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 12-24-20
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.Psalm 51:10-12
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.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-27-19
Part of transition work is working with staff transitions. In congregational life, staff, including clergy, come and go for all kinds of reasons. What is true for us on a personal level is also true on a professional level: none of us is permanent. Everyone, no matter what their title or role, is temporary. Staff relocate. They take other jobs. They resign to attend to personal or family matters. Sometimes the congregation has to reduce its staff because of finances. Sometimes the staffing needs of the congregation have changed because the congregation has changed. Sometimes staff that were hired to “maintain” the congregation “as it is” do not have the skills to engage in a transition process. Sometimes there are performance issues. Sometimes staff retire. These transitions are almost always messy, but they create opportunities for congregations to reflect on mission, vision, and values. What do we really want? Is what we’re doing now actually going to get us there?
At FCC Granby we are navigating two staff transitions. In December 2018, Rev. Dr. Ginny McDaniel retired after serving seven years as Senior Minister. This past Sunday, Rev. Rebecca Brown retired after serving four years as Minister for Children and Youth. Each minister has been honored by the congregation for her service. Each minister has made a lasting difference for the good of the congregation. We are grateful for who they are and what they’ve done. Ginny has gone through a process of leave-taking following the United Church of Christ “Ethical Guidelines for Ministers Departing from Congregations.” Rebecca is currently in that process. It is a multi-layered process that involves public liturgy, compiling and handing over work product (such as lists of pastoral needs, event calendars, contact information, meeting notes, etc), participating in an exit interview, dealing with the administrative details of changing employment status with the denomination. All of these are steps in a larger transition that involves a change in identity: from pastor to former pastor. This change in identity is attended by a shift in how former pastor and former congregation relate to each other. The “Ethical Guidelines” are intended to ensure that this transition happens and that it happens in a healthy way.
Here’s a refresher on transition and change: transition and change are different. Change is situational. Transition is psychological. Change is some new guy is doing the preaching now. Transition is letting go of one pastoral relationship and building another. William Bridges in his book Managing Transitions writes, “It’s not the change that will do you in, it’s the transition.” Transition “is a three-phase process (letting go, chaos, new beginning) that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.” As a congregation, we are definitely still “internalizing” and “coming to terms with the details” of shifting from a settled minister to transitional minister, from a minister for youth and children to a new staffing configuration for Christian Education which may, at some point, involve a partnership with South Church.
On some level, for each of us, transition involves building a new identity. For example, I am no longer the Transitional Senior Minister of FCC Stamford. As much as I love the people there, I’ve had to let those relationships go so that I can be fully present to my new call as Transitional Senior Minister of FCC Granby. Without letting go, there is no new beginning. In a similar way the members of FCC Granby are no longer Ginny’s or Rebecca’s parishioners and Ginny and Rebecca are no longer FCC Granby’s pastors. It’s not that those relationships are ended. Cut off is rarely helpful. But there needs to be a release. I’m a Gen-Xer, so my popular culture reference for this is Sting’s song, “If you love somebody, set them free.”
It’s natural for this shift in identity to generate resistance, but that’s the reality of congregational life. Identity shifts also generate grief to which we all need to tend carefully. Ginny’s circumstance is special given her health circumstance. Linda Betsch will be coordinating care for her. But the fact remains: none of us is permanent; everyone is temporary. Which makes our time together all the more precious. Now, for better or for worse, we belong together–transitional minister and congregation. Let’s make the most of the time we have. Time passes swiftly. Opportunity is lost. And God has big plans for us.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-19-18
We’ve been preparing all summer. Perhaps even longer than that: since high school graduation, or maybe a year ago when Olivia and I flew to LA to visit Occidental College. We could dial it back even further: to the moment I first met newborn Olivia, held her, and knew in my heart that one day life would ask me to let her go.
Tomorrow Nicole–my wife, Olivia’s mom–will fly with Liv to LA and move her into her freshman dorm. A couple weeks from now Nicole and I will move Liv’s older sister, Fiona, to Williams’ College for her senior year. Though it’s been happening in stages, the nest continues to empty.
