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Page 1 2 3 4 5 6   Entries 21-25 of 29
June 30, 2014, 9:40 AM

Feeding Church Vitality

For those of you who missed this year’s annual congregational meeting on Sunday, June 22, and didn’t pick up the Annual Report, I am reprinting most of my annual report here, to bring you up to speed on some important work we have been involved in.  All year, we have been involved with twelve other UCC churches in our region in a Church Vitality initiative.  We started last spring with a two-day workshop led by UCC pastor and consultant, Paul Nickerson; which was attended by teams from all the participating churches.  All year, there have been bi-monthly skype-call coaching sessions for groups of the pastors, alternating with bi-monthly lay team  coaching conference-calls.

WHY ARE WE DOING IT?

In our increasingly secular culture, in which the fastest growing faith affiliation is “none;” traditional churches like ours, who continue to function the way we did back in the 1950s are declining in membership.  Many, unable to support even their basic ministries, are closing their doors and selling their buildings.  Like most, our church has been experiencing a gradual decline that started back in the 60s.  The churches that are vital and growing are churches that are building new relationships in and with the communities that they serve.  

Growing churches are very intentional about inviting non-members to participate in everything they do. 

WE NEED TO MOVE FROM “ATTRACTIONAL” to “INVITATIONAL” TO GROW

Back in the “50s,” churches grew by “attraction.”  Back then, “if you built it, they would come.”  Newcomers to the area would be looking for a faith community to belong to—and if a church offered the right programs, activities, and social connections, new people simply found their way to the church and showed up at the door on a Sunday. 

Now, with a smaller and smaller percentage of the population having grown up in a church, and so many other ways to spend a Sunday, fewer and fewer are actively looking for a church.  The churches that are vital nowadays, grow by “invitation” rather than “attraction.” 

Members of growing churches are intentional about using all their programs and activities as ways to build new relationships beyond the current membership, and they always invite “unchurched” friends and acquaintances to participate with them.  Some of the ways we have tried to facilitate invitations include changing our “dinner groups” to be one couple “short” so that they can invite one non-member couple to join them each time they gather for dinner. And we will be offering free tickets to our harvest dinner for members to invite non-member guests to come with them.

THE PASTOR’S CHANGING ROLE

Pastors of growing churches spend a lot of their time out of the office and in the community, building relationships with non-members rather than spending all their time focused inward on the current membership. One of the simplest ways that many of the pastors find to spend more time out of the office, networking in the community, is by moving their office to a local coffee shop.  This year, I have tried to spend one morning or afternoon each week down at Marty’s Café in the Depot.  I take my lap top down so that I can write and check emails when I am not visiting with folks who have stopped in for coffee.   I have also joined the Garden Club, and Rotary, attend Washington Business Association events, and practice with a group of Rumsey moms on the rowing machines, and will resume my rowing lessons this summer, and hope to join a community chorus, or a Washington Art Association class in the fall.

Getting the pastor out of the office and into the community requires reallocating 20% of the pastor’s time and increasing lay responsibility for things that don’t require the specialized skills of the pastor.  We are still working on that.  The Deacons are in the process of organizing the congregational care so that the Pastor will only be visiting the sick and dealing with crises in people’s lives, while the Deacons keep in touch with the rest.   We are also working on delegating some of the youth ministry tasks so that most of the administration, communication and preparation for youth group meetings and events is handled by lay people.  There are other administrative issues that cross my desk and don’t need to and we are working on weeding them out. 

SUNDAY SCHOOL GROWTH

This year, there have been several Sundays when over 20 children and youth came forward for the young people’s message, and my new confirmation class started this year with thirteen 7th and 8th graders.  The youth group that I started a few years ago, currently has 16 members in grades 6-10.  We are establishing a task force to work over the summer to restructure our Christian Education program to meet the changing needs.   The new families that have been attending, however, are part of that minority in our society who already had some church affiliation or grew up in a church; so we are still mostly relying on “attraction” and not yet reaching out to “unchurched” or “disaffected” people through invitation.  This is a slow process of educating our congregation and changing our habits in order to reverse the downward trends in attendance and membership.

