Holistic Nurture

medium_29174074By Loren Tate Mitchell

The church of the future should look much like the church of the past in my opinion. Let’s take it back to basics. The church was not about a building, it was not about how many programs were offered or even how many people were in the seats during worship. The church was about relationships, nurturing one another through both the good times and the bad.

This is actually something that Appomattox Court House Presbyterian Church does very well; and so, I lift up our model to you, not as the ultimate way of doing things, but as an example of being authentic in a way that works for us. I cannot take credit for many of the ways that this congregation cares for one another, as many of their methods were in place long before I arrived.

Our congregation has what we call a family ministry. Each month a different person or family is responsible for it. If anyone falls ill, is recovering from a recent surgery, is grieving a loss, or in the best of circumstances celebrating a joy; the family ministry reaches out to them through personal contact. This contact may be a card, phone call, or visit. They might send flowers or organize meals on behalf of the congregation. Any care that is given is documented and passed on each month. In this way the caregivers can see who has been cared for and if any follow up is needed.

We also have a member who sends everyone birthday cards on behalf of the church. I am sure many churches do this. It seems so simple but I think that the theology behind it speaks volumes. The gesture says, “Beloved Child of God, we are so thankful that you were born!”

In the past few years our Nurture Committee has really stepped it up a notch. The committee seeks to care for the wellness of our members in body, mind, and spirit. We meet regularly and identify the folks who need extra love. We then make efforts to call or visit with them. The committee may organize meal delivery or provide rides for people who are unable to drive. Currently, our chair and his wife take goody baskets to our shut-ins about twice a year, and their visits are highly anticipated among the members!

One of my favorite projects has been sending care packages to our college students. The first time we did this we had so many gifts to send to the students we had to purchase bigger boxes to mail them! We had such a positive response from our college students who were reassured that they are not forgotten.

We have joined with the local hospital system to facilitate a Congregational Health Program. The congregation took surveys to discern what health concerns we may have and discussed ways we might combat these issues. We have formed walking programs such as a Walk to Jerusalem and the ACHPC World Tour. We tally our mileage as a congregation to promote exercise. Every so often, we go on walking field trips together. Rather than having a Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper last year, we had a Non-Fat Tuesday fellowship dinner. We shared healthy dishes and were invited to exchange recipes. Not only did we eat well, but we spent quality time together around the table.

We rally around growing families as well! We don’t have many children in our congregation so it is a joy to have little ones being born! We host showers for expecting parents, and this is not just for the women. Everyone is invited. The most thoughtful gifts we give however, are delivering meals to the family for several weeks after the baby comes home.

For many members here, it is the loving relationships expressed through acts of care that define our congregation. It is not that we have a lot of people in attendance, or that we have an activity every night of the week; rather the knowledge that, if you have a need for prayer, for assistance, or for people with whom you can celebrate, these are the people who will rally around you. Such nurture for the whole person is a beautiful aspect of a holy community.

Loren Tate Mitchell serves as teaching elder at Appomattox Presbyterian Church in Appomattox, Virginia. She blogs at

stained glass window photo credit: drp via photopin cc

Fixing What’s (Not?) Broken

By MaryAnn McKibben Dana


One of the guiding principles of NEXT Church is a focus on healthy congregations. That’s what drives us, rather than an ideological or theological agenda. A big part of our focus is to identify, celebrate and support places of health in our denomination so that they can propagate.

But what does health look like? How do we know it when we see it? And what about churches that are currently struggling?

As a co-chair of NEXT Church, this is something our strategy team thinks about a lot. I think we all know (or serve) churches that are struggling, but that have a lot of potential—potential to transform, potential to be a vibrant witness to Jesus Christ in their neighborhood, potential to grow in depth or breadth of ministry. Maybe they need a little inspiration, or some hopeful connection with colleagues, or a burst of energy and new ideas that comes from, say, a kick-butt conference.

But we also know that countless churches will close their doors over the next several decades. In many presbyteries, church property is sold and the proceeds go to fund new church developments and other emerging ministries. In National Capital Presbytery, where I serve, such a fund is aptly and poignantly named the Resurrection Fund.

But what can we learn from these churches that close? And more specifically, what can we learn that will help churches that have potential but may be in danger of closing?

I recently read about survivorship bias at one of my favorite blogs, You Are Not So Smart, which challenges conventional wisdom on all sorts of topics. Here it is in a nutshell:

The Misconception: You should study the successful if you wish to become successful.

The Truth: When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.

You can read the whole (long!!) post at this link, but here’s the bit that stuck out to me. During World War II, the U.S. military sought to make their planes as bullet-proof as possible:

The military looked at the bombers that had returned from enemy territory. They recorded where those planes had taken the most damage. Over and over again, they saw the bullet holes tended to accumulate along the wings, around the tail gunner, and down the center of the body. Wings. Body. Tail gunner. Considering this information, where would you put the extra armor? Naturally, the commanders wanted to put the thicker protection where they could clearly see the most damage, where the holes clustered. But [statistician Abraham] Wald said no, that would be precisely the wrong decision. Putting the armor there wouldn’t improve their chances at all. 

Do you understand why it was a foolish idea? The mistake, which Wald saw instantly, was that the holes showed where the planes were strongest. The holes showed where a bomber could be shot and still survive the flight home, Wald explained. After all, here they were, holes and all. It was the planes that weren’t there that needed extra protection, and they had needed it in places that these planes had not. The holes in the surviving planes actually revealed the locations that needed the least additional armor. Look at where the survivors are unharmed, he said, and that’s where these bombers are most vulnerable; that’s where the planes that didn’t make it back were hit.

I still think that NEXT is right in its focus on congregational potential and health. But this article leads me to wonder about the “airplanes” that don’t make it:

  • What can we learn about ministry from people who are not in ministry anymore?
  • How would our neighbors describe and interpret the mission of our churches? What do people who don’t attend church think the purpose of the church is? Or should be?
  • How can we glean the insights of churches that close in a way that moves beyond lament (which is important, of course) and into vital information that builds up the body of Christ?

The article continues:

Colleges and conferences prefer speakers who shine as examples of making it through adversity, of struggling against the odds and winning. The problem here is that you rarely take away from these inspirational figures advice on what not to do, on what you should avoid, and that’s because they don’t know. Information like that is lost along with the people who don’t make it out of bad situations or who don’t make it on the cover of business magazines – people who don’t get invited to speak at graduations and commencements and inaugurations.

Some years ago the session of the church I served had an off-site retreat at another church in the area. I invited a member of the other church to talk to my ruling elders about some exciting new endeavors underway there. Unbeknownst to me, however, these plans had turned sour due to some missteps along the way. The person’s presentation turned out to be a postmortem about everything that had gone wrong. I left the retreat feeling uneasy that I had subjected them to such a buzzkill of a presentation. But the session found it fascinating and helpful… and even oddly hopeful! They still talk about that presentation years later.

Rather than scare them away from trying anything new, it gave them concrete information they could use and pitfalls to avoid. They were deeply thankful to this fellow traveler who took a chance in sharing a story of “failure” and vulnerability.

Where do you see survivorship bias at work?

And how might the NEXT Church combat it?

MamdMaryAnn McKibben Dana is co-chair of NEXT Church. She is author of numerous articles and essays and the book Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time, published through Chalice Press. Connect with her at The Blue Room.

photo credit: gbaku via photopin cc