Let’s Go to the Big Tent!

When I first began service as pastor of an urban church in Baltimore, I sought opportunities to increase my capacities for transformation of the congregation which had been declining in membership for 30 years. Situated in a neighborhood that had experienced rapid demographic change, the church had lost many members to the suburbs.  Seeking ideas about how to attract new people from the neighborhood, I attended conferences, read books, and interviewed pastors who were leading growing congregations.  Returning from conferences and conversations full of creative ideas to try with my congregation, I enthusiastically related them to the Session.  The Session members would nod and smile and say something like, “Great ideas.  You go right ahead and do those things, Pastor.”  So, I would start trying to raise interest and implement new ideas.  My enthusiasm waned.  If the initial attempt at a program of outreach was not successful, the congregation willingness to engage in new efforts met with greatly diminished. Throughout the life of the church I encountered a decided default to “the way we’d always done it.” I felt alone and discouraged.

This cycle repeated every time I would return from a meaningful continuing education experience and from inspiring Presbytery and General Assembly events. Then I became a member of the planning team for the first national Multicultural Conference sponsored by the PCUSA.   I invited a church member to attend the multicultural church conference, and secured some funding for her attendance from the church Session and the Presbytery.  The General Assembly in an effort to encourage a diversity in people attending the conference, gave her a grant. This church member had such a wonderful time that the next year we had two additional people attend. Then things at the church began to change. The Session agreed to engage in a mission study, nurtured the development of a mission statement and plan for change that was adopted by the congregation.  Attending conferences and learning events together became an important aspect of leadership training.

God transformed the congregation into a vibrant multiracial, multicultural congregation, and I learned an important lesson.  “Don’t go alone!  Bring people with you!”  Since this experience, I’ve been convinced that pastors and church leaders learning together is key to congregational transformation. For this reason, pastors along with leaders from their churches were encouraged to attend the recent events sponsored by Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery. Don’t get me wrong. Pastors need to get away for retreats and study leave opportunities that refresh their spirits and assist them in developing capacities for their ministries. AND also, we welcome God’s transforming Spirit moving us toward transformation as we learn together.

Today I registered for The Big Tent.  Who wants to go too?