Advent – A Journey of Faith

Blog Post by
Rev. Vanessa Hawkins
Designated Associate Presbytery Leader
vhawkins@glpby.org 


Last Sunday was a busy day for the presbytery!

I started Sunday morning off listening to my GPS inform me that some of the streets to First Brighton were unverifiable. Not one to be derailed by GPS, I headed out only to get lost and be rescued later by a wonderful member of the church. My GPS took me to another church down the road. Thankfully, a member of Brighton collected me from the parking lot of the local museum and drove me to their beautiful edifice.

After the service I rushed to preach at Moro Presbyterian Church as they celebrated 170 years of service. Walking into the fellowship hall after the service, I was able to spend some time looking over 170 years of memorabilia. It was a delight to look over worship bulletins from decades ago, to listen to members identify their photos in the directories, and to listen to the third oldest member of the church tell stories about those who have passed on to join the Church Triumphant. I was reminded by their witness that this faith journey is built upon the faith of those who came before and our faith will be built upon by those who come after us.

My last stop of the day was the installation of Andrew Kasberg, as the new head of staff, at Dardenne Presbyterian Church.  It was a fitting end to a long day.  One theme that stood out that encapsulated the entire day was one of the opening praise songs “Who You Say I Am.” As I listened to the choir, I was reminded that we are indeed a chosen people, called and loved by God. That God, Emmanuel, is indeed with us – and does not stand against us. It was a beautiful song reminding me that as a child of God I truly belonged to God and that Christ died so that we could be free.

As we continue to journey through this Advent season—let us be like the African Sankofa Bird – looking back while walking into the future. In this season of waiting – let us pause for a brief moment. Take time to give thanks to God for the faithful witnesses who have gone before us. Pause and give thanks for being one of many being used by God to prepare the path for those who will come after us. And for all these things we give thanks.

Rev. Vanessa Hawkins

Advent Hope

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


There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling. Ephesians 4:4

“Hope is a dangerous thing.” Shawshank Redemption.

Each Advent and Lent, I read one book a week. I have begun my Advent reading with Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming. I’m enjoying the book as it takes me through her neighborhood on the southside of Chicago, where I too was born. She talks about Chicago winters and owning way too much wool! But when she talks about having a snow shovel in the trunk of the car, I knew she is a real Chicagoan!

Michelle Obama tells the story of interviewing for admissions to Princeton. The admissions counselor tells Michelle that she is not sure that Michelle is Princeton material. Michelle writes, “Failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result. And for me, it felt like that’s exactly what she was planting. A suggestion of failure long before I would even try to succeed.” Of course, Michelle would go on to be a student at Princeton and graduate at the top of her class. She would go on to Harvard law school as well.

The concept that failure is an idea before it becomes actualized, strikes me. This is not a book about false positivism or Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Becoming is about growing up as an African American woman surrounded by assumptions our culture has regarding what is possible for a black child, and the role family plays to combat these false expectations. If failure begins as an idea, so can hope. Michelle shares how hope pushes her and challenges her to take risks and follow the paths into the unknown to reap the fruits of a life with impact.

If the field of your life is experiencing dry spots, perhaps Advent is the time to plant seeds of hope. Sessions can use Advent to regenerate the corporate imagination and dream new dreams for the church. As Chris Keating said in his Advent sermon on Sunday at Woodlawn Chapel, “Advent is the time we contemplate the nature and audacity of hope.” It is an inclusive waiting for a radical hope.

This is the work of the church. We are the place where the idea of hope is planted and the fruit of hope is actualized. The church of the resurrection- God’s ultimate statement of hope- is what the world needs.  May each of us and our congregations do the work of spreading hope this Advent season.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Sacred Space

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


Three weeks ago I sat with another Administrative Commission that has been given the responsibility to dissolve a Presbyterian congregation. This means caring for the members and selling the building. As I proceed with the orientation, I hide my pain around the inevitable decisions that have to be made. These are God’s people. This is sacred space. Now it is a matter of faithful people executing a process that is designed to be caring, compassionate, and conclusive. On December 31, 2018, Elm Street Presbyterian Church will be dissolved.

The building where the church existed for 99 years is now for sale. The church building is a sacred space. It is where children are baptized, adults are married, and all receive the Lord’s supper. In this sacred space, souls have been encouraged, sin has been forgiven, and the love of Jesus has been the answer to a multitude of life challenges. As this sacred space is placed on the market, the presbytery works with reverence and respect for all this building represents.

