Presbytery Leader Report to Presbytery 2.6.2016

Presbytery Leader Report to Presbytery 2.6.2016

During Advent I worshiped at Faith Presbyterian Church in Des Peres. Several pews in the sanctuary were turned to create a sense of intimacy. The largest Advent candles I had ever seen strategically illumined sacred space. A compelling message was communicated by the singing of the choir and the preaching of Pastor Anne Epling. Worshiping at my neighborhood church, Second Presbyterian, I joined with others on Christmas Eve in passing the light of Christ. At Steelville Presbyterian Church, I preached and moderated a congregational meeting. This congregation reflects vitality and vibrancy! I also preached at the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church of Greater St. Louis, a congregation with an amazing ministry with students who come from Taiwan to our city to engage in graduate and residency programs at area universities and hospitals. One young woman enthusiastically announced that she will soon be baptized as a Christian!

These Sunday visits with congregations enable me to catch a glimpse of how we are nurturing of faith and accomplishing our vision of vibrancy. To date I have worshiped on Sunday morning in 50 of our 80 churches. Worship services are consistently well-organized; pastors preach powerful sermons; musicians lead joyful songs of praise, and members are welcoming. If worship alone were the key to growing our congregations, our churches would be increasing in members and thriving. Perhaps we can take some cues from the first century Christians. The early disciples gathered in homes to sing praises to God, to hear the stories about Jesus, to listen to messages in letters from the Apostle Paul and other church leaders. They prayed. In worship together the disciples were filled with the Spirit, gained strength for their mission, and went to tell friends and neighbors about Jesus.

Much of the rest of my work involves meeting with teams, work groups and committees, connecting people, problem-solving, coaching pastors and other church leaders. Working with the Leadership Team and the Transition Team in developing and tweaking the New Mission Plan has been engaging and exciting. Supporting pastors who nurture faith, accompany members through illness and grief, preach and teach the Gospel is a major focus of my ministry. I am privileged to witness the generosity of ruling elders and church members who serve not only their congregations, but give of their time, wisdom and energy on teams, committees, and work groups of the Presbytery.

The Ministry and mission of Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery is occurring during a time of tremendous change. PCUSA membership is decreasing. Many of us grew up in a time when the Protestant Christian narrative was the norm. Most of our friends went to churches on Sundays. However, during 1960’s and 70’s people in the US challenged traditional institutions, including the Church. In our time, according to Hartford Institute of Religious Research, only 20% of people in the US attend church most every Sunday. How do we encourage the faith of our neighbors and friends?

When we leave worship, we are sent by the Holy Spirit to feed the hungry, heal the sick and share the Good News of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ. The early Christians lived in a culturally diverse world that didn’t know Jesus. We live in an increasingly culturally diverse world that does not know Jesus. Presbyterians have been thoughtfully taught in Sunday School classes and youth groups, at summer camp programs and through worship. We have worked to embrace diversity.

At the annual Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observance, the Dismantling Racism and Privilege Team led those of us who gathered through reflection on what we have learned about addressing racism, and we listened to stirring excerpts from King’s I Have a Dream speech. February is Black History month, and we will be reminded repeatedly over the course of these days, of how far we have come in this long journey toward racial reconciliation. We are God’s people, called to proclaim the liberating love Jesus demonstrated in his life, death, and resurrection. In this time of rapid change, when people are seeking meaning and open to working together against injustice, what messages of God’s love will we share with our neighbors and friends. How will we communicate the Good News of Jesus? What opportunities are presented to bear witness and invite others to come and see what God is up to in our churches?

New Mission Plan

Dear Friends in Christ,
Since our last Presbytery Gathering in November, the Transition Team has been at work incorporating suggestions and addressing questions raised about the New Plan for Organization of our Mission together as Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery. Thought, discernment, trust in God’s guiding Spirit, and your questions have informed our work together. This is an unfolding journey as we seek to create an organizational plan that will enable us to build our capacities to nurture dynamic leaders and vibrant congregations.
        Those who follow Jesus embody fluidity, adaptation, and collaboration….
        If there’s one quality that matters most to the fate of the church in the
         twenty-first century, it’s adaptability….    The Monkey and the Fish by Dave Gibbons

Please follow this link http://glpbydesign.weebly.com to access the plan and descriptive materials on that site’s blog. Updates will be posted there as well. We have blog entries also that chronicle the entire process we have been through as we have gathered detailed feedback and incorporated these ideas into the design. Your further feedback and questions can be added as comments on that site. You are also welcome to email the Transition Team Moderator Rob Dyer at pastorrobdyer@gmail.com.

