The Art of Pastoring a Post-Split Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Cathi King

It’s a process… this coming back to life thing. It doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen without hiccups and bumps and frustrations. It most certainly doesn’t happen without the breath of God – for that’s how life started in the first place.

On May 15, 2012, First Presbyterian Tecumseh Michigan was declared in schism. Friendships severed. Families chose sides. Businesses lost long-standing customers. The whole town suffered. One of our parishioners described it as the most painful thing he’s ever experienced – harder than his cancer diagnosis and the death of a family member. It shredded his heart.

I became pastor to this church in December 2013. I followed a short-term interim but wounds were still fresh. I’ve listened to lots of stories.

At the 2015 NEXT Church National Gathering, I co-facilitated a round-table for pastors of post-split churches and it was amazing how similar our experiences were: tremendous joys… complicated dynamics. It’s like pastoring a new church development with a building and a history: flexible, exciting, fresh yet at times triggered and taunted by a past it can’t quite shake. Because no matter how much we want to move on, and we are moving on, our past shapes us.

Our past shapes our mission. Many who lived through the split talk of feeling judged, marginalized and exiled from the church they once knew and loved. They know the pain of the voiceless and isolated and they are relentless in their determination to be gracious, hospitable and healing. This passion has led the church into two particular areas of ministry.

Invisible City: a 3-day annual local intergenerational mission event to come alongside our neighbors in need.

Bent al-Reef Women’s Empowerment Center: Through an Israel Palestine Mission Network grant from the PCUSA, we funded a cookbook story sharing project, giving voice to the women of a small village in the West Bank.  

Our past informs how we live together into the future. A former culture of secrecy, inner and outer circles, and compromised trust lead us to be intentional in our communication. We create safe spaces for anything to be discussed. We incorporate listening sessions to invite every voice. Using our own current case studies, we explore how to practice love, forgiveness and honesty more fully.

Our past influences our liturgical practices. Committed to reconciliation, our passing of the peace is warm, energetic and contagious. People leap from their seats to move across the room, embracing, introducing and ever-widening the circle of grace. Our services are highly participatory, giving people of all ages and abilities opportunities to engage.

Our past makes way for new life. An increasing number of new members did not live through or do not know about the split. This may be one of the greatest challenges. During a time of schism, people dig in and pick up the rope wherever they can. Moving from surviving to thriving requires accommodation of new gifts and ideas and a willingness to welcome new people to the team.

Can these bones live?  I asked in my Pentecost sermon of 2015. I told the story of Ezekiel 37 using photos of our church.

The valley of dry bones showed pictures of old multi-media equipment no longer used, children’s chairs stacked in an empty classroom, stairs to a locked youth room.

dry bones1 dry bones2 dry bones3

 

 

As the story unfolded and bone attached to bone, I showed photos of rooms and spaces being repurposed. Gathering spaces becoming small chapels and prayer circles, a new outdoor worship tent, a former media closet now a worship loft for children.

dry bones4 dry bones5 dry bones6

I closed the sermon by asking everyone:

As a church we are_______

As a church we are becoming________

We collected their answers during a hymn and session took turns reading each one aloud from the front of the church:

We are family… we are committed… we are growing… we are caring… we are united…

We are becoming more faithful… more inclusive… more diverse… more open… more loving…

Can these bones live? O Lord God, you know. By the power of the Spirit… the breath of God… let it be.


11Cathi King is a native Michigander. After 11 years in corporate management, Cathi pursued a Master of Divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary. Ordained in 2005, Cathi served as Associate Pastor at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor for 8 years before going to Tecumseh in 2013.  She and her husband Andy live with their two children Alex and Courtney, their golden retriever Zeus, farm cats Jax and Brady, chickens, guineas and bees in Tipton, Michigan.