What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1-28-22

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1-28-22

Many of you likely saw the announcement earlier this week that I’ve accepted a call to First Church of Christ in Saybrook (Congregational). My last Sunday with First Church will be March 6. Between now and then we will consolidating the gains we’ve made during our time together and preparing for the bridge to what’s next. 

My role at FCC Saybrook will be, once again, transitional. The church is interested in doing revitalization work before it considers its next move. I look forward to helping them in that effort. What revitalization looks like during what we hope is the tail end of a global pandemic is a question foremost in a lot of minds and will likely be a key question for FCC Granby regardless of the decision on consolidation. A consolidated church is not necessarily a growing church unless intentional efforts are made to reach new people.

What will church vitality mean moving forward? No one really knows. For some decades now the world has been shifting from the linear “progress” change model to a “disruptive” change model, which makes it very difficult to infer the future from the past. Nevertheless, Carey Nieuwhoff’s latest blog post entitled “Five Faulty Assumptions About the Future Church” rings true for me. Number 2: “The Building Will Be the Center of Ministry,” and number 3: “You Don’t Need to Take Online Ministry that Seriously” seem particularly relevant. Already expectations around online engagement have changed at First Church. We expect that there will be a Zoom option for meetings. We expect a livestream option for worship. What we have yet to develop is how to turn “views” into vital spiritual connections. My guess is that this will be a piece of future vitality. 

Interestingly, another piece of vitality in a time of disruptive change came up at my annual physical exam this morning. In my conversation with my primary care physician the very popular topic of the pandemic and mental health came up. She talked about the importance of staying “grounded” and her personal daily practice of grounding, which sounded like simply finding a moment during the day to still her body and quiet her mind. It reminded me of my childhood church, which emphasized personal “quiet time.” During this pandemic time my meditation group shifted to Zoom and has grown exponentially because of it. Pre-pandemic we would get 6-7 people on a weekday morning. Now we average 20-30, sometimes more. We have folks joining us from places as far away as Columbia, Denmark, the UK, Germany, and Iran. How can First Church, South Church, FCC Saybrook, all our congregations stay grounded in a time of ongoing disruption? If we’re waiting for an extended time of “smooth sailing” to engage in vitality work, we could be waiting a long while. If my meditation group is any indication, leaning into the disruption can actually produce vitality.

All of this is easier said than done. I am not a person who naturally welcomes disruption. I prefer smooth sailing. Psalm 23 says, “He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” I have found that in stormy times the still waters are still accessible. Deep below the surface there are hidden aquifers of spiritual refreshment that will sustain our vitality if we stay grounded, like a tree that reaches with its roots down to the living water. 

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 9-10-21 through 10-15-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 9-10-21

Abraham asked good questions. When God appears to Abraham in a dream, God says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” (Genesis 15:1-2). The dream dialogue unfolds from there. God clarifies the exact nature of God’s plan in response to Abraham’s questions. 

Powerful questions are an important tool for dreaming together. What often begins as a vague feeling becomes detailed vision becomes a concrete action plan through the process of asking and responding to questions. 

Below is a list of questions I came up with regarding the transition process at First Church. I would love to hear your responses to these questions. You can write them in an email or call me on the phone or set up a Zoom. I’ll document the responses in survey form without sharing your identity–unless you want me to. I’m also interested in questions you would add to this list.

  1. What did you think the transition process would be like?
  2. How has it been different?
  3. What about the transition process gives you energy?
  4. What do you find draining?
  5. What is going well?
  6. What could go better?
  7. Where have you noticed God in this process?
  8. When have you felt God’s absence?
  9. What worries you going forward?
  10. Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what will you be most proud of?
  11. Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what do you wish we had done differently?

I look forward to hearing your responses . . . and your questions.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 9-17-21

Last week I noted that Abraham asked good questions. Genesis 15 tells us a story of Abraham questioning God’s plan to give him the gift of a legacy. Abraham says (I’m paraphrasing), “I’ve left everything behind to follow you to the Promised Land, but how will I pass on this land to my descendants when Sarah and I have no children?” What’s the plan? Great question. Abraham could have left it there and just waited for a response. It turns out, however, that behind Abraham’s question lay a feeling of grief and an entire narrative scaffolding built up around it.

Abraham’s exact question, according to the Bible, was, “My Lord God, what would you give me, for I am going to die childless/accursed.” “Childless” and “accursed” were presumed to be one and the same thing in ancient Near Eastern cultures. If you could not produce an heir, something was wrong with you. Abraham was telling himself a story about who he was and who God was and what his situation meant. Storytelling is a profoundly human activity. And Genesis 15 shows us that the stories we tell ourselves are not always accurate.