Moving one’s youngest to LA to begin college is both a “change” and a “transition.” Transition and change are related but different concepts. In his book Managing Transitions, William Bridges writes, “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.” Bridges defines “change” as “situational” and “transition” as “psychological.”
Change is starting a new job, moving to a new location, receiving a new diagnosis, welcoming a new family member, saying goodbye. Change can be big or small, welcome or unwelcome, pleasant or unpleasant. Change is the nature of reality. Change just is.
Transition, according to Bridges, “is a three-phase process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.” Change is moving Olivia to LA. Transition is coming to terms with a new identity: empty nester. The three phase process is 1) ending/losing/letting go, 2) “the neutral zone (chaos),” and 3) new beginning.
Change and transition happen on a personal level. They also happen in organizations. As your transitional minister, it is my job to help FCC Granby identify the kinds of changes our situation is calling for and then lead a transition through the three phases: ending, chaos, new beginning.
The distinction between change and transition is key because without that understanding, what most churches do is rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. They change their by-laws so that “committees” are now called “ministry teams.” They use different words for Communion or change the words of familiar hymns. They develop new programs that focus on the same people. They may even merge with another congregation but because there is no process of transition, the newly merged congregation just ends up being a dying, mashed up, grumpy repeat of the old ones. In dying churches there is often a ton of change but none that leads to a fundamentally new sense of purpose and identity. For that, one needs to go through transition.
As your transitional minister, I am not particularly focused on surface level change. Is whether we sing the Doxology following the offering or some other reponse really going to turn this church around? Is focusing on food insecurity instead of homelessness really going to be the key to a sustainable future? Is changing the words to Communion suddenly going to bring in the crowds? Usually when someone gives me permission to change something, it’s surface change. However, when I change something and the congregation says, “Change back,” then I know we’re into transition territory because what we resist is not “change” per se, but change that results in loss of some kind, exactly the kind of loss that is the beginning of transition.
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Funeral for Gerald Dickerson
13 July 2019
Gerald A. Dickerson was born in Dickinson, ND December 3, 1932. He on June 30–just over a week ago–after an 8 year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Jerry grew up poor in rural Montana. He and his brother were raised by a single mom who worked tirelessly to provide for her boys. Life was hard. Opportunities were few. Corrine commented that it was a miracle Jerry and his brother Dale didn’t end up in jail. Work provided the structure Jerry needed to move forward in his life. He was hardworking, high energy, and had a love baseball. In fact, he was a top pitching prospect until pleurisy, which he developed while working at a dry cleaner, ended his baseball career.
Jerry graduated Brooklyn High School, Brooklyn, OH, Class of 1940. After that he went to Baldwin Wallace College where he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps. After graduation from college, Jerry was commissioned as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. He served in the USMC for over 20 years until his retirement in 1992. After his retirement, he worked with The Hartford Insurance Company and then Farmers and Trader’s Insurance Company in insurance sales and as a general manager.
Jerry is remembered as a fun and intelligent man, if not always super handy around the house. For example, one time he purchased a new lawn mower. He brought it home, got it out of the car, set it up in the lawn, and yanked on the pull cord ‘til his arm was sore. Frustrated, he called the place where he purchased it. They sent a service guy out to see what was wrong with the brand new mower. The service guy looked it over. Nothing wrong. Then he turned to Jerry, “Did you put gas in it?” You know what happens next.
Jerry had a large, loving family. His wife, Corrine. Five children, 11 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, who will miss him very much.
Earlier in the service Brenna read to us from Ecclesiastes. It’s a relatively well known piece of Scripture as far as Scripture goes. My guess this is due primarily to Pete Seeger, who wrote the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” based on this text back in the 1950s, which the Byrds then covered and made it into a hit.
What is it about this text that we love so much? It seems so matter of fact. No earth shattering truths here. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance . . .” and so on.
