It has been a week. Together we bear witness to historic events in the life of our nation. On Wednesday the first African American from Georgia was elected to the Senate, a pastor who serves the same congregation Martin Luther King, Jr. once did. Dr. King gave his life for a Biblical vision of beloved community. This week we saw evidence that Dr. King’s vision continues to bear the fruit of love and justice in our nation.
That same day, Wednesday Jan. 6, we witnessed an armed attack on our nation’s Capitol. Four people lost their lives. Our nation’s leaders were forced to shelter in place. On Jan. 6 a mob incited by our President was able to do what all the armies of the Confederacy failed to do 150 years ago. They paraded the Confederate battle flag–a symbol of slavery, racism, and hate–through the halls of congress. It was a chiling reminder that the evil of racism and white supremacy continues to eat away at the soul of our country. Like Dr. King’s dream our nation is resilient but fragile. We pray that you will send your spirit to heal our land.
Also on Wednesday we gathered in the evening to record the professions of faith of three Confirmands. We celebrate with joy their honesty, their curiosity, their love, and their commitment to the way of Jesus. We ask that you bless and protect them. We ask that you make all of us instruments of your peace in this time of unrest. We ask that as a congregation you give us the courage to find a way toward your future. Give us a heart for future generations so that they, too, can learn of Dr. King’s dream and find new ways to embody it.
In this time of conflict and mass delusion, we may at times feel helpless to heal the divides of our nation. Give us a baptism of your Spirit that we may all be one. Renew our commitment to the way of Jesus, who received a baptism of the Spirit in order to bring justice and peace among all people.
Bless by your Holy Spirit, gracious God, this water that by it we may be reminded of our baptism into Jesus Christ and that by the power of your Holy Spirit we may fulfill what we have promised.
Creative God, baptize us with your Holy Spirit. Create in us a new heart, one attuned to your love, one filled with your life, a heart that radiates warmth and generosity. The world is full of suffering. We, too, suffer. Heal us so that we can be your hands of healing for others. Amen.
On Nov. 23, 2020 First Congregational Church of Granby narrowed five “lanes” to the future to two: consolidation and downsizing. Two task forces were created to explore these alternatives and create reports, which will be discussed (not voted on) at a congregational meeting Jan. 17, 2021.
At the Nov. 23 meeting a request was made for information on current best practices around these two models, and I was asked to help with that. This week’s topic: downsizing. There are any number of approaches to downsizing. Three I will consider are downsizing/revitalization, downsizing/restart, and downsizing/hospice. Downsizing could also be a part of a larger consolidation/merger process, but our purpose is to consider each approach as “stand alone.”
Downsizing/revitalization is the approach we’ve been experimenting a little bit with for the past 18 months. It involves pointing as many of the church’s resources as possible at the goal of reaching new people. It means taking a hard look at buildings/property, staffing, organizational structure, worship, and mission focus. If it’s not growing the church, we eliminate, repurpose, or redirect it. Overall it’s doing more with less because we are no longer doing things that don’t directly contribute to the growth of the church. One small example of this is shifting 20% of the pastor’s time budget toward building relationships with people who are not yet members of the church while meeting ongoing pastoral care needs with lay volunteers. For more detailed information see: Reconstructing Church: Tools for Turning Your Congregation Around by Todd Grant Yonkman. The book is a case study of one downsize/revitalization project.
Downsizing/restart is when the congregation sells its property, changes/reduces its staffing as a part of a larger strategy of reinventing itself in ways that will move it from a decline trajectory to a growth trajectory. In other words, an “old” church starts behaving like a brand new “baby” church. The whole point of this downsizing is a disruption of the status quo. For more information see Dying to Restart: Churches Choosing a Strategic Death for a Resurrected Life available in paperback and as an e-book. Two examples of downsize/restart congregations right here in Connecticut are First Congregational Church of Stamford and United Congregational Church (Bridgeport).
The goal of downsizing/hospice is to maintain the congregation’s status quo as much as possible for as long as possible so the current membership can be as comfortable as possible. Some of the main pieces of hospice work are pastoral care, maintaining familiar worship, events, and programming, planning for a meaningful closing that celebrates the church’s history, and leaving a legacy that can provide resources for new churches and ministries.
