Participation

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


Our next presbytery gathering is one week from Saturday at The Washington Presbyterian church in Washington, Missouri. It will be a time of learning, celebration, and efficient business. I am so happy that we will celebrate the ministry of 51 of our congregations. There are currently 42 congregations who have said yes to participating in the hunger action program. Additionally, 28 of the 51 also participated in four of the special offerings over the past 4 years. Wow!

I often say that there are two words which seem to never go together: all and presbytery. We cannot get all of the presbytery to do anything! But I am pleased that 2/3 participated in these programs. Kudos to each church, pastor, and session that will receive certificates and financial gifts at the presbytery gathering.

According to our mission statement, we are presbytery of dynamic leaders and vibrant congregations. In 2020, I want to focus on us becoming vibrant congregations. This is part of being a Matthew 25 presbytery as well. Although Mathew 25 uses the word “vital congregation,” the idea is the same. Both vital and vibrant speak to life, energy, creativity, and relationships. Both define a congregation as building community, dismantling racism, and pushing back against poverty.

The presbytery does not create vibrant congregations. There is no magic formula or five step program to become a vibrant congregation. But the presbytery can create an environment where vibrant congregations can exist and flourish. For this to happen we must be a connectional church with the presbytery office serving as a hub in multiple ways–creating, enhancing, resourcing, and steering connections. 

Not all of our congregations are vibrant. There are many reasons why. Some have very limited resources, and others are limited in vision. Some choose to be disconnected because of past hurts and disappointments (these congregations may even grow but are not connected to the presbytery). Some have been without leadership for so long they can’t see a way out of their entrenchment, and others are slowly winding down as they come to the end of a rich life and fulfilling ministry. The presbytery is willing to meet each congregation where they are and help them to determine their future, whatever it may be.

The November gathering closes out 2019 and kicks off 2020! It is about celebrating the past while looking forward with newly elected officers and living into Matthew 25. I urge all of our congregations to come off the sidelines and get into the action of doing connectional, vibrant ministry in the presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy!

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

 

Co-Creators

 Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org 


Yesterday I received an email from our communications associate, Janice McMillen, informing me that we had 40 congregations signed as either “certified” or “covenant” Hunger Action congregations with the PC(USA). These congregations completed a simple online form to explain what they are doing. They received the appropriate recognition from the denomination, and we will be recognizing their efforts at the November 9th presbytery gathering in Washington, Missouri.

For these 40 churches, being a Hunger Action congregation was not their goal. These congregations saw a need in their community and decided to do something about it. Their responses range from food pantries to community gardens. Some have community dinners while others do education programs to combat hunger. Their response to hunger was not out of a desire for recognition but an expression of their vision, mission, and core identity.

In her book, Leadership and the New Science, Margaret Wheatley writes about the connection between environment, vision, and identity. She believes successful organizations are connected to their environment and actually play a part in creating the community in which they exist. This comes about because of the organization’s sense of purpose and vision, which springs from its identity. She writes, “When an organization knows who it is, what its strengths are, and what it is trying to accomplish, it can respond intelligently to changes from its environment. . . The presence of a clear identity makes the organization less vulnerable to its environment; it develops greater freedom to decide how it will respond.”

The vision of a congregation should include the needs and opportunities of its community. The mission of a congregation should be in partnership with its surrounding community. This is why I’ve encouraged each congregation to do a neighborhood exegesis. As a church becomes aware of the needs and opportunities around its space, it will know where and how to connect: it will know how to become a co-creator of the future of that community.

Here is a list of the 40 Hunger Action congregations. Congratulations!

