What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-2-21
Congratulations to First Church and South Church on a $15,000 grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving to four different South and First initiatives. A number of folks from both churches worked really hard on writing the proposal. On behalf of all of us I’d like to thank Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg in particular for her leadership in this effort: identifying the opportunity and giving advice on crafting the language that ultimately resulted in the award. The faith-based grant program from HFPG is a new grant opportunity to support faith organizations assisting residents who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, addressing needs of congregants and the broader community impacted by racial/ethnic, geographic, economic disparities, or advancing community engagement focused on social and racial justice. The initiatives are Waste Not Want Not, the Grab ‘n Go program offered by First Church, the Granby Racial Reconciliation group, and the GUCCI coaches who are assisting the Program Working Group.
I’m looking forward to seeing how these four initiatives develop with the funding and the accountability structure that the grant provides. Last week I wrote about Waste Not Want Not and Grab ‘n Go and suggested the resource Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Growing a Relational Food Ministry by Elizabeth Mae Magill, which makes a distinction between a charity model and a relational model for food ministry. As we reflect on how to deploy the grant resources, it may be helpful for us to keep that distinction in mind. What’s our vision for food ministry in the church-to-be-formed? Which model would best serve that vision? How does food ministry fit within the overall vision for the new church? My understanding is that the Program Working Group will have a leadership role in these conversations. How will the Program Working Group leverage our coaching resources to clarify these issues? Though Waste Not Want Not and Grab ‘n Go are perhaps the most familiar food ministries in our churches, they aren’t the only food ministries.
Since April Granby Racial Reconciliation has been partnering with Food Solutions New England in leading a 15-week Racial Equity Challenge. Our own Ann Wilhelm is one of the visionaries behind this challenge. I encourage you to check out the websites above for more details on GRR’s and FSNE’s visions for community transformation. Both GRR and FSNE use a relational model because their goals aren’t limited to direct aid to the suffering but include making the whole system more just and equitable so that there are fewer suffering people. For those of you who don’t know, Granby Racial Reconciliation was formed a little over a year ago following the murder of George Floyd. Clergy and lay people from both South Church and First Church are involved in leading the group along with clergy from four other churches in town and many town leaders. We’ve had a number of successful events over the past twelve months including Hidden Figures Drive-in, a candidate forum, MLK town-wide preach in and community forum, a couple of vigils on the town green, and work with the school board to support racial equity and inclusion in our schools. There’s a lot more to come. I’m so grateful to everyone for their faithful effort not only in providing much needed charity but also in leading transformative relational ministry.
Independence Day means many things to many people. To some it is a day to celebrate our nation’s past. To others it’s a day to honor the symbols of our country. For others it’s a long weekend at the lake with family. For some it’s a reminder of the stolen land and stolen labor on which America’s great wealth has been built. For others it’s a reminder that the promises of freedom have been painfully slow in their fulfillment. While we may be tempted to turn away from the contradictions and complications of our homeland, Jesus invites us to take a closer look. Our God invites us to stretch our hearts in a wider embrace.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-25-21
Both First Church and South Church have food ministries. South Church hosts Waste Not Want Not, a weekly community meal. During COVID First Church started the Grab ‘n Go weekend snack pack program to provide additional food support and build relationships in our community. Food ministry is historic and widespread among churches in the U.S. So much so that there are numerous resources outlining what “works” and doesn’t work when engaging in food ministry depending on what the church’s goals are. A UCC colleague of mine, Elizabeth Mae Magill, recently published a helpful guide for transformational food ministry: Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Growing a Relational Food Ministry.
She begins the book by telling the story of “Alan,” an unhoused person whom Rev. Magill first met as someone who attended Worcester Fellowship–the outdoor church she pastored–and who ended up leading and fundamentally reshaping the ministry to make it more relevant to the people it was intended to serve. In that process Rev. Magill’s view of Alan, the food insecure and unhoused people who gathered each week in the park for worship and PB&J sandwiches, and her own ministry changed. This transformation is the basis of the book, which distinguishes between charity and relational ministry.
Charity, while alleviating immediate need, maintains the status quo. That’s why most churches, mainstream institutions, middle class folks, and wealthy philanthropists favor charity. (See, for example, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas). The status quo works for us! While charity has it’s place, it generally does not change the lives either of the ones serving or of those being served. (For more on the dark side of charity and how to transform it see Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) and Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results both by Robert D. Lupton.) Relational ministry by contrast seeks to transform the status quo by empowering the communities we are seeking to serve. (Habitat for Humanity is perhaps the most famous example of a truly effective relational ministry.)
Years ago I had the privilege of participating in a relational ministry that transformed an entire city. I was serving a historic, downtown congregation in Providence, RI. To make a long story short, I called on some of my partners, including the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. Together with members of the homeless community we developed a plan for an inaugural “Y’all Come Community Lunch.” Did volunteers cook food and serve it to food insecure people? Yes. Did volunteers take shifts so that everyone had both an opportunity to serve and be served, both to stand behind the food table and stand in line with the guests? Yes. The lunch also featured live entertainment from a band whose members were in recovery from addition. It featured speak-outs and poetry from unhoused folks. Was it loud? Yes. Was it rowdy? Yes. Was it a big community party that broke down barriers between “us,” the helpers, and “them,” the helped? I’d like to think so.
Years go by, the homeless community develops a “bill of rights” that is adopted by the state. The state formally adopts a “housing first” approach to homelessness, which greatly reduces homelessness statewide. The result was that the church’s “Bread and Blessings” program–which gave bag lunches to food insecure folks from our parking lot–had to close down after twenty years because so few people needed the service anymore! This can be the difference between charity that maintains the status quo and relational ministry that changes the world.