Yours in Service to Christ,
Anita Hendrix
The Rev. Anita Hendrix, D.Min.
Presbytery Leader
Giddings-Lovejoy
Office: 314-772-2395×110
Mobile: 909-543-939

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…” Isaiah 43:2

Dear Friends in Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery,

Presbyterians are helping flood victims in many ways.  Woodlawn Chapel filled buckets with cleaning supplies.  Pacific Presbyterian Church has turned its fellowship hall into a distribution center.  Pastors have called the Presbytery Office asking how and where their congregations can offer support.  Members have contributed gifts of money.

Pastors have responded to the crisis, requesting information and offering support for those recovering from floods.  Some described the pumping out of their church basements as a routine their stalwart members have mastered.  On Sunday I worshiped at Pacific Presbyterian Church.   Following the service, Russ Williams took me on a walking tour the neighborhood to view the damage.  I was impressed by clearly evident water lines six to eight feet above the ground water lines.

Three Presbyterian Disaster Assistance organizers arrived in St. Louis Monday afternoon.  Our first step, they say, is to form a local team to coordinate with congregations in assessing community needs and organizing volunteers for clean-up, distribution of financial and material resources, and engaging in recovery efforts. For this team, we seek people with strong organizational and people skills.  If you or others in your congregation would like to be a part of this team, please contact the Presbytery Office. Once in place, the team will match financial, material and people resources with needs.  Donations received by the Presbytery will be distributed to fund flood recovery efforts.  The team will keep you informed as opportunities for service arise.

Officials estimate 900 homes were inundated in the floods, mud and water closed roads and highways, and lives were lost.  Outside Pacific Presbyterian Church last Sunday, the following words from Isaiah 43 were posted:  “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.”  God is with us as we trudge through the mud and water. God is with us as we clean up messes. God is especially with us as we help others. God is always with us. Please join the Presbytery Staff in praying for and helping neighbors who are suffering because of the recent floods. As opportunities present, may we show the love of God through our active witness.

In Christ,

Anita Hendrix

Presbytery Leader

Call for Prayer for Churches Under Attack

Dear Friends,

Setting fire to churches is not a new phenomenon. Unfortunately, this act of terror goes way back in history. But it becomes very real when it happens in our own community. Five black churches and one interracial church in the St. Louis area recently have been set on fire. In circumstances like this we are alarmed and some of us may even be afraid. Could this happen to our churches that are taking a stand for racial justice and working for peace in our community? Let us join in prayer for our brothers and sisters in Christ whose churches have been attacked and for their pastors and church leaders, that they may be safe and be strengthened by the presence of the Spirit. While law enforcement examines and ponders evidence, let us pray for those investigating these crimes, that God will guide them and protect them and provide the resources needed to bring an end to acts of terror in our city.
Tomorrow several of us who have begun our ministries in Giddings-Lovejoy in the last few years will gather for training in dismantling racism and privilege. I have never served in a presbytery that offered this resource, and I am proud to be a member of a community of Christians who care deeply about combatting the pernicious evil of racism within ourselves, our homes, our churches, our communities. Much more must be done to insure a better future for people of all races and colors and languages. All of us are created in God’s image and beloved of God. Pray for the powerful indwelling, healing, comforting, and stengthening of God’s Spirit that we may be emboldened to build together communities that are diverse, just, sustainable, and peaceful.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatian Christians, “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)
Yours in Christ,
The Rev. Dr. Anita Hendrix
Presbytery Leader

Presbytery Leader Report to Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery 8.29.2015

Saturday, August 29, 2015

What I believe

At the Big Tent I had a conversation with an affable stout gray-haired woman. She appeared to exude cheerfulness.  As we were walking from worship to the next event, she began enthusiastically to tell me about her call as pastor of a small town congregation.  Retired from her previous employment, she went to seminary and then received a call to ministry in a church that had seven members when she started there a year ago.

As we walked she spoke with excitement about her ministry. Along with deve-loping a food pantry, the congregation started another unique outreach. She told me the story. One day she was driving home from church, and she passed a field where several girls were playing soccer. She stopped to watch. A few days later, she stopped again, sitting practically alone on the modest bleachers. The next week the pastor came back with a member of the church.

