Old Church, Dying City, New Energy

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Karen Sapio has been curating a conversation around ministry in long established congregations. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Sandy TiceSlide1

Confession: I am old enough that I prefer paper to screens, I fumble with my phone, and feel shy about my ‘old school’ formation in ministry. Still, I try to do new stuff.

I serve a church smack in the middle of a very troubled city.  This church is 140 years old, (which is VERY old in California!)  We can remember when we were the tall-steeple church, when those who wanted to run for public office joined as a way to get to know influential people. For 25 years, a number of crises have plagued our city: the departure of the 3 biggest employers, poor elected leadership, increasing poverty, and most recently, bankruptcy. I say this so you understand that this congregation knows about big buildings that no longer feel full, about the aging and death of key leaders, about ‘glory days’ of dramatic productions and comfortable budgets and bigger staff. Still, they are brave and creative, believing God is too.

A couple of years ago, a seminary student wandered in and asked to do some work. Someone had told him this was a place where “he could learn a lot” (?!?).  In response to his request, the Session created a seminary internship.  And then I heard someone say, “How come you have to be in seminary to do an internship??”  I thought the question was fascinating, a good doorway to understanding parity between ruling and teaching elders. As a way of inviting the Session to discuss our polity, I created a ‘job description’ for a 12:7 Intern (named after the verse in 1 Corinthians which affirms that every one is given a gift of the Spirit for the common good.)  I meant it as an example to provoke discussion, but they startled me by asking if they could actually approve this concept and invite applicants!

The purpose of the internship is twofold:

  • To equip members of the community for ministry so they can discover joy in responding to God’s call, AND
  • To strengthen the congregation by developing leaders and creating a culture of learning and growth.

The internship takes place over an academic year, and provides a chance to learn a specific skill or develop a new understanding by engaging in hands-on ministry, a study component, participation in staff meetings, a personal pattern of regular prayer & worship, and weekly theological reflection with the pastor.

Interested persons could submit a proposal describing their sense of call, and the project or skill they wanted to undertake or develop. I was startled again when we received not one, but TWO applicants!  Could we afford to give a stipend to each? Could we afford not to?  Our first two applicants were women, both raised in traditions that did not affirm women’s ordination. To be given a seat at staff meeting and have their names listed on the bulletin was deeply significant to them. One worked on creatively integrating kids as leaders in worship, the other on creating a new partnership with the struggling high school across the street. They frequently ate lunch with the seminary intern. It was full of grace and surprises for all of us.

It didn’t all go as planned. For one thing, though we did regular theological reflection, we never made it through our chosen ‘text’.  (Never made it past the first chapter…) It also took more time to supervise than I had budgeted, so adjustments had to be made.  When we arrived at the end of the internships, we found ourselves asking significant “now what?” questions to determine whether the projects came to an end or took on a life of their own.  Another surprise: at the end of the year, both interns wanted to do second internships, and created new projects, which the Session again affirmed.  One of the best things was having them describe where God had met them in their experiences on Intern Sunday in May – a chance for all of us to be delighted and astonished.

And now, midway through the second year, another young adult has created a position for herself that she calls “social media intern”, creating for us a presence on Twitter and Instagram, managing our Facebook page, and reaching out to the diaspora of young adults who grew up here but who live far away and don’t read newsletters. I love that I had to ask myself, “how do I supervise someone who is doing something I don’t know how to do?!” It’s an uncomfortable question, but it delights me – makes me think we are learning something.

My favorite thing about this has been the spirit of ‘let’s try it!’ that has surfaced.  People have wondered aloud if there is an upper age limit for interns. And other questions: can interns preach? How much work can be done in the office and how much from home? Can someone serve as an officer while being an intern? Session has been tickled that this un-planned thing has been so fruitful – their adventuresome spirit and trust in God has been rewarded. And bits of joy have trickled into other areas: new habits with kids in worship, new adults involved at the high school- and me, with a Twitter account!

But I still prefer paper.

sandySandy Tice is pastor of the brave and creative community at First Pres San Bernardino.