Storms rage. Chaos swirls. Confusion turns us this way and that. When Jesus crossed the sea with his disciples, waves tossed their boat. While the disciples cried out in fear, Jesus took a nap. In the midst of tumult within and without, Jesus teaches us that stillness is possible. We can trust the Creator of wind and thunder. We can rely on the One who has the whole world in their hands.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-18-21
You’ve probably heard of the “golden rule”: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). It’s part of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. Versions of the golden rule are found in many other sacred texts from other religions, including a version that is known as the “silver rule”: “Do not do unto others as you would not have done to you.”
I recently encountered the “silver rule” applied to the practice of reaching new people in the book Religious Diversity, What’s the Problem? Buddhist Advice for Flourishing with Religious Diversity by Rita M. Gross. Dr. Gross is Professor Emertia of Comparative Religious Studies at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Senior Dharma Teacher in the Nyingma Lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism. Her book was recommended to me by one of the members of Harvard Divinity School’s Harvard Pluralism Project, which I participate in as a representative of the United Church of Christ.
Reaching new people is a mission component of almost every organization–profit and not-for-profit–because every organization is made of people and no individual person lasts forever. So if an institution wants to continue–much less grow–some intentional effort is required. There are many thoughts on how to reach new people as without them no church will survive in the long term, so I thought I would take the opportunity that the consolidation process raises to define more precisely the theology of reaching new people for myself in the hope that others might find it helpful. Dr. Gross’ distinction between universal religion and exclusive religion helpful in this regard.
A universal religion is one that is based on ideas that are potentially relevant to everyone. The three great universal religions are Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Since these religions are based on ideas, they can adapt to many cultures and easily spread around the world. Reaching new people is an important part of universal religions.
A universal religion may or may not also be an exclusive religion. A universal religion is exclusive when it says both “Our religion is true for everyone” and “Everyone else’s beliefs are false.” Historically, Christianity and Islam are both universal and exclusive. The project of the universal and exclusive religion is to eliminate religious diversity. When religious monoculture is the end, all kinds of ethically questionable means are justified. The other option is exemplified by Buddhism, which is a universal religion but not exclusive. In other words, Buddhists believe that theirs is a universal truth that is potentially helpful for everyone, but there is no expectation that everyone must become Buddhist. In fact, for some people Buddhism isn’t particularly meaningful, and that’s just fine. Buddhism is universal and pluralist, that is, accepting of many religions and beliefs.
A universal and pluralist religion follows the “silver rule” when reaching new people: “do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” Do you want someone pushing their religion on you? No? Then don’t do that. Would you like an invitation from a friend to something you’re interested in? Do do that. My approach to reaching new people is informed by Buddhist practice: I try to be invitational without being overbearing. I try to invest in people without expecting anything in return. I try to respect the dignity and inherent worth of every individual. It’s not my intention to eliminate difference; rather, love invites me to join with all beings in celebration of our God-given, baffling, and beautiful diversity.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-4-21
Nothing brings energy to people like making history from a positive vision for the future. Last week I was having a conversation with a couple of First Church members over lunch on a sunny patio. We were discussing church business including our ongoing consolidation work with South Church. We spent some time talking about some of the missteps we’ve made and some of the challenges ahead. The consensus was that this has been a messy process whose outcome is far from guaranteed. Nevertheless, one person offered, “I’ve been a member of this church for 35 years and served in a number of leadership roles. I remember when the church was full on Sunday. I served on Christian Ed when the Sunday school classrooms were full of kids. Recently a colleague asked me about my experience at the church and I told him, ‘I’ve never been more excited about the church than I am now.’”
My response was to thank this person for sharing, that this is why I do my job. There’s no greater joy for me than to share in the joy of doing something big, risky, and costly in service of God’s mission. When I shared this exchange with my wife, Nicole, later that day she said, “Yes. That’s why this person is so happy. You’re doing something big. You’re not simply planning next year’s program.”
My experience of the church in New England is that there is a lot of focus on preserving history. Less thought is given to making history. We sometimes seem to take the attitude that our ancestors took all the risks and made all the sacrifices. Our job is simply to acknowledge their efforts and enjoy the fruits of their labors, that is, the legacy of this property, these endowments, these buildings, these traditions, these stories, this church. There is a place for enjoyment and appreciation. There is a place for preservation and legacy. But when these become our primary preoccupation, that vital spirit of risk, sacrifice, and adventure that created the legacy in the first place begins to diminish. We begin to lose a sense of serving a purpose beyond our own personal comfort.
One of the things I love about transition work is the possibility of making history. Last year as a part of our transition process, First Church did a timeline exercise. We then made some observations about the timeline we created together. You can find notes on those observations here.
Some of the “big” dates on the timeline included: 1736, the Salmon Brook society begins holding meetings at Daniel Hayes’ tavern; 1739, construction of the first meetinghouse begins; 1775, the meetinghouse is moved two miles northwest of original location; 1818, establishment of a singing school; 1831, the church votes to build a new meetinghouse, a large number of members leave, “low ebb” of the church, “little interest in religion”; 1872, the minister resigns to start a new “society” with 38 members at Salmon Brook village (now South Church) . . . and the list goes on . . . What makes the “big” dates “big” is that they have an impact not just on the life of the church, but on the life of the town. The town is already talking about our consolidation efforts. It’s clear our neighbors are anticipating big things. Our denomination is looking to us as a model for successful consolidation. It’s not everyday we have a chance to make history.