Worship Resource: 4th Sunday of Easter Year A

The Good Shepherd – John 10:1-16

Opening Prayer                                                                                                                                             

Good Shepherd, teach us to listen for your voice in rumbling traffic, clacking keyboards, complaints, laughter, birdsong, the ringing that remains when all other sounds go silent. Teach us to discern your call amid the myriad voices competing for our attention. Teach us to trust your leading. Amen.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-30-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-30-21

Last week we began exploring the second half of Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century by Paul Nixon and Beth Ann Estock. This section describes 21 models, forms, paradigms for doing church that the authors have observed emerging in the 21st century. There are a lot of unknowns about the church of the 21st century, but one thing Nixon and Estock seem fairly certain of is that the “neighborhood, denominationally-franchised church . . . with a weak local vision and identity” is about to disappear.

As I read through the weird church paradigms, it seems to me that a number of them might be components of a new UCC in Granby: “The Simple Cell,” “The Dinner Party,” “The Soulful Community,” “The Community Enterprise,” “The Pilgrimage,” “The Innovation Lab,” “The Tabernacle,” all might manifest themselves in some way even if they don’t become the dominant or “stand alone” model. The book gives current examples of churches following these models. Which one of these example churches would you like to learn more about? 

My hope is that by the end of this process we will land somewhere with some kind of emerging, distinct local identity that new people can connect with. One of the reasons the denominationally-franchised church is headed for extinction is that too often it tries to be everything to everyone and so ends up unable to connect authentically with anyone. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus says to a “lukewarm” church “I will spit you out of my mouth” (3:16).  Trying not to offend anyone, the church as we have known it has feared being weird. 

I’m reminded of our “What’s Your Why?” training. Simon Sinek makes the point that the successful organization connects with the people who already on some level share the organization’s values. That’s why it’s so important as we go through this process to ask “Who is God calling us to reach next?” Rev. Paul Nickerson sometimes calls this person “unchurched Harry and Mary.” All of the weird church paradigms are targeted toward a specific group of people with particular spiritual, emotional, and social needs.

Several years ago Rev. Traci Blackmon, UCC Executive Minister for Witness and Justice, preached at a meeting of the newly formed Southern New England Conference UCC. Her text was the story of the Crossing of the Jordan God’s people were nearing the end of their forty year wilderness journey. Looking across the Jordan River, they could see the Promised Land. Like God did at the Red Sea forty years earlier, God had promised to part the waters for them so that they could cross over. But the waters didn’t part until the people at the front of the procession actually stepped into the water. A way opened up where there hadn’t been one before, but only after the people were willing to step out in faith.

Time and again I’ve found that to be true. And I’m finding it to be true now. I’ve had several exciting conversations with community members who are aware of our collaboration efforts and are interested in partnering with our congregations in creating something new. Every day has the potential to give rise to a clearer vision for our new combined future as long as we are willing and brave enough to continue moving forward in faith.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-25-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-25-21

The second half of Weird Church: Welcome to the 21st Century by Paul Nixon and Beth Ann Estock consists of nineteen short chapters describing different models, approaches, and forms of 21st century church that the authors have observed. As First Church and South Church consider consolidation I encourage you to read these chapters and mind your heart. Do any of these descriptions grab your interest? Do you feel energized? Do you find yourself thinking about how we could do that kind of church here in Granby? One of the keys to success in finding a sustainable future is “following the energy.” 

I find very helpful the “notes of caution” scattered throughout the descriptions. In the weird church era, there are more failures than there are successes. Wise leaders learn from the mistakes of others. One small example that resonated with me: the coffee house church. Back in the aughts I was on a Church Development Committee that oversaw a church restart. The church decided to restart as a coffee shop. We found what Nixon and Estock also discovered: if people want coffee, they will go to a coffee shop, not a church disguised as a coffee shop. Our project ended up failing spectacularly. We also discovered that coffee shop church can succeed when it is supported by a larger organization. Not every creative idea results in a self-sustaining congregation. It’s helpful to be aware of diverse ministry models and the kinds of funding streams they are likely to require. 

As I read through the second half of the book, I realized that I’ve had personal experience with a number of types of weird church. My encouragement is that First Church and South Church folks get out there and visit, experience, and interview people representing as many of these different types as we can. A first step in creating something new is getting a sense of what’s already out there.

For example: “The Neighborhood.” Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis is one of the more famous examples. I met the pastor, Rev. Mike Mather, when I was a church planter in Indiana. I recommend his book Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places. You can listen to a podcast of his approach to “The Neighborhood” here. Closer to home First Congregational Church of Stamford has adopted some of Rev. Mather’s strategies in their restart project. I’m glad to ask if Rev. Mather and/or the folks from FCC Stamford would be willing to chat with us.

