with us the history, contextual need, and the theological grounding for interfaith engagement and dialogue.  He described six steps of interfaith engagement: tolerance, hospitality, understanding, respect, acceptance, holy envy.  He related these steps to the stages of human development: baby (tolerance), young child (hospitality), preteen (understanding), adolescence (respect), adult (acceptance), and children as parents (holy envy).   He shared the story of Grand Rapids' recent interfaith initiatives and examples of what congregations can do, such as the "Pieces for Peace" Project of the First Presbyterian Church in Holland.  Women of various faiths who were concerned for peace gathered this winter and made squares for a larger quilt, as a joint witness for peace.  The spiritual challenge is, can we recognize God's image in someone who is not like us?  If you are interested in receiving copy of Dr. Kindschi's powerpoint file, email him at  and he will be happy to share it with you.

The Presbyterian Disaster Assistance of PMA announces June 20th, World Refugee Day in the following link:  #WeChooseWelcome is a rallying call from Presbyterians across the U.S. expressing their commitment to welcome refugees of all nationalities and faiths.  Several of our congregations are sponsoring refugees:  First Presbyterian Churches in Holland, Kalamazoo, Jackson, and Westminster in Grand Rapids.  They all have welcome stories to tell.  

We welcomed Rev. Amber Nettleton, the new pastor at Pine Island Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo.  She comes to us from the Presbytery of Cascades and is the daughter-in-law of Rev. Doug Nettleton.  We welcomed Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon, the new lead pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Grand Haven.  We welcomed Rev. Deborah McCreary, who is serving Benton Harbor, First during Rev. Laurie Hartzell's sabbatical.  We welcomed Rev. Deborah Semon-Scott, an Episcopal colleague serving as interim pastor for Coldwater, First.  We examined and welcomed candidate Christina "Chrissy" Westberry, to her new call as associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo.  Welcome to this ministry!  We also heard from inquirer Austin Wicks, the son of Revs. Mike and Sally Wicks, and moved him to candidacy.  Austin has just graduated from Louisville Theological Seminary and is seeking a field placement during his candidacy year.

Vice Moderator, Rev. Karen Kelley
Vice moderator Rev. Karen Kelley reported five core values identified by the Leadership Team:  "As Partners in Christ's Service, we seek God's way of grace, through inclusion, formation, and inspiration."  In a brochure description of inclusion it states, "The Presbytery seeks in all its work to open the circle wide, to practice extravagant hospitality, to reach out to those who are not represented at the table, and to have respect and mutual forbearance toward one another.  Core values are both current and aspirational.

The Buchanan Church hosted our meeting.  The members greeted us, helped us find parking, met us at the door, fed us.  The air conditioning in the sanctuary was a gift on a 90 degree day!

Hesperia Presbyterian Church's New Entrance
 Finally, on June 8th, it was my joy to represent the Presbytery, along with Rev. Paul Tomlinson and elder Robert MacCord, members of the Committee on Ministry, at Hesperia Presbyterian Church's dedication service for their new addition.  This addition provides a new covered entrance, with elevator and three accessible restrooms on two floors.  It blends seamlessly with the rest of the building.   Old matching stained glass windows which had been removed from the bell tower years ago were found in storage and incorporated in the addition.  Rev. Tomlinson led a Presbytery Listening Team for the Hesperia congregation in the spring of 2015 when the Session and congregation wrestled with the PC(USA)'s understanding of marriage.  The Listening Team's survey of the congregation showed that a large majority of members wanted to remain.  Paul later moderated the Session until Rev. Calvin (Cal) Bremer was engaged as Hesperia's pastor.  Looking to their future, one of the first decisions of the Session with Paul was to address their accessibility need.  Through this capital project, the congregation says to itself and the community, "We are here to stay. WELCOME!"
Rev. Paul Tomlinson with Elder

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

"Growing Younger": Book Review

There is no greater concern in the church than the desire to attract younger families.  The Pentecost Special Offering of the PC(USA) is designated for Youth Ministries.  In 2016, this offering totaled $717,572.  The congregations of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan gave $11,572 in 2016, 40% of which remained to support ministry in the local church and 60% to the PC(USA) in support of the Presbyterian Youth Triennium, Montreat Youth Conferences, etc.  Please support this offering.

Our Presbytery Resource Center just purchased the book "Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to help Young People Discover and Love Your Church" by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin of the Fuller Youth Institute.  This book addresses the church's challenge.  After a four year project researching 250 congregations with effective ministries with young people, they identify 10 commonly held myths, and offer six strategies.