The buildings our congregations occupy present a challenge for our churches and presbytery. It is not just about churches that close. Think of the resources each congregation puts into its buildings. These resources include heating in the winter and cooling in the summer, not to mention landscaping, roofs, gutters, tuck pointing, painting, and other maintenance. As congregation budgets decrease, maintenance is deferred until a major repair is needed. Even congregations with building endowments struggle. They must balance funds spent on the building verses those spent for ministry and mission.

While our church buildings can be challenging, they also represent a major investment of financial resources, time, and personnel. How can we use this investment to create community space, as well as worship space? How can our congregations become home to other organizations and non-profits in the community we serve. Many of our congregations are already using their buildings in this way. This is not a solution to extend our existence as a church, but to bring impact in our community through our greatest resource.

In 2019 we will host a series of workshops around building use. The Presbyterian Foundation will lead these conversations as part of their Small Member Church Forums. I will be sure to have sessions directed to all of our congregations as well. Together, we can help one another figure out how to use these sacred spaces in our communities.

Blessings This Advent Season.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Movers & Stayers

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


This week, people will be coming and going to various destinations across the country. Marilyn and I will be driving to Chicago to have Thanksgiving at my sister’s home in the south suburbs. I am already getting the traffic reports which determine the days and times to avoid driving, not that it matters! You gotta go when you gotta go!

During the holidays, many people are returning home or visiting relatives and friends in a different part of the country. Pew Research came up with the following data regarding who moves, who stays, and where they go. The data is from 2008, so it is dated, but I’m sure many of the trends are still relevant.

  1. Nearly half of the adult residents in the Midwest say they have spent their entire lives in their hometown. This compares to one-third of those in the Western states.
  2. Cities, suburbs and small towns have more movers than stayers. Rural areas are more evenly split.
  3. Three-quarters of college graduates have moved at least once. College graduates also move longer distances and move more often than Americans with high school diplomas or less.
  4. Employment plays the biggest role in the decision to move. The most affluent Americans are the most likely to have moved.
  5. People move less as they get older.
  6. Two career couples move less because it is more difficult to find work for both spouses in a new location.

For some of us these statements ring truer than for others. Let me share one more list of statistics from the same Pew study. They asked the question, “Where do you call home?” For U.S. born adults who have lived in at least one place besides their original hometown:

  • 26% say it’s where they were born or raised.
  • 22% say it’s where they live now.
  • 18% say it’s where they have lived the longest.
  • 15% say it’s where their family comes from.
  • 4% say it’s where they went to high school.

How do these numbers help you understand the trends in your church? How can these trends help you to plan for your church’s future?

As you travel or host this Thanksgiving, may you be in the place you call home, or with people you call family and community. And may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, Love of God, and communion of the Holy Spirit be with you this Thanksgiving season.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Diagnosis

Blog post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
Transitional Leader
choward@glpby.org


I had the greatest physician when I was in Milwaukee! She was from India, a Hindu who did community health clinics in the African American community, and she knew what to say to get my attention! After one of my check-ups, she wanted to make sure I was eating a healthy diet. She sent me to a nutritionist and said in a stern voice, “Don’t you start eating crazy on me, or we’re gonna have a problem!” I hear those words every time I want to gorge on sweets or fried foods. Her diagnosis changed my behavior.

We are coming to the end of the calendar year and it is an excellent time for congregations and sessions to perform a diagnosis. Now would be the time to schedule a planning retreat, review committees, and blow the dust off of the strategic plan to see if the church has been following it. The three questions asked in the book Holy Conversations by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann still apply. They are, “Who are we?”, “What has God called us to do or be?”, and “Who is our neighbor?” I would add a fourth question, “What do we do best?”

Congregations do many things from music, liturgy, day care, feeding ministry, various building uses, etc. Congregations are a bundled institution. They are more like newspapers with several items to attract readers: editorial pages, puzzles, comics, ads, etc. Another example is that congregations are more like Sears with clothing, lawnmowers, and refrigerators. What would happen if we unbundled ministries and committees? What if congregations separated all that they do, and then asked, “What do we do best?”

Perhaps 2019 can be the year of focus for your congregation. What if a congregation focused more on what it does best- worship, music, children’s education, etc. and enhanced that ministry. Perhaps that “thing” which the congregation is known for becomes the ministry focus which other new ideas orbit around. I’m not suggesting what churches should stop doing, but I’m suggesting churches should focus their energy, resources, and imagination. There was a time when congregations had the resources to be all things to all people, but for many that time has passed. Perhaps now is the time when churches need to be more focused and less scattered.