ONGOING WORK

On January 11th, five additional leaders attended the “More Members Tune-Up” workshop in Southbury with our Vitality Team.   Paul Nickerson brought new folks up to speed on what it means to be an invitational church and struggles and successes were shared among the churches in attendance.  This process feels like turning an aircraft carrier around.  We have to slow the momentum of our old way of doing things in order to turn and gain momentum in a new direction.  It goes slowly because we have to keep our regular programs going while shifting our focus to people who are not yet participating in them.   Because it is slow work, there is a tendency to let the old momentum continue to carry us in the direction that is no longer working.  The whole Vitality Team and Church Council embraced the idea of a second year of pastoral and team coaching with Paul Nickerson.  We will have unlimited email and phone access to Paul to ask questions and advice as well as quarterly pastor and team group coaching, with assignments to complete in advance.  Watch for more information as the new church year progresses and we hope you will find opportunities to reach out, too, for the vitality of our church.

See you on Sunday!

Pastor Cheryl

PS….  Wherever you are this summer—don’t forget to save some water for Recovenanting Sunday on September 7,  aka “Mixing of the Waters”!

 

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May 28, 2014, 2:39 PM

Sharing the Power of Reconciliation

23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”           ~ Matt 5:23-24

     Conflict is a part of all our lives.  Disagreements with family members, misunderstandings between friends, disputes between neighbors, political arguments at local, state, and national levels, and differences of opinion on theology and practice among church members are part of life. 

     The New Testament makes it clear that church conflict has been around as long as there have been churches.  The Gospel of Matthew has a whole chapter on preventing and reconciling conflict, as well as, and injunctions to forgive and to settle conflict within the church rather than taking it to court.  I guess that means that someone in Matthew’s church did take a dispute to court.

     I have experienced conflicts in church as a lay person as well as in my own congregation as a clergy person here in Washington.  In the time that I have served on the Litchfield South Association Committee on Church and Ministry, we have been asked to intervene in both inter-personal and church-wide conflicts among our member churches.  In May, a week-long Conflict Mediation Skills Training Institute was offered, nearby in Hartford, so I jumped at the chance to sign up.  I wanted to increase my own comfort with conflict, learn healthy ways to engage with it, and gain skills in fostering healing and reconciliation.

     The institute was hosted by a Lutheran church in Hartford and it was taught by the director of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center.   The Lombard Center not only mediates conflicts on a consulting basis, but they teach conflict mediation to people of all ages and situations, all over the country.  They teach elementary school peer mediation for playground conflicts and they teach ministers interpersonal and inter-group conflict mediation for church conflicts.  It was the latter that I attended for a week early in May. 

     It was a week of intense involvement and exhausting work; but it was inspiring and emotionally moving to experience first-hand the healing strategies that are unique to this kind of Christian mediation.  On the final day of the institute, the whole group (there were 60 of us) role played a full church conflict mediation.  We each took on a persona for the day (we each had a page or more of information about our character and how we had been involved in the church conflicts over the years) and participated in several parts of the mediation process.

     One of the most powerfully healing parts of the process was called “neutralizing history” in which old hurts get brought up and truly “heard” in what is called a “Samoan circle.”  My character, Myra, and her husband Eugene had been hurt by the chair of the building committee fifteen years before when the new wing was added to the Parish House.   There was only time to role-play a small part of the process (which could take more than a full day).  Since the history is covered chronologically, I ended up participating in the Samoan circle and experienced directly the power of the process.  I saw tears in the eyes of many of the congregation “members” who were watching as well. 

     We are all called to carry on Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and some churches even take that call to heart by starting mediation teams within the church.  Here at First Congregational, we could begin by learning more about healthy ways of understanding and transforming conflict within the church.  I will be writing more about this and inviting the whole congregation to participate in a Saturday workshop sometime in the coming year.  It was such a powerful experience, I feel called to share at least a small part of it with you all. 

Blessings,

Pastor Cheryl

 

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May 1, 2014, 1:28 PM

Sharing Stories of God at Work in Our Lives


“Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  Luke 24:35

It was the same day that the women found Jesus’ tomb empty and were told by angels that he was risen.  Two disciples, Cleopas and his wife, no doubt feeling a mixture of grief and confusion walked home sadly from Jerusalem.  On the way, a stranger joined them and they told him about what had happened and how their hopes had been dashed by Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  As they continued on the way together, the stranger showed them how all of the events fulfilled scripture.

