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Re-post: The Well at Burke Presbyterian Church

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 August 27, 2013.

by Arlene Decina

For the past two summers at Burke Presbyterian Church, we have taken a leap — from the traditional Vacation Bible School that had always been a highlight of our programming into something that is, for us, brand new and refreshing.

By many standards, our Vacation Bible School was a smashing success. In recent years we have created and developed our own original program with an emphasis on slowing our pace, going deeper, and forming community . . . and we filled to capacity, attracting gifted and energetic leaders. We became known for our unique approach, and, in fact, the model that we created for VBS has now been borrowed and implemented in other churches with their programs. So why, you might ask, should we do something different? Why fix something that is not broken?

A year and a half ago, in January 2012 – when we gathered for our annual “What-are-we-going-to-do-for VBS?” meeting – none of us had the level of energy and enthusiasm that we had experienced in the past. We sat in silence for a time until our Elder for Children’s Spiritual Growth quietly interrupted with a heartfelt and earnest, “What if we were to try something entirely new this year?”  She had our full attention.

Giving ourselves permission and invitation to ponder, we realized that as captivating as our originally conceived and fashioned VBS had been, it too had become a reliable, nearly institutionalized model. We began to ask ourselves the big wondering questions of how we could best use our time and energies both to strengthen the bonds within our church and to serve God and the community. How could we live into the phrase that we often repeat as a mantra, “Less is More,” to provide a fresh wellspring of spiritual growth and nurture for those who generally do so much of the work of the church? What would bear the most nourishing fruit for us in this time?

Out of these frank questions and honest wonderings, and within the new space created by letting go of our traditional Vacation Bible School, The Well was born.

Of course, there were birthing pains associated with growing The Well. The team knew that not having a Vacation Bible School would be hard for some folks to understand, let alone imagine. Therefore, the greatest hope and chance for success would only be possible with intentional introduction and thoughtful explanation of The Well.  We began with the leaders of the church. The idea of The Well was first proposed to the Spiritual Growth Ministry Team, and then to the Session. Carefully timed communications via church-wide letters, emails, and newsletter articles rounded out the way we shared this change with the community.  Along with these corporate notifications, each member of the planning team also spoke about The Well with small groups and individuals along the way. While news of The Well was largely met with anticipation and openness, there were people who pushed back and with certainty said that letting go of VBS was shirking our commitment to evangelism and showing a sign of a church in decline. Ultimately, the number of dissenters was quite small. In fact, in the second year of The Well, some of the original dissenters from the previous year came to The Well!

It is important to note that during this time, Burke was beginning an interim pastorate after a much-loved pastor of 27 years retired.  Change of this magnitude was new for many at BPC.  Allowing for this dissent was important, even while it was hard for the planning team to hear.

BPC2As a result of all these conversations and hopes and labor pains, in July 2012, and again in this summer of 2013, The Well blossomed into a three-evening multi-generational event that included Burke Presbyterian Church members and friends of all ages and all stages and all family configurations. Each evening, we began our time outdoors with an informal and invitational gathering marked by live and beckoning music on the front lawn, games and sidewalk chalk and bubbles, and water and process art choices that drew children – and the child in all of us – together for sharing and conversation.

BPC3Meanwhile, the tables inside were beautifully set for the next part of our evening, a family-style meal. Participants’ nametags indicated which was their table, so there was no need to wonder, “Where will I sit?” or “Is there a place for me?” Guided by our host, who like a liturgist artfully set the tone, we enjoyed a delicious supper with our table-group “families” in a gathering that became central to our time together.

Each evening following mealtime, we separated by age into groupings – the very youngest in the nursery, and children, youth, college-age, and adults – for an intentional time of engaging with one another and with the story, with Scripture, or with a Sabbath practice. On our opening night this year we welcomed keynote speaker Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana who shared insights from her recent book, Sabbath in the Suburbs. Subsequent evenings we delighted in hearing from our own Interim Pastor Rev. Diane Hutchins and Pastoral Associate Rev. Deryl Fleming. Drawing from these cherished resources within our community as well as outside of our community allowed for rich and dynamic keynotes. We concluded each evening of The Well by coming together in the Sanctuary for a short, ten minute Evensong liturgy written and led by two of our pastoral parishioners, Rev. Alice Petersen and Rev. Bill  Lowrey. Just the right amount of time for night prayers and prayer songs, for good nights and good byes.