For me, what this text does is invite us to be present every moment to this very moment, to face whatever it is we’re facing, to feel whatever it is we’re feeling, to accept whatever gift the universe is offering us and embrace it as our life, our one precious life, to drink deeply, to live fully, to love completely, and then let go trusting that whatever season we find ourselves in–whether its a season of joy or grief of building up or breaking down, or planting or plucking up, of living or of dying, it is in this very season that we will find God.
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Stamford
Sermon for Farewell Worship
31 March 2019
Text: Acts 4:23-31
Pray for Boldness
My first thought when the movers left the apartment was that this was a mistake. I was sure that both my career and my marriage were in jeopardy because I had taken a call to be the Transitional Senior Minister at First Congregational Church of Stamford. My life was over. Stamford is 80 miles away from my home in Windsor, which meant that I would be spending the majority of my days and nights in this apartment away from my family for the foreseeable future. It was a devastating realization. I called my wife and my kids every day. I also cried every day that first week.
When I returned to Windsor after that first week, I was still convinced that I had made a big mistake. My wife, Nicole, said to me, “See your spiritual director. That always makes you feel better.” So I did. I told David what was going on. He said, “Stick it out for two weeks. Do your spiritual practice every day. Remember, your thoughts are just thoughts. They’re not the truth.” So I did what my spiritual director said. Every day for at least 30 minutes I sat in silence, watched my breath, and let my thoughts float by. Slowly my mind began to settle. Slowly I started to feel more grounded. I was still very aware of the fragility of my situation. This church had forced out its previous senior minister. There was little preventing the same thing from happening to me.
Miraculously, instead of feeling anxious and timid, I felt emboldened. Then, just weeks into my tenure here, I was making my 80 mile Sunday morning commute when a deer leaped across Interstate 95 and onto the hood of my car. I spun around twice into oncoming traffic and stalled. Somehow I managed to get myself and my pet bunny out of the car and to the side of the road. First I called my wife. Then I called the police. Then I called Peter Birch, who drove out to Westport, picked me up, and drove me to church in time for service. I preached on the doctrine of the Trinity and danced with Wally Williams as a sermon illustration. Through these experiences I developed a new spiritual practice: preach every sermon as if it were my last because for any number of reason it well might be. And, look, here we are, my last sermon with you.
Scripture tells us that what Jesus had predicted for his disciples had come to pass. They were doing miracles and gaining followers just like he did. They were also experiencing persecution just like Jesus had. Today’s Scripture is the final episode in a longer story of Peter healing a lame man who had been begging in front of the temple. When people asked how Peter had done this miracle he told them about Jesus. The authorities didn’t like what Peter and John had to say, so they arrested them, interrogated them, and ordered them to stop telling people about Jesus. Peter and John refused. Nevertheless, the authorities let them go. When Peter and John returned and told the other disciples about their experience, they didn’t pray for protection, they prayed for boldness.
The Greek word that is translated “boldness” also means, “free spoken, open.” It means you say what you think, not in some meanspirited, vindictive way but out of conviction. Pastor and youth ministry specialist Mike Yaconelli puts it this way, “Boldness doesn’t mean rude, obnoxious, loud, or disrespectful. Being bold is being firm, sure, confident, fearless, daring, strong, resilient, and not easily intimidated. It means you’re willing to go where you’ve never been, willing to try what you’ve never tried, and willing to trust what you’ve never trusted. Boldness is quiet, not noisy.” Rabbi and organizational consultant Edwin Friedman calls this quality principled leadership. It’s the sort of boldness that 16thcentury protestant reformer Martin Luther demonstrated—the one after whom Dr. Martin Luther King was named. 400 years before the civil rights activist, Martin Luther stood trial for protesting abuses in the church. Facing a panel of inquisitors famous for burning heretics he said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
You have taught me boldness. And for that I cannot thank you enough. Week after week I have stood before you and preached my last sermon. Week after week you kept showing up for more. My previous church experience had taught me that I could be punished for any ill-considered word. Churches taught me that any difficult truth could kick the sabotage grapevine into high gear. Congregations had taught me speaking freely is just too risky. Church people taught me that honesty is unwelcome. But you changed all that. Slowly I began to worry less about blow back and upset. Slowly I risked grounding myself in deeper truths. I’ll never forget one Sunday following worship in the first church I served many years ago. I had told a story about my dad’s alcoholism to illustrate a sermon. One of the older members afterward said, “Save it for coffee hour.” Meaning, personal stories were unwelcome in the pulpit. Here you’ve supported me as I’ve deepened my connection with God, with my family, with myself, with my ministry, and with you.