They invited the stranger to stay with them, and at supper, the stranger broke the bread and as they recognized him, he disappeared.  When they realized that they had been in the presence of the risen Christ, they ran back to tell the others. 

The resurrection appearances are powerful stories of community—believers, doubters, and strugglers—gathering and going their own ways and gathering again.  Always, they come together to tell about their experiences, share their memories of Jesus—his acts and his words. They share their stories to encourage one another and help each other discern the meanings.  They shine the light of Scripture on their experiences and come to new understandings.  They sit at table and break bread, and often, beyond mere intellectual understanding, they come to see with their hearts what was right before them all along.

We all have stories from our own lives: times when we have sensed God’s presence as sudden inspiration or comfort or 2guidance; times when prayers were answered or when our eyes were opened because someone welcomed us, or because we opened our heart, our door, or our life to a stranger—someone we didn't expect to be a blessing.

When we tell one another about our experiences—when we share our stories in our faith community—we encourage one another, we strengthen one another’s faith.  We illuminate the path for one another.  Sometimes you are the one who needs support and sometimes you are the one who can offer support.  This is why, for all of our history, a central Christian practice has been testimony and witness.  Testimony and Witness is our faith practice for this Easter season.

Personal testimony and witness within the faith community should not be limited to the clergy sharing their stories.  We all have faith stories to share and when they are shared by non-clergy they are more empowering and encouraging to the non-clergy sitting in the pews.  On the Sunday after Easter, Armin Baur shared an inspiring and encouraging story of answered prayer.  His story resonated with many in the congregation and the experience was powerful for all of us.

We are a people of story, built on the witness of our Bible and rooted in the testimony of our communities. Discovering the power of giving witness and testimony requires recognizing that each of us has a valid story, indeed, many stories, and that we can identify God’s work within those stories. It takes courage to share your own story; but it will be exactly what someone in the congregation needs to hear that day.  Please get in touch with me if you would be willing to share a brief story of a time when your recognized God at work in your life.

            See you Sunday!

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April 3, 2014, 11:18 AM

A Case for Forgiveness


“Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”  Luke 15:22-24

The story of the prodigal son begins with the Pharisees and scribes grumbling that Jesus couldn’t be a man of God, because he eats with sinners and tax collectors.  So Jesus tells a story that ends with a feast to celebrate the return of the prodigal, who is the ultimate sinner. And the feast is being thrown by his father, who had the least reason to welcome him home.  Neither the Pharisees nor the older brother in the parable would expect the sinner to be forgiven, let alone feasted.  Even the prodigal son himself – and the sinners with whom Jesus ate – would have been shocked and surprised at the unconditional love and acceptance that was shown them.

Some time ago, I led a weekend retreat at Silver Lake for the women’s fellowship of another local church.  For our first evening together, we were talking about things that get in the way of our prayer life. Several of the women talked about their own sense of inadequacy or unworthiness to bother God with their problems.  They said things like, “I’m sure God is fed up with my requests” and “I’ve screwed up so many times, God is sick of hearing from me.”  They sounded like the prodigal son in the story who tells his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 

I went to bed that first night troubled that these hard-working good women, who were doing their best to be good employees, wives, and mothers felt unworthy of God’s forgiveness – unworthy of God’s love.  I woke up the next morning still troubled about it.  In my morning meditation an image of the sun came to me. The sun radiates light and heat, always, no matter what.  The sun doesn’t pick and choose who it shines on, the sun just radiates.  It could be a cloudy day or we might stand under a tree and be shaded from the suns radiance; but the sun never stops shining. It never asks whether you are worthy of the light and warmth.  All you need to do is put down the parasol you are holding over your head to receive the full radiance of the sun.

Jesus says in the gospel of John that God is love – not that God loves – but that God IS love.  In the same way that you can’t be unworthy of the sun’s light; you can’t be unworthy of God’s love.  It just is.  We, on the other hand, can hold onto beliefs and attitudes – judgments, regrets and resentments – that block the radiance of God’s love in our lives.  But once we put those down, we discover that love has been there all along and will always be there. The prodigal’s father never stopped loving him.  He would probably say that there was never anything to forgive.

