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Re-post: The Challenge and Opportunity of Timely Adaptations

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on September 19, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Christopher Edmonston

I sat on the third pew and listened as Scott, the inspiring pastor of Saint Matthew’s, a Church of Scotland congregation, told us story after story of what ministry is like there.

St. Matthew's

Take a look at this picture. The place, the sanctuary, the space is huge.

St. Matthew's Front View

And far too often it is empty. Pews and balconies once brimming with gospel proclamation and ministry remain silent too much of the time. They are silent in spite of the fact that the pastor is an inspiring, dynamic, and amazing disciple of Jesus Christ. He is a faithful risk taker. I found myself marveling at his energy and integrity. I found myself listening to the invigorating work that he is doing. I found myself thinking: that is the kind of ministry I want to be doing! He is the kind of pastor I want to be!

For years I have said, in meetings public and private, that the future of the church depended largely on leadership. Here before me was the kind of dynamic and wonderful leader that I have long admired.

Even more challenging was this realization: every pastor we met from the Church of Scotland was theologically engaging, intellectually astute, and pastorally alive. They were each of them willing to be creative for the gospel. Compared to the churches I have served, some of the Church of Scotland congregations were years ahead of us in innovating new ways of being church.

And yet too often the church in Scotland struggles to find an audience for the beautiful message of the gospel in its cities and neighborhoods. Scott talked about feeling lost sometimes. He gave witness to the ecclesiastical depression that comes with empty pews, programs, and worship.

What happened to the church in Scotland?

Not being from there, the best I can offer is an educated guess. But here it goes:

The towns were changing, the culture was changing, attitudes about the relationship between church and spirituality were changing and the church was not adapting alongside the larger shifts. On Sundays people were going to soccer (across the pond – football) games, rugby matches, yoga classes – finding in these events and activities ritualized practices, community interactions, and authentic meaning. They were doing all these things and more, and going to church less and less or not going to church at all.

The statistics are sobering. Presented by Doug Gay from the University of Glasgow, we learned that during the two decades of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the Church of Scotland lost thousands of members. They saw it happening, and yet, they were paralyzed — paralyzed by the pain they felt as their faith communities dwindled. Big churches became empty churches. Downward trends became downward spirals. Budgets collapsed. It was a negative exodus.

Scott arrived at St. Matthew’s six years ago in the middle of that storm. The church has added 62 members since he arrived, which makes St. Matthew’s among the faster growing communities in the Church of Scotland.

This story may seem far off, across an ocean. But it is very close.

At White Memorial, where I serve, our Clerk of Session writes to the congregation annually. This year, our clerk, Laura, wrote about her sadness in sharing our congregation’s booming baptismal records with a church who had only one baptism in 2013. That church, the church of one baptism, is not across an ocean. It is here in North Carolina, in the Bible belt.

It is my experience that whenever things go wrong, people frequently start looking for causes. They start looking for something to blame in order to cut the source of decline from their midst (think: I am going to cut carbs out of my diet; or, we are going to stop wearing robes in worship).

But what if there is no one thing, or even no one, to blame?

I remember a church I once visited in New York. It was a Czechoslovakian Reformed Church, and for generations they worshipped using Slavic languages. As the neighborhood evolved and there were fewer and fewer Slavic speakers, fewer people came to church.   Keep in mind that their core membership still spoke in mother tongues. To change the language whole-heartedly would have been pastorally unacceptable and unkind.

But that pastoral reality did not stop the world from changing around the church. By the time I arrived in 2010, there were a dozen or so members in a church that once held hundreds.

I thought about the church with one baptism and the Czechoslovakian Reformed Church as I sat in St. Matthew’s.

As we look around, there is ample evidence of the church’s end if we deny ourselves a commitment to being adaptable to the changes in our midst. But it doesn’t have to be so. Nowhere in the great commission (Matthew 28) does Jesus suggest that the disciples are never to change or adapt. Indeed, by the Apostle’s reckoning, everything is adaptable in order to spread the gospel’s good news (1 Corinthians 9). In Scotland, I became convinced we are living, even in our strongholds of church (like Raleigh, NC), in an age of adaptation.

My new friend Scott is hopeful and passionate about his ministry. His is a faith in God to do all things – a faith tempered by trial and error and the realization that the status quo will neither save the church nor share the gospel in his context. In his hopefulness he has become an adaptable pastor in an adapting and adaptable church.

Am I?

Are we?