Here is a link to a nice story about First Alton and the great work they are doing with their community.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

Visiting the Country

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org 


The old phrase, “You can’t tell a book by its cover” is especially true when it comes to people! I’m learning that it is difficult to tell much about a person just from looking at them on the outside. As you know, I was born and raised in Chicago. But what you do not know is I also have country and rural connections from my childhood on my grandmother’s farm in Port Arthur, Texas. My earliest memory of being on the farm is the smell of milk as it hits the bucket under a cow’s udder. I remember the smell and connect it the taste of Corn Flakes I eat for breakfast. Grandma had more of a house with farm animals than a farm! She had a few cows and chickens on her 5 acres. There may have even been a pig waddling around somewhere. Granddad (Who was really my step-grandfather. My real grandfather died when my father was a teenager) always wore coveralls and smelled of sweat from the Texas heat.

When I married Marilyn, I learned another level of country and farm living. My first time going to my father-in-law’s farm in Bowling Green, Missouri became a deep dive into the country. We arrived at night and the darkness was overwhelming. I’d never seen so many stars in the sky. I called it “dark dark!” I came to understand the self-sufficiency of farming. Anything my father-in-law needed could be made on the 1500 acre farm. I listened as this independent minded man in blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt shared his in-depth knowledge of land, animals, and weather. He would then just as easily talk about insurance, the economy, and social events. The notion of the dumb farmer is quickly dismissed in conversations with my father-in-law.

As a person raised in Chicago, I have country and rural roots. As a farmer in Bowling Green, my father-in-law is current on what is happening in metro St. Louis. He and I have come to know and appreciate one another because we have conversations.

As I do the work of the presbytery in rural communities, I experience a lot of assumptions regarding values and understanding of different cultures. There are several dichotomies including country versus city and fancy versus simple. These assumptions play into our politics (liberal versus conservative) and our values (Biblical versus biblical). Not to mention assumptions about race and ignorance regarding the capacity and potential of people because of the color of their skin.

But these dichotomies are often proven false when we sit and talk with one another. While talking and listening to one another (preferably over a meal!) we may learn that we have more in common than we assume. Ask Dardenne Presbyterian and Third Presbyterian Church’s men’s groups. Through conversations they learned to appreciate and respect one another. Even though many come from different racial and economic backgrounds.

I find that people usually love their families, want what is best for their children, want work that is meaningful and significant, honor their heritage, and really do care about the environment. Most people have experienced hardship either personally or with a family member, and they want a better life for their grandchildren. If we can listen to one another and find points of connection with common values and suffering, we may find that we are not so different after all.

Rev. Craig Howard

Intentional Love

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


On Saturday I drove back from a synod meeting in Kansas City along with a synod commissioner. We talked about retirement. He shared how he is learning that retirement is about having a routine. He then named 5 daily habits he practices which cover physical, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and relational well-being. I asked for examples of each of these. Of course, he talked about daily Bible reading and prayer, physical exercise and journaling. He then surprised me by saying that each day, he does something to show his wife that he loves her. I thought, “Do I show Marilyn that I love her on a daily basis?” (Please don’t ask her!!) Sometimes love means acting in intentional and consistent ways.

As your presbytery leader I want the entire presbytery to feel like they are important, cared and prayed for. The staff continues to come up with creative ways to demonstrate the significance of every church, pastor, and member. The In Your Neighborhood program comes from our heart of compassion as a way to show how important everyone in the presbytery is.

This past Wednesday and Thursday the presbytery office set up camp in Sullivan, Missouri. Over the next two days we met with over 35 people in meals, fellowship, and business. It was great to see people from different churches fellowshipping with one another at meals. Pastors and leaders felt welcomed as the restaurants filled with laughter and conversation. They were attentive as we shared dates for upcoming presbytery events and appreciation for their presence. They also shared with the presbytery and with one another upcoming significant events in each church, and a commitment to support one another. I also met with leadership from Mound Ridge. Our honest and difficult conversation was followed with pizza and well- wishes.