My prayer for you going forward is that you will be filled with boldness. I pray that you will freely and openly give your testimony. Share your faith. The people of Stamford so desperately need bold, compassionate leaders in the community. My spiritual director calls the result of spiritual practice “true self-confidence,” as opposed to the shallow bluster we’ve become so accustomed to in our leaders. Here’s a short video about that kind of true confidence.
It turns out this wasn’t a mistake at all. From the eyes of the world, from the conventional perspective, this has turned out all wrong. The building is sold, the pastor is moving on, everything has changed. In a world that values victory this looks like defeat. But I don’t see it that way at all. We know something that others don’t. I’ve seen the twinkle in your eyes. We may have just glimpsed the truth for a second, but that’s infinitely more than most churches. Most churches are coasting along pretending they will never die. We have looked that reality squarely in the face, embraced it, and have placed our trust in resurrection on the other side. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” You know the truth. You are free. Now live like it.You have a story to tell and a testimony to give. Proclaim it with boldness.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-27-19
This column began at the suggestion of the Vision Support Team (VST) during a meeting in my Stamford apartment in April 2016. The VST was a group of FCC members committed to support the congregation’s vision for our transitional ministry. Team members at that time included Maureen Matthews, Ellen Taylor, Peter Birch, Jean Meyer, Pam Shadford, Kathie Laug.
Our transitional goals were 1) Simplifying governance and By-laws including financial record keeping and reporting; 2) Becoming more welcoming and engaging; 3) Developing more meaningful relationships with one another; 4) Offering more varied opportunities for spiritual development and leadership development; 5) Continuing to expand upon our strong community service work; 6) Communicate more effectively and civilly–both internally and externally. I mention them simply to appreciate how far we’ve come over the past three years.
We have left many things behind as together we have moved into God’s future. But we are also carrying some things forward. Personally, besides carrying forward all of you, the memories of all we’ve been through, and all of the things I’ve learned, I think I’m also going to continue this column in my new setting. What’s up with Pastor Todd? What is up with that guy? That question is a helpful spiritual discipline for me to ask week after week. If ever you should wonder, you can check in at www.todd-grant-yonkman.net. This is goodbye for now, not forever.
Call To Worship
Scripture reminds us that we are all connected. Scripture teaches us that we are already complete. Scripture shows us that our true nature is freedom. Worship is the way we remind ourselves of what we already know: we are bound together in God’s limitless love. Let’s worship God.
Prayer of Confession
Holy God, we live distracted, fragmented lives. On our own, we are powerless to put ourselves back together. We believe the lie that we are hopelessly alone. We allow ourselves to be seduced by the claim that life is a relentless war for dominance. Send your spirit upon us. Calm our fears. Heal our hearts. Give us the quiet confidence to boldly proclaim your everlasting love. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
Holy God, we pray for boldness, not just protection, as we offer our lives and resources in service of the gospel. We dedicate these offerings to the healing of the world. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Stamford
Sermon for the 3rdSunday of Silent Period
24 March 2019
Text: Acts 4:1-21
Speaking What We’ve Seen and Heard
Scripture tells us that the Sadducees forbade Peter and John from telling people about Jesus. Why? The Sadducees were an ancient school of Judaism that did not believe in resurrection. Jews at the time of Jesus, like Jews and Christians today, had a wide variety of beliefs about the afterlife. Some believed in heaven and hell. Some did not. Some Jews believed that that God would bring good people back to life at the end of time, others did not. What’s important here is that the Sadducees believed people just die. Human beings are mortal. God is eternal. What’s important is what we do with our lives here and now. Our lives are carried forward in the memories of our family and our faith community who are entrusted with the sacred task of remembering those who have gone on before. That doesn’t sound so strange, does it? In fact, my guess is that many modern people believe some version of this, including some people here this morning. It’s a rational belief. It fits the evidence of our lives as we live them in the conventional world of consensual reality. Dead people stay dead, and we remember them. Peter and John were telling folks that God had raised Jesus from the dead. God had reached past the impenetrable barrier of finitude and restored someone to life. God broke the rules. And that scared the life out of the Sadducees, so they tried shut Peter and John up.