Christopher Edmonston and Amelia - DEP

Christopher Edmonston began ministry at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in September of 2011. His primary responsibilities are preaching, teaching, pastoral care, membership development, staff development, and long term planning. Christopher has moderated Presbytery Committees, serves on the Montreat Retreat Association Board, and serves as the President of the Board of the Presbyterian Outlook. He is a contributor to the forthcoming Feasting on the Gospels and is on the national strategy team for NEXT Church, a renewal movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA). He was recently recognized as a William Friday Fellow (2011-13). Christopher is a graduate of Davidson College, Union Presbyterian Seminary (Master of Divinity), and Columbia Theological Seminary (Doctor of Ministry).

He is married to Colleen Camaione-Edmonston, who is a 7th grade grammar and literature teacher at St. Timothy’s School here in Raleigh. They have three children, Patrick, Gabriel, and Amelia, ranging from sixth grade to first grade, all three of whom attend St. Timothy’s as well.

Choosing to do a Capital Campaign

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Deborah Rexrode is curating a blog series called “A New Perspective on Stewardship.” We’ll hear from some stewardship experts across the country on a wide range of what stewardship means for them. What are ways stewardship can be a spiritual practice? How might we come to a new understanding of the role of stewardship in ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Joel Morgan

Built in the mid-1960’s, the sanctuary of Westminster Presbyterian Church featured an understated cross in the front, 72 14ft long pews, a 35-foot high ceiling, and a Casavant Freres organ in the back.  From the beginning, nearly every visitor commented on the immensity and simple beauty of the sacred space. The footprint of the sanctuary was 8,000 square feet and the congregation utilized it a little more than one hour a week.

Fast-forward to the early 2000’s. The congregation’s membership had declined significantly and the sanctuary was being used in the same way for the same amount of time each week. Under new pastoral leadership, the congregation initiated a new and different worship service in their fellowship hall while keeping the traditional worship in place. After a number of years, the worship service in the fellowship hall had a larger attendance than the worship held in the much larger sanctuary.

Other things had changed as well. In 2002, the entire church facility, some 36,000 square feet, had been quiet during the weekdays. By 2012, most of the facility was being used 6 days a week by 12-step groups, a Montessori school, neighborhood groups, and other non-profit organizations. The sanctuary was the only space that sat empty, except for that 1 hour on Sunday morning. The session and pastor often commented on how this seemed like poor stewardship–to have been given the gift of this space (the largest in the facility), but to barely use it.

Over that same 10 years, the congregation experienced a significant generational shift. In 2002, the congregation was made up of 70% retirees. In 2012, about 70% of the congregation was 45 years of age and younger. The congregation also moved from a $25,000 – $50,000 yearly deficit to a number of years with a surplus. Many attributed this financial shift to a right-sizing of the staff and a focus on preaching and teaching about stewardship year-round, such as hosting and leading numerous Financial Peace University classes. New members also received teaching about the expectations of members in terms of financial stewardship, instead of simply being handed a pledge card. There were other changes too, modeled on the stewardship practices extolled by J. Clif Christopher and others.

For over a decade, the pastor and session tossed around ideas about how to modify the sanctuary to make it more flexible and useful for all kinds of worship and other events, while keeping some of its character. No one seemed to have a good answer. With the fellowship hall filling to capacity on Sunday mornings, there was more talk about what the next step should be. The session decided it was time to consult an architect.

The architect led the congregation through a process of determining the best use of the entire facility. They worshipped with the congregation and completed some initial designs. A small group from the session worked with the architect to refine those ideas. Once they believed they had the “right” design, a cost estimate was completed.

The next question seemed to be obvious, “Can we raise the money for this project?” The question behind the question was, “Can we pull off a successful capital campaign?”

The congregation had done capital campaigns before, but the most recent one (20 years prior) had not gone well.

The session put together a task force to select a fundraising/capital campaign consultant to complete a feasibility study. This group interviewed 3 firms and chose Horizons Stewardship to complete the study. The task force chose Horizons based on a number of factors, with the most powerful one being that they were the only firm to talk about how a capital campaign should be a spiritual experience.

Horizon’s process for the study was straightforward and inclusive. There were personal interviews and an online survey of the congregation. Ultimately, the report from Horizons was positive. The consultant found the congregation supportive of congregational leadership and found the members were willing to support a capital campaign to renovate the sanctuary. The session voted to move forward.

One of the first tasks was selecting leadership for the capital campaign. Even with the full faith and support of the congregation, the capital campaign would not be successful without energized and committed leaders.

The wheels were set in motion. The congregation eagerly awaits the day when their beautiful 8,000 square foot sanctuary will be used more than one hour a week. Faith in God, generosity, and a successful capital campaign could make it possible.

The story of WPC’s capital campaign is not over.  At the time of publication, WPC is in the final design phase before beginning the renovation, but that is another blog post (or two!).

