Notes From the Field #1 – Community Church

At CPC we were proud to say about ourselves that “Community Presbyterian is a small church with a big heart.” At the outset of this revitalization work, our coaches have challenged us to see ourselves in a different context:

“Community Presbyterian Church, while having a self-identity of being a small church, is, in fact, a larger-than-normal sized church.  The perception is that in the heyday the church had 400-450 members, and now the membership stands at 143.  First, that 143 reflects a clean roll.  Good job!  Second, you are averaging 109 in worship.  That is an incredibly high ratio when compared nationally.  Again, a dramatic sign of good health.  Third, 5-6 new members joined recently, and another 6 are expected to join in before the end of the year.  That is a 7-8% increase in membership annualized – a healthy growth rate.”


The fact that we are not considered a small church is a paradigm shift in our mindset.  Does it tell us what to do?  No, but it does cause us to think as we consider our role in the building of the kingdom of God in this community. Pastor Mike has referenced change and reform a lot in his recent sermons.  One statement was, “The world and our culture have changed and are changing radically – and we need to be open to the possibility that God is not threatened by that.”  Another crucial point Pastor Mike made recently: “God is still in charge!”

Change is not easy.  Retooling old programmatic efforts may not be the most effective approach for the future, but we think we have huge opportunity in our community and we need to explore that.  To that end, a Revitalization Team has been commissioned by Session to explore these opportunities, to engage all of us as a congregation, and to seek God’s will in this community.  Love, forgiveness, and community are why churches matter today.  We want to move forward to matter more!

Our Revitalization Team is a mix of long-term members, newer members, recent attendees and potential members and will look at opportunities with fresh eyes. Please pray for our work as we seek to see ourselves more clearly and be faithful to God’s vision for us in this day and place.

Notes From the Field #1 — Plaza

Editor’s Note: Periodically, we will be sharing “notes from the field” from Plaza and Community Church. We hope their experiences will help inform your own… Perhaps to shape your thinking, spark a new idea, lend some energy to tackle something new, or invite leaders in your community to reflect on a particular guiding question.

If this is the first you are hearing of this project, click here for the full introduction to this pilot program. If you missed the introduction to Plaza Church, click here

Notes from the Field #1 – Plaza

The summer at Plaza Presbyterian Church was refreshing, different, and energizing! We spent the summer exploring a number of church “practices” that have helped other congregations turn the corner to vibrant ministry. (Thanks to Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us for outlining these practices.) We have learned that there is no single path.

Last Spring we discovered that the air conditioning in the sanctuary was not working. Since every crisis is also an opportunity we took this one to move worship out of the sanctuary (a beautiful space that will seat at least 400) into a multi-purpose meeting room that will seat around seventy. With individual seats arranged “in the round” we’ve discovered how much we like being together, how we could recapture good times of fellowship, how helpful it is to be so close to the choir when they sing/pray with and for us, how we can be led in our singing in a variety of ways (piano, guitar, unaccompanied, as part of prayer, with poetry read between stanzas, and more).

Every week we worshiped at 10:00 a.m. and explored a practice together. We practiced and discussed it during Sunday school at 11:00. We left the church building for lunch at 11:45 to practice what we were learning.

We began with hospitality when we welcomed every worshiper with a cup of coffee or a bottle of water, a smile, a pastry, a tour of our summer worship space including a family bowl that became our baptismal font that first Sunday, a personal Bible represented the Word, a wooden chalice and platter served as reminder of the Lord’s Supper, and a small oil lamp was lighted with the flame of Pentecost’s Holy Spirit. Each week a different member brought the bowl and the Bible. Each week the waters of baptism welcomed us. Each week we gathered around the Word and sacraments.

Recognizing that we all want to find home we considered how some of us simply knew we were home when we first arrived, others had to learn our particular language, but all of us were seeking to become followers of Jesus Christ.

We discovered that when it came to the work of justice all of us had wanted to fund and build a Habitat house to begin our Second Century of service in 2007. But we didn’t know how different our reasons were until this summer. One group (among them some of our longtime members) thought we built the house to get a new family in our church. (That didn’t happen and was quite a disappointment for some.) Another group (among them our younger and newer members) said their rationale was because our community needs affordable housing and it was the “right thing” to do and they wanted a “hands on” experience in ministry. Gil Rendle’s The Multigenerational Congregation gave us a framework for recognizing such differences without having to change each others’ minds.

We entered shalom as we considered how important peace and harmony are for a people.

We found that we could pray in a variety of ways, using prayers printed and read in unison, lined out and repeated one section at a time, read responsively, and sung. We can even pray in silence encouraged with a variety of prompts, or none at all.