The hospice approach to downsizing tends to focus on reducing staff. This makes sense. Staff are usually the biggest part of any church budget. A brief Internet search reveals that recommendations for staffing as a percentage of overall budget range from 45% to 65%. (Many churches spend much more. Contrariwise, some have no paid staff whatsoever! See Shalom UCC in New Haven, CT. Our 2021 budget allocates 66.4% for staff with several positions as of right now unfilled.)
Hospice staffing usually consists of an administrator who runs the church office, coordinating groups and rentals, printing the bulletin, and the newsletter, etc. There’s a sexton/cleaning company to maintain the building. A part time musician and a part time pastor lead worship, do funerals, and care for the church members until they gradually become too few to maintain the church assets.
The good news is that even at this point, new life is possible. The dying congregation plans a “funeral” to celebrate all of the wonderful ministry it has done. Then it can leave a legacy to another organization or entity in some form. The UCC has a process whereby the assets of closed churches can be used to start new ministries to reach new people in desperate need of hearing the UCC’s inclusive message. For more information see Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection by UCC minister Gail Irwin.
Downsizing can be very liberating. Freeing ourselves from that which is unnecessary and burdensome can open space for new possibilities. What other downsizing models do you see?
The end of the year is a time for looking forward and looking back. Before I go any farther, a couple of caveats: 1) I recognize and honor all of the loss, grief, and anxiety of 2020 including the global COVID pandemic, our nation’s racial reckoning, and the ongoing political “civil war” that is tearing at the social fabric; 2) I recognize the longing to “go back to normal”; 3) as far as the future of our church goes, I’ll do my best to support whatever direction the congregation chooses.
That being said it seems highly unlikely that it will be possible to go back to pre-COVID “normal” entirely. Too much has changed. New habits have been formed and will likely continue–like worshipping online and doing meetings on Zoom, for example. Yes, we will resume doing things in person, but we will be connecting online much more than before COVID just because it’s more convenient and actually better suited for certain kinds of interactions. The good news is that we may have unwittingly perfectly positioned ourselves for this moment.
I encourage you to check out the blog post “Five Reasons Why 2021 Should Be Your New Baseline.” The author, Thom Rainer focuses primarily on church metrics (how we measure our ministry), but his suggestion is that churches treat 2021 as a “fresh start.” If 2021 is a year for “fresh starts,” it seems to me that either the “downsize” lane or the “consolidation” lane could offer the opportunity for the freshest of all fresh starts–depending on how it’s done.
I get it. We human beings tend to resist letting go of anything lest we lose something “important.” Wise discernment is necessary for deciding what to leave behind and what to carry forward. But it is also true that an important part of our faith is the opportunity to start again, to lay down our burdens, to let go of the past including all our mistakes and regrets, to receive forgiveness, to get a second chance. As horrible as 2020 was in many respects, 2021 might just present us with an opportunity many people long for: a fresh start.
“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
As I shared in my last installment of “What’s Up,” at the First Congregational Church of Granby Nov. 23 “What’s Next” workshop, I was tasked with researching and sharing information on current trends in church vitality. There’s a ton of information out there. The trick is curating relevant content (to use a current turn of phrase)!
I’ve been trying to keep Advent themes. The theme for this week is joy so I did a very “current” thing: I googled “church vitality and joy.” VoiLa! Google gave me a Facebook post from what looks to be a new church start called “Vitality Church,” whose physical location is the building of a (now closed?) Disciples of Christ congregation. Look at all the kids! You can check out the post here. Included in the post is the above Scripture from the Epistle of James: “whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy . . .”
First Church (like many churches) is facing trials, and our faith is being tested. James reminds us that this is part of the process! This isn’t a “bug”; it’s a feature! Think about it. Our ancestors faced all kinds of trials: the Civil War, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, etc. etc. etc. Why should we expect our experience to be any different? The fact is Christianity and congregational life is designed to test us. That may come as a surprise to some of us who have been taught either implicitly or explicitly that as “good people” we have a “right to comfort.” James says, “No.” As Christians we don’t have a ‘right to comfort’ but we do have the promise of joy. Testing builds endurance, which leads to maturity and “completion.” Completion here means “perfection, holiness, happiness, bliss.” So be joyful! This is it, friends, this is the Christian way. This is the real deal.