A few observations from our experience:

  1. WPC had talked about renovating for years. We knew we needed more space for our informal worship service where we sit around tables and not in pews. We knew the chancel area needed to be larger to accommodate some of the worship dramas we did on a regular basis. We knew we needed a welcoming gathering area. It wasn’t until we really began thinking about it from a stewardship perspective (Are we being good stewards of the facility? Are we using it to its full potential for God’s mission? How can this bless the neighborhood?) that the idea grew in importance.
  2. Leadership. This is one of the underemphasized, but most important pieces of deciding to pursue a capital campaign. Does the congregation have full faith in the current leadership? Is there sufficient energy and other potential leaders in the congregation for this endeavor? We had a group of folks who not only committed for the six months of the “active” capital campaign, but said “yes” to three years of shepherding the congregation in the campaign. Amazing! But, without the energy of the Spirit, forget it.
  3. Pastoral leadership is critical. I know this isn’t a popular notion. Yes, all the Elders lead together. I believe this and teach this. I often say in our session meetings, “As the session goes, so goes the congregation.” However, in financial stewardship and capital campaigns, if the pastor(s) are not fully engaged and willing to lead, the efforts will fall short.

Joel Morgan has always been fascinated by the intersection of body, mind and spirit as well as how to sustain creativity, energy and vitality. He seeks to connect others with God’s love, grace and promise in Jesus Christ through preaching, teaching and coaching that marries real life with faith and practice. Joel has been the Pastor/Head of Staff of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA since 2002. He has a BS in Language Arts (English, Literature, and Theater) and a Masters of Divinity.

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Engaging the Space We Worship In

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’ve asked some of our 2016 National Gathering workshop presenters to share their thoughts on their importance of their workshops in today’s context. Jess Fisher is one of our presenters. Learn more about her workshop at the end of this post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by Jess Fisher

Growing up, I found God at summer camp: sitting around the campfire, praying in the chapel in the pines, and singing spirituals a cappella under the night sky. There was a mystery about God in the woods, something all around you, yet untouchable.
My experience of God in church was quite different. The mystery wasn’t there. It might come once in a while in Communion or a Baptism, or at the Christmas Eve candlelight service, but that was about it. Instead of being invited into the wonder of God, I was asked to sit quietly in an uncomfortable pew, facing forward where others did all the action.

Jess Fisher-2Years later, I began to see the arts as a means of bringing the wonder and mystery of God into the sanctuary. I started out with prayer stations looking for something interactive that might help each of us, with our different learning styles, to be involved and active in worship. In my seminary internship at Church of the Pilgrims, I explored art installations as a new kind of proclamation. We also talked about improv and body work as new ways to engage the mind, body, and spirit in worship and life.

All of this has added up to a new perspective for me on how to engage the space we worship in as a means to bring grace and wonder. Rooting what we do to ancient traditions, risking new ways of being, and reflecting on how it has impacted our spiritual walks brings me back to the mystery of God I experienced in those summers at camp.

In Atlanta at the 2016 National Gathering, I invite you to join me in a conversation about worship spaces. We’ll talk about incorporating experiential elements, the visual and dramatic arts, and movement, all while considering the permanent and temporary physical setup of our sanctuaries.

Come with your stories, questions, and ideas. You’ll leave with a process, sanctuary map, and resources to continue the conversation back in your faith community. I hope to see you there!


 

Jess Fisher, a liturgical artist and graphic designer, brings the visual arts into the church, hoping to help others find new connections with the Holy One in and around them. Follow Jess at LiturgyBeyondWords.com.

Jess’ workshop, Holy Ground: Thinking About the Spaces Where We Worship, is on Thursday during workshop block 3. 

Cultivating Political Judgment

NEXT Church regularly pulls on wisdom from community organizing as we think about being the church in the 21st century. You can read more about organizing here. For our purposes this month, we focus on the way in which congregation-based community organizing places emphasis on developing new leaders. Having been trained in community organizing through the Industrial Areas Foundation early in his ministry, Jeff Krehbiel (pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC and member of the NEXT Church Advisory Team) views congregational life through the lens of organizing. Jeff pulled together a community organizing cluster in the presbytery to continue to develop leaders who have discovered the power of community organizing principles for congregational development, spiritual formation and significant community engagement. This piece is representative of the kind of reflective work done by this group.

By Jeff Krehbiel

I’ve always thought the conventional wisdom that you should make no changes in the first six months of a new call to be rather silly. The congregation has called you to be their pastor, and then you sit on your hands for six months? Trust that they saw something in you that they were waiting for, and then offer it. In my experience, at that moment of transition the congregation is ready to try something new, and is just waiting to see what you will bring to the mix.