BPC4Our second evening of The Well this year had something different in store; we were in for an amazing and memorable experience — Stop Hunger Now! In a matter of an hour and a half, the two hundred or so of us – ages three to mid 80s (with seating available for those who preferred to watch) – packaged 10,000 meals, which we learned would be sent to Haiti. Words will simply not do justice to what we as a church family experienced — it was Holy Ground, indeed! As we transitioned from Stop Hunger to our own mealtime, our liturgist called us together saying, “Just as we have prepared a meal for others, a meal has been prepared for us” … and with that we settled into suppertime. A reflection afterward on The Feeding of the Five Thousand, offered from the perspective of a child’s perception, and we all were filled to the brim in mind, body and spirit.

BPC1There was an elegant simplicity to The Well, exemplified by the tiny pile of things to be sorted and put away the following week compared to the usual digging-out after VBS!  Indeed, there were far fewer moving parts than with our traditional Vacation Bible School. Rather, our fresh goal for this experience was to set the scene – to offer the opportunities – for moving experiences, for deep-well moments, for making memories as a family of faith.

The Well is just what we have needed in this season of change for Burke Presbyterian Church.  As we look around we clearly see fruits born of letting go of the old and risking a new endeavor.  Out of one of the Adult offerings in The Well 2012, an intentional gathering of Contemplative Practices began to meet weekly, with 20-25 adults of various ages attending regularly.  Older adults with no previous ties to young families at BPC are now helping in our mid-week Logos program known as Rainbow. A new group for college age and older high school students has formed and plans to meet for study and fellowship during the year. Over two hundred people have a shared experience from the summer forging new or deeper relationships within the church community.  And yes, we even have new families visiting on Sunday morning as a result of their time spent at The Well.

This experience of The Well has reminded us of the surprising creativity, soul-full richness, and extravagant hospitality that is possible when we allow ourselves to be receptive to the refreshing guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We can only imagine what God will call us to in the future. Praise be to God!


Arlene Decina is the Director of Spiritual Growth Ministries at Burke Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia.

Getting Out of the Rut, then Moving Toward Abundant Joy

By Sophie Maness

Joy smallTwenty-five years of working in the church is a mere “drop in the bucket” to the length of time that many of the education models of the church have been in existence. Studies and personal experiences regarding current trends verify that a large percentage of individuals and families come for only one hour on Sunday mornings, and inconsistently at that. Many who are paid to work in the church, as well as volunteers, know the old models have lost much of their effectiveness due to changing rhythms in our culture.

I have worked with amazing volunteers, who have done – and continue to do – great work on Sunday mornings. Still, if a child comes to Sunday / Church school every Sunday, never missing, even on vacation, from pre-school age through senior year in high school, that child in the number of hours of Christian Education from Church School, will have received the equivalent of a first grade education. We are falling short and we know it.

I, for one, have been frustrated along with many of my colleagues. We have likened it to the dry bones of Ezekiel. It is time to let the Spirit move and put a new flesh on our education practices in the life of the church.

I hope we can dream about what will bring families together for learning and fellowship, rather than to separate them due to scheduling that limits participation.  Hearing the stories of our faith with and from our families and neighbors is an involvement that promotes greater understanding. This environment tends to open up better conversation, more opportunities for service, more creative expressions of joy and added room for the spirit to move.

Where can we find that common ground of learning the stories of our faith and living out those stories in partnership with all our neighbors? I think the ground is fertile, and with a little exploring we can and will come up with new models.

Noted writer, G.K. Chesterton gave us, “The gigantic advantage of the Christian is joy.” For me, part of that joy plays out by living in a fellowship of believers willing to dream about possibilities and new ways of living into our rich Presbyterian identity. So how we do we begin to move from the comfortable and familiar to the bold dream?

