“What Are You Building?”

Over the last few weeks, I have found myself thinking back on a mission trip that  I took as a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary. While Union does have an incredible travel seminar program, those trips are not actually mission trips. Every few years, however, we do send a group of students on a fantastic spring break mission trip!

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My first view of Haiti

During my final spring break in 2014, I travelled to Haiti with five other students and our leader.  I could go on for hours about what an incredible experience it was, but the thing which has been sitting with me lately was not the actual trip, but rather the perception of our trip when compared to other groups who were also traveling  to Haiti for the purpose of mission work at the same time.

I remember sitting in the terminal in the Miami airport, waiting to board our plane. Looking around, almost everyone at our gate was part of one of the many larger mission groups, all wearing brightly colored t-shirts with various scriptures referenced on them. Most of those groups were composed of white, English-speaking, and seemingly well-off individuals. I bring this out because this is the ONLY time I have seen such an overrun of the “minority” for the country I was heading to, sitting in the airport terminal waiting to board.

Excitement filled the area as youth and their leaders talked about what they hoped to see and do while in Haiti. Groups began to talk to one another, comparing projects and missions. Another “twenty-something” took a break in his group conversation to ask me, “So where will you be working?” I was initially caught off- guard because he knew that I was on a mission trip, but quickly realized I shouldn’t be surprised. I explained that our group was going to play with children, mostly through an organization that served children with disabilities.

“Oh.  So, you aren’t building anything?”

                “Relationships…”

                “No, like actual building. Who are you saving?”

In that moment, I realized exactly what I dislike about mission trips – groups of individuals going to “fix” life for those who “don’t have” what the group “has”.

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Playing a game of soccer with local children.

In preparation for this trip, the group of students from Union read the book “When Helping Hurts: How To Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself” (Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert). We spent a great deal of time talking about why we weren’t going to be building or passing out Bibles – because before we tried to take what we knew as “right” in our own homes, we needed to learn what was “right” in their home. I remembered the time I travelled to Mexico, moving from laughter to a form of lament as I reflected on how our group actually slowed the work as we took time to learn what to do and then completed the tasks incorrectly, leading to more time being spent as the locals repaired our work.

The lesson I quickly learned…not every mission trip brings a team of needed individuals, or the completion of needed projects.

I am by no means saying that every mission trip is not needed or hurts more than it helps. Many mission projects ARE needed, however they are not always the exotic trips that we seem to love so much. Rather, many of the most appropriate trips for these week-long travelers could be the local ones within our own communities and country.  Sorting donations at the food bank, helping communities to clean up after floods and hurricanes, or taking care of those “small” tasks which might be preventing others from completing the “hard” tasks might actually be more valuable.  (This was our goal in going to Haiti as we held babies and played with children so that their caregivers could focus on the other work needing to be completed).

I do not mean that we should end all global mission trips – we can and do learn a great deal about God’s children and creation as we travel and find ways to work beside one another. I do think that we would do well to have discussions with our youth and volunteers as we prepare to travel about the needs and our real goals, and even again as we return from our various mission trips both locally and around the world. We must strive to understand those we seek to assist rather than merely deciding what we think they need. Further, ALL trips regardless of location, should be planned and led in conjunction with individuals and organizations who truly know the community being served, and the most appropriate ways to ensure that they are cared for in the most appropriate and helpful ways.

 

Reflecting on my time in the airport terminal that day, I wonder how the Bibles and physical labor were received from those giving groups we met that day – I pray that their work and words were both needed and received in a way that changed every life involved. I pray the same of our own work and time spent with the children throughout that week. Mostly, I pray that as each of us looks at ways to serve God’s children both at home and around the world, we LISTEN to God’s direction and we strive to learn what each person really needs, and not simply what we think is needed.

What types of mission trips does your congregation take?
How do you prepare individuals for these trips, and reflect upon returning home?
What is the ultimate goal of the trip?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

Redefining Membership

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How many organizations are you a member of? A quick flip through your wallet, and you will likely find several different cards representing different types of memberships.

In today’s world, it seems that membership has brought on a new meaning. We no longer regularly enter into membership through a series of promises and initiation – we buy into it. For $40 each year, a person can be a member at Sam’s Club or Costco. For $150 each year, a family can be a member of a museum. For $350 a year and up, a fan can buy into the membership branch of their favorite sports team. It seems that anything worth being a member of, comes with a price tag.

Looking at the multitude of membership opportunities around us today, I wonder if these might be among  the reasons that membership in our congregations is changing. Those who visit, even regularly, might wonder “how much is it going to cost me?” when they ponder becoming a member. Further, they might wonder what they are getting beyond Sunday morning for their money. It is a sad state of affairs, however I fear it might be a small piece of this very abstract puzzle.

