Sermon by Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman at First Church of Christ in Saybrook 4 December 2022
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-28-21
“I’m afraid of losing our identity.” This was a response that came up in one of First Church’s transition workshops back in 2019. Transition coach Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg first led us in a workshop on thecongregational life cycle, then a second on the grief process. We located ourselves on the decline side of the congregational life cycle bell curve, past the point of sustainability. We talked about what that meant for our future and what some of our options might be, including the option that a group from First Church had been working on for some years at this point: consolidation with South Church.
Identity sounds like an abstract, philosophical debate, but, in fact, it’s at the core of some of the most intense conflicts within congregations and in broader society. Take America’s culture wars, for example. The culture wars are a series of conflicts over different aspects of America’s identity, including white nationalism, gender hierarchy, class loyalties, regional identities, “Christian values,” economic systems, and systems for choosing its leaders. Will America stop being America if white people are no longer the dominant race? Will America stop being America if the gap between rich and poor becomes so great that economic mobility is no longer possible? Will America stop being America if Christianity is no longer the dominant religion? As you can see, identity is a big, emotionally fraught issue. Emotions are intense because conflicts over identity are conflicts over power: who has voice and who gets resources.
Conflict over identity defines what it means to be a church in transition, according to sociologist Penny Edgell Becker in her book, Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life. Churches in transition are characterised by what Becker calls “between-frame conflict.” In between-frame conflict, two different visions of identity, that is, “who we are and how we do things here” compete for power, that is, voice and resources.
This is contrasted to “within-frame” conflict, where everyone agrees on identity, that is, “who we are and how we do things here.” The conflict is simply disagreement over approach or interpretation. We have memories of the “good-old days” of “bipartisanship” in the U.S. for example, because for a brief period in the 20th century we were sending leaders to Washington who more or less shared the same “frame.” By contrast, the Civil War was an extreme example of “between-frame” conflict. Between-frame conflicts in churches rarely get violent, but they can be intense.
Between-frame conflict is unavoidable in the consolidation process. We have two distinct congregations with two distinct identities. Does this mean we’re doomed to fight until one identity dominates the other? No. The other option is to expand the frame, or “ABC”: “a bigger container.” We can build a space where diverse voices can be heard and celebrated, where resources can be shared. I’ve witnessed this happen, for example, when a church I served shifted from a white-dominant model to a mutli-racial, multi-cultural model. Some white people were so afraid that we were becoming a “Black church.” Their fears turned out to be unfounded. A new, beautiful identity emerged: neither “Black,” nor “white,” but a celebration of the best in all of us: a slice of heaven on earth.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 10-3-19
At First Congregational Church of Granby we’ve been having some wonderful conversations over the past several weeks. We’ve had four “Meet the Minister” meetings with about 40 total attendance with one more to go. This covers close to our active membership. Great participation! In those meetings we have addressed four questions: 1) What brought you to FCC? 2) What keeps you at FCC? 3) What is your vision for the next 3-5 years? 4) What next steps might we take to get there? There have been a wide range of responses, honest and heartfelt, and most have left the meetings feeling a mixture of grief over what was and hope for what might be. I will be compiling the responses and making a presentation at our next “Working Lunch” Sunday, October 20, in Cook Hall following worship. I’m looking forward to deepening the conversation in this time of transition.
Speaking of “Working Lunch” . . . We had our first Working Lunch this past Sunday, September 29 in Cook Hall. Ann Wilhelm and crew prepared a delicious lunch. Thank you so much! After lunch a group of about 25 church members created a timeline of significant events in the life of the church, in the town of Granby, in the United States, and in our world. We also included our own personal significant events such as baptisms, funerals, weddings, confirmation, and other life moments. It was helpful to take a 30,000 foot view of the movement of events and their interconnection.
Following the creation of the timeline, we made observations, including highlights, lowlights, patterns, things we would like to see continue into the future, and things we might not want to repeat. There were many insightful comments but one that struck me came from Emily Messenger. After reflecting on how people at FCC and other congregational churches tend to get upset and leave, she commented that we should be “learning to make conflict as a way of growing rather than splitting apart.” I thought that was incredibly insightful.
Conflict is normal. God created each of us different with differing perspectives, opinions, and life experiences. If we were all the same, life would be boring. Sometimes churches tell me they have no conflict. To me, this indicates one of three possibilities: 1) They are lying; 2) They aren’t doing anything of any significance; 3) They’re dead. It is also true that conflict handled in an unhealthy manner is the number one reason for decline in congregations. The good news is that we can learn healthy communication practices that will indeed enable us to use conflict as a way of growing rather than splitting apart. The Church Council is recommending we hire consultant and coach Rev. Claire Bamberg to help us with that work. You will have the chance to meet her Sunday, November 17, when she will be preaching and leading worship.
The point of the timeline exercise is to create common memory. Georges Erasmus, a respected Aboriginal leader from Canada, said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.” Our history is full of ups and downs, but the good news is we can learn from it. And with new learning comes new opportunity for new life.