Genesis tells us that Abraham was NOT cursed. God’s intention was to bless him with a legacy as vast as the starry sky. If we count not only those who trace their biological lineage to Abraham but also those who trace their spiritual lineage to Abraham, we see that God kept God’s promise. Countless billions over thousands of years have numbered themselves among the “children of Abraham.”

Last week I shared a list of questions about our transition process at First Church. Some responses have started to come in. I hope to receive more! Gathering data from open ended questions is called “qualitative research.” For me, the value of qualitative research is not to arrive at some fixed “truth” about the transition process. Rather, the purpose is to uncover the stories we are telling ourselves about the transition process. Then we can evaluate the stories. Are they accurate? Are they helpful? What are some other stories we might construct given the same data? 

So here they are again. And once again you can respond with email or we can talk by phone or Zoom or some other way. Your choice.

  1. What did you think the transition process would be like?
  2. How has it been different?
  3. What about the transition process gives you energy?
  4. What do you find draining?
  5. What is going well?
  6. What could go better?
  7. Where have you noticed God in this process?
  8. When have you felt God’s absence?
  9. What worries you going forward?
  10. Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what will you be most proud of?
  11. Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what do you wish we had done differently?

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 10-1-21

A couple of weeks ago I shared a list of questions about our transition process at First Congregational Church of Granby. If you haven’t yet responded, I encourage you to take a few moments to share your thoughts. You can respond in an email, phone call, Zoom meeting, in-person . . . whatever form suits you. The questions are:

  1. What did you think the transition process would be like?
  2. How has it been different?
  3. What about the transition process gives you energy?
  4. What do you find draining?
  5. What is going well?
  6. What could go better?
  7. Where have you noticed God in this process?
  8. When have you felt God’s absence?
  9. What worries you going forward?
  10. Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what will you be most proud of?
  11. Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what do you wish we had done differently?

So far I’ve gotten four responses. A surveyor always hopes for more responses; nevertheless, we move forward with the ones we have and publish new findings when we have new data. Today we’ll look at responses to just the first two questions:

First a general observation: Respondents identified “transition” with the South Congregational Church collaboration/consolidation process even though there have been other parts to the transition work, namely, vitality, changes in worship, care ministry, and so on. This is understandable since the bulk of our resources have been focused on the consolidation effort.

Question one gets at expectations: Of the four responses, half said the process has met expectations. Half said it has not. More specifically, half said they expected the process to be messy and confusing. Half expected it to be quicker and more straightforward given the preliminary work that had been done during the previous settled minister’s tenure at FCC.

Question two gets at divergence from expectation. Responses identified the following “surprises”:

  • COVID (one mention).
  • Differences between the churches in their self-perceptions of sustainability, namely, FCC perceiving itself as having an unsustainable trajectory and SCC having a perception of a sustainable trajectory (two mentions).
  • Differences in consolidation models each church brought to the table: “lead-church, joining church” model vs. “consolidation/restart model.” (two mentions).
  • Differences in church culture as it relates to clergy roles, namely, “minister-led” vs. “congregation-led” models (two mentions). 

I have some thoughts about the responses received so far. What do you make of them? More importantly, how would you respond to these questions and would you be willing to share your responses? More to come . . .

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 10-8-21

A couple more responses to our informal transition process survey have come in making the current total six. You can access the survey questions here. You can respond verbally or in writing. This week we’ll take a look at responses to questions 5-8:

5.  What is going well?

  • Working Groups/GUCCI (5 responses).
  • Unite events/meeting new people (3 responses).
  • Spiritual practice of open-mindedness and patience.

6.  What could go better? 

  • A perceived lack of engagement/enthusiasm notice both among FCC folks and SCC folks.
  • More meeting in person.
  • Perceived differences in understanding between the churches of the consolidation model: (lead church-joining church vs. merger/restart)
  • Lack of clarity about what decisions regarding consolidation need to be made now vs. after a vote to consolidate.

7.  Where have you noticed God in this process?

  • In depth, face-to-face conversations, joint activities/worship, hearing life stories (3 responses).
  • Not applicable since this is primarily a “secular/business” process (2 responses).
  • In knowing that “it’s the right thing” to serve the church’s mission.

8.  When have you felt God’s absence?

  • The perception that FCC is actively engaged in a transition process and SCC is not (2 responses).
  • Not applicable (1 response).
  • God is always present!
  • “‘Us and them’ talk.”
  • One person responded to this question by offering their own vision for a new, united Granby UCC with a new vision for a mission that is “beyond the Christian club mentality.”

Thanks to everyone for your responses thus far. Next week we’ll take a look at responses to 

9.  What worries you going forward?

10.  Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what will you be most proud of?

