What’s Up with Pastor Todd 10-17-19

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 10-16-19

I would like to apologize for missing last week’s column. Without getting too much into the gory details, I have a recurrance of a tiny benign tumor. That in itself would be no big deal. The trouble is that it’s in my skull! So it can’t stay there. We decided on radiation treatment, which I had last Thursday morning. When I asked, the doc said I might experience “mild fatigue” afterward. I’m not sure what counts as “severe fatigue” but I now know I wouldn’t want to experience it. I spent the next 24 hours in bed. That threw my schedule off for the week, and I missed my deadline. So, once again, I’m sorry, but I’m glad to say I’m back on my feet and shouldn’t require any more radiation treatments. One and done!

I’m writing this from the downtown Granby Starbucks, which is crowded with people this morning. I’m guessing a few, like me, are here for the power and the wifi, which are down throughout much of the town, including First Congregational Church of Granby, because of the Nor’easter that swept through the region last night. Disruption, whether health-related or weather-related, is my experience right now.

Disruption is familiar territory for me. The big one, of course, was when dad came out as gay and my parents divorced. But even before that moment, much of my childhood experience was moving place to place following dad as he moved from job to job. As an adult, my experience hasn’t been that much different. Ministry has called my family and me to move from place to place following opportunities to be of service. Years ago my oldest daughter commented that the only consistent things in her life have been family and God. 

For me, keys to surviving disruption are the following:

  1. Keep it light.
  2. Move quickly.
  3. Widen your vision.
  4. See the opportunities.
  5. Nothing’s personal.
  6. Focus on the essentials.

Perhaps we’ll have the opportunity to flesh these out further, but for now I leave them with you to think about in relation to our congregational transition. 

Transition necessarily involves disruption. Look at Jesus’ example. My reading of Jesus’ death and resurrection is that it was a bit of a disruption–not only for Jesus personally but, as it turns out, for the entire world. Disruption is woven into the fabric of reality. It is also a key component of our faith. Given that realization, how will we respond to disruption as we move into God’s future? 

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 9-23-19

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 9-19-19

    The path to congregational sustainability is a paradoxical process of reaching out and reaching in. This past weekend we began training in the “reaching out” piece. 11 folks from First Congregational Church of Granby participated in a workshop entitled “Reaching New People” hosted at First Church in Windsor and led by Rev. Paul Nickerson, a UCC pastor who consults with scores of congregations across the country around issues of church vitality. First Church in Windsor participated with a team of about 20. FCC Wallingford and South Congregational Church of Granby also had representatives present.

During this intense 9 hour workshop over two days, we learned how changes in the wider culture have made the “attraction model” of reaching new people ineffective. We learned best practices of getting out into our community and inviting people into authentic relationships. This is the basis for reaching new people in the 21st century. We wrapped up the workshop by developing a plan for implementing these new strategies and identifying people who could serve on a Vitality Team to work with the congregation so that together we can use our limited resources to greatest effect in growing the church. The Vitality Team will be supported by ongoing coaching from Rev. Nickerson. Reaching new people isn’t just the job of a few. It’s everyone’s responsibility to learn how to be good inviters. If each person in worship invited one friend to worship every week, we’d instantly double our attendance. Imagine that!

I have already begun leading the “reaching in” process. “Reaching in” is another way of saying “building organizational health.” I have been meeting with staff and team leaders, refining and implementing church policies, casting a vision for a range of possible futures for the congregation, modeling healthy leadership that honors FCC Granby’s Behavioral Covenent, reporting to the appropriate committees, and doing a lot, I mean a lot, of listening. Reaching in is a slow, deliberate process whereby we create safe space in which difficult truths can be spoken and heard in love. No congregation is perfect. Every congregation has baggage from the past that needs to be brought into the light, examined, healed, and released. Every congregation can improve its ability to listen deeply, communicate clearly, and engage differing perspectives in ways that draw people together instead of driving them apart. Most often an intentional congregational process led by a neutral expert (not the pastor) who knows the congregation but has no vested interest in particular outcomes is the most effective way to accomplish these goals.