I encourage you to check out the “about” tab of Vitality Church’s Facebook page. Notice how they describe themselves. Notice their values and how they aim their message. Remember the Simon Sinek video we watched during our “What is Your Why?” workshop? He said vital organizations and movements (including the civil rights movement!) operate out of their “why” because that helps them connect with others who share that “why.” Vitality Church makes it clear that they are an imperfect church for imperfect people that is nevertheless focused not on their own personal preferences but on meeting the needs of their neighbors. To quote: “No matter what we will always do our best to be whatever people need us to be.”
Making a transition from decline to vitality is difficult! It is at times painful and exhausting. Hooray! Our faith is being tested in order that our joy might be complete.
Holy God, you reveal yourself to us in Jesus. Shine in and through us so that we can be a light to many. As we reflect upon the previous year, we’re aware of how you have guided us. Even when we wandered, you never abandoned us. Even when we lost sight of your illuminating presence, you never gave up on us. As we approach a new year filled with unexpected challenges and unprecedented opportunities, give us the courage to face each moment. Give us the wisdom to see the light of your life in each circumstance. Amen.
Today is the beginning of Advent–the preparation time for celebrating Christ’s birth. We are here because God’s promises to our ancestors came true when Jesus was born. God’s promise is kept each Sunday when we worship and wherever we worship because Christ is in our midst. God will keep the promise to come again in glory.
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
2 For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Lighting of the Candle
We light this candle to proclaim the coming of the light of God into the world. With the coming of this light there is hope. (Share one thing that gives you hope.) We believe in hope that is more than wishful thinking. We believe in hope that is grounded in the birth of Jesus.
Light the first candle on the Advent wreath.
God we thank you that Jesus brought hope into the world. Help us to be ready to welcome Jesus so that we may be a people of hope for the world. Amen.
Advent Wreath week 2: Peace
We gather around the Advent wreath today knowing that we are not perfect–we all make mistakes and cause others harm. Jesus creates a more peaceful world by helping us repair the harm we’ve done. Jesus helps us accept ourselves and others so that we can be at peace.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
Lighting of the Candle
We light this candle to proclaim the coming of the light of God into the world. With the coming of this light there is peace, for Christ is called the “Prince of Peace. We believe in the power of peace to heal the world.
Light the second candle on the Advent wreath.
Eternal God, we thank you that through all the years you have given peace to your people. Help us to cultivate peacefulness in our lives. Show us how to be peacemakers with those around us because we believe in peace. Amen.
Advent Wreath week 3: Love
St. John wrote, “God is love.” As we gather around the Advent wreath today we celebrate God’s love sustaining us moment to moment regardless of our actions or circumstances. God’s love is embodied in Jesus and in each one of us. Because of this we say, “We believe in love.”
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
Lighting of the Candle
We light this candle to porcelain the coming of the light of God into the world. With the coming of this light there is love. Such grat love helps us to love God and one another.
Light the third candle on the Advent wreath.
O God, we thank you that Jesus showed your love for every person–old people and young, sick people and those who were strong, rich people and those who were poor. Your love in Jesus changed the world. For this reason we say, “We believe in love.” Amen!
Advent Wreath week 4: Joy
Soon we shall celebrate the birth of Jesus. We worship God with joy in our hearts as we are reminded of the words the angel said on that first Christmas Day: “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people.” With the angels long ago we say, “We believe in joy.”
Reading of Scripture
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
Lighting of the Candle
We light this candle to proclaim the coming of the light of God into the world. With the coming of this light there is joy. Joy is ours not only at Christmas but always.
Light the fourth candle on the Advent wreath.
O Holy One, as Christmas draws near, we look for that familiar sense of excitement. Perhaps we glimpse it out of the corner of our mind’s eye: a wisp of memory, a childhood song. In this time of global pandemic and political transition we confess to you and to all the world that we believe in joy because you promise us that while “weeping may linger for the night, joy comes with the morning.” Thank you for the gift of Jesus–Morning Star, light of life, bringer of joy.
Good evening! On this Christmas Eve we are gathered as God’s people to celebrate again what Christ’s coming means to the world. We join with Christians and all people of good will around the world who are celebrating tonight in saying, “We believe in hope. We believe in peace. We believe in love. We believe in joy.”
