The Well at Burke Presbyterian Church

By Arlene Decina

For the past two summers at Burke Presbyterian Church, we have taken a leap — from the traditional Vacation Bible School that had always been a highlight of our programming into something that is, for us, brand new and refreshing.

By many standards, our Vacation Bible School was a smashing success. In recent years we have created and developed our own original program with an emphasis on slowing our pace, going deeper, and forming community . . . and we filled to capacity, attracting gifted and energetic leaders. We became known for our unique approach, and, in fact, the model that we created for VBS has now been borrowed and implemented in other churches with their programs. So why, you might ask, should we do something different? Why fix something that is not broken?

A year and a half ago, in January 2012 – when we gathered for our annual “What-are-we-going-to-do-for VBS?” meeting – none of us had the level of energy and enthusiasm that we had experienced in the past. We sat in silence for a time until our Elder for Children’s Spiritual Growth quietly interrupted with a heartfelt and earnest, “What if we were to try something entirely new this year?”  She had our full attention.

Giving ourselves permission and invitation to ponder, we realized that as captivating as our originally conceived and fashioned VBS had been, it too had become a reliable, nearly institutionalized model. We began to ask ourselves the big wondering questions of how we could best use our time and energies both to strengthen the bonds within our church and to serve God and the community. How could we live into the phrase that we often repeat as a mantra, “Less is More,” to provide a fresh wellspring of spiritual growth and nurture for those who generally do so much of the work of the church? What would bear the most nourishing fruit for us in this time?

Out of these frank questions and honest wonderings, and within the new space created by letting go of our traditional Vacation Bible School, The Well was born.

Of course, there were birthing pains associated with growing The Well. The team knew that not having a Vacation Bible School would be hard for some folks to understand, let alone imagine. Therefore, the greatest hope and chance for success would only be possible with intentional introduction and thoughtful explanation of The Well.  We began with the leaders of the church. The idea of The Well was first proposed to the Spiritual Growth Ministry Team, and then to the Session. Carefully timed communications via church-wide letters, emails, and newsletter articles rounded out the way we shared this change with the community.  Along with these corporate notifications, each member of the planning team also spoke about The Well with small groups and individuals along the way. While news of The Well was largely met with anticipation and openness, there were people who pushed back and with certainty said that letting go of VBS was shirking our commitment to evangelism and showing a sign of a church in decline. Ultimately, the number of dissenters was quite small. In fact, in the second year of The Well, some of the original dissenters from the previous year came to The Well!

It is important to note that during this time, Burke was beginning an interim pastorate after a much-loved pastor of 27 years retired.  Change of this magnitude was new for many at BPC.  Allowing for this dissent was important, even while it was hard for the planning team to hear.

BPC2As a result of all these conversations and hopes and labor pains, in July 2012, and again in this summer of 2013, The Well blossomed into a three-evening multi-generational event that included Burke Presbyterian Church members and friends of all ages and all stages and all family configurations. Each evening, we began our time outdoors with an informal and invitational gathering marked by live and beckoning music on the front lawn, games and sidewalk chalk and bubbles, and water and process art choices that drew children – and the child in all of us – together for sharing and conversation.

BPC3Meanwhile, the tables inside were beautifully set for the next part of our evening, a family-style meal. Participants’ nametags indicated which was their table, so there was no need to wonder, “Where will I sit?” or “Is there a place for me?” Guided by our host, who like a liturgist artfully set the tone, we enjoyed a delicious supper with our table-group “families” in a gathering that became central to our time together.

Each evening following mealtime, we separated by age into groupings – the very youngest in the nursery, and children, youth, college-age, and adults – for an intentional time of engaging with one another and with the story, with Scripture, or with a Sabbath practice. On our opening night this year we welcomed keynote speaker Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana who shared insights from her recent book, Sabbath in the Suburbs. Subsequent evenings we delighted in hearing from our own Interim Pastor Rev. Diane Hutchins and Pastoral Associate Rev. Deryl Fleming. Drawing from these cherished resources within our community as well as outside of our community allowed for rich and dynamic keynotes. We concluded each evening of The Well by coming together in the Sanctuary for a short, ten minute Evensong liturgy written and led by two of our pastoral parishioners, Rev. Alice Petersen and Rev. Bill  Lowrey. Just the right amount of time for night prayers and prayer songs, for good nights and good byes.