I’m interested to hear what your congregation plans are for the new year. Email me at choward@glpby.org or respond to this blog.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

 

 

 

Decent Disorder

Blog post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
Transitional Leader
choward@glpby.org


Have you ever had one of those days where if anything could go wrong, it did? That is what Saturday’s presbytery gathering felt like for me! We started out by forgetting the cash box! This meant we couldn’t provide change for those who wanted to pay cash for lunch. Then there was the need for copies. Ordinarily all of the copies of documents we need are done at the office. We don’t expect the host church to provide a copy machine. There was a last minute replacement of a speaker, errors in the online binder, reports that went too long and presentation time that was too short. My anxiety level was going skyward! Then, Leigh Porter, our office manager who holds everything together, took ill and had to go to the doctor. Yikes!

And the presbytery commissioners and teaching elders handled every foul-up, mix-up, and screw-up with grace, patience, and humor. Instead of taking the opportunity to point fingers or make a case out of each problem, the presbytery just rolled with the punches!

We’ve come a long way!

This spirit of cooperation and compassion is critical as we journey further into a future that is both exciting and fearful. It is a future of ideas, innovation, and risk taking. We will balance faith with reflection. We will seek to take chances, create theories, and take actions that produce observable and measurable results. It is a balance of faith (belief) and science (what is measurable).

I want to thank our science presenters again. They were Dr. Randall Flanery from the St. Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute, Dr. Sara Miles from the Presbytery of Milwaukee, and our own Ellie Stock. Sara and Ellie have provided a copy of their presentations. You can access them here:

I also want to thank the presbytery for electing me as your “permanent” Presbytery Leader. It is an honor to serve you. I have received tons of “congratulations” by email and social media. I believe elections in the church are God’s way of speaking through the body of Christ. I take your vote seriously. There is plenty I could say about the joy, opportunity, and challenge of being in Giddings-Lovejoy, but that would take another article!

I will just leave you with one comment, this presbytery has a tremendous gift that the world needs, hospitality. You know how to express kindness and embrace others. What I’m seeing now is that you (I guess I should say we!) are turning hospitality and kindness, that we’ve always expressed to outsiders, toward one another.

I pray we continue to move from criticism to flexibility; from judgement to embrace. With the right attitude we can achieve anything, in the name of Jesus Christ!

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Homework

Blog post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
Transitional Leader
choward@glpby.org

 


This past weekend the presbytery had a visioning retreat with the team and sub-team leaders. It was a time of stimulating ideas, great conversation, and rich fellowship. As we met with one another, we realized what a blessing we have when we come together in fellowship. Saturday will be another opportunity for us to meet face to face and get to know one another a little better at our stated Presbytery Gathering.

But first things first! We will be voting on eight amendments to the Book of Order. These include:

  • Bringing clarity to the constitution of a nominating committee.
  • How to handle Ministers of Word and Sacrament who renounce jurisdiction while in the midst of a disciplinary proceedings, and then want to return to the denomination.
  • Preventing congregations from supporting a political candidate.
  • Clarity on rules regarding a minister laboring beyond the bounds of a presbytery.
  • Clarifying wording for pastors and commissioned pastors.
  • Clarifying when children should receive the Lord’s supper.
  • Adding sexual abuse as misconduct.
  • Eliminating the time limit sexual abuse can be reported.

Some see the Book of Order as a manual of archaic rules that impose limitations on the activities of congregations and ministers. These amendments remind us that the Book of Order is a living document, responding to the challenges of our time. It is an attempt to guide the life of the church. The amendment process keeps the Book of Order updated. When presbyteries and sessions around the country experience a problem that the Book of Order does not address, is fuzzy on interpretation, or outdated, the amendment process addresses these needs.

The challenge for Saturday is that the commissioners will need to read the amendments, rationales, and recommendations. This is real homework! But it is a way to be informed when we vote on Saturday.

In other parts of business, we will hear about some exciting congregational initiatives for 2019 as we lay out the budget. I’m looking forward to our panel discussion on Creation and Science with Ellie Stock and Sara Miles. Sara will be our preacher for the afternoon, and we will serve communion.

Most of all I’m looking forward to seeing the commissioners, Teaching Elders, and visitors. As I travel throughout our presbytery, I’m enjoying the worship and fellowship. We have some really good people in our presbytery, and I am blessed to serve as in Giddings Lovejoy.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Hope

Blog post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
Transitional Leader
choward@glpby.org


 

“There is a quality I feel in the room right now—a generosity of spirit—a drawing one another out— that gives me the feeling we can do things we didn’t know we could do and say things we didn’t know we knew.”

We need churches that feel like this. Our future depends on it.

The above quote is from a monogram called “December Gathering: Notes from the Field.” The monogram is part of a series by two young Harvard Divinity students, Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile.  These young adults have remapped a path for the future church. All five monograms can be found here https://www.howwegather.org/.

