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