For me that joy came when we were planning the children’s piece of a day of service for our church. We put several children on our committee. They ranged in age from 5 to 12. We had several adults as well. Having children on the committee meant we needed to be organized and clear. My hope is we are that way anyway, but this was a new and healthy push. The children asked honest questions, had great ideas and loved being included! The joy was experienced by all!! The children felt like valued members of the planning. The adults had a ball getting to know the kids. Our planning was richer and our hospitality was wider. We kept our meetings short and to the point. We had a little snack and lots of laughter. ALL the adults said, “I wish all church committees, could be like this.”

Yes, it was not a hard task, but the inclusion of all ages, and the cross generational connections were giving voice to a deeper hunger of being a part of the faith community.

This small experience has helped me feel a little more bold in tackling bigger pieces, so one thing at a time. First up for us is VBS.

Although there are some churches who have moved away from it, the basic model for Vacation Bible School for us has been the nine to noon, Monday through Friday model. It is comfortable and familiar. We know how to do it, and it has gone really well in the past.

What I see now is that it is getting harder and harder to pull off every year. The children have a ball, but the adult volunteers are worn to a frazzle. When we are frazzled, even the most dedicated find it challenging to love children into the faith. The reality is that getting enough volunteers, when more and more women are going back to work, makes pulling off the traditional daytime VBS almost impossible.  Surviving VBS is not nearly as appealing as thriving in VBS.

My hope is to soon pull together a group from our church who will dream with me about our priorities: (1) nurturing children in their faith development, (2) connecting with our community, (3) planning creatively to move toward rhythms that make room for the spirit to have its way with us, not the frazzle of moving from one thing to another of our culture.

What I hope for our church and others is permission to play with possibilities. When we play well there is common ground and lots of grace. It does not have to be perfect to glorify God.

It is time to be bold in our exploration of new models. We are in the midst of change and our tradition is about reforming, so let’s reform what is no longer working very well.

I am grateful to be in a place willing to dream. One model at a time, we will watch for God’s leading how to put new flesh on dry bones.


Sophie Maness is a life-long Presbyterian and a certified Christian Educator in the Presbyterian Church USA and serves as Director of Children’s Ministry at Westminster Presbyterian in Nashville, TN. Her calling is to educational ministry because she loves the ah-ha moment when people of any age connect their faith and their life, especially children.

Image: Grzegorz Mordecki/shutterstock.com

The Well at Burke Presbyterian Church

By Arlene Decina

For the past two summers at Burke Presbyterian Church, we have taken a leap — from the traditional Vacation Bible School that had always been a highlight of our programming into something that is, for us, brand new and refreshing.

By many standards, our Vacation Bible School was a smashing success. In recent years we have created and developed our own original program with an emphasis on slowing our pace, going deeper, and forming community . . . and we filled to capacity, attracting gifted and energetic leaders. We became known for our unique approach, and, in fact, the model that we created for VBS has now been borrowed and implemented in other churches with their programs. So why, you might ask, should we do something different? Why fix something that is not broken?

A year and a half ago, in January 2012 – when we gathered for our annual “What-are-we-going-to-do-for VBS?” meeting – none of us had the level of energy and enthusiasm that we had experienced in the past. We sat in silence for a time until our Elder for Children’s Spiritual Growth quietly interrupted with a heartfelt and earnest, “What if we were to try something entirely new this year?”  She had our full attention.

Giving ourselves permission and invitation to ponder, we realized that as captivating as our originally conceived and fashioned VBS had been, it too had become a reliable, nearly institutionalized model. We began to ask ourselves the big wondering questions of how we could best use our time and energies both to strengthen the bonds within our church and to serve God and the community. How could we live into the phrase that we often repeat as a mantra, “Less is More,” to provide a fresh wellspring of spiritual growth and nurture for those who generally do so much of the work of the church? What would bear the most nourishing fruit for us in this time?

Out of these frank questions and honest wonderings, and within the new space created by letting go of our traditional Vacation Bible School, The Well was born.