I love this story and I have preached on it a bunch of times.  I have asked the congregation who is the happiest character in this story?  I don’t think it is the prodigal – he has still lost everything and no doubt regrets it and probably feels shame.  It certainly isn’t the older brother whose judgment and resentment are keeping him away from the party.  The happiest person in this story is the one who loves the most and has forgiven the most.

Ultimately, it is our own judgments, regrets, and resentments that we need to let go of in order to be blessed by God’s love – in order to enjoy the feast of  forgiveness, the communion with God at Christ’s table.  That is why we pass the peace on communion Sunday.  It is an opportunity to bless and let go, to forgive and reconcile, that we might come unburdened to the feast – that the full radiance of God’s love might flow to and through us, and we might recognize ourselves as worthy to be called God’s children.

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March 6, 2014, 8:22 PM

Blessing and Letting Go... Essential to Life

"I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”  Isaiah 43.19

We begin the season of Lent on Wednesday, March 5th.  Our faith practice for the six Sundays of Lent, in worship and Sunday School, will be Letting Go“Blessing and Letting Go.”  Blessing and letting go is essential to life. To be alive is to experience constant change; and every change – even the positive, desired changes – involve both loss and gain.  Ways of accepting, blessing, and letting go of what has been, so that we can move on to a new beginning, a new adventure, is what we will be focusing on this Lent.

 The overarching biblical story, of both the Old and New Testaments, is a story of a journey, a story of constant transition.  God called Abraham to leave his home and find a new land of promise.  In our modern mobile culture, most of us have at one time or another had to leave home, family and friends, to pursue a promising new path of education or career advancement. 

God called Moses to lead the Hebrew slaves out of bondage in Egypt.  The journey to freedom from slavery for the Hebrews required letting go of a way of life, letting go of non-essential possessions and not knowing where the next meal would come from.  In our culture, the journey to freedom from substance addiction, or from the violence of an abusive relationship likewise involves letting go of the comfort of the “known” to journey into an unknown future.

 After forty years of wandering, the Hebrews lost Moses on the eve of crossing into the promised land.  The followers of Jesus had to continue his mission and become the church without him.  All of us, at one time or another, have had to continue our journey without a mentor or loved one who left us or died.  And the end of one chapter often has meant the start of something new and completely different.

We negotiate times of transition by grieving the losses, letting go, and moving onto new adventures. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called his disciples to let go of old understandings and embrace a way of life based on love and grace. As we grapple with the scriptures, we recognize that to live is to let go; to live fully is to bless and be blessed.

As a Lenten discipline this year, rather than giving up something that usually gives you pleasure; I invite you to give up something that is weighing you down – to let go of something that is interfering with your enjoyment of life.  Join me on a journey to our inner “attics” where we store the old baggage.  In those old steamer trunks up there are resentments and regrets that you have been carrying around for months or years.

There are limiting and judgmental stories that someone in your past – a teacher or family member – told about you. You believed them and have been living with them your whole life.  We all inherited beliefs about “the way things are” and “what is possible and what is not” and “what is acceptable and what is not” that need to be aired out and inspected for moth holes.  Maybe the trash is where they belong.  (We’ve provided you with a process you can do at home to help you in your letting go on page 11.)

Have you noticed that even our actual physical possessions can weigh us down – things we hang onto because we think we “might need it sometime.”  I am challenging my confirmation class to make an inventory of their “stuff” and give away something each week of Lent that they are no longer using and that now just clutters up their life.  I have challenged myself to let go and give away something every day of Lent.  I’m starting “Green Fair” boxes for the confirmation class and myself.  If you would like to join us, there will be a box in the Parish House for “letting go” of physical stuff that can also symbolize the other kinds of “letting go” that we will be focusing on in worship and Sunday School this month, that we might be blessed and be a blessing. 

 

Comments
Sari Max-Fiss on 03-27-2014 at 1:47 PM
Every word here a gem. Much-needed and precious gems. Thank you!
Have you been listening in on my deepest, inner thoughts?
Blessings! Love!
Sari
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