Holy God, in the changing circumstances of our lives give us wisdom to discern your will. Give us the skills and insight we need to be instruments of your salvation. Give us confidence to bear witness to your truth. Give us humility to meet each person as a shining example of your abundant provision. Though our limited views often prevent us from seeing the big picture, help us to trust your guiding hand. Amen.
Here are some responses I’ve been hearing to my informal survey of the First Church/South Church collaboration/consolidation process. Hopeful signs: Reports that UNITE is uniting! After some initial tension around the type and amount of programming for “uniting” people, it sounds like a “both/and” approach is beginning to emerge. Breakthroughs have occurred as members of the working group have shared their personal stories and what connects with them. Particular sensitivity has been raised around the kinds of events that feel welcoming for people in recovery. This is a great example of how making space for diverse voices expands our perspective, which in turn expands our ability to connect with people.
More hopeful signs: Folks from the property working group have been working with their coach to do yet another critical piece of “both/and” work. With the leadership of the coach they are thinking about “mission.” They are also doing a detailed evaluation/inventory of our properties in an attempt to get a more “objective” handle on the property resources both churches bring to the table. Keeping mission in mind while doing an objective assessment will give our congregations the resources we need to make wise decisions about what physical properties will best serve the new mission of the new church.
I’m hearing questions about what decisions are best made during transition time versus “after the settled pastor has arrived.” My two cents: First, we might want to think of this person not so much as a “settled minister,” but as a “restart pastor,” with the requisite gifts and experience for creating something new. Second, having served as both a settled minister and transitional I can see both sides. There is not a hard and fast rule. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves:
“Are we ‘waiting’ simply to put off making a tough decision?” In this case we’re neither serving ourselves nor our future settled (restart) minister; We might ask “What is preventing us from making this tough decision now? Lack of resources? Lack of information? Lack of willingness? What can we do to address these issues?
“Will making this decision now help us clarify our vision for the future so that we can put ourselves in the best position possible for finding a good settled (restart) pastor ‘match?’”
“If we decide to wait with this decision, are we really open to letting our future settled (restart) minister lead on this issue? If so, how will we make this expectation clear to the congregation?”
Examples: As a settled minister I have been in situations where church leadership told me that there was a staff member who clearly needed to be let go. Instead of just making that tough choice during the transition, they put it off for the settled minister. This was NOT helpful because it made my job of bonding with the congregation that much more difficult. On the other hand, I’ve had situations where the church hired staff during transition when as a settled minister I would have preferred the position filled on an acting basis so I could have more input in building the team. This same sort of dynamic is at play with properties, finances, program, etc. So, as I said, there is no hard and fast rule; rather, it’s a process of discernment. Starting something new is all about building momentum. My encouragement is to use this transition time when things are in flux to set up your future “settled” (restart) minister for success.
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.
Congratulations! First Congregational Church of Granby took an historic vote this past Sunday in a process of “re-uniting” with our UCC siblings, South Congregational Church of Granby. The “engagement” decision means that the two congregations will begin a more formal process of taking steps to become one, new United Church of Christ in Granby.
I’m aware that as a congregation we are experiencing quite a mix of feelings: grief, disappointment, hope, excitement, confusion, doubt, impatience, elation, and many others. This is normal and doesn’t necessarily speak to the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the decision. Our congregational ancestors handed down to us this practice of congregational meeting in which we prayerfully seek, to use the words of Jesus, that “not my will, but thy will be done.”
So, we did our best to seek God’s will and the outcome is that we will be pursuing consolidation with South Church using a “marriage” model (see last week’s column). And while there are questions of “what’s next” that the GUCCI team is working to answer, I encourage us to take a moment to sit, breathe, and appreciate this new place in which we find ourselves as a congregation. What does it look like? Feel like? Sound like?
Years ago I did training with the Mennonites in spiritual discernment for congregations. Mennonites practice Christian peacemaking. They come from the same branch of the Christian family tree as Quakers, Amish, and Bretheren. As I remember it, an important part of the discernment process is “resting,” that is, once a decision is made, take some time to search your heart. What arises? Was something overlooked in the process? Is something unresolved that needs more conversation? Is there a sense of peace? Regardless of our personal feelings about the outcome, is there a sense of completeness that allows us to take the next step forward with confidence?
I invite us to take this moment to deepen our walk with God.
As you all hopefully know by now, First Congregational Church of Granby will be voting to approve one of two proposals for moving forward as a congregation: 1) collaboration/consolidation with South Church or 2) downsizing. As your transitional minister I’m clear that the decision is up to the congregation, so I’ve been preparing myself for both outcomes by staying up to date with the latest in best practices. Three resources have come to my attention.
Should we end up deciding to continue on the decline trajectory, I’ve been reading Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection by L. Gail Irwin. In case we decide to move toward collaboration/consolidation, I’ve ordered and will be reading Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work by Jim Tomberlin. If either of these books sounds interesting to you I encourage you to get a copy. If you are a podcast listener, I encourage you to listen to the latest episode of the Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast (#367 with Jim Tomberlin). You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. The more we have a common understanding of the work we’re facing the more productive our conversations will be.