They started attending the soccer games and practices on a regular basis, clapping and cheering as players made good plays and scored. After a while, out of curiosity, parents and grandparents of the players began to engage in conversation with the women from the church. Who were these crazy ladies showing up for practices and games?  Surely they were relatives of the girls who were playing.

The pastor and church member explained that they were from the nearby Presbyterian Church, and they were there just to watch and cheer on the girls. Over time one conversation led to another and parents and grandparents started to become curious about the church about the women from the church and then the church itself.

So did the girls who were thrilled by their cheering section.

In response to the questions of the people they were meeting at the practices and games, the pastor and church member began to describe their congregation and its ministry. A few more church folks came to watch the games. Soon some of the girls on the soccer team and their family members started helping out at the food pantry. One contact led to another and after a few months congregation started to grow. The pastor proudly proclaimed, “We’re up to twelve members, and have a bunch of people attending worship as well as helping out with the food pantry.”

It all happened because the church look an interest in something that was going on in her neighborhood. Relationships were formed first, and the relationships grew into friendships, in the context of which members had an opportunity to invite people in to service and then into faith. Christ is growing the congregation one friendship at a time.

Mainline Christians are usually mortified by the idea of imposing faith on others. Some of us remember the days when ardent believers would buttonhole us on the street, assault us with the Four Spiritual Laws, and practically force us to let “Jesus save” our sorry souls. The editor of the Christian Century magazine, The Rev. John Buchanan, wrote about his first steps in faith. He recalls the pressure he received as a youth to go forward at a Baptist tent meeting and accept Jesus. He writes, “I don’t think I ever heard the gospel of love at those Baptist youth meetings, prayer meetings, and revivals. I did hear that there was plenty wrong with me and that I was in a whole lot of trouble. It took much longer for grace to penetrate and gain a foothold.

But not for a moment do I regret or resent what happened in that tent when a preacher placed his hands on my head and asked Jesus to save me.

It was one step in a journey that I’ve been on throughout my life and that has taken me places where I never expected to be….In some way, at some time, each of us has to get up out of our chair and decide to take a first step.” (“Editor’s Desk, Christian Century, 8.19.2015)

We are called to step out in faith. Congregations are called to step out in faith.

Leaders of congregations express anxiety over shrinking numbers of members and amounts of dollars to maintain buildings. Today we affirmed College Avenue’s decision to leave its building and focus on its mission in the Alton community. A first step might be figuring out how what your congregation does well can connect the church with its community. How we grow our congregations? We get to know our neighbors one conversation at a time. We connect.  We step out in faith.

What I Do

One of the blessings of my ministry is the variety and depth of opportunities to meet and interact with others. Settings for interaction include committee, team, work group, mission, social witness and worship. Meetings with congregational planning teams and Sessions also has been an aspect of my work.

Recently, I teamed with Mark Miller to lead a one-day retreat with officers and members of Westminster with a focus on building connections in their neighborhood.

Worshiping with a different congregation of the Presbytery almost every week provides glimpses of our churches’ character, values, challenges, and witness. So far I have worshiped in 41 of our 81 congregations—past the halfway mark!  In my ministry I visit with pastors and coach pastors in missional practices.

In addition to moderating the Leadership Team, I regularly participate in work group meetings and often attend ministry team, and committee meetings, and I try to coordinate the work of the Presbytery staff. Networking with colleagues in other presbyteries is important to learning ministry in our changing world. Everywhere I go, in the Presbytery, in the Synod, at the General Assembly, in conversations with our ecumenical partners, I hear about struggles and opportunities facing the church.

What I Think

Every pastor and most church leaders understand that we are living in a time of great change, and the Church, as it has for the last 2000 years, must adapt. Christian thinkers, such as Phyllis Tickle and Diana Butler Bass, describe this period as an epoch transition that occurs once every 500 years, a time when God reforms and transforms the church. We must change! It has been touted that the only people who like change are wet babies, but I swear, my first-born child would have crawled around all day in a wet diaper and been perfectly happy. It seems to me we may have a lot of people crawling around with wet diapers! Some people more readily embrace change than others.