This is what it means to be Presbyterian and a presbytery: sharing our joys and concerns while seeking and discovering ways to show that we love one another. It takes an intentional effort to be a connected church. Love with intention can cover a multitude of faults and create an atmosphere of grace.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Porous Boundaries

 

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


I received a call from a presbytery executive in Illinois. He was looking for a pastor in a small town and realized the church was across the bridge from a church in Giddings-Lovejoy that was also seeking a pastor. We talked about how difficult it has been to find pastors willing to go to rural areas. It is not just because of the location. We have to consider the lifestyle and family of the pastor too. As we talked, we realized that if we could find someone willing to serve several congregations, we would have a better chance of paying them well, giving them a choice of places to live, and increase the probability of finding good schools and places where a spouse could work. And here is the twist: In order to make this happen, we would have to cross presbytery boundaries. Suddenly the boundaries we drew back in 1983 to define Giddings-Lovejoy and Southeast Illinois would have to become porous in order for us to attract the best leadership.

I also received an email from someone who is writing an article on the future of Presbyterian ministry in 2020. The writer wanted to know what vision I have for Giddings-Lovejoy as we head into the new year. My immediate thought was that I have a vision for us to become one Presbytery.

This vision of one presbytery has not changed since I first arrived in St. Louis. What is changing, however, are the boundaries I envision for ministry. I want Giddings-Lovejoy to realize the gifts we have in our presbytery and the wonderful things we can accomplish together. But I also want us to see other presbyteries touching our borders and the possibilities we have working together across boundaries.

Perhaps we need to also look at other boundaries we have created. As I seek leadership on the geographic edges of the presbytery, I am looking at other denominations that we are in communion with as well. Perhaps the solution to our Presbyterian problem can be found in ELCA Lutheran, United Church of Christ, or Reformed Church. Part of the challenge of our church may be a result of limited thinking and the silos and compartments in which we place ourselves. It may be time to bust out of these boxes and experience the abundance that is already in our midst.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Liminality

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org 


September 4th was our anniversary. Marilyn and I celebrated 15 years by purchasing a house in Ellisville. It is a great idea, very romantic, and a whole lot of work! These past two weeks I have been moving from my house in Ballwin, into our home in Ellisville. The distance is only 10 minutes, which makes it worse! This is because we figured it would be easy to go back and forth between houses: bringing and cleaning, lifting up and putting down, boxing and arranging. Each day things get better. I can find my belt now!

We have been living between two homes, and it feels like living between two worlds. It is a familiar feeling because I and the leaders in the presbytery, feel as though we are living in this way every day. During a conversation with some pastors from my generation, we talked about the many things seminary didn’t teach us! Boilers, roofs, and septic tanks came to mind. I didn’t know I would have to know so much about real estate, taxes and finance! The list could go on.

The preparation we needed was not to equip us for all of the details of the ministry, but for liminality. Liminality describes the in-between spaces we live into as we lead and serve the people of God. Liminality means learning to be comfortable with uncertainty, pushing ahead without knowing the results, and risking different approaches to problems. Experiencing liminality is feeling off balance and unsure where the next step is on the foggy path we are taking. But sometimes the path appears as we take the step.

Liminality not only applies to pastors, chaplains, teachers, and other leaders, but it applies to those in the pews, the hospital, and school room. We are all living in changing times, and we are all affected by them.

Now is when we also feel the grace and presence of the God who said, “I am who I am” (or I will be who I will be). God is a God of change, and at the very nature of this changing God is love and grace. We need both of those arms of God to embrace us as we move forward in the path the Spirit is calling us to take.

Look! I just found my socks! I get the feeling things will turn out alright on this move!

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Are you Qualified for Matthew 25?

 Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


I was a track athlete in high school and college. I remember my first attempt to go down state. I was on a relay team, and we didn’t do well. I was feeling discouraged and my coach reminded me that I’d already qualified for state in the 440 yard dash (now it’s the 400 meter dash! I’m dating myself). I was elated! I was headed down state for the first time!