Of course, there were birthing pains associated with growing The Well. The team knew that not having a Vacation Bible School would be hard for some folks to understand, let alone imagine. Therefore, the greatest hope and chance for success would only be possible with intentional introduction and thoughtful explanation of The Well.  We began with the leaders of the church. The idea of The Well was first proposed to the Spiritual Growth Ministry Team, and then to the Session. Carefully timed communications via church-wide letters, emails, and newsletter articles rounded out the way we shared this change with the community.  Along with these corporate notifications, each member of the planning team also spoke about The Well with small groups and individuals along the way. While news of The Well was largely met with anticipation and openness, there were people who pushed back and with certainty said that letting go of VBS was shirking our commitment to evangelism and showing a sign of a church in decline. Ultimately, the number of dissenters was quite small. In fact, in the second year of The Well, some of the original dissenters from the previous year came to The Well!

It is important to note that during this time, Burke was beginning an interim pastorate after a much-loved pastor of 27 years retired.  Change of this magnitude was new for many at BPC.  Allowing for this dissent was important, even while it was hard for the planning team to hear.

BPC2As a result of all these conversations and hopes and labor pains, in July 2012, and again in this summer of 2013, The Well blossomed into a three-evening multi-generational event that included Burke Presbyterian Church members and friends of all ages and all stages and all family configurations. Each evening, we began our time outdoors with an informal and invitational gathering marked by live and beckoning music on the front lawn, games and sidewalk chalk and bubbles, and water and process art choices that drew children – and the child in all of us – together for sharing and conversation.

BPC3Meanwhile, the tables inside were beautifully set for the next part of our evening, a family-style meal. Participants’ nametags indicated which was their table, so there was no need to wonder, “Where will I sit?” or “Is there a place for me?” Guided by our host, who like a liturgist artfully set the tone, we enjoyed a delicious supper with our table-group “families” in a gathering that became central to our time together.

Each evening following mealtime, we separated by age into groupings – the very youngest in the nursery, and children, youth, college-age, and adults – for an intentional time of engaging with one another and with the story, with Scripture, or with a Sabbath practice. On our opening night this year we welcomed keynote speaker Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana who shared insights from her recent book, Sabbath in the Suburbs. Subsequent evenings we delighted in hearing from our own Interim Pastor Rev. Diane Hutchins and Pastoral Associate Rev. Deryl Fleming. Drawing from these cherished resources within our community as well as outside of our community allowed for rich and dynamic keynotes. We concluded each evening of The Well by coming together in the Sanctuary for a short, ten minute Evensong liturgy written and led by two of our pastoral parishioners, Rev. Alice Petersen and Rev. Bill  Lowrey. Just the right amount of time for night prayers and prayer songs, for good nights and good byes.

BPC4Our second evening of The Well this year had something different in store; we were in for an amazing and memorable experience — Stop Hunger Now! In a matter of an hour and a half, the two hundred or so of us – ages three to mid 80s (with seating available for those who preferred to watch) – packaged 10,000 meals, which we learned would be sent to Haiti. Words will simply not do justice to what we as a church family experienced — it was Holy Ground, indeed! As we transitioned from Stop Hunger to our own mealtime, our liturgist called us together saying, “Just as we have prepared a meal for others, a meal has been prepared for us” … and with that we settled into suppertime. A reflection afterward on The Feeding of the Five Thousand, offered from the perspective of a child’s perception, and we all were filled to the brim in mind, body and spirit.

BPC1There was an elegant simplicity to The Well, exemplified by the tiny pile of things to be sorted and put away the following week compared to the usual digging-out after VBS!  Indeed, there were far fewer moving parts than with our traditional Vacation Bible School. Rather, our fresh goal for this experience was to set the scene – to offer the opportunities – for moving experiences, for deep-well moments, for making memories as a family of faith.

The Well is just what we have needed in this season of change for Burke Presbyterian Church.  As we look around we clearly see fruits born of letting go of the old and risking a new endeavor.  Out of one of the Adult offerings in The Well 2012, an intentional gathering of Contemplative Practices began to meet weekly, with 20-25 adults of various ages attending regularly.  Older adults with no previous ties to young families at BPC are now helping in our mid-week Logos program known as Rainbow. A new group for college age and older high school students has formed and plans to meet for study and fellowship during the year. Over two hundred people have a shared experience from the summer forging new or deeper relationships within the church community.  And yes, we even have new families visiting on Sunday morning as a result of their time spent at The Well.