There are at least two examples of the “Community Space” type right here in CT. Rev. Dr. Shelly Best is the founder and director of 224 Ecospace in Hartford. I’ve met with Dr. Best and toured the space. She is an amazing person from whom we could learn a lot. The second example:  United Congregational Church of Bridgeport sold their historic building a number of years ago and moved into a community space in which they are developing multiple ministries and income streams. Rev. Sara Smith was very helpful with FCC Stamford and I’m sure would be glad to talk with us. 

I’m aware of a number of other examples of weird churches that we could visit and talk with, but I will save those for the coming weeks.

Worship Resource: Earth Day

Opening Prayer                                                                                                                                       

God of the sparrow, God of the whale, God of quark and quasar, the Psalmist looked at the vastness of the heavens and wondered at your compassion for mere human beings. Thousands of years later we, too, wonder at the vastness of the universe while we exploit and pollute the Earth. Teach us to love our only home the way you love us. Teach us to treat our fellow beings with care. Free us from greed and fear, which drive our self-destructive behaviors. Teach us to trust in your abundant provision. Amen.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-16-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-16-21

Our transition coach, Claire Bamberg, recommended everyone from First Church and South Church read Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century by Paul Nixon and Beth Ann Estock as a resource for envisioning what the new church God is birthing among us as a result of our collaboration might be. In chapter 5, Nixon and Estock write about “shame-based systematic theology” (p. 51), which has been a feature of many Christian churches for centuries. The authors propose a shift away from “shame-based theology” toward an approach to doing church based on love and letting go.

While this may sound a bit abstract mystical, it is not in the least. Some researchers argue that shame is the most powerful force in human psychological, social, and spiritual life. Shame is an emotion. Emotions are made up of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Here I think it’s important to distinguish between what some researchers call “healthy shame” and “toxic” or “chronic” shame. In it’s benign or “healthy” form, shame simply lets us know when we are out of alignment socially. It might be that feeling of “dis-ease” when we enter a room of strangers or that feeling of embarrassment when we make an inappropriate comment. Internally it could arise as a sense that we are not living in alignment with our values. 

Healthy shame can prevent us from doing socially harmful things. This is the kind of shame the Prophet Jeremiah writes about: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush” (6:14). For an in depth study see Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology by Stephen Pattinson.

When Nixon and Estock are writing about “shame-based theology,” they are referring to “toxic” or “chronic” shame. Toxic/chronic shame is the sense that “there is something fundamentally wrong with me.” Whereas guilt is the sense that “I’ve done bad,” toxic shame is the sense that “I am bad.” Author Brene Brown talks about this as the difference between “feeling shame” and “being shamed.” Listen to her podcast “Shame and Accountability.”

When I moved from my church of origin to the “liberal” UCC I thought I was leaving shame-based theology behind. I discovered that we have our own version. Some call it “toxic wokeness” or “cancel culture.” All of it–whether it’s from the “right” or the “left,” conservative or liberal, “blue,” or “orange,” or “green” stages of spiral dynamics (to use Estock and Nixon’s terminology) arises from a deep-seated desire for purity. It’s a belief that there’s something fundamentally wrong with reality and if we could just eliminate it or “them” everything would be “good.” It’s a worry or a sense or a fear that the declaration of Genesis that “God saw all that God had made and behold it was very good,” no longer applies. 

Toxic shame is a tool of oppression. In her podcast, Brene Brown quotes author and activist Audre Lorde: “You can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” A “weird church” won’t abandon working for justice, but it will avoid using the master’s tools to do so. 

The vision of a theology oriented toward loving and letting go is grounded in a practice of radical acceptance. It looks more like a “yellow” or “turquoise” stage in spiral dynamics. Loving and letting go means letting go of our dreams of purity and meeting the world as it is. Filled with deep faith in the ongoing goodness of creation, we can meet each moment whether pleasant or unpleasant, each person whether loveable or hateful, each situation whether harmful or healing, with fierce tenderness and longsuffering patience because everything we encounter is woven into the seamless fabric of God’s boundless love.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-9-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-9-21

Our transition coach Claire Bamberg has recommended we read Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century by Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon. Nixon and Estock are United Methodist ministers and consultants to churches of many different denominations. 

