Ministry from North to South

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Susan Young Thornton is curating a series highlighting ministry on the Pacific coast — a diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex part of the country, and home to our upcoming 2019 National Gathering. We’ll hear from individuals serving in a variety of ministry settings about the struggles and blessings of living into God’s call on the West Coast. What is it really like to serve in this region? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Karen Claassen

More than 2 decades ago I said to my spouse, “How could we not raise our daughter in a place that talks about bald eagles like city people talk about pigeons?” This sentiment sums up my experience of ministry in the West. Alaska, Washington, the greater Los Angeles megalopolis…these have been my stomping grounds. All are larger than life.

The communal faith life in these places is tenuous. Sometimes demographics just don’t fit denominational goals. Sometimes the local way of life works against the imposed model of church. Sometimes the flaws in the context undermine engagement. What do I mean?

Six months after ordination, at my first COM meeting, I asked, “Why are you considering closing that church?” The conversation that ensued shaped my next twenty-plus years in PCUSA ministry. Why this church and not that church? Did numbers matter? Which number mattered more: people in the building on Sunday morning or churches in the community?

If a PCUSA congregation was the only faith gathering in a small place, why would the presbytery close the church? (Or really, shut down the building? No outsider can “close” the church; it would just move to someone’s living room.) Because some city person says the town or congregation is too small? How small is too small to deserve an organized, connectional gathered community? What happened to “Where two or three gather in my name, I am there with them”?

The little church we discussed at that first COM meeting was in an Alaskan village whose population fluctuated from 200 to 350 people, depending on the season. Five years after that conversation, 80 attended Easter worship. 25-40% of the town was in the worship service. How many churches can say that? How do we measure success and viability in such a situation? That is ministry in much of the Western half of the United States: small congregations serving remote communities, often as the only organized representative of Christ.

Then there is the challenge of always meeting on Sundays. In the Pacific Northwest, subsistence or recreation or work consume the weekend. How is a congregation to gather if the people are scattered? Perhaps the answer lies, as one PCUSA church found, in running a Thursday night service during the summer that exactly mirrored the Sunday morning service. It was so successful for three summers that it became a permanent, year-round offering. Washington hunters deserve to gather for worship too.

Imagine my surprise my first three-day weekend after moving to Los Angeles. I planned for low numbers, constructing a beautiful, intimate, interactive experience that could not be done on a Sunday with the regular attendance. But the context had changed. A three-day weekend in Southern California offers time to get a lot of chores done and light traffic, so the worship service becomes a priority. There were MORE people than usual. It wrecked my plans and reminded me of the importance of understanding where I minister.

Each place I served is different. And yet, all my Western service, regardless of the locale, the communal faith life has proven tenuous. None of those areas could boast even a 30% church rate among the population. Each is a mission field that requires creativity and tenacity — and the ability to not lose one’s temper when someone from Louisville or Philadelphia calls at 5:00 or 6:00 AM, “the start of the business day.”

Karen Claassen has served congregations in four states and six presbyteries for the past 20 years, helping people encounter and love the Spirit more intensely. She constantly explores changing modes of discipleship and outreach in the 21st century in order to live her zeal for equipping Christians and encouraging congregations into a brighter future.

Unexpected Learning

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Susan Young Thornton is curating a series highlighting ministry on the Pacific coast — a diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex part of the country, and home to our upcoming 2019 National Gathering. We’ll hear from individuals serving in a variety of ministry settings about the struggles and blessings of living into God’s call on the West Coast. What is it really like to serve in this region? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Candie Blankman

A woman was visiting some very good friends of mine and they brought her to worship. My friend had told me that this woman was largely un-churched. Her father was an atheist, a controlling husband who forbid his wife to bring her and her brother to church. Knowing this, I was very curious about how this woman experienced our worship service. When I asked her what she thought, she responded surprisingly fast. “Kind of preachy,” she said.

I was taken aback, to say the least. I am a preacher. She was a guest in a gathering where preaching is the centerpiece of the service. My insecure, autopilot, preachy self almost kicked in. Somehow, the Spirit of God prevented me. I suddenly realized that this woman may have a whole lot to teach me. In a moment of spiritual openness I realized this woman was the kind of person that the church — disciples — was given the Holy Spirit to go and proclaim the good news to. I wanted to hear about what that was like.

We connected via email to begin a conversation where I was the student and she was the teacher. I told her I wanted to learn from her “un-churched” experience. She was very receptive. She said she had wanted to talk to someone about her experience related to the church and faith for a very long time. So often as Christians we are so afraid of offending people. We are so sure they are so hostile or so uninterested that we don’t even bother to try and have a conversation. I have learned this is hardly ever the case. When I approach others with honest curiosity about their experience and take time to listen, they are not offended or put off. They are eager to talk.