We have wondered about the place of testimony in our lives and whether what we have to share is something we want to include as part of our weekly worship.

We discovered that we don’t have to be alike for the church to prosper.

We’ve experienced God’s presence during our Sunday mornings together and we’ve reflected theologically, coming to the conclusion that we know something about what it means to think theologically. We even used a case study regarding the decision to exclude a hymn from the new hymnal because of theology. (Read the case study written for our Sunday School.)

This is written in September 2013. We have moved back into the Sanctuary for worship and resumed our old schedule: Sunday school begins again at 9:45; worship at 11:00. We’re taking some of what we did during the summer with us, though. Worship is still forty-five minutes in length. We are considering ways to make worship in the Sanctuary more intimate; we may even return to the Conference Room for worship on fifth Sundays. We are more creative. This Sunday, for example, the sermon will be incorporated in the Assurance of Pardon since it is about how we live in the world of God’s grace.

What’s NEXT? We’ll see.

Paracletos — Who Is Involved?

[First you’re hearing of Paracletos? Welcome! Read the introduction here.]

Paracletos LogoThe Two Congregations

Plaza Presbyterian Church is an urban-residential congregation located just outside uptown Charlotte, NC, in a rapidly changing community. Ours is a familiar story in the PC(USA):

  • From the heyday in 1958, with a peak membership of just over 1000, Plaza has experienced steady decline over the past five decades.
  • Our current worshiping congregation averages less than fifty on Sunday morning, with the average age well above sixty. There are a handful of younger families, with two teenagers and one young child in regular attendance. The majority of Plaza’s members are in retirement.
  • The pastor, Tom Tate, has been at Plaza for 25 years. Over the years strong relationships have developed between Tom and the congregation and we appreciate greatly his care and thoughtful sermons.
  • Sunday worship is traditional. The music program includes four paid soloists/section leaders.

Our church plant consists of three buildings constructed over a number of decades, in various stages of repair: A large gothic sanctuary with a fellowship hall below, facing the intersection; a two story office building, housing the church offices and a non-profit employment agency; a two story education building, housing a weekday school and community room. Of the three, the education building is in the best shape; the office building shows the most signs of aging.

Financially, Plaza faces a crisis. Current pledges and other offerings total just under $168,000 (with an average pledge of $3,300), with $32,000 of other income, toward a $250,000 budget, leaving a $50,000 shortfall that is being paid out of reserves (which currently total $330,000). Compounding the budget shortfall, the AC unit in the sanctuary has malfunctioned, requiring close to $50,000 in repairs.

In 2012 the Session projected that if current expenses did not change the congregation’s level of funding could be sustained for only five more years. A series of congregational lunch meetings were held to face this reality and talk about future. Here’s some of what we uncovered:

  • There is a certain amount of wistfulness and frustration among us. Older members remember when the sanctuary was full, with Sunday School and youth groups thriving. Even though this has not been the case in many years, for many it is still the model of a healthy congregation.
  • As the neighborhood around us has changed and many church families moved out of the immediate community, we have a less organic relationship with the surrounding neighborhood. In recent years, many areas of the nearby community have experienced gentrification, with younger, more affluent residents. The congregation has not figured out how to connect successfully with this changing reality around them.
  • Over the years, we have been involved in a variety of community outreach efforts, including active involvement in local Habitat for Humanity.
  • The big question before us is this: Are our best years behind us, or do we still have one more chapter in our future?

The lunch meetings led to two things. First, a special summer of worship and Sunday School based on Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us. Second, entering into a relationship with NEXT Church in which Jeff Krehbiel, pastor of the Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C., would serve as a coach to Plaza and our pastor, Tom Tate.

Community Presbyterian Church (CPC) is located in San Juan Capistrano, CA – a small historical (18th Century Catholic mission) town surrounded by modern suburbs and connected by the I-5 freeway as part of a long corridor of communities stretching from Los Angeles to the southern border of Orange County. At the founding in 1919, Community Presbyterian was the first Protestant Church in San Juan Capistrano. The congregation grew steadily to a peak of 400 members in the mid-twentieth century.

Our current community includes 160 households with weekly worship attendance of 110 at either our contemporary or traditional worship services. The median age in the congregation is 67. There are 8 families with young children on the rolls, with some additional children and youth who are regular participants in church programs. In recent memory membership and programmatic growth has been limited.