Debunking the Myths, 10 Qualities your Church does NOT need in order to Grow Young:
  1.  A precise size:  There is no correlation between church size and effectiveness.
  2. A trendy location or region:  Location does not have to be a limitation.
  3. An exact age:  New start up churches can be effective, but research shows just as much life change, in churches with a history.   
  4. A popular denomination...or lack of denomination.  "God is working through churches of all stripes."        
  5. An off-the-chart cool quotient.  Some do have a hip factor, but "for young people today, relational warmth is the new cool."
  6. A big, modern building:  "For teenagers and young adults, feeling at home transcends any building."
  7. A big budget:  "A small budget does not have to mean small impact."
  8. A "contemporary" worship service.  "While the churches we visited were likely to prefer modern worship in some or all their worship contexts, they didn't depend on that alone as a magnet to draw young people."
  9. A watered-down teaching style.  "For today's young people, growing young doesn't mean we talk about Jesus or the cost following him any less."
  10. A hyper-entertaining ministry program. "Faith communities offer something different," than entertainment, "Slick is no guarantee of success."
Six Strategies:  Their research has lead to six core commitments, around which this book is organized with a chapter on each of the following strategies:
  1. Unlock keychain leadership.  "Instead of centralizing authority, empower others--especially young people."
  2. Empathize with today's young people. "Instead of judging or criticizing, step into the shoes of this generation."
  3. Take Jesus' message seriously.  "Instead of asserting formulaic gospel claims, welcome young people into a Jesus' centered way of life."  
  4. Feel a warm community. "Instead of focusing on cool worship or programs, aim for warm peer and intergenerational friendships."
  5. Prioritize young people (and families) everywhere.  "Instead of giving lip service to how much young people matter, look for creative ways to tangibly support, resource, and involve them in all facets of your congregation."
  6. Be the best neighbors. "Instead of condemning the world outside your walls, enable young people to neighbor well locally and globally."
This is not rocket science.  It's basic relationship building, discipling 101.  It's about nurturing intentional relationships, paying attention, listening, understanding, empathy, caring, empowering, living kingdom values, discipling, walking the walking.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Practice and Pursuit of Community

“We believe that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation of the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought; one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain… We believe that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways:  that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another."  
                                                   Excerpt from the Confession of Belhar

Our brothers and sisters in Christ in South Africa professed unity and community as essentials to the life of the church.  They did so during apartheid law.  Their witness was theological:  our unity is a gift of God in Jesus Christ.  And it was deeply political:  the state and church at that time institutionalized overt and tacit rules which separated persons by race and subjugated people of color, which they boldly named sin and contrary to God’s will.  In 2016, the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted and added the Confession of Belhar to the Book of Confessions, part one the PC(USA)’s Constitution.

So this Lenten Season, I've been reading with my family after dinner "Lenten Reflections on the Confession of Belhar,” edited by Kerri N. Allen and Donald K. McKim.  In it, Mihee Kim-Kort writes, "In light of Belhar and these words in particular--'that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another'--perhaps these are the appropriate practices of the church because that is the flesh-and-blood reality--we practice community.  We deliberately and intentionally practice giving ourselves to one another because we realize we belong to each other.  We need each other.  We are inextricably tied together.  We pursue this unity like a brutal physical regimen.  It is not something we come by perfectly, all at once.  It is terribly messy, awkward, and fully human.  In many ways, it brings out our deepest insecurities and vulnerabilities if we are doing it faithfully and hopefully."  (p. 19)

We are “community” challenged in America today!  We are very much mired in the “messy, awkward,” practice of community in Washington DC, Lansing, and other state capitals.  And the values fought over there are represented in most every congregation. A core value of the American culture is independence, individualism, self-reliance.  Ironically, our frontier pioneer forbearers also knew the value of a good neighbor, of a helping hand in a barn raising, of a Friday night dance social, and gathering for worship on Sunday.  They walked, rode horseback and in horse drawn wagons and buggies to do so.  Pursuing community was an effort and a gift.  

Community/Individualism or shall we say Independence/Interdependence is another one of those polarities about which we have been taught.  You never get rid of a true polarity.  There is truth and value in both.  One can’t thrive without the other.  There is an upside and a downside to both.  An overemphasis of one typically causes fear and alarm from the other.  Today in America we are unfortunately experiencing the spiralling downside of this polarity.  Effective leaders recognize and manage polarities calming fears and pointing to the upside value of each.    

We are also “community” challenged today in the church, in our Presbytery.  Differences which separate get close inspection and are emotionally charged, while the ties that bind fray.  Congregational participation is voluntary.  What does being a member of Presbytery mean?  The Leadership Team of the Presbytery I serve is working to discern our core values, values which will drive use in our goal setting and strategic God desired outcomes.  The Belhar lifts up such a core value, “the experience, practice and pursuit of community.”

Shannon Johnson Keershner writes “I keep hoping to persuade folks that difference does not have to equal division and unity does not have to equal uniformity.  I have frequently appealed to our ‘unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’ I have preached that we have been made the one body of Christ, and God did not ask our opinion before God did it.  Therefore, it really does not matter if we like one another or not, (though we usually do!).  I always emphasize that we belong to each other because in Christ Jesus, we belong to God! …..Belhar’s central conviction that God has made us one—regardless of, actually in celebration of, our difference—is always central for me.”  (p. 22)

However we name it, one of our core values must be the experience, practice and pursuit of community.  Surely community is linked in a larger polarity with individualism.  But as inhaling is linked with exhaling, one not being sustainable alone for long by itself, but together combine for life giving breathing, so too, I believe, God joins the individual and community join together for blessed living!  

Thanks be to God, unity is a gift we have in Jesus Christ.  And community, however messy, awkward and which often triggers our deepest insecurities and vulnerabilities, is also our obligation to pursue.