Like it or not, change is the norm. Few societies are able to resist change for long without great focused effort. Fueling change is our connection with others. Technology enables conversations in real time almost anywhere in the world, so what happens in Ferguson, or Baltimore, or Charleston is immediately known in Alaska and Antarctica, Switzerland and South Africa, Chile and China. We have the capability to access much more information than ever before in the history of civilization. Capacity for connection presents both opportunity and challenge for the Church. Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name,” I am present.

Today people don’t have to be in physical proximity to one another to connect.  Joining a church in order to connect with others in the community is no longer a driving membership growth. Yet, people still gather together in real time and place. They gather for picnics in the park, for dinners out, for concerts and festivals, for support group meetings and learning, for rallies and protests. What does it mean to be both the church that gathers for worship and ecclesia, the church called out? How do we help people connect to Christ?

My friends and colleagues, it’s time for the church to do what it already knows how to do, make connections, build community, cheer for people!

Imagining Abundance and Justice for All

The Presbytery Leader’s Blog… the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown….

One joy of this summer has been visiting the Tower Grove Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings.  People of all ages with dogs in tow meander through the stalls that offer fresh vegetables and fruit, meats and cheeses from organically fed animals, yoga and massage, jewelry and clothing, kids playing in fountains, and live music.  Meandering through the stalls at Farmer’s market, I receive a sense of abundance, of plenty, and it is difficult to imagine that just a mile away or less, a child wakes up hungry, a young person rouses from a drug-addiction induced slumber, a man faces another dismal day with no prospects for employment.

The Farmer’s market shows off God’s bounty, carefully nurtured from the earth by small organic farmers, Amish who preserve an earlier way of being in the world, young nature-friendly entrepreneurs. At the Farmer’s market, a vendor sharpens knives while people shop for produce, and I think about bringing all my food prep knives to be sharpened. Pulling the knives from a drawer one by one, I examined them. Two of my favorites are missing their tips, and seeing them annoys me, since I did not break off the tips, and remember, not very fondly, who did. Years ago I purchased three Cutco knives from a young adult member of the congregation I was serving.  She was earning her way through law school selling, of all things, knives.  I had never heard of Cutco, but her rope-cutting demonstration and my sympathy convinced me to buy some. Truly, they are the best knives I have ever used.  Remembering a lifetime promise from Cutco to keep the knives sharp, I looked online for an address to which I could send them. Much to my surprise, I discovered a Cutco retail store in Creve Coeur!

Since we do not have a PCUSA congregation in Creve Coeur, I had never been there. Hardly ever do I go shopping further away than Brentwood, and usually not past the Central West End where I live. More often than not, I buy groceries at the Schnuck’s a block from my condo.  It seems familiar, reminding me of the Giant food store next to the church I served in a mostly African American community in Baltimore.  While I was out in Creve Coeur, I stopped at a grocery store for a snack.  I could hardly believe the experience– walking into a beautiful, open, abundant place, full of well-groomed and expensively attired white people (except for a few store employees), and elegantly displayed groceries. How different it was from the Farmer’s Market, and a complete disparity from grocery store near my home.  I found myself wishing that the shopping in my neighborhood had this feel of opulent abundance. Reminded of the disparities in the St. Louis area, I drove home pondering the complications of race and social class that have become very apparent during my first year here.

Less than six weeks after I moved here, Michael Brown lay in the street of a St. Louis suburb, the victim of a police shooting.  Discrimination in policing, redlining, and other forms of discrimination have a persistent hold on this country, and during this past year, God has been working among us to raise awareness and motivate further advocacy for change. If there is one thing that has been made clear to us in the past year since the death of Michael Brown, it is that there is much, much more we must do in the name of Christ to bring healing and wholeness to our city and to our world. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians reminds us that “God, who is rich in mercy, out of great love… has broken down the dividing wall…the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:14)  The angry expressions and arrests have been repeated, and we wonder “will we ever break free of the hostility?” Then I remember that God never gives up on us, and has done everything possible to bring an end to fear and hatred and oppression.  In faith, we trust that ultimately, good overcomes evil, we are called to continue Christ’s reconciling work.

News has come of a Whole Foods market being built in my neighborhood, bringing some competition for the Schnuck’s, Aldi’s, and expensive Straub’s, offering a new choice. Yet, even this development holds paradoxical promise. Will Whole Foods–Central West End– look like the Whole Foods in Brentwood?  Will those of us who now shop at Schnuck’s and Aldi’s be able to afford to shop at Whole Foods? Will building this new store make even more obvious the divisions among us?  Or will it bring well-being for everyone who lives in the community?