I find the work that Angie, Casper, and Sue are doing fascinating. The phrase I quoted reminds me that what really works for our congregations and ministries has less to do with buildings, budgets, and resources. We have to try new things. This takes risk, and with risk comes the possibility of failure. Angie and Casper have brought together others who are trying to figure out a way forward. They have discovered that when people who believe in what is possible come together, they are able to achieve more than anyone thought doable.

I call this hope.

I believe what is needed in our presbytery is a confidence grounded in hope. Perhaps we need a spirit that believes we can try and do things we did not know we could do. As a church we are led by the Holy Spirit and guided by the scriptures. Both place value on reaching out to our community, being hospitable, and sharing God’s story of transformation and change with our neighbors.

On Friday and Saturday, the presbytery team and sub team leaders will gather for our retreat. My goal is to infuse them with a spirit of possibility and hope. At the end of our retreat I want our leaders to believe that together we can do things we did not know we could. This is the spirit I want to carry into 2019 and beyond. I pray that it radiates from this group of leaders into every corner of our presbytery.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

Another Hidden Jewel

Blog post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
Transitional Leader
choward@glpby.org


The first indicator that I’m visiting a rural church is when the pastor says not to trust my GPS but follow his instructions instead! After exiting I-44 I turn, weave, go up and down hills, and after a few more hair pin turns, I’m on a black top. The church suddenly appears on my right. I know I’m visiting a rural church when the only sound I hear are the cows singing a melody of moos! I’m met at the front door by a little dog, which I find out later doesn’t belong to anyone but refuses to leave. This is Old Argo. This is a shining jewel of a congregation located in Bourbon, Missouri off the Sullivan exit.

As worship begins, about 35 people fill the sanctuary. The age range is a perfect bell curve from babies in arm to seniors on canes. There is energy, excitement, and a bit of exhaustion. The night before is the annual Fall Festival which the church hosts. They cook up two pigs (donated by a church member), add in tons of homemade goodies, a musical group, a silent auction, games and fun. This congregation of less than 40 serves 335 dinners and raises over $5,200! The festival is a total volunteer effort. As I hear the stories of the night before, I long for a jar of homemade apple butter!

Old Argo is led by pastor Rob Caldwell, a commissioned pastor (CP). Giddings Lovejoy has a robust CP program. We take ruling elders who feel God’s call to a pastoral ministry and put them through a three-year program. A new cohort is already underway with 11 elders in training. These leaders often end up in small congregations.

Rural and small church ministry in a reality in our presbytery. Out of 79 congregations, we currently have 27 with 50 members or less. In Giddings Lovejoy, once a congregation has 40 members or less, they can no longer afford a traditional called and installed pastor. Our challenge is to prepare people like Rob, who have a genuine love for small church ministry, and support them in their call. With the right pastoral leadership, even small congregations can thrive and be vibrant where they are.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Rules and Policy

Blog post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
Transitional Leader
choward@glpby.org


Today I took part in Boundary Training for ministers in the presbytery. The training is required every three years for all Teaching Elders and Commissioned Pastors. We covered several topics including dating, touching, friendship, and intimacy between pastor and parishioner. We also talked about social media, and the challenges of pastoral identity on the internet. Around the question of friendship, we talked about the difference between being friendly and being a friend. We shared stories of accepting and rejecting gifts and discussed the separation policy regarding once a pastor leaves a congregation.

A big takeaway from the meeting is that boundaries can be fluid, elusive, and highly contextual. While one church may have a brief passing of the peace where no one barely moves or touches, another church walks around hugging everyone for an extended time.

This is why creating policy for congregations and ministers is difficult. We often write policy as a response to a negative activity. For example, we have a stringent separation policy after a pastor leaves a congregation because in the past a pastor abused the relationship with former parishioners. The temptation is to use the worst case as the norm. In Boundary Training, the pastors and leaders reflected on a more nuanced approach. They desired a policy that is sensitive to context. We should think less about absolutes and more about ways to be flexible and have boundaries more fluid and permeable. The church should be less about “thou shalt not” and more about “I bring to you a new commandment, love one another.”

Of course, it is difficult to live in a more flexible community. I imagine people will want to be firm or fluid depending upon their need and advantage. As humans we may want the strictest application for others, and the more open interpretation for ourselves. As your leader, It is easy to apply stiff policy from above. But reality is that we are all doing the best we can as we stumble through our life of faith together.

The Bible says that God loves us. But God’s love is unique to each of us, and the Triune God loves us as we each need to be loved, and not all in the same way. Perhaps this is a way to get at the question of rules and policy. Create the framework but recognize the application may not be the same in every situation.

Rev. Craig M. Howard