BPC4Our second evening of The Well this year had something different in store; we were in for an amazing and memorable experience — Stop Hunger Now! In a matter of an hour and a half, the two hundred or so of us – ages three to mid 80s (with seating available for those who preferred to watch) – packaged 10,000 meals, which we learned would be sent to Haiti. Words will simply not do justice to what we as a church family experienced — it was Holy Ground, indeed! As we transitioned from Stop Hunger to our own mealtime, our liturgist called us together saying, “Just as we have prepared a meal for others, a meal has been prepared for us” … and with that we settled into suppertime. A reflection afterward on The Feeding of the Five Thousand, offered from the perspective of a child’s perception, and we all were filled to the brim in mind, body and spirit.

BPC1There was an elegant simplicity to The Well, exemplified by the tiny pile of things to be sorted and put away the following week compared to the usual digging-out after VBS!  Indeed, there were far fewer moving parts than with our traditional Vacation Bible School. Rather, our fresh goal for this experience was to set the scene – to offer the opportunities – for moving experiences, for deep-well moments, for making memories as a family of faith.

The Well is just what we have needed in this season of change for Burke Presbyterian Church.  As we look around we clearly see fruits born of letting go of the old and risking a new endeavor.  Out of one of the Adult offerings in The Well 2012, an intentional gathering of Contemplative Practices began to meet weekly, with 20-25 adults of various ages attending regularly.  Older adults with no previous ties to young families at BPC are now helping in our mid-week Logos program known as Rainbow. A new group for college age and older high school students has formed and plans to meet for study and fellowship during the year. Over two hundred people have a shared experience from the summer forging new or deeper relationships within the church community.  And yes, we even have new families visiting on Sunday morning as a result of their time spent at The Well.

This experience of The Well has reminded us of the surprising creativity, soul-full richness, and extravagant hospitality that is possible when we allow ourselves to be receptive to the refreshing guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We can only imagine what God will call us to in the future. Praise be to God!

Arlene Decina is the Director of Spiritual Growth Ministries at Burke Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia.

The Church That Is Becoming

by Barb Parker

Most of us are well aware – the church of today is a far cry from the church that was and, hopefully, what it is becoming.

connecting handsRegardless of the horizon, the reality of the present is that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is comprised of a growing number of small congregations that are often served by part-time/bi-vocational pastoral leadership. For a variety of reasons, many of our congregations are often unable to call and keep effective pastoral leadership to guide the congregation in carrying out Christ’s mission in the world. Pastors in all kinds of settings (full-time, part time, congregations large and small) often express feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Keeping all this in mind and with foresight to the future, the Partners in Ministry Program was created to support pastoral ministry. This is its stated goal:

To strengthen the life and witness of congregations by helping to nurture effective pastoral leadership and to equip participating pastors for lifetimes of faithful service as pastors within the Presbyterian Church (USA).

To provide:

individual mentoring, as needed

opportunities for peer sharing/support/discussion

learning experiences determined by pastor participants

Here’s How It Works

Partners in Ministry (PIM) is funded through an endowment at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. Currently it is in partnership with Whitewater Valley Presbytery, although we hope to expand in the future to include the other two presbyteries in Indiana – Ohio Valley and Wabash Valley presbyteries.

Two small pastor groups meet monthly over lunch or brunch, provided by the program. One group meets in the Ft. Wayne/ Decatur area in the northeast part of the state. The other group is comprised of pastors from Indianapolis and west. I also meet with two pastors on an individual basis.

Both groups continue to grow in number, and it is my hope that we will begin to meet more often. PIM is also looking down the road at a pastor/family seminar/fellowship weekend, but that can be the topic of some future blog!

What We’re Becoming

As I look back over the past year, the pastor participants and I are grateful for the foresight of those who created the idea of PIM. Members of both groups have expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to be together with colleagues in a safe and confidential setting in which they can express personal joys and concerns, honestly share whatever is on their minds and hearts, ask questions and learn from each other, and enjoy having fellowship and fun with fellow pastors.