Reading of Scripture
0 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Lighting of the Candles
Tonight we relight the four Advent candles and recall what the good news means.
A leader lights a candle while saying each word: hope, peace, love, joy.
Jesus Christ is the greatest gift who makes all these other gifts possible. So we light the Christ candle now as we welcome the birth of Christ in our lives.
A leader lights the central Christ candle.
We thank you God, for your gift of Jesus Christ to the entire world. We thank you that Christ’s coming makes hope, peace, love, and joy possible. Make us your hands and heart to our hurting world because we believe
The holidays bring with them a mix of emotions: nostalgia, anxiety, anticipation, hope, joy, grief and more. Some of these emotions are more welcome at this time of year than others. We might feel pressure to act happy because it’s Christmastime when inside we don’t feel that way. That’s not the true message of Christmas. God sent the Christ child for the very purpose of sharing our common lot with all of its circumstances and emotions pleasant and unpleasant. In becoming one of us, God accepts all of us. So bring yourself, just as you are to grieve, remember, celebrate, and cherish loved ones who have passed on and the God who embraces us all.
God of mercy, we pray for ourselves. We pray for our dear ones. We pray for those who have passed on. We pray for our neighbors and communities. We pray for all of us, who in one way or another have been affected by this year of global pandemic. Because of the pandemic, some of us haven’t had the chance to say good-bye in a way we had hoped. Our grief is complicated; our loss ambiguous. Wrap us in your boundless embrace. Heal our hearts made heavy with sorrow. Lift our spirits so that we might join the heavenly chorus singing, “Peace on earth and good will to all.” Amen.
This Advent we light the first candle acknowledging our grief and inviting God’s consolation into our hearts.
Lights the first candle.
We light the second candle accepting our pain and inviting God’s comfort.
Lights the second candle.
We light the third candle noticing our fears and remembering that God’s perfect love casts out fear.
Lights the third candle.
We light the fourth candle honoring our struggle as a sign of the divine life that lives in and through us.
We had a wonderful “What’s Next?” workshop with our transition coach, Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg, on November 23. Last week our Moderator, Bob Giles, wrote a helpful summary of some of the takeaways. What’s next for First Congregational Church of Granby is the exploration of two different but perhaps complementary paths toward a sustainable future: downsizing and consolidating. The paths we decided not to pursue further are 1) hospice (which we had already decided not to pursue), 2) increasing building rentals, 3) growing the church.
Good work team! This is a huge step. Clarifying a path forward is key to congregational health and wellness. Too many churches are unwilling to do this work and so they drift and dwindle. As they say, if you have no direction, any road will get you there. I also want to affirm that though we have decided not to pursue rentals and membership growth as the primary path forward doesn’t mean we won’t continue to rent our space and reach new people. It simply means that as a congregation our energy will be shifting and focusing around either a downsizing path or a consolidating path or a mix of the two.
As the congregation’s energy shifts and focuses, my work with you will shift and focus as well. I will be meeting with leadership in the next couple of weeks to nail down exactly what those shifts will be and how we will continue to be mutually accountable to the work God is calling us to do. I look forward to the new adventures that 2021 will bring.
In the meantime I invite us really to do our best to seek God’s shalom in this Advent season. Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace. Peace in the Biblical sense is more than just an absence of conflict, it is the presence of wellness, of wholeness of body, mind, spirit, and world. There is so much disease and distress in the world right now. What will you do to cultivate shalom?
The theme for this Advent season at First Congregational Church of Granby is “I believe.” In the Bible the same Greek word is used for both “believe” and “faith.” Many people equate “believing” with assenting to certain propositions. Take the Apostle’s Creed, for example: “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord . . .” and so on. That’s one way to understand believing. I understand belief in terms of “faith.” Belief as “faith” tends to be in short supply these days.
Rev. William Sloane Coffin famously wrote, “Faith is not belief without proof but trust without reservation.” In a world where some powerful people see it in their self interest to actively destroy our faith in institutions, our faith in our neighbors, our faith in our ability to work through our differences with love and compassion, saying “I believe” can actually be a radical act.
So this Advent we’re saying “I believe”: I believe in hope. I believe in peace. I believe in love. I believe in joy. I believe in Christ. Belief is the risky act of entrusting ourselves to each other and to God’s boundless love.