On the other hand, most of us know pastors who arrive on the scene and push too hard and too fast with their own agenda, and the honeymoon is over even before it began. What’s the difference? It comes down to a matter of political judgment. When we are new, we have no choice but to act. The question is: Which actions are appropriate?

Learning from Community Organizing

In an earlier post, I offered this maxim from my experience in broad-based community organizing: the authority to lead comes from the strength of your relationships not the power of your ideas. There I wrote that the most important task of leadership is building relationships of trust that make change possible. Leaders are much more likely to listen to your good ideas when you have taken the time to really know them. People who trust one another are able to take great risks together.

In a new community organization, the organizer spends months, sometimes years, building relationships, identifying and training leaders, listening in individual and small-group meetings for issues the organization might take on, and conducting research with those leaders to vet ideas and narrow options. But eventually the organization needs to act. But how? And when? Wait too long, and the organization begins to atrophy. Act too soon and fail, and the organization may flounder before it even gets started.

Power Analysis

An important step in organizing—and equally important in congregational life—is doing a power analysis. In organizing, there has to be an assessment of the organization’s power in relation to your intended target so you can evaluate the campaign’s chances of success. In a new organization you build on early victories as the organization develops its political muscle. You don’t want to lose your first political fight or leaders will not be willing to engage the next one.

photo credit: dgray_xplane via photopin cc

photo credit: dgray_xplane via photopin cc

For many church leaders, asking who has power in the congregation seems crass. We’re not in a battle, this isn’t a fight, and we all just want to follow Jesus. Yet we also know that in every congregation there are leaders who can stop something from happening without even raising their voice. Often those with power in the congregation are not those who are most obstinate or opposed to change. (Often the loud complainers turn out not to have any real power at all.) More often those with power are the ones who are most loved and trusted. A power analysis is simply figuring out the pattern of relationships within the congregation. Who is in relationship with whom? Who are the people that others most trust? That people listen to? That they look to in times of controversy and change? In a small congregation, it might be a matriarch or patriarch. In a large congregation, there may be several centers of power.

This doesn’t mean that you never act in a way that challenges powerful people. It means that you never act without taking powerful people into account. Every pastor has certain leaders they are in closer relationship with than others. A power analysis helps you determine which leaders you need to connect with more closely, including those who may be outside your usual orbit. Change that is supported by a broad base of key leaders is much more likely to succeed.

Redefining Success

In organizing, deciding which issues to take on is not simply a calculation about whether you can win. Organizers also ask what impact this issue will have on the organization’s health and future. Will taking on this issue enhance our power? Will it develop new leaders? Will it help prepare us to take on the next issue? What are the consequences if we are not successful? How can we use this campaign to develop new allies?

In the same way, when pastors and other leaders are contemplating change, they need to do more than determine if they have the authority to make this change happen. (A corollary to the above maxim: the authority given to you in The Book of Order is not sufficient to sustain change in congregational life.) The process of change is as important as the change itself. How can we use this problem or issue before us to develop leaders? To cultivate relationships? To strengthen the congregation as a community of trust and risk-taking? Defining success is broader and deeper than asking simply “Did the change happen?” A more important question is, did the change contribute to the congregation’s health and future?

A Case Study

Before I was even called to be pastor of Church of the Pilgrims, a member of the PNC asked my thoughts on rearranging the sanctuary. There were many in the congregation anxious for new experiences in worship, and he hoped I would bring about change. When I began, changes in worship were introduced gradually, with lots of input from church members in the planning process, often in the spirit of experimentation: “Let’s give this a try.” But raising the issue of renovating the sanctuary seemed premature. In my third year, rearranging the sanctuary came up again in a planning meeting. Immediately it was clear that some people loved the idea and others did not, meaning there was no decision the Session could make that would make everyone happy.

In response, the Session determined not just to listen to the loudest voices (a bad habit from the past) but to listen to every voice. Over the next three months, we studied the history of sacred space, and held a series of congregational dialogues, in both large and small groups. Then we appointed a diverse team of leaders, representing several different constituencies in the congregation, and asked them to engage the services of an architect and explore options. The Session listened to congregational input strategically. There were pockets of resistance. All voices were honored, but leaders took special note that some of our newer, younger members experienced the sanctuary as cold and uninviting. The leaders helped these newer voices to be heard by the entire congregation. People felt listened to and respected, even though not everyone was on board. At the end of the process, when we presented a plan for a new design, we raised the $80,000 needed to carry it out with a single fund-raising letter.

 

Jeff KrehbielJeff Krehbiel is Pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C., a member of the NEXT Church Advisory Board, and a coach in the NEXT Church Paracletos Project.