At our last Presbytery Gathering we were introduced to Vital Congregations. This program was created by Katherine Threadgill, our speaker and worship leader for the gathering. Creating vital congregations is one of the three pillars of the Matthew 25 initiative which the presbytery is implementing for 2020. The three pillars are systematic poverty, structural racism, and congregational vitality. And chances are, many of our churches already qualify!

When PC(USA) announced this initiative, it felt as though they’d been listening in on what we are already doing in Giddings-Lovejoy! We have several congregations committed to the elimination of hunger (systemic poverty). Our Dismantling Racism and Privilege team is challenging congregations and individuals to identify white privilege and combat racism in our churches and communities (structural racism). We have congregations signed up for Ministry Architect, Partners for Sacred Places, and several participated in the Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations initiative (congregational vitality). When it comes to poverty, racism, and congregational vitality, our presbytery is all over these!

The goal for 2020 is to improve upon what we are already doing. Let’s move beyond feeding people, for example, and build relationships and friendships with the people who come to eat at our churches. Let them know they are as welcome to Sunday service as they are to Wednesday night supper. Racism is present throughout the cities and towns our presbytery serves. How do we stretch beyond conversations in our buildings around race to influencing public policy and positions our communities hold? Perhaps being a vital congregation will mean doing mission and evangelism; reaching out and inviting in.

As your session plans for ministry in 2020, think seriously about being a Matthew 25 congregation. Chances are, you already qualify!

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Son Light Parish

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


 

Last Sunday afternoon, I preached at the joint congregation worship of the three churches in the Son Light Parish. It was an outdoor service on the grounds of Bellevue Presbyterian, in Caledonia, Missouri. Bellevue was the first Presbyterian church west of the Mississippi, organized in 1816. It was an awesome experience preaching in the shadow of this historic building!

These three churches, First Presbyterian Churches of the Leadbelt:  Park Hills, Fredericktown, and Ironton share the same pastor, Mark Wiley. Every Sunday morning, Mark does a “circuit” among the three congregations. He begins with an hour drive from his home in Hillsboro to Ironton for 8:45 worship, then heads to Fredericktown for 10:15 worship, and finishes at Park Hill at 11:30 worship. Mark says that often by the time he arrives at Park Hills, the service has already begun, and he walks into the door directly into the pulpit! He also jokes that by the time he gets to Park Hills, his sermon is really cooking! Mark returns home to Hillsboro about 1:30 each Sunday.

The Son Light Parish is a form of church from the 17th and 18th century. That is when ministers were assigned a geographic area of congregations. The minister would go on horseback from church to church, completing their circuit, preaching and leading the sacraments.

Ten years ago, these three congregations were struggling with their future. They did not have a way forward, so they looked backward for possible solutions. They realized they could not stand on their own, so they found a way to stand together. Through the leadership of Rev. Pam’la Cowan, the three churches came together to share resources. That was the beginning. They would later share events, fellowship, and find encouragement through cooperation.

As I look over the 77 congregations and 2 new worshipping communities of Giddings-Lovejoy, I see several congregations struggling week to week. I worry about their future. But when I see places like Son Light Parish, I feel relief. I realize I don’t have to figure out a plan or come up with a program for the survival of congregations. Congregations have the capacity to figure it out for themselves. There is something about life that craves to be lived. This applies to people and churches.

For some, it may mean merging like Berea and Curby did at our last Presbytery Gathering. Others will yolk like Union and Pacific. Still others will try different arrangements, and they may not work. Trying itself is a sign of life. And some have come to the end of their local ministry and will close like Maryland Heights did.

The presbytery is a living organism. We seek to find a way forward together. Mark and Pam’la are examples of the many innovative, creative, and energetic pastors and leaders with ideas to pave the way into the future.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

 

 

 

Listening and Doing

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org 

A significant part of my work and call is learning. I attend conferences, workshops, take online courses, belong to an executive cohort group, receive coaching, and read books (lots of books!). We are living in a time of change that requires learning new things and doing different things in order to find our way into the future. It is a time of experimentation and risk.