I pray that we keep alive the momentum to not just talk about the need to change, but to reflect theologically about the choices we make every day in every circumstance, and act to bring well-being for all our neighborhoods.

Wake up and smell the coffee!

Wake up and smell the coffee!  When I hear this expression, I wonder which comes first– smelling the coffee or waking up.  Come to think of it, if I’m asleep and smell coffee, I wake up.  Perhaps I could program my coffee maker to awaken me with pungent Northwest Coffee Company’s best (Thank you, Pastor Holyan, for introducing me to this gem right in my neighborhood).  Our congregations need to  “wake up and smell the coffee!”

In my ministry I have dealt with a fair number of sleepy churches. The 1989 film “Field of Dreams” contains the famous line, “If we build it, they will come.” The main character played by Kevin Costner dreams of building a baseball diamond in the middle of Iowa farmland.  For decades we Christians have held to belief, “if we construct a church building, people will come.”  Christians built cathedrals in the Middle East and in Europe, and then all over the world.  And people came to them, because they were invited or socially ostracized if they didn’t attend church, or because they were prompted by their faith in Jesus Christ to worship.

In the latter part of the 20th century, something happened.  People began to lose interest in church and stopped attending worship.  Church buildings, however, are costly to maintain.  After a building is about 20 years old, the roof starts to leak, and the paint flakes and the bathrooms look dated.  At one church I served, the basement flooded every time we got a heavy rain like we did last week.  Apparently the assumption 50 years ago was that everyone who came to church could walk up steps, and at considerable cost many church buildings have been retrofitted to accommodate people in wheel chairs.  Government regulations require buildings to comply with codes, leading to additional costs for churches.

One of the saddest conversations I recall was with a Clerk of Session of a Presbyterian church in Scotland.  I worshiped at the charming centuries-old church one Sunday morning with about 20 locals.  As we toured the cemetery where members had been laid to rest for the past 500 years, the clerk wondered aloud how much longer the church would continue.  “We are all old and tired, ” she said.  “The young people have moved away or are not interested in church.”  This conversation occurred 12 years ago, at a time when we Presbyterians in the United States were starting to see the downward trajectory of church membership that European congregations had witnessed for many years.  Between 2013 and 2014 the PCUSA had a net loss of over 92,000 members.  Congregations departing the PCUSA over recent decisions we made together account for some of the decrease, but the major problem is our failure to attract new members. While some people blame sell-out to cultural pressures and disagreement over sexual orientation or nuances in theology for the downturn, these disagreements are not the major cause of PCUSA membership decline.

Our world has changed, and the Church has been slow to adapt.  Presbyterians  are not producing as many offspring as previous generations (the long-time sure-fired way to grow churches).  People have many more choices now for connecting with other people, both electronically and face-to-face.  Drive around town on a Sunday morning, and see where people are gathering– on soccer fields, in parks, at coffee shops.  Churches have lost their privileged prime time Sunday morning slot.  Most of all we are failing to attract the next generation.  While there are a number of reasons why this is so, I want to offer a few observations.

Many long-time members like things the way they are, and are resistant to change.  A few years ago, some church gurus made a bold assertion that the young people who are attending church like “traditional” worship.  “See,” traditional church-goers opined, “They (meaning younger people) like traditional worship, so we don’t need to change what we do.”  There are people younger than 60 who like “traditional worship,” and  some who have a preference for a mixture of traditional and contemporary.  Others prefer contemporary music only.  But music and worship are not the only aspect of being church.

On Sunday I was privileged to meet with UKirk for frisbee, food, and fun, a gathering at Tower Grove Park. (UKirk is the Presbytery’s new outreach to college and university students).  Campus Pastor Miriam Foltz has been meeting regularly with young adult students this summer, several of whom grew up in Giddings-Lovejoy churches. We played a game unfamiliar to me.  It was a bit like charades, where there are two teams, and everyone writes words or phrases that have to be guessed by the opposing team.  On one of the slips of paper I wrote, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,”  which proved to be one of the harder phrases to guess. Few hymns have more prominence in the common Protestant repertoire, and my take-away is that it is not a hymn that is sung often in the churches where these students grew up. This was a lesson learned, because I suspect that if I had written a more familiar praise song on the paper, these young adults would have more readily recognized it. At the risk of offending church musicians, attracting people to church is not all about the music. Attracting new people and younger people is not about putting up a screen and starting a praise band, though these adjustments, along with a fabulous organ and enthusiastic, competent choir, are helpful.