As a congregation we need to tend our wounds, atone for our mistakes, and build a culture of hope so that we can welcome newcomers and weave them into our congregational life. As a congregation we need to let go of past hurts that weigh us down so that when the storms of change wash over our tiny boat, instead of sinking to the bottom, we can ride the waves. We need to learn how to be vulnerable and trusting with each other so that whatever the future holds we can face it with joy. 

How is this related to our conversations with South Church? As I’ve said before, we need to fix the holes in our boat because if we tie one leaky life raft to another leaky life raft, where does that get us? We’re all still going down. Or think of it this way: what marriage is most likely to succeed? One in which the partners are stressed out, depressed, and dying or one in which the partners are happy, hopeful, secure in their identities, and looking to the future? 

Whatever our future, the process of reaching out and reaching in will take us where God and the Town of Granby need us to be.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-19-18

Liv (wearing her Occidental College hat) and me cheering on the Hartford Yardgoats

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.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-29-19

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-29-19

I just finished a day of professional training. I’m in the process of becoming a Professional Certified Coach through the International Coaching Federation. No, I’m not being trained as an athletic coach, although the model is roughly similar. Rather, I’m being trained as leadership coach thanks to a grant from the Lilly Endowment. The Lilly Endowment Inc., headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, is one of the world’s largest private philanthropic foundations and among the largest endowments in the United States. It supports the causes of religion, education and community development. Lilly is paying for my training. In return I and an ecumenical cohort of about 16 other clergy will provide leadership coaching in our congregations and to our fellow clergy. I’m grateful to the Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island Conferences of the United Church of Christ for securing and administering this grant.

Leadership coaching helps individuals and groups increase their effectiveness in living out their most deeply held values through listening deeply, asking powerful questions, identifying limiting beliefs, brainstorming possibilities, developing action steps, and building structures of accountability. As a coach in training, I’m here to help you dream big and identify the resources you need to build a bridge to your desired future.

What does any of this have to do with being a pastor?  Everything. The stereotypical image of the pastor as one who brings down the divine, authoritative word from on high is just that, a stereotype, and not a particularly accurate one at that. My experience of pastoring is much more down to earth. It’s taking out the garbage and doing the laundry kind of work. It’s paying attention to daily details, eliminating unhealthy habits, and building healthy ones. It’s intimate engagement with the rhythms of congregational life in order to build awareness. “This is who we say we are. This is what our actions say. How can we close that gap?”

Through this process of intimate engagement, the pastor makes it her job to notice, and to assist the congregation in noticing, the new life God is birthing in and among them. Another name for a birthing coach is midwife. My wife and I used midwives for the births of both our children. From what I’ve witnessed, childbirth is one of the most grueling and dangerous things human beings do. No wonder so few congregations choose the abundant and eternally renewing life God offers and instead choose a long drugged out hospice. Midwives are tough as nails. And in this analogy, the pastor is a midwife. If it’s truly to be the congregation’s baby, the congregation is going to need to do the labor. As your pastor/coach, a powerful question to consider at this point in our ministry together is Are we pregnant? If so, what’s the next step?

Pray for Boldness (Acts 4:23-31)

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.

Worship Resources for Sunday 3-24-19 (Acts 4:1-22)

Call To Worship        

The human heart longs for God. That ache that we feel inside, the isolation, the lack of purpose and meaning, unresolved grief if it isn’t attended to can lead us to some pretty dark places. That’s why before he ascended to heaven, Jesus gave his disciples an experience and a mission. The experience was resurrection. The mission was tell what they had seen and heard. In worship we have the opportunity to connect with God and live out our mission. Let’s worship God.

Prayer of Confession       

How can we share with others what we haven’t experienced ourselves? Holy God, we’re just like the first disciples. Jesus stands right before us yet somehow we miss it. Jesus tells us in plain words the way of the cross that leads to resurrection; nevertheless, we resist. Open the eyes of our hearts. We want to see you. Amen.

“Speaking What We’ve Seen and Heard.” Sermon 3-24-19

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.