I am currently reading the book, The Mainstream Protestant Decline, which focuses on the decline of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the 20th century. This decline goes beyond membership. It is a decline in budgets, congregations, pastors, and social and cultural influence. The decline, which began in the 1960s, is defined as the third disestablishment. One of the conclusions the authors reach is that the cause of the decline was more external factors than internal. It was more about the changes in American society and culture, than what was going on inside of the Presbyterian denomination.

Although we are living in the 21st century, we are experiencing the momentum of the 20th century decline. Over 80% of the congregations in the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy are either stagnant or in decline. The same can be said for the PC(USA) and mainline denominations as a whole. Many pastors and sessions look around their congregations each month and just feel stuck.

There are many possible responses to where the church is today. One response is to continue doing what we have been doing. In this way we see ourselves as preserving the tradition. Perhaps if we do the same thing in better ways, things will change. Another response is to try and do things differently. This includes changes in liturgy, music, design of the worship space, and preaching styles. Some change and rotate like a Rubik’s cube, hoping to find the right combination.

I believe the answer is between learning and doing. The challenge of the current and future church must be answered with education and programs to address the issues we’ve discovered.

This year the presbytery has offered four programs to help congregations assess their situation, possibilities, and opportunities for change. Healthy Pastors-Healthy Congregations has had the most response. Ministry Architects begins in the Fall with 5 congregations. We were hoping for 6 – 10 (It’s still not too late to sign up!) We are still building congregations for Partners for Sacred Places. However, Project Regeneration did not attract any congregations.

The presbytery gathering on Thursday will introduce Congregational Vitality as another way to learn and act in transformational ways for 2020. It is a denominational program that offers ways to look at congregations and neighborhoods (inside and outside of the church) that will make the congregation more relevant. I strongly suggest commissioners, teaching elders, and congregational leader take a look at this program.

In addition, the presbytery has made available $100,000 in grants for congregations, pastors, and leaders. These funds can be used to offset costs of programs, and to promote new ideas which leaders and congregations develop.

Take advantage of these learnings and programs. Become a bold church, a leader who takes risks, a congregation that is willing to experiment, as we continue to seek God’s will for the church in the 21st century.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Do It Again

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org 

I was raised in a cozy brick house on a corner lot in an African American middle-class suburb of Chicago. You know that house where all the kids hang out? That was my house! Although the house wasn’t very large, there was a constant parade of people in and out. My friends, along with those of my brothers and sister were always welcome. Also, my parents hosted small meetings of adults strategizing about schools, gangs, and racial tensions in our area.

The future of the Presbytery and the Presbyterian church will depend upon our connecting to the local communities we inhabit. It is important that the people inside of our building reflect the population in the surrounding neighborhood. The community must feel as though the Presbyterian church is their church, an asset in the community where they can hang out.

This is why we are practicing another Neighborhood Exegesis at the upcoming presbytery gathering. We will have a pre-session that will involve learning and exploring the neighborhoods of Belleville IL. The Neighborhood Exegesis is the same process we did last year in Edwardsville. We will gather at Westminster Presbyterian church at 10 am. Westminster will share some exciting ministries they are doing and provide a preview of the neighborhoods we will be exploring. After their presentations, we will hit the streets! We will be provided maps that have been put together by the planning teams of Westminster and First United. We will explore the diversity of the community called Belleville. Hopefully this will include conversations with people we encounter on the street, in the shops, and coffee houses. The groups will eat at local restaurants. This will provide a chance to debrief the experience before heading back to church. Finally, the Neighborhood Exegesis experience will be part of Kathryn Threadgill’s plenary session.

I strongly encourage everyone to take advantage of this learning opportunity. Many of our congregations have completed the neighborhood exegesis since last August. It is an experience that is worth the walking! Registration can be found here.

Rev. Craig M. Howard