This experience of The Well has reminded us of the surprising creativity, soul-full richness, and extravagant hospitality that is possible when we allow ourselves to be receptive to the refreshing guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We can only imagine what God will call us to in the future. Praise be to God!


Arlene Decina is the Director of Spiritual Growth Ministries at Burke Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia.

Many Bodies, One Table

by Elizabeth Howell

Our church is one of the few congregations in our city that still offers a weekday morning Vacation Bible School.  It is a lot of work to make the week come together, but the children and volunteers love it.

ehowell1Early in 2012, I set to work preparing a curriculum that would fit our goals for Christian education.  After much brainstorming, my key volunteers and I settled on the theme “Come to the Table: A Journey from the First Passover Meal to the Last Supper.”  Our goal was to teach children about the Eucharist, and to connect the story of God’s people in Exodus to the Sabbath meal Jesus shared with his disciples on Good Friday.  For weeks, we tossed around ideas of creative ways to help the children express what they would be learning each day.

My creative and enthusiastic co-director Kathy knew just where to turn for inspiration.  The image of our week would be the communion table.  With only an old donated kitchen table, we turned to a church member with the skills and vision to create a beautiful piece of worship art.  As this man planned and measured and ordered thousands of tiny colorful tiles, I hoped the piece would come together as he dreamed it would.  Many times throughout last spring, I thought to myself that an ordinary person would not have the patience for such a venture.  This man was not daunted.  His plan: to have 100 children create a mosaic of the Last Supper over the top of a worn out kitchen table.

ehowell2This one member enlisted the help of a woodcutter and a portrait artist in our church.  He fortified the table to withhold the weight, another member enlarged a children’s coloring book page to be our pattern, and others set about sanding and painting.  At last, the prep work was complete.  It was time to turn the table over to our children.  Over four mornings in July, the children of our church and neighborhood created a communion table that will host a sacrament for generations.

Each day, I photographed the progress.  Little fingers, many little fingers, pieced together the Last Supper.  We were all fascinated to see the scene come to life.  Each day, volunteers took time to allow our children to choose their tiles, to slowly squeeze out glue, and to fit their colors into place.  They were so careful with their work.  The stage of our Fellowship Hall, where the children worked, was quiet with reverence, as they meditated on piecing together this holy scene.

Reflecting back on this VBS project, I often consider how much easier it would have been for the adults to do the work themselves.  It took far more time to plan, to prepare, and to wait for younger, unskilled hands to complete the table.  It is the work of these little fingers in partnership with our artists and volunteers, however, which gives the table its deep meaning in our church family.

ehowell3I think about this often.  Like many of you, I feel the frustration of recruiting many hands to staff programs and mission.  Some days, it is a struggle to find those bodies that can make an event or a worship service come together.  From time to time, I find myself doing the work a volunteer should be doing.  I tell myself it would be simpler for me to accomplish the task myself rather than find, call, and train a volunteer.  If I’m not careful, however, it is easy to forget how much more worthwhile it is to share that load and enlist the participation of others.  My ministry is to equip these people, not do the work of the church alone.

I remember those adults who patiently waited for children to work and to find just the right tile that was the perfect shade and shape.  My job is to do just that.  My job is to wait, pray, and patiently discern ways to equip God’s people to share in the ministry of Christ’s church.  My job is to equip them and to walk beside them, seeking out ways that their gifts might meet a need, fitting just the right tile into just the right space.


Elizabeth Howell is the Associate Pastor of Christian Education at  Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, VA, where she coordinates Sunday and  mid-week educational opportunities for children and adults.  She loves  worshiping with her congregation, ordering fresh packs of curriculum, and taking  long walks with a hardhat (her church is in the midst of an 18 month  renovation!).  In her free time, Elizabeth enjoys spending time outdoors  with her fiancé Chris and their dogs Penny and Berk.