11.  Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what do you wish we had done differently?

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 10-15-21

This week a summary of responses to the final three questions of our transition survey. See the full list of questions here.

9.  What worries you going forward?

  • Perceived lack of clear leadership from GUCCI around the decision-making process. (Image: “A camel is a horse designed by committee.)
  • Disengagement of FCCG folks from process and what that will mean for future decision making. (2 responses.)
  • Differences between congregations in understanding of transition and consolidation particularly as it relates to concrete changes in the “way we do things.”
  • Not worried.

10.  Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what will you be most proud of?

  • Playing a part in forming a new church that will: a) have a stronger mission, b) be more effective in serving community, c) be modern and forward looking, and d) ensure a continued UCC presence in Granby. (5 responses.)
  • That we persevered despite differences.
  • That we were MORE active during COVID while other churches were “shut down.”

11.  Imagine five years from now. Looking back, what do you wish we had done differently?

  • Taken more time for congregations to build a common understanding around sustainability, transition, and consolidation models. (5 responses.)
  • Listen to a wider range of SCCG people more closely.
  • Taken more time to clarify decision making process before engaging Working Groups.
  • If the churches decided not to consolidate, that we did not feel a strong enough sense of urgency.

Thanks to everyone who participated. Some themes that I have noticed in the responses: 

1. That energy, optimism, and hope come from connecting with people to create something new. It occurred to me that this opportunity is always and has always been available to us regardless of transition or consolidation process. We always have the ability to connect. This vitality work. We now know how to do this. It’s simply a matter of deciding to step out of our bubble of isolation and reach new people.

2. That a perceived lack of clarity around process, direction, and goal tends to generate anxiety. The more we can work together to clarify What is it we actually want? What is it God is calling us to? And in the meantime create a space of active, expectant waiting. Imagine this time like Advent, perhaps. We’re busy preparing for the One to come. As Isaiah says, “Those who wait upon the LORD will renew their strength.”

What themes, lessons, pointers do you glean from these initial findings? 

Worship Resource: Genesis 15

God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, you call us to leave behind the familiar and venture into the unknown. You called our ancestor Abraham to leave his home and family in Ur and follow your call to a land that his descendants would inherit. Generations later one of those descendants named Jesus would leave the safety of his father’s carpenter shop to lead a movement that would challenge the authority of Rome. Like his ancestor Abraham, Jesus dreamed God’s dream of peace and justice for all. Give us a new dream for a new day. Amen.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-28-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-28-21

“I’m afraid of losing our identity.” This was a response that came up in one of First Church’s transition workshops back in 2019. Transition coach Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg first led us in a workshop on thecongregational life cycle, then a second on the grief process. We located ourselves on the decline side of the congregational life cycle bell curve, past the point of sustainability. We talked about what that meant for our future and what some of our options might be, including the option that a group from First Church had been working on for some years at this point: consolidation with South Church.

Identity sounds like an abstract, philosophical debate, but, in fact, it’s at the core of some of the most intense conflicts within congregations and in broader society. Take America’s culture wars, for example. The culture wars are a series of conflicts over different aspects of America’s identity, including white nationalism, gender hierarchy, class loyalties, regional identities, “Christian values,” economic systems, and systems for choosing its leaders. Will America stop being America if white people are no longer the dominant race? Will America stop being America if the gap between rich and poor becomes so great that economic mobility is no longer possible? Will America stop being America if Christianity is no longer the dominant religion? As you can see, identity is a big, emotionally fraught issue. Emotions are intense because conflicts over identity are conflicts over power: who has voice and who gets resources.

Conflict over identity defines what it means to be a church in transition, according to sociologist Penny Edgell Becker in her book, Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life. Churches in transition are characterised by what Becker calls “between-frame conflict.” In between-frame conflict, two different visions of identity, that is, “who we are and how we do things here” compete for power, that is, voice and resources.

This is contrasted to “within-frame” conflict, where everyone agrees on identity, that is, “who we are and how we do things here.” The conflict is simply disagreement over approach or interpretation. We have memories of the “good-old days” of “bipartisanship” in the U.S. for example, because for a brief period in the 20th century we were sending leaders to Washington who more or less shared the same “frame.” By contrast, the Civil War was an extreme example of “between-frame” conflict. Between-frame conflicts in churches rarely get violent, but they can be intense.