It wasn’t just that Peter and John were saying it. If no one listened, there would be no reason for the Sadducees to intervene. If no one believed, there would be no reason for the Sadducees to feel threatened. But people did listen because a man that they knew well, a man who had been lame from his birth, a man whom they passed by on their way to the temple, a man who begged alms from them because his disability gave him no other option, a man who watched others pass through the Beautiful Gate but who wasn’t able to enter himself, this man was now walking and dancing and leaping and shouting and telling everyone that Peter and John had healed him. When they asked how this miracle happened Peter told them that it was through the power of Jesus, whom God had raised from the dead. The people listened. Not only did they listen, they believed. They believed that the same power that healed this man could heal them, too. They believed that the same power that had raised Jesus could raise them, too. The message had power not because it was some fantasy. The message had power not because the people were gullible. The message had power not because Peter and John incredibly talented con men. The message had power because there was new evidence. The evidence that transformed Peter and John was the appearance of the risen Christ. The evidence that convinced the people at the temple was the testimony of a man who had been healed and the testimony of those who were agents of his healing. The healed man, Peter and John, were speaking not what they imagined, but what they had seen and heard.
I believe in God because I’ve seen the evidence. I’m not interested in fantasies or lies or sophisticated cons to lighten your wallets any more than you are. I believe in God because of you. You have stepped out beyond the bounds of what I thought possible. Clinging to the past, refusing to face reality, fighting change–these behaviors are very familiar to me. I confront these behaviors within myself every day. I think it’s incredibly ironic that God has called me to lead you and other congregations through transition when personally I’m so horrible at it. I don’t enjoy transitions at all. I find them frightening and exhausting. Like you, I’d rather be in control. Like the Sadducees, I’d rather God stuck to the rules. I’d rather God’s wisdom were conventional wisdom, God’s reality consensual reality. I like the idea of resurrection, but I hate that one has to pass through death to get there. I’d much rather the myth of progress were true. I’d much rather the path abundant and eternal life led every upward and onward. But it doesn’t. In order to know joy, God invites us to become acquainted with sorrow. In order to know delight, God invites us to walk the path of suffering. In order to know healing, God asks us to face our disease. In order to know freedom, God opens in us the heart of letting go. And you have done all these things. You are doing all these things. I believe in the way of Jesus because I’ve seen the evidence. And the evidence is you.
This work of leave-taking is exhausting. Those of you who have walked the path of grieving before are likely not surprised. Too often our wider culture discounts emotional work. It’s not “real” work the way taking meetings or building widgets or producing content or selling products or generating wealth is. Instead of tools for doing emotional work, our culture offers us ways of escaping it through distractions and entertainments or ways of numbing ourselves to it through addictions of various kinds. Much of the outrage we pollute our social spaces with is simply a means of avoiding grief work that the powerful have cleverly found ways to monetize. As a congregation we know from our own experience that neglecting difficult emotional work is perilous to our personal health and the health of the community. The only way to heal emotional suffering is to face it together with a skilled guide. So two things:
- In the next two weeks find moments for intentional rest. Not burying your face in your favorite distraction, but finding your upright posture, connecting to your breath, and bringing your energy down to your heart. That’s one way to do it. Whatever your spiritual practice, stay with it.
- Make it a priority to show up for Sunday worship. This Sunday, for example, Rev. Margaret Keyser will be joining us. Following worship she will be leading us in some healing work.
Our leave-taking is not a tragedy. It’s an opportunity to experience God’s healing love in ways you haven’t yet imagined.