In recent decades, our congregation’s leadership has attempted many self-studies.  In 2005-2007 CPC undertook a two-year process to refocus our direction, mission, vision, etc.  CPC engaged in a Congregation Mission Study in 2003 and completed the Natural Church Development survey in 2005.  This survey clearly told us we were very strong in loving each other, but weak in evangelism.  The outcome of the refocusing effort was a strategic ministry plan.  This largely was begun with energy (e.g., we spearheaded building 27 Habitat for Humanity houses in cooperation with the city and many other organizations).  Energy began to dissipate when we lost our pastor of four years and then had two interim ministers before our current pastor, Mike Vaughn, joined us in 2010. CPC completed a three-year growth plan in October 2012 and many portions have been implemented to date.  Most notable is our communications plan, culminating in our new website. That said, there is much left to do.

Today our identity remains strongly vested in mission and the Reformed tradition. There is a progressive and inclusive emphasis in our congregation that puts us in tension with other churches in our area (like Saddleback Church, just down the road) and with some of our sister churches in the presbytery.

CPC has a beautiful church plant, well-maintained, nestled below a major local road (add photo??).  We are very blessed with talented staff in many roles (office, accounting, preschool/kindergarten, music leaders, children’s ministry) and have an unfilled youth ministry role.  Our finances are OK.  With an annual budget of $349,000 our shortfall is about $11,000 for 2013, funded from reserves.  We have an exceptional Preschool and Kindergarten which are financially healthy and we house a Head Start program on our campus as well.  Our pledges continue to shrink as our congregation ages and some of our large givers have to cut back.

We feel confident God is not done with us but feel stuck as we look toward our second hundred years of ministry.

The Coaches

JAMES M. KITCHENS, Principal, PneuMatrix   Jim Kitchens was most recently the Interim Pastor of Calvary PC, San Francisco.  A native of Mississippi, he holds a degree in Chemical Engineering from Ole Miss, and a M.Div. from Pacific School of Religion.  Prior to coming to Calvary, he served three pastorates, including Oakland’s First Presbyterian Church, Davis Community Presbyterian Church (CA), and Second Presbyterian Church in Nashville (TN). Jim played a major role in the development of the Bread of Life Center for Christian Formation in Davis, served a term as moderator of the Presbytery of Sacramento, served as Pastor-Theologian in Residence at the Center of Theological Inquiry (Princeton, NJ), and on the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Committee on Theological Education while also mentoring first-call pastors. He has served on the Board of the Company of Pastors, and is one of four Regional Directors.  Jim is a published author, whose book, The Postmodern Parish: New Ministry for a New Era, focuses on creatively engaging rapidly changing cultural trends in the light of the Gospel. He has just completed a Coolidge fellowship at Auburn Seminary researching the application of Positive Deviance Theory for use in congregations and judicatories.

DEBORAH LONDON WRIGHT, Principal, PneuMatrix   Ordained by the PC(USA) in 1978, Deborah London Wright has specialized in adaptive change management, strategic planning, program development, and Positive Deviance implementation as a Corporate Chaplain.  With degrees from Duke University and San Francisco Theological Seminary, she served as Associate Pastor of Calvary SF, was a Trustee of the Presbyterian Foundation, adjunct faculty at SFTS, host of the KPIX-TV talk show Mosaic (CBS Affiliate), and Director of Major Gifts at SFTS.  Following Ph.D. studies at the Graduate Theological Union, she formed Avalon Enterprises, a consultancy practice specializing in funds development, corporate chaplaincy, strategic planning, and project management for NGOs in religion, education, healthcare, film and video. Clients have included The George Lucas Educational Foundation, Alvin H. Perlmutter Productions (NY), KERA-TV (Dallas PBS Affiliate), Google, The California Film Institute, the County of Marin (CA), Kaiser Permanente, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Gerald P. Murphy Cancer Foundation.  Creating and implementing innovative business models for entrepreneurial non-profits has been the hallmark of Ms. Wright’s career.

THE REV. DR. JEFFREY K. KREHBIEL is pastor of Church of the Pilgrims Presbyterian Church in the District of Columbia. He is a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and a graduate of Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Rev. Krehbiel also completed a Doctor of Ministry degree in “Gospel and Culture” at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, in May 2004. A Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor with over twenty-five years’ experience in urban ministry, he previously served pastorates on the West Side of Manhattan in New York City, and in an inner-city neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware, before becoming pastor in August 2000 of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C. Located near Dupont Circle, Church of the Pilgrims is the former “national church” of the Southern Presbyterians. Today it reflects the diversity of its thriving urban neighborhood, with Embassies, hotels, and high rises on one side, town houses, apartments, bars and restaurants on the other. During his tenure the congregation has experienced revival in its worship life, renewed engagement with the city through participation in a city-wide church-based community organizing effort, and invigorated outreach to young adults through innovative programs such as “Theology on Tap,” a weekly Bible study held in the tavern across the street from the church.