What we do know is that younger people are seeking meaningful relationships.  As a young child in the 1960’s I grew up hearing the phrase, “don’t trust anyone over 30!” This comment is attributed to Jack Weinberg of the Free Speech movement in Berkeley, California.  I wonder how growing up with this phrase has affected us.  The “boomer generation” that “dissed” the older generation as very conservative and “uncool” is now the older generation.  Since we are over 30, are we not to be trusted? Do we trust ourselves?  I hope and pray that we prove to be trustworthy.  However, I wonder if the generation that didn’t trust anyone over 30, just can’t imagine that those under the ages of 50, 40, 30 might actually want to relate with people over 30, as well as people under 30.

Research shows that many in the millennial generation are open to and even welcome relationships with people of all ages. This doesn’t mean that the young adult down the street is going to become your “bestie,”  but it does mean that our ministries must be about forming relationships within and across generations!

While not everyone likes coffee, it has grown in popularity.  I have observed that churches are pretty good at serving up coffee. After church “coffee hour” has been a mainstay.  This time of informal gathering for conversation now has all kinds of names, but the reason for including this time in church life remains the same: it is a time of meeting new people and greeting friends, an opportunity for forming relationships, and relationships are what people are seeking.  Relationships are crucial! Forming relationships, sustaining  relationships– this is the critical work before us. Genuine, loving relationships are the context in which faith is shared and nurtured, and these relationships must be cultivated generation to generation.

IT’S TIME TO WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE!

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?

http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/big-tent/

Report to Presbytery – April 16, 2015

Recently I’ve been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark.  I met her years ago when she was the lone woman preacher among several men at an event for pastors.  Dr. Brown Taylor’s writing is lyrical and profound, at once available and deep.  Emerging from her intermittent sojourns in darkness, she makes a case for its necessity in life, and most certainly, in the Christian journey of faith.

We have emerged from the dark nights of winter into the glory of spring in the last few weeks, from the period of reflection on the temptation, betrayal, torture and death of Jesus to the glorious resurrection which is echoed in the beauty of budding flowers and greening trees.  All of life God creates has seasons and moments of dark and light, of sorrow and joy, of despair and hope, of death and resurrection.

Last week I spent two days with a cohort of presbytery leaders, all of us serving in presbyteries with large urban centers.  Many of our churches face the challenge of aging buildings and shrinking membership.  This gathering in Washington D.C. exposed us to a few models for unconventional ministries being nurtured in older spaces.  One church has a jazz ministry that reaches a neighborhood transitioning to be racially diverse . The neighborhood gathers once a week to share food and listen to concerts featuring professional jazz and blues musicians.  Another congregation of about 30 members is selling  its building which will be torn down and replaced by badly needed affordable housing. The new building  will include dedicated gathering space for the church.  Congregations all across the country are “learning to walk in the dark” as we seek ways to repurpose, transform, reclaim, tear down, rebuild, and in some cases move away from real estate that just doesn’t fit God’s call to new ministry.

Eleven of us from Giddings-Lovejoy attended the NEXT Church conference in Chicago a month ago.  Preachers and musicians, artists and work shop leaders encouraged us to ponder where God is leading us in this time of great emergence, this time during which we struggle to be relevant to our current  context.  NEXT Church invites us to rise above the “ways we’ve always done it” to see what new things God is up to in our neighborhoods and churches.  We don’t know where we are going. We are learning again to walk in the dark, trusting God’s guidance, because we know that God is already in the future, and though we do not always know where we are going, we trust in the Spirit who walks before us and beside us and guards us from behind.

The Leadership Team, building on the vision of dynamic leaders and vibrant congregations, has established some goals and strategies.  We have some ideas about where we believe God is leading us, some plans on how we might travel together.