What has been most energizing? It has been terribly exciting to watch the groups gel with each other – even as new people join the group. Our groups include some who have been wounded in previous calls. What joy to watch them as they begin to engage openly and honestly with colleagues.

I have learned a great deal over the course of the past year. I’ve learned that all these folks are dedicated to giving their best, regardless of their position. They all have a strong sense of call and are ever so faithful. Sometimes, it takes just a kernel of an idea, put out by any one of us in the group, to nurture a fantastic and doable idea that can be built into something quite extraordinary in the life of the congregations, who seek to be the hands and feet of Christ in their communities.

Jesus gathered his disciples around him and then sent them out into the community in pairs. Yet, to be a pastor in today’s church so often means ministering in a lonely and isolated environment.  PIM seeks to support and nurture pastoral leadership as we move into the church that is becoming.

Barb Dec 12Barb Parker wears many hats: wife, mother and grandmother … teacher, pastor and now part-time Director of the Partners in Ministry Program. She pastored an incredible congregation (Wheatland Presbyterian in Plainfield, IL) for 9 years and served on COM for 6 years. When she next finds a few moments, she’s going to start learning to play her new banjo.   

Being the Church in the World

By Robert Austell

I have heard a long list of ideas, critiques, strategies, models, and more about problems and solutions for the ailing Church. I’m all for strategic thinking, clever communication, and the next great thing, but in God’s grace, here’s something God stirred up with us not too long ago:

Let’s do what we’ve been doing faithfully for so long and let’s do it out there where our neighbors live.

We stopped and took a good, hard look at what being the church had been for us. We sent money and teams out for missions and service (and still do); but that was far away, even in the city where we live. Who was being the Church – being the body of Christ – to OUR neighbors… the literal ones?

There are three main neighborhoods on the street where our church is located. One large, winding neighborhood has about 1000 homes. Two other neighborhoods have about 500 each. That’s all off of our one-mile stretch of secondary road.  That’s about 10,000 people. There is one elementary school, one housing project, one apartment complex, two men’s group homes, four churches, a bus park ‘n’ ride (in OUR parking lot), and a shopping center. And 10,000 people!… sending kids to school there, shopping there, walking their dog there, driving by our church at least twice a day coming and going, making their home right there.

For a generation, we had been a Bible-studying, worship-loving, mission-sending, service-supporting, FRIENDLY congregation that gathered once or twice a week inside our building to draw near to God.

Anybody see the problem? Anybody see the OPPORTUNITY? We finally did.

The Wednesday Night Experiment

I told them we’d just give it a try. For goodness sake, we had dedicated every Wednesday night in January for the last 8 years STUDYING evangelism. And I wasn’t even asking for that. I just asked the sermon study group to have their same meeting down the street at the bookstore in the shopping center. I asked the group that was sharing prayer requests to go spend the first 30 min. of their time sharing requests while walking around the neighborhood. Another group went to the coffee shop down the street. “No assignment,” I said. “Just go do what you would have done here and do it there, and see if anything different happens.”

“Do we have to identify ourselves as being from the church?” they asked.

“No; just go do this there and see if anything different happens.” (I did add that for purposes of the experiment we would not take Bibles or circle up for prayer in the middle of the store or coffeeshop… didn’t want to just move “the walls” there.) I told them we’d just try it for 3-4 weeks and then come back to talk about it.

From the very first week and every week afterward, SOMETHING has happened. A server shared about a sick sister and asked for prayer. The coffee shop manager asked if we had any musicians who could do live, folky music (yes!). The book club decided to put a notice on the Internet about their neighborhood meeting and doubled interest and participation within a week. And I could go on and on!

