A Caring Church

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


The installation service of Rev. Alexandra (Alex) Lysdahl at First United, Bellville, was joyful, lighthearted, reverent, and delightful. When Rob Dyer, the head of staff, gave the charge to Alex, he began by using scripture in a humorous way. But his jovial mood became serious as he reflected on seeing Alex administer care to someone in the hospital. Rob observed the gentleness and loving spirit Alex demonstrated in the hospital room. He felt that if his mother were ill, he would want someone like Alex providing pastoral care.

Relationships are the lifeblood of a congregation. We build connections with one another over time. These connections, which are often generational, are one of the reasons we enjoy coming together in worship, teaching, and mission. Being present for one another during the difficult times of life is the core of what it means to be together. We need one another. This is even more true when we are hurt, afraid, or grieving. We need people who are trained to walk alongside us during times of grief, suffering, and loss. In the book All Our Losses All Our Griefs, Kenneth Mitchell and Herbert Anderson write, “Although grieving is by its very nature a lonely task, the resolution of grief requires the presence of other persons.”

At our next presbytery gathering on Thursday, February 7th at 1 p.m. at Southminster Presbyterian in Crestwood (note the change in location), training will be offered in pastoral care. The training is designed for deacons, but ruling elders, pastors, and other congregational leaders are invited to attend. Rev. Renita Mercado-Heinzl will lead the workshop. Renita serves as chaplain at St. Luke’s Episcopal Presbyterian Hospital. She brings a wealth of experience, gifts, and wisdom to this ministry.

There are many options for learning at this presbytery gathering. Although the workshop descriptions mention particular groups or congregation size, you are encouraged to self-select and attend the workshop that best fits the needs of your congregation. The intention is not to be constraining but to offer flexibility through choice. Please register, attend, and plan to listen and share as we learn together. The registration page can be found here.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Learning Together

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


In the 1990s there was a series of commercials featuring the Shell Answer Man. These commercials talked about ways to save gasoline and how to keep a car maintained. The Shell Answer Man was portrayed as the expert who had the answer to any question regarding automobiles. Today, automobiles are more complex and so is motor oil! In fact, as electric vehicles (EV), plug in hybrids, and solar powered cars enter the market, motor oil may become a memory.

Congregations have also turned to experts for guidance. In the book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz writes, “In times of distress we turn to authority. To the breaking point, we place our hopes and frustration upon those whose presumed knowledge, wisdom, and skill show the promise of fulfillment. Authorities serve as repositories for our worries and aspirations, holding them, if they can, in exchange for the powers we give them.”

Authoritative experts serve us well when we are dealing with technical problems. These are problems we can both define and solve. This is the diagnosis of an infection that needs an antibiotic. But often in congregations, the problem is not technical but adaptive. Adaptive problems cannot easily be defined, and if they can be defined, there is no clear solution. When we are faced with adaptive problems, the solution requires learning and changing our behavior.

So then, how do we learn? I believe we learn together, in community. We learn by listening to one another. We learn by listening to those who are in the same situation and struggling with the same issues. We learn by having holy conversations of discernment based on scripture, prayer, confession, and commitment to change.

At our February 7th Presbytery Gathering at New Horizons in Overland MO at 1 p.m., we will have three concurrent workshops that will focus on congregational ministry. The workshops are based on the number of worshipers (not members) in a congregation. The idea is to have people with similar issues and challenges to meet in a space where they can share thoughts and ideas under the guidance of a professional facilitator from Ministry Architects. The workshops will be geared for pastors, but all congregational leaders are welcome to attend.

Congregational ministry doesn’t have a Shell Answer Man. What it does have is the Holy Spirit who is present as we listen and speak and as we open our hearts to God’s direction for our lives and our congregations.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

The Need for Strong Sessions of Discernment

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


I began my ministry in the Presbyterian church as a ruling elder on session responsible for worship and music. Things were going along fine until the musician resigned. In my former church, which was Pentecostal, the pastor would step in and find another musician. In fact, the musician could not be hired without the pastor’s approval! But I was in a new church world now! The session expected me to lead the search for a musician. This meant creating a job description, understanding the pay rates, advertising, interviewing, and making the hire. I kept waiting for the pastor to step in and take over or tell me what to do. Instead he just encouraged and supported me and showed great confidence in my ability. The hire went well, and I learned the value and responsibility of being a ruling elder.

Then, for some reason the pastor decided not to do the prayers of the people anymore. He had that section removed from the bulletin. I’m not sure why. Perhaps he was going through his own night of the soul and found it hard to pray. This became a crisis and the church asked the session to determine if the pastor had the authority to make that decision without the session (the answer is no. The pastor and session are responsible for worship, which includes prayer W-2.0302, W-5.0202). I had to approach the pastor and have the difficult conversation. Afterward, prayer was reinstated in the bulletin.

I lift up these two stories because they taught me that a church is only as strong as its session and the ruling elders who serve on it. Paul Hooker, a leading polity expert argues that ruling elders are called to the ministry of discernment and governance, with an emphasis on discernment. This means ruling elders seek the will of Christ, “Not the shrewdest business decision. Not the action that comports with my pre-established preferences. Not the decision that places me on the right side of political favor (or the pastor). We are called to discern — to separate out all that stuff — until all that is left is the one that reflects the will of Christ. . .  The role of a ruling elder is a spiritual function.”