Between-frame conflict is unavoidable in the consolidation process. We have two distinct congregations with two distinct identities. Does this mean we’re doomed to fight until one identity dominates the other? No. The other option is to expand the frame, or “ABC”: “a bigger container.” We can build a space where diverse voices can be heard and celebrated, where resources can be shared. I’ve witnessed this happen, for example, when a church I served shifted from a white-dominant model to a mutli-racial, multi-cultural model. Some white people were so afraid that we were becoming a “Black church.” Their fears turned out to be unfounded. A new, beautiful identity emerged: neither “Black,” nor “white,” but a celebration of the best in all of us: a slice of heaven on earth.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-14-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-14-21

In Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change author William Bridges writes about “using the Neutral Zone creatively.” The “Neutral Zone” is also known as “wilderness time.” It’s the time between the ending of the old way of doing things and the hoped for new beginning. This is the shape of transition: ending–neutral zone–new beginning. In Biblical language there’s “crossing the Red Sea” (ending of enslavement), “wandering in the wilderness” (neutral zone), and “crossing the Jordan River” (new beginning in the Promised Land.)

The Neutral Zone is a tricky part of the transition journey. Much of the work is “below the green line”–that is, it has to do with intangibles such as “information,” “relationships,” and “identity.” It is the inner work that is necessary for something truly new to emerge. It’s sometimes said that at the Red Sea God took God’s people out of slavery. During the wilderness journey, God took slavery out of the people. On the one hand people can become impatient in the Neutral Zone because it seems like “nothing is happening.” On the other hand there’s a danger of becoming stuck in the Neutral Zone. Transitions aren’t meant to last forever.

How can we–in Bridges’ words–”use the Neutral Zone creatively?” Here are two of Bridges’ suggestions. I invite you to share yours:

  1. Consider: “what new roles, reporting relationships, or configurations of the organizational chart do you need to develop to get through this time in the wilderness?” (p.46). One possible org chart change: consider combining committees where appropriate. It’s natural for the old way of doing things to begin to fall apart in the neutral zone. For example, in the wilderness God’s people had to adjust to spending their nights in tents instead of in houses and their days walking instead of making bricks for Pharaoh. One of the things that happens in the Neutral Zone (if things are moving forward in a natural way) is that long time, established leadership will begin to step back, which makes space for new leadership to emerge. What if that new leadership hasn’t emerged yet? My suggestion: combine First Church and South Church teams and rotate leadership or establish co-leadership. Deacons, for example, might consider this. Also the music ministries. Perhaps also the Finance Teams. Rather than try to patch something together, let it fall apart to make space for the new.
  1. “Step back and take stock” (p. 50). This is one of Bridges’ suggestions. I would love to hear your perspective on how things are going thus far. Give me a call (860-990-1073), or send me an email pastor@firstchurchgranby.org. You call also schedule a time on my calendar through our office administrator (sue@firstchurchgranby.org). I’m a data guy and you have data on how things are going. The data are your thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and experiences of this transition time.

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 4-9-21

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 3-5-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-5-21

Today I invite us to consider a key to all successful congregational endeavors: momentum. Years ago I was invited to attend the first “Nehemiah Institute” in Atlanta, GA. It was founded by Rev. Cameron Trimble and the Southeast Conference UCC to train church planters and church redevelopers. Nehemiah Institute is known today as Covergence, one of the premier progressive church organizations in the U.S. One of the speakers was the pastor of a small church in rural New Hampshire that had recently experienced a dramatic turnaround from a dying, conflicted congregation to a healthy, vibrant, growing congregation. One of the conference attendees asked this pastor, “What is your secret?” She said, “I follow the energy.” 

Every congregation has an energy or “momentum.” The key to shifting from the decline side of the church life cycle to the growing side is shifting the momentum. It is looking for those signs of life–where the positive, healthy energy is manifesting–and nurturing them. This builds momentum. Failing to do this means that the congregation will simply keep sliding down the decline slope. It’s like looking around your yard while the snow is melting and the spring sun is shining and noticing what is coming up and then putting your time and attention into protecting those shoots and helping them grow.

Momentum is also key to church consolidation. In a “joining model” in which there is a “lead church” and a “joining church,” the “lead” church is the church with momentum. It is a common misconception that the lead church is the bigger church. NOT SO. The lead church could be the smaller church if that is the church that is growing, reaching new people, starting new ministries, and building momentum. (See Better Together, p. 7) Since First Church and South Church are NOT pursuing a joining model but a “marriage model” in which two congregations join as equals to create a new congregation, it is vitally important that we build momentum together. If not, we will encounter difficulties.

Under the leadership of our Vitality Team, First Church has been building some wonderful momentum. Already in 2021–in the midst of a pandemic!–we have welcomed seven new members! First Church has momentum. The question for our marriage model consolidation is: How will we build momentum together with South Church? It was the topic of our last Vitality Team meeting and I hope a topic in our upcoming conversations with South Church. Our combined efforts promise to bring even more new life and even stronger forward momentum.