What’s the point? Well several…

  1. NONE of those encounters – which turned into relationships – would have happened if we had continued having the sermon discussion, the prayer group, and the book club in the classrooms of the church. The groups would have studied and talked just as hard, but done so isolated from the neighbors – Church OUT OF the world. (Jesus prayed against this in John 17!)
  2. While the specifics are particular to us, the principle is not; we took what we were already good at and passionate about, and we took it outside the walls of the church – Church IN the world. (Jesus prayed about this, too!)
  3. It has dramatically changed how we understand “Church” and continues to unfold in ways we could not have imagined.

We’ve continued to ask the questions – now expanded far beyond Wednesday nights to everything we do: What does it mean for us to be the Church in the World?

Robert Austell has served as pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC, since 2002. He is active in the life of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and is an active blogger at, where he writes about being the church in the world. He is also an accomplished musician and technophile, and loves integrating those two interests with ministry.

Photo credit: shutterstock/djem

I Saw Those Eyes and I Just Knew That I Knew You

ROSMY_CMYK_small2By Jessica Rathbun-Cook

During my last year of seminary I had the opportunity to intern with an organization called ROSMY that serves LGBTQ youth, ages 12-20. Since that time, I’ve continued to volunteer in various capacities, and often think the way in which ROSMY’s staff and volunteers embody the organization’s simple goal of “helping youth be themselves” would serve as a powerful model for the Church. I am constantly amazed and inspired by the transformation that comes as youth are given the tools to explore and articulate who they are, and know that they are honored and respected no matter the baggage they carry or the scars they bear when they come in. Every day the cinder-block building that houses the organization becomes a sacred space where lives are transformed through conversations that offer the youth something that many of them cannot find anywhere else: the opportunity to belong.

I recently attended ROSMY’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner, where folks who serve with ROSMY are given free food and a big “Thank You” from the staff. I was sitting at a table enjoying a meal and conversation with a handful of regular group facilitators who help lead conversations at any one of several programs that go on throughout the week. Included at the table was Betsy, a 64-year-old former drama teacher who, I would soon learn, has been volunteering with ROSMY since 2001. At some point a relatively new facilitator, Justin, approached an empty seat at the table and asked if he could join us. As we went around and did our introductions, Betsy’s face lit up with a flash of recognition and excitement. Their words were muddled together as Betsy and Justin embraced in a joyful hug. As it turns out, Justin was one of ROSMY’s youth a decade ago, and Betsy was one of his facilitators.

“Oh gosh, it’s good to see you,” Betsy said. “I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you.” The moment blew me away. Given the number of youth that come in and out of ROSMY’s doors in any given year, and that Betsy has been there for over a decade, it’s a safe bet that she’s led conversations with hundreds, if not thousands of teenagers during her time as a facilitator. I was humbled by the level of respect she gives the youth, by how very present she must be at every conversation to be able to recognize someone, even after a decade apart.

I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you.

In the midst of a world that is largely unkind and a Church that moves between antagonistic, indifferent, and complacently silent, ROSMY offers LGBTQ youth a chance to to be honored, heard and known. ROSMY’s approach is pretty straightforward: create a space for people to articulate who they understand themselves to be, give them the opportunity to safely explore that identity, and celebrate the diversity of personalities that make a community unique. This simple act spurs transformation, enabling youth to empathize with one another, to hold each other accountable, and to honor every person who comes through the door. Time and again, youth come to ROSMY and bloom, empowered through a process of self-discovery to open up to the world around them, building friendships with one another and serving as leaders and mentors for new youth who come in. The community that is built provides a foundation not only for individuals, but also for future leaders. A number of youth, like Justin, come back as facilitators, offering not only support, but also a model of life beyond the current muck many are trudging through, as if to say: “Yes, I have been where you are, and I know it’s tough, that it sometimes feels unbearably painful; but, know that you are not alone.”

What might the Church be like if we used ROSMY’s model as an approach to ministry? What would happen if we focused first and foremost on making a space where all people knew that they were welcomed, honored, and loved – that it was safe to show their scars, to bear one another’s burdens? Would giving each other the space to articulate who we understand ourselves to be give way to empathy, trust, and accountability, and community building? What might the church be like if we look each other in the eyes often enough that, even after a decade apart, we might see one another and be able to say, “I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you”?

ROSMY’s website can be found at

Jessica Rathbun-Cook blogs regularly at