Just as the path that led us to this place has been made with countless small decisions, so too, the path forward will involve many decisions along the way. My understanding of our decision on February 14 is that either way it’s not the end of the line. It’s simply a way of agreeing as a congregation that we will devote ourselves to pursuing a path in good faith one way or the other. If it’s downsizing, then we will downsize and do our best to figure out what that means for the future of our congregation. If it’s collaboration, we will do our best in good faith to make that proposal work. I’m confident that the GUCCI team has done a good job laying the groundwork for a successful consolidation, but I’m also fairly certain there will be difficult decisions and obstacles to success ahead.
No transition process is perfect. Messy and difficult is the name of the game. But that shouldn’t be too surprising. Life is messy and difficult, and church is just a particular (and peculiar, perhaps) form of life. The good news is that the process doesn’t need to be perfect to be successful! In my experience, the transition processes that have “worked” have worked because the people involved in them wanted them to work. So let’s make our best effort trusting the results to God. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
Sunday evening, January 17, First Congregational Church of Granby engaged in a productive and enlightening conversation around two proposals for our future: one produced by the Downsizing Task Force and one produced by the Collaboration/Consolidation Task Force. I observed deep listening, careful questioning, and honest responses as we explored the proposals together.
Overall there was little disagreement, but one moment stood out for me. At one point in the discussion of the downsizing proposal, someone said, “Well, it’s clear this just isn’t going to work.” A few minutes later, someone else commenting on the downsizing proposal responded, “It is going to work.” Is it going to “work?” Isn’t it going to “work?” This is a great question for both proposals. The answer depends on what our goal is.
At the beginning of the meeting, moderator Bob Giles shared with us the now familiar church life cycle graph and reminded us that we had all agreed that as a congregation we were on the decline side of the graph heading toward death. The goal, Bob said, was to shift the congregation into a growth trajectory, in other words, to reverse the decline trend.
I understood the comment “This just isn’t going to work” in light of the goal that Bob had identified: reversing the decline trend. And to my ears, that seemed to be the unarticulated worry underlying the conversation: is simply cutting expenses really going to turn things around? Research and experience shows that it is common for churches to focus on deficits as a “problem” that needs to be “fixed.” Sometimes this is the case. But in a situation where a church has been declining over a number of years, deficits are a symptom of a deeper problem that budget cuts alone won’t fix. So in this sense, the downsizing proposal “won’t work.”
So was the person who argued that the downsizing plan will “work” wrong? Not necessarily. If the goal isn’t to reverse the decline trend but, in the words of the downsizing report, “maintain independence,” then the downsizing plan will work . . . for a while. As long as the underlying problem that set us on the decline trajectory remains unaddressed, simply cutting expenses will only prolong the decline process. The end will be the same.
What is the “underlying problem?” That would be a wonderful conversation to have. Proverbs 29:18 reads, “Where there is no vision (Hebrew: chazon), the people perish.” Bob pointed out on the church life cycle diagram that churches beginning on the growth trajectory begin with a compelling vision and continue by building relationships with people in the community. (By contrast, churches nearing the end of the life cycle have a greatly reduced vision and a primary focus on maintaining current relationships rather than building new ones.) As we consider these two proposals, we might ask, “Which captures my heart? Which provides a compelling vision for the future?” The prophet Joel wrote, “In those days young people will see visions and elders dream dreams.” What vision is God laying on your heart today?
Loving God, as children we learn to ask Why? Why is the sky blue? Why do ducks quack? Why do I have to go to bed? Why do I have to share my toys? “Why” is how we learn about our world and our place in it. God of “Why,” you have told us that unless we become like one of these little children, we will not enter your kingdom. Teach us to never stop asking Why. Teach us to never stop trusting your answer. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
We dedicate our gifts and our lives to your holy purpose, O God. Amen.
February is discernment month for First Church Granby. Feb. 9 following worship will be our annual congregational “discernment” meeting. I think it’s great that FCCG has one meeting a year devoted to the spiritual practice of discernment. There are many different approaches to discernment. You can find a number of different examples in the Bible: prayer and fasting, casting lots, consulting prophets, rituals involving sacrifice, pilgrimage. Gideon famously put fleece outside overnight to discern what God wanted him to do in battle. Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments. We won’t be doing any of these things. We will be doing prayer and conversation. But what all these have in common is the ancient human attempt to determine what God wants or what God is up to, in more formal language, “divine will.”
Divine will is a notoriously difficult thing to determine. The Bible is full of stories of individuals who claimed to know the divine will when, it turns out, they didn’t. The results are usually unpleasant. So humility is the first and most important quality to bring to discernment. The second is patience. Scripture says that “the Spirit moves where it will.” God answers in God’s good time. And sometimes the answer is silence. In which case, we might decide to sit with the question a while longer. But I want to encourage us that it is indeed possible to discern God’s deepest longing for us. I’ve experienced it. I’ve witnessed it happen in congregations. We’ll know we’ve nailed it when there is a moment of connection, joy, and release. God’s will may not be pleasant. God may not be inviting us to do something we particularly want to do. But there is joy and release knowing it’s the right thing to do. There is a deep sense of connection knowing that in the long run discerning and doing God’s will leads to abundant life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.
So don’t miss worship Feb. 9 and stay for the meeting after. Our transition coach, Claire Bamberg will be joining us and facilitating a discernment discussion on the topic of “What is Your ‘Why’?”
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.