The theoretical framework of the book is called “spiral dynamics,” “a particular theory of human bio/psycho/social evolution developed by Don Beck and Christopher Cowen, rooted in the work of Clare Graves” (p. ix). The gist of the theory, as I understand it from the brief sketch in the introduction to Weird Church, is that human history and culture has evolved through a number of stages beginning 250,000 years ago with the stone age, which in human terms was characterized by a “survival mentality.” 10,000 years ago humanity evolved to a tribal stage of “mutual reciprocity.”  As we transition from ancient to modern times we see the development of an ego-centric stage, a “code of conduct” stage, a stage of “achievement and personal success.” The contemporary moment has given rise to a shift away from the individual toward a concern for the larger community characterized by various justice movements and concern about climate change. Evidence for further evolutionary stages include a stage characterized by a “value system that can respect all perspectives,” and a stage that “experiences the wholeness of existence through mind and spirit with mystical and intuitive sensibilities” (pp. x-xiii). What makes this evolution a spiral is that each succeeding stage includes the one before. The survival mentality persists even in the stage of “mystical wholeness.” 

This framework–“color coded” for convenience–allows the authors to analyze how gaps between congregational cultures and changes in mainstream Western cultural assumptions have resulted in church decline. I had an “aha” moment many years ago when I realized that I had been taught that people don’t attend church because they’re “bad,” when, in fact, many–if not most–don’t attend church because they’re good and they just don’t see church as having any relevance whatsoever to their spiritual lives.

Much of what the authors describe resonates with my experience. The book was published in 2016. I find myself wondering what changes they might make to a 2021 edition. My guess is that they–along with pretty much every other thinker I’ve been reading/listening to over the past 13 months–would say that the pandemic has only greatly accelerated the changes they describe. I encourage everyone to get a copy of the book and read it. 

A word of caution. Predicting the future is a tricky business. Organizations that endure go through periods of expansion and contraction. Darwin’s evolutionary insight about “the survival of the fittest” might be better phrased as “the survival of the adaptable.” While much of our work will inevitably be focused on what changes are needed for our congregations to survive, a more powerful set of questions might be, “How can we build our organization’s capacity for change? What behaviors, structures, values can we weave into the fabric of this new project that will keep the “change muscles” of the congregation strong for generations to come?”

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-2-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-2-21

In light of the February 14 decision by First Church and South Church to pursue a path of collaboration, I met with leadership to revise the addendum to my transitional call agreement. This addendum spells out “micro-plans” and “big picture goals” for our ministry together. One of the things that makes transitional ministry different from settled ministry is the inclusion of specific ministry goals in the contracting process.

Our assistant moderator, Lisa Reinhardt, is writing a piece this week on the updated goals for the transitional minister. The first of the updated “micro-plans” is to “remind people of the role of the transition pastor to the congregation.” 

After nearly two years of serving together, my guess is most of us have a pretty good sense of the role of the transition pastor in the congregation. A transitional minister contracts with a congregation for a certain period of time in order to get a certain piece of work done, which the transitional minister and congregation define together. In our case, the piece of work was to find a sustainable future.

For about 18 months we explored a number of options. Six weeks ago we decided to pursue consolidation. The reason for updating the addendum at this point was so that it reflected a focus on the consolidation path. In terms of worship, this will mean more energy focused on worshipping together with South Church and developing a common worship liturgy. In terms of program, it will mean focusing more energy on developing collaborative projects with South Church. In terms of pastoral care, it will mean focusing more energy on working through whatever grief may arise as certain familiar aspects of what it means to be First Congregational Church are let go so that new, vital ministries have the space to sprout and grow.

Years ago in one of our conversations my spiritual director refered to a poem by Richard Wilbur entitled “Seed Leaves.” I keep a copy of it pinned to bulletin boards in both my home and my church offices. To me the poem speaks about the hard choices the path to maturity demands of each of us. When we try to be everything to everyone we often end up being of no use to anyone. Wilbur writes:

“This plant would like to grow 

And yet be embryo; 

Increase, and yet escape 

The doom of taking shape;”

Yet the “stubborn” life force demands the plant take shape. A maple tree becomes a maple tree with its distinct characteristics. It can’t be an oak. Like a tree if we are to grow we can’t escape the doom of taking shape.

The great blessing of transitional ministry is the opportunity it creates for new, distinctive, and focused ministry to take shape.

Worship Resource: Easter Sunday

Opening Prayer                                                                                                                                

Holy God, on this Easter morning we welcome the sunrise. We welcome the birdsong. We welcome the branches swaying above our heads. We welcome the opportunity to greet familiar faces and meet new ones. We welcome the energy and joy and promise of a new day, new beginnings, and new challenges to face. We welcome the chance to hear with new ears the old story of Jesus: how he died at the hands of violent people and was raised by the unstoppable power of your boundless love. Renew our faith in resurrection. Renew our commitment to the Jesus way. Amen.