Leader: Sing praises to the LORD, O you faithful ones, and give thanks to God’s holy name.
All: For God’s anger is but for a moment; God’s favor is for a lifetime.
Leader: Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
All: O LORD, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
* Gathering Prayer (Unison)
God of joy, God of adventure, give us the courage to try. Not every endeavor works out the way we plan. Sometimes we feel awkward trying new things. Because you are the master, we can join the adventure of lifelong learning. Thank you for the example of our ancestors in faith who fell down nine times and got up ten. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
God of abundance, we too often act out of an attitude of scarcity. Teach us to give freely so that we might live freely. Amen.
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.
As First Church and South Church face another autumn season with the coronavirus I’m reminded of a time someone jokingly said, “These are the good old days.” This is an important reminder both for us personally and for organizations in transition. As meditation teacher Ram Dass famously said, “Be here now.” Jesus said, “Keep awake!” (Mk. 13:35). Human beings have a tendency to cling to the past and fantasize about the future. Meanwhile, our lives are happening right here, right now.
When the Israelites were journeying through the wilderness they longed to go back to Egypt even though it meant enslavement. They complained to Moses about his leadership. Moses, in turn, complained to God. Yet, generations later when the prophets found themselves facing the decadence aarnd corruption of an established Kingdom of Israel, they wrote with longing about the simpler times when the Israelites wandered through the desert and worshipped in a tent. “Oh, how close our ancestors were to God!” So, if we find ourselves in a bit of a wilderness time, remember, these are the good old days!
How can we “be here now” in the midst of the pressures and pulls of transition? In a recent article “It takes faith to resist the attention economy,” by Rev. Katherine Willis Pershey writes about the search for groundedness in the midst of a sabbatical in the midst of a pandemic. Her answer is to return to those practices that keep her attention on Jesus, worship being one of them, even when there might be more exciting alternatives to give her attention to. In fact, in this “attention economy” in which social media companies have developed sophisticated algorithms to capture our attention and sell it, devoting our lives to the simple practices of prayer, Scripture, song, and service are courageous acts of resistance to a culture that incentivizes exploitation for profit. Worship, devotion, prayer, and meditation in their many forms can return us to the present moment. Let’s enjoy the good old days while we’re living them!
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.
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.
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.