This woman had more “church” in her than I could have ever imagined. Her mother was a Christian and had an uncle who was a Methodist minister. She doesn’t remember exactly when it was but she described the event in vivid detail. Her mother took her and her brother to a forest preserve near where they lived. The Methodist minister came along. In a small clearing in the woods was an old bird bath. There in the middle of the forest preserve with the only other witnesses being birds and ground squirrels who lived there, in the birdbath, the Methodist minister baptized her and her brother. Yes. You read that right. She and her brother were baptized in a birdbath in the woods.

I was without words, a rare occasion for me. The silence lasted long enough that she finally broke it with a question. “Does that count?” she asked. More silence. But now it was not silence caused by surprise. It was silence caused by awe. Finally, I realized she was interpreting my silence as disapproval. I broke the silence with an excited and enthusiastic, “Does that count?! Does that count?! That is one of the most powerful baptism stories I have ever heard!”

And that was not the beginning or the end of her story. I have learned so much from her. And I do not know it all yet! But what started out as a seemingly judgmental response about preaching turned into the opportunity of a lifetime to learn how God was at work in the life of another person who had spent very little time inside a church. I have since learned to listen more carefully, respond much less quickly, and ask as many questions as a person will tolerate. I have since learned many more lessons from the most unexpected people about how God is about the business of calling to people to experience his love and grace and mercy. And, I have learned that sometimes I am being called on to be a part of that work and sometimes I am just the student learning how it has been done. Funny thing is I think that learning this has also made me a better preacher. Ha! Who knew?!

Candie Blankman is Minister of Discipleship and Care at San Clemente Presbyterian Church in San Clemente, CA. You can visit her website to learn how this and other similar conversations have become a congregation wide ministry of listening, learning and presence called Groundings.

From These Roots: Finding the Herstory in the History

At St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA, pastor Mark Davis and his congregation are following a theme during Advent called “From These Roots.” Each week, they focus on a different #herstory about Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, the four women named in Matthew’s genealogy. Here is Mark’s explanation of the series.

Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy of forty-two generations, from Abraham to Jesus. Some of the names in that genealogy offer glimpse of who Jesus is, even before the birth narrative itself. There are some obvious candidates, starting with Abraham, with whom God made the covenant (Genesis 12:1-3). There’s also Judah, called a “lion” and a “lioness” by his father Israel, from whose tribe one would emerge bearing a scepter and staff (Genesis 49:8-12). And while King David’s stock has a lot of meaning in itself, the genealogy identifies David as the son of Jesse, bringing to mind Isaiah’s great promise, “A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1-3) In the end, the point of Matthew’s genealogy is less about history and more about theology, bringing to life the storied promises of the past.

There are some names in the genealogy whose stories may be less well known, but worth remembering during the season of Advent. Within the genealogy of forty-two males, there are also four women, three of whom are named and one of whom is not. One idea for Advent would be to devote one Sunday to each of these women, to hear their backstories, and to listen for how their stories also shape the theological identity of the one who is born out of this lineage.

First, there’s Tamar. The genealogy reads that Judah was “the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar.” At first glance, it reads like a wholesome nuclear family of Daddy, Mommy, and the twins. The backstory, in Genesis 28, presents quite a different portrait, since Tamar is not Judah’s spouse but his daughter-in-law. In the end, Tamar’s story is a tragic and valiant story of a woman who is caught in a patriarchal system, denied justice by Judah on whom she is dependent within that system, blamed for the deaths of her first two husbands even though the narrator clearly lays the blame on their own sinfulness and God’s punishment, and who must exact her own bit of justice by risking her life and selling her body.

Next there is Rahab, the Mata Hari of the ancient near east. Rahab’s backstory begins in the 2nd chapter of Joshua and is completed in the 6th chapter. She was a sex trade worker living in the city of Jericho when Israel sent two spies to scope out the city before attacking it. She lied, she betrayed her own people, and she hid the spies before helping them escape – because she recognized God’s hand in it. Now viewed as a paragon of faith, Rahab survived the battle of Jericho and returns in Matthew’s genealogy as the great-great grandmother of King David.

Then, there’s Ruth. As the great-grandmother of King David, Ruth has an entire book devoted to her story. It begins with tragedy and turns when Ruth makes the compassionate decision not to abandon her mother-in-law to survive widowhood on her own. Compassionate, beautiful, and clever, Ruth becomes the second foreigner to become part of this family tree.

