What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-28-19

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

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 7-23-19

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-22-19

This week’s favorite Scripture comes to us from Nancy Dow. Revelation 22 is the last chapter of the Bible, and the last chapter concludes with the refrain “Come”:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. 

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:17, 20).

Nancy chose this Scripture because, she says, “It’s important for us to focus on the goal,” which I take to mean the goal of the spiritual life. 

When I hear the word “come” in this context I imagine a posture of welcome, accepting everything, facing everything, rejecting nothing. “Come” speaks to me of God’s posture toward the universe and our faithful response. The goal of the spiritual life is an ever deepening posture of welcome toward all that is.

There’s a receptive aspect to this divine welcome. I experience the receptive aspect in meditation. I sit in resolute silent stillness and receive whatever arises. The deep listening I try to practice in conversation with others is also an expression of this welcome. And there are other ways this welcome manifests. It’s the welcome articulated by the prophet Isaiah: “Those who wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength.” Or by Jesus: “I am the vine. You are the branches. Abide in me and you will bear much fruit.”

I began meditation practice over 20 years ago not only for myself but also for the congregations I serve. I noticed that churches in transition tend not to be particularly receptive.  Passive, yes. Receptive, no. One can be passive while turning away from difficult truths, like, for example, “our church is dying.” The receptive welcome that is the goal of the spiritual life faces reality as it is without judgment so that we can engage reality as it is in effective and helpful ways. 

We welcome reality as it is in order to meet reality as it is. Engagement is the second aspect of divine welcome–an aspect that declining churches tend to struggle with. We can feel the urgent joy of this welcome in the repeated call to “come.” The Revelation image is of the universe calling to itself. I imagine a parent bending down to embrace a child and lifting her up in his arms. “Come to me. I want you here!” It’s active, urgent, compelling.

Every church I’ve ever served has told me that it is “friendly.” And for the most part it’s true, but what they mean is, “We are friendly to each other.” How many times have I noticed worship guests sitting alone in a pew or keeping their own company at coffee hour? Too many. But even if we’re conscientious about guests, the welcome tends not to extend beyond our walls. 

A parishioner has said this to me on more than one occasion in more than one church: “Here ‘friendly’ means, ‘You’re welcome if you come.” This is a far cry from Jesus’ parable of heaven in which the host for the wedding feast sends out his servants into the highways and byways. The host instructs his servants to approach everyone they meet and “compel them to come in.” In other words, the attitude of divine welcome is not “you’re welcome if you come,” but “we want you here! How can we change so this will be a safe and relevant space for you?” 

Or better yet, flip roles. Instead of taking the role of host, be a guest. Learn the culture. Show up for others without any expectation. Just make yourself and instrument of divine love. God will do the rest.

I realize this is a scary challenge especially with all the obnoxious evangelists out there, but in my experience, while you may get some “no thank yous,” most people are just waiting to be invited. And–good news!–we will have an opportunity to be trained by an expert in reaching new people, Rev. Paul Nickerson, September 13-14 at First Church in Windsor.

The goal of the spiritual life is the joy of extending oneself to welcome the other. How do you expect to grow if you won’t stretch? And stepping out beyond our familiar and comfortable walls into the world to engage people where they are is an endless opportunity to stretch. This simple but profound spiritual practice unites spiritual growth, social justice, and church vitality. It’s what Jesus made us for. It’s what we’ve been waiting for. It’s past time we do it.

Worship Resources–Luke 9:57-62 “No Looking Back, Part 2

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God”

*Call to Worship  (from Psalm 77)

Leader: I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old.

People: I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.

Leader: Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?

People: With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.

Opening Prayer

Holy God, abiding faith is so difficult. We continually hedge our bets. With our mouths we say we trust in you, but in reality we continue to cling to tattered shreds of the familiar and comfortable. Teach us to let go. Teach us to seek first your Kingdom and its righteousnes. Teach us to exchange the tattered shreds of what once was for the unimaginable gift of what might be. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-20-19

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-20-19

This Sunday FCC Granby is joining with South Congregational Church of Granby to celebrate a “Union Service.” As I understand it these special worship services have been taking place for several years. Usually about twice a year the two congregations have gathered on Sunday morning for a joint worship service—sometimes in the First Church building, sometimes in the South Church building.

These services are part of a larger conversation about closer collaboration between the two congregations—some have even talked about the possibility of merger. Part of my role as Transitional Senior Minister is to help FCC Granby weigh closer collaboration with South Church as a possible path to long term sustainability for the ministry of the United Church of Christ in Granby.

I am still learning the details of the conversations so far. I am still learning the strengths and weaknesses of FCC, the dreams and visions of South Church, the needs and potentials of the Town of Granby. Every transition is unique. The path to sustainability, if that is indeed FCC’s desire, is going to have to be designed and walked by the members of FCC ourselves. No one else can do it for you.

The point of the union services, as I see it, is to worship together. The point of worshipping together is to see how it feels. What is the energy? How does it feel to have more people in worship? Does the blend of these congregational microcultures make sense? Most of all, could we be more together than apart?

While the answer to that question might seem obvious to some, in reality it isn’t. Most of the time when churches merge, they don’t grow. In fact, they soon shrink back down to whatever size one or the other previously was. That’s because the merger is not undertaken with a vision for a brand new identity and purpose of the new combined community.  If you don’t fix the holes in the life rafts, it doesn’t matter if you have one or two. Everyone’s going down. In fact, while we’re desparately trying to keep from sinking, it may be that we’re missing the cruise ship that was sent to save us.

So the focus can’t be whose building or whose pastor or whose endowment. That’s just a fight over leaky lifeboats at this point. The question has to be Do we have a shared vision to reach new people in the ways that they want to be reached? If the question is one of maintianing an insitution, we’re doomed. If, however, we truly love our neighbors and are willing to do whatever it takes to help them connect to God, the answers to these other questions around our conversations with South Church will soon become crystal clear.

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?

The Drummer 5-8-19

Behold, I do a new thing!

Hi friends! My name is Pastor Todd Grant Yonkman. I’m the new Transitional Senior Minister at First Congregational Church of Granby. “Transitional,” you say. “What’s that?”

Like many churches across the country FCC Granby is in a process of transition. The way we’ve done things in the past cannot continue to be the way we do things in the future. What we will be is not yet clear. What is clear is that things need to change. Hence, transition.

A transitional minister is a special kind of minister who job it is to lead change.

I love transitional ministry because I love working together with teams of people to create something new. In Scripture God says, “Behold, I do a new thing. Do you not perceive it?”

Moment by moment God brings new things to life. What about you? What’s God doing in your life? Can you perceive it? I’d love to hear about the new things God is doing in you, in your family, at you work, in the community. Let me know when we can chat. My email is pastor@firstchurchgranby.org.

Maybe you are in some kind of transition: new job, new house, new kid, new town, newly retired, new diagnosis, new sense of calling in your life. Churches in transition are great places for people in transition. We can support each other both through the excitement of what might be and through the pain of letting go of what was. This is life! This is what it means to be mature, responsible, and loving.

Hope to see you soon.