As I visit with pastors, church leaders and members, common threads weave their way through conversations– dwindling resources and numbers of participants, struggles with factions in congregations, changing demographics, people who are tired of carrying the mission, doing the same activities they’ve always done with fewer resources. Long time members are puzzled that the same deeply meaningful practices of church they have found rewarding are dissed or ignored by younger folk.  And young people despair of the older generation ever letting go of “the way we’ve always done it.”

As I child my family traveled long distances across the desert to visit beautiful places.  I was fascinated by what appeared to be lakes of water on the road ahead that interrupted the otherwise endless vistas of dirt and sagebrush.  To my dismay, we would never arrive at the water.  My scientist father explained the “optical illusion” of a mirage. The desert can be a dangerously thirsty place.  We are reminded of the people of Israel complaining to Moses, afraid they would die for want of water. God’s people have been on the move since Abraham set forth to journey to a new place, and perhaps before Abraham there were other faithful ones whose stories were not preserved in writings for us to decipher. We are traveling toward our vision of dynamic leaders and vibrant congregations, living into what God is creating, leaving the old behind, pressing on toward the goal, what the Apostle Paul described as, “the upward call of Christ.”

Here we gather.  We share our stories of the journey, our dreams of the promised new life, and support and encourage one another along the way with our stories of faith and hope and God’s love, sometimes stumbling together in the dark, but trusting that God is out ahead of us… lighting the way.

I am deeply grateful to God and honored that we are companions together in this journey.

What’s Next!

Last week hundreds traveled to Chicago for the NEXT Church event, a gathering of mostly younger people looking forward to how the Spirit is reshaping the PCUSA.  On Tuesday evening a person in the balcony interrupted Dr. Diana Butler Bass’s presentation to announce that amendment 14F had received the requisite number of presbytery concurrences for approval.  Many stood and cheered while others sat somberly reflecting.  Giddings-Lovejoy will vote on this amendment at our April 16 meeting.

The following is an excerpt regarding the amendment from a letter issued by the Moderator and Vice Moderator of the General Assembly: Presbyteries have been engaged in conversation, discernment, and prayer concerning the recommendations from the 221st General Assembly (2014) in the nine months since Detroit, Michigan. Today, Amendment 14F (On Amending W-4.9000 Marriage) received the required majority from the presbyteries. The approved amendment to the Book of Order lifts up the sanctity of marriage and the commitment of loving couples within the church. It also allows teaching elders to exercise their pastoral discretion in officiating weddings and in doing so “… the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session, which has authority to permit or deny the use of church property for a marriage service.”

After this thoughtful pause, Dr. Bass continued, providing a romp through history, noting repeated patterns, echoing the thoughts of other Christian thinkers of our time, like Phyllis Trible, trying to make sense of the epoch in which we live.  “Are we in a Fourth Great Awakening?” Butler-Bass asked.  Our era calls for “bridge-builders and prophets” as we are transformed by God and live into “a new way of being.”

Moving forward into an unknown future, Butler Bass reminds us that previous human beings experienced dramatic shifts not unlike the one we are living through.  She encourages us to say thank you to our parents in the faith, to honor our ancestors at the same time we experiment, centering through prayer, practicing hospitality, being the Body of Christ in the world.

To date I have worshiped with 31 congregations in the Presbytery—some small and struggling, others large and bustling, most somewhere in between—glimmers of vibrancy everywhere! Sixteen of our 81 congregations saw membership gains last year, while the Presbytery as a whole sustained a net loss of 251 members. (The PCUSA declined by 89,296 members in 2013!  2014 PCUSA statistics are not yet available.)

In the face of these rather dismal statistics, the NEXT Conference burst with energy and enthusiasm. “Behold! I am doing a new thing.  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isa. 43:19)  Diana Butler Bass encouraged us to wonder about what God is up to in our midst.  The other day I took a walk up my street toward the park.  Springing from a neighbor’s lawn were crocus, bright purple and yellow against the brown dormant grass.  Only a few days before I had walked this same sidewalk and the crocus had not been there. Yet their small bulbs had been readying a burst of splendor on the warm second day of Spring. What treasures of new life are hovering beneath the surface in our faith communities?  What needs to be encouraged with some pushing away of the old?  Who needs some kindly attention, the warmth of God’s love?  Attending the NEXT Church event were eleven teaching elders from Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery.  I wonder… as the Spirit moves us toward the next “BEHOLD!”

 

The Rev. Dr. Anita Hendrix, Presbytery Leader

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