And then there’s the unnamed woman, described in the line, “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” Raped by King David, who then has her husband murdered and takes her into his palace to display his royal chivalry, Bathsheba’s story is the ultimate #metoo story. Even in the genealogy, her name is omitted and her identity absorbed into the three men who shaped her life. Yet, Bathsheba survives and ultimately ensures that her son becomes the next king after David’s death. Bathsheba’s story is a story of survival and power.

Imagine the difference it makes to remember that when Jesus is born he has Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba’s DNA running through his veins. Imagine the difference it makes to let the story of these women shape the theological identity of who this Messiah is, what the represents, and how he comes to save us.

In addition, Mark’s church put up an art installation to accompany the series and season (pictured here). A photo of the installation is on the bulletin cover each week. Mark also wrote a song called “From These Roots” that they’ve used as the prayer of illumination each week.

Ministry on the Pacific Coast

by Susan Young-Thornton

The first image that comes to mind when hearing “the Pacific Coast” is one of Beach-Boy-sunny-shores, surfers, bikini-clad sunbathers, and children building sand castles. But there is so much more.

The U. S. Pacific Coast stretches from sun-drenched San Diego to Alaska’s frigid Aleutian Islands. The territory in between is as varied as these two extremes suggest: America’s hot spot, Death Valley; the deep blue waters of Lake Tahoe; the snow-capped volcanic mountains of Oregon and Washington; the mighty, electricity-producing waters of the Columbia River; the life-sustaining, food-producing soil of California’s Central Valley; Redwood forests and gigantic Sequoias. Pull out your atlas and explore God’s infinitely creative imagination.

Photo from Los Ranchos Presbytery Facebook page.

The communities that have arisen in this landscape are equally diverse: crowded, traffic-jammed cities; planned suburbs; small towns; one stop-sign rural villages; family farms; and large scale agri-business enterprises. Imagine the multiple interests, needs, and conflicting opinions of the inhabitants of glamorous Hollywood; innovative Silicon Valley; artsy, foodie Portland; fire-ravaged Paradise; tech giant Seattle; bucolic college towns; the threatened Arctic tundra; sprawling national parks and forests; and the manicured lawns of master-planned Irvine.

The Chumash, Washoe, Umpqua, Chelan, Skokomish, Aleut, Haida, and their hundreds of indigenous people cousins were joined in this land by successive waves of immigrants from around the globe. Some came as explorers and conquerors, some as settlers, some to satisfy the endless need for cheap labor. Others migrated to settle farms, rush for gold, escape persecution, find adventure, study the natural wonders, flee the dust bowl, seek employment when rust belt factories closed, bask in the warmth of sunnier skies, and to seek asylum from the horrors of war, violence, natural disasters, famine, and disease.

The people differ across this vast expanse. Their needs are unique to their context and also universal. Great diversity can be found within small communities. A case in point is Orange County, California. This 948 square mile county, located on the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego, ranges from sea level to 5,690 feet in elevation and is inhabited by 3.19 million people. Its namesake orange groves are all but extinct, replaced by Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, luxurious resorts, single-family homes, condo complexes, apartment buildings, huge shopping centers, strip malls, and freeways. The county is a mix of older cities with quaint downtowns, newer cities with gleaming high-rises, street corners populated with sign-holding homeless, now-banned riverbed tent cities, McMansions, and sprawling suburbs.

The population hails from every corner of the earth and is now 44% non-Hispanic white. The non-white majority includes Hispanic and Latinx from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. One in five people are of Asian origin, hailing from Korea, Japan, China, the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Laos, plus the largest concentration of people of Vietnamese heritage outside Vietnam. Persons of African heritage are approximately 2% of the population. Orange County, the birthplace of the John Birch Society, has just elected Democrats to all 8 of its U.S. House seats.

The presbytery of Los Ranchos, which encompasses all of Orange County and a pie-shaped slice of an equally diverse Los Angeles County, ministers in this complex, confusing, multi-lingual, culture-rich environment. Its churches and their members are neighbors to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, Wiccans, the spiritual but not religious, agnostics, and atheists. Worship services are conducted in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Swahili, Khmer, and English.

What is true for Orange County and Los Ranchos is also true for the entire Pacific Coast region. It is diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex. The work of the church is the same as it has always been – to speak a word of hope, to work for justice, to embody the love of God to all people. This holy work takes many forms inside church buildings and on the streets. The struggle and the blessing of living into God’s Kin-dom in this region is an ongoing story to be shared with you by those in the trenches in this month’s blog series. Join us.

Susan Young-Thornton serves as the Spiritual Formation Consultant to the Presbytery of Los Ranchos.