This is why we are offering Ruling Elder Training at the February presbytery gathering. I believe our churches are only as strong as our sessions. We need ruling elders who are gifted and empowered to serve along with the pastor in the work and ministry of the congregation. I’m encouraging and inviting all ruling elders who serve on sessions to be a part of this learning and training. Let’s share stories, insights, and learn how to discern the will of Christ together.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Gathering to Learn

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


Happy New Year! Allow me to start the year with a blessing. May we live in the light of God’s grace and the love of Jesus Christ, who forgives all of our sins. May the tender mercies of God remind us that in our weakness we are made strong through Christ. May we live in fellowship with one another characterized by the peace that surpasses all understanding. May this peace of Christ be extended to all humanity, nature, and the world.

The February 7th Presbytery Gathering will meet at New Horizons Presbyterian Church from 12:45 to 5:00 and will be a time of education, worship, and business, and you are invited to attend! Today, I want to share with you the content of the education portion of the gathering.

The theme of this gathering is Ministry in the 21st Century. The focus is on church officer training. The educational portion is scheduled to begin at 3:00 and will be a two-hour session. There will be six concurrent sessions to choose from.

Session One- Treasurers

This session will be led by the accounting firm of Clifton, Larson, Allen (CLA). This is the accounting firm that handles the presbytery’s finances. They will discuss fiduciary duty, developing an investment policy for churches (including socially responsible investing), budgeting, and financial reporting. I’m encouraging all treasurers and finance committee members to attend and participate. If you cannot attend, we will make sure the handout is available for you to receive.

Session Two- Ruling Elder Training and Session Three- Deacon Training

Ruling elder and deacon training will cover broad categories of call, responsibility, and how to serve on a session (ruling elders). Deacons will focus on providing pastoral care. This training is for new ruling elders and deacons, as well as those who want to brush up. All deacons and ruling elders are invited to attend these sessions.

Session Four- Congregational Visioning

There will be three sessions for pastors and congregational leaders who are seeking ideas and plans for 2019. Session Four is for congregations with 150 or more in worship. This session will focus on leveraging resources for ministry, visioning, and strategic planning.

Session Five- Congregational Enrichment

Session Five is for congregations with 150 or less in membership but are stuck and need a gentle push. These churches will get a needed boost in their ministry.

Session Six- Congregational Rejuvenation

Session Six is for congregations of 150 or less and are trending downward and are seeking rejuvenation. These congregations have seen a downward slide in worship attendance and energy and are trying to regain a foothold.

The consulting firm of Ministry Architects will lead the three sessions. I am excited about what we will learn, and how we will apply our learning this year.

I know this is a lot, so I will make sure we repeat the information and send it to you in various forms. For now, be sure to put the date and time on your calendar. It will be a worthwhile educational opportunity.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Merry Christmas!

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


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Blessing to all this Christmas and Advent season. It is a pleasure serving the presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy. As we enter 2019, I have been reflecting on what it means to be your permanent presbytery leader. First, it is an honor to serve in this role. It means Marilyn and I are putting a stake in the ground and make St. Louis county our home. We plan to purchase a house in 2019. This will be the first home for us together. Since being married for 14 years, Marilyn and I have lived in five different cities. We’re ready to settle down!

I will write an extensive blog in January outlining plans and ideas for 2019. For now, I just want to say thank you. Serving in Giddings-Lovejoy has been life changing for me. It is a joy to pour my life and energy into the work of this ministry. I have met so many of you at your church, presbytery gatherings, or various events. My mind is filled with smiling faces, generous hugs and handshakes, and kind words. Truly being your presbytery leader is a gift exchange.

Again, I say Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Blessings as we go forward together into the New Year.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Three More Questions

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


In an article some weeks ago entitled “Diagnosis,” I asked congregations to reflect on four questions:

  • “Who are we?”
  • “What has God called us to do or be?”
  • “Who is our neighbor?”
  • “What do we do best?”

This week, I read an exciting book by Richard L. Hamm called Recreating the Church. Hamm, the former leader of The Disciples of Christ denomination, writes about congregational, mid-council, and denominational revitalization. He introduces three questions which I find intriguing:

  • “What time is it?”
  • “Where am I?”
  • “What am I doing here?”

Hamm says our congregations and institutions want us to believe it is still 1955, 1965, or even 1995! The first question reminds us that it is 2018 (and soon to be 2019). How are our congregations reflecting this historical time? I was in worship on Sunday and the preacher asked us to turn to a scripture. The pew Bible was too far away from me, so I pulled out my phone, opened my Bible app, and read the scripture from there. What does the church of 2019 look like when it comes to technology and the use of smart devices and online streaming in worship? What if hymns, lesson outlines, and even bulletin content with deeper-dive options were available for us on Sunday morning? What if what we do inside of the building could be accessed outside of the building as well?

The question of “Where am I?” pushes back on the false assumption that our communities have not changed significantly since we built the church there. Communities change much faster than we are willing to admit. Do the people inside the church reflect the people outside of the building? Many of our congregations do an excellent job of attracting people to our food pantries, rummage sales, and clothing give always. How does active outreach lead people to believe they have a place in the pew and at the table of the church as well? Are we willing to change the leadership in the building to reflect the people outside of the building in age, race, and gender?

This leads to the third question of “What am I doing here?” Hamm places this question in the lap of the leader. In addition to the third question, each leader should reflect on deeper questions that include the following:

  • What did God call me here to do?
  • What did the church call me here to do?
  • How does what I am doing today fit with my overall purpose and objectives as a leader?

As we come to the beginning of 2019, this is a time to reflect and plan, remember and envision. I have provided a few more questions that can lead and challenge us into the future church.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

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