As I travel around from one congregation to another, I have begun to look at the different requirements of members and the ways that members are categorized. In some cases, it seems that if a person comes to worship twice they are automatically a member… they just haven’t signed the dotted line yet. Other times, it seems that a majority of people gathered are regular visitors who have yet to be invited to join or share in the ministry of the congregation beyond Sunday morning. Then there are those occasions when a person is a member, however their membership seems to be ignored because they have not yet “bought in” financially.

There is no question about it — membership is a riddle and it seems that no one has the answer to it, and with that reality in mind I want to take a risk!

What if we changed the requirements for membership? What if instead of looking only at our Sunday attendance as a basis for how many active members and active visitors there are, we looked at the whole of our ministry? What if we remembered that more important than our membership in a congregation, we are all a member of the Body of Christ and began to minster to one another and our communities in that way? This is not to say that we should not expect for members to fill vital roles and contribute financially to the ministry of the congregation, but maybe that should not be the main focus and reason for bringing in new members.

I regularly hear stories about a group of people being involved in one or two ministries of a congregation, “but they don’t attend on Sunday.” Does this mean that they are to not be considered in the same way as the individual who IS a member but “only comes on Sunday”? What about the non-member who has attended, volunteered, and even helped to lead different ministries but has chosen not to become a member for any number of reasons?

I fear that too often, we put too much weight on this single number. Incredible ministry opportunities are placed on the back burner because of a “lack of numbers”, possible volunteers are ignored because “they can’t be relied on”, and individuals feel excluded and eventually leave our congregations all because a formal promise in a formal setting has yet to be made.

This summer, I encourage you to take a fresh look at those gathered in the pews and in the classrooms, on the buses and around the campfires. Who would not be there if we limited our ministry to those who paid their yearly subscription fee? What ministries would not occur if we checked for ID at the door each week?

The only membership, that I am aware of, mentioned in the Bible is our membership in the Body of Christ. What would happen in our congregations if we made that membership our focus rather than our yearly subscribers and card-bearing members?

How does your congregation define membership?
Who is being excluded by this definition?
Who might be included if the focus, instead, shifted to members of the Body of Christ?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

Returning to Worship

I have recently found myself thinking a lot about what excites me about some churches, and what detracts from others. You regularly read about the excitement, but I struggle to share the rest.

In some ways, I am not too different from many young adults in that I do not have a consistent worshipping community due to the nature of my job. On the rare Sunday “off,” I struggle to make the decision first, if I go to church or not and then, where I will go (I try to go somewhere I have not been to for work so that I can worship rather than work). Sometimes I do “opt out” of worship – I am exhausted from a long work week and traveling, there are things needing to be done at home, and/or I haven’t had much time with my husband due to our conflicting busy schedules. Many times it is as simple as not wanting to sit through another boring service.

bored-in-churchYes, I said that! All too often, church is BORING. The worship hour quickly begins to feel more like a (well-rehearsed) monolog with very little excitement or genuine passion. There is a formula that is stuck to almost more religiously than the actual congregation might be – 4 prayers, 3 hymns, 2 scripture readings, and 1 sermon. The leaders seem to be on a rotation and have become passive and bored with their jobs, and the preacher seems worn down as if presenting a research paper.

Yes, this might be a little blunt, but I fear that this is the reality that so many congregations are finding themselves slowly slip into. I also believe that this is why so few people make church a priority on Sunday morning. The worship hour has become a boxed in, predictable, and boring requirement and has lost its worship aspect.

family-playing-soccer-having-fun-14312301I think about the things which I choose to do on my Sunday “off” and I look to my friends who do not regularly attend worship on Sundays. Almost every person I think of is opting for some sort of “together time” with their family. Relationships are being strengthened and God’s grace is being shared. Those who might be “skipping” church are probably engaging in conversation with others who might not ever attend, and in the process are sharing a glimpse of the love in the checkout line, that is being taught in the sanctuary.

I regularly read articles and hear questions surrounding the mystery of how to bring in more young adults. I want to urge us to look beyond this one, very broad and diverse age group and look at people in general. Why are so many gathering at the Starbucks across the street rather than in our sanctuaries? Why do so many come one time and never return? Why are our own members slowly fading away?

Because worship has become more about being present in a building than worshiping God, and is boring.

Our greeters are more engaged in side conversations and gossip rather than greeting.
Our ushers are only present to collect the offering.
Our liturgists are quiet and bordering monotone, reciting a script they have used 20 times.
Our sermons, while they might be great, are presented as research papers rather than the Good News.

This isn’t happening in every congregation, but I am seeing it way more often than I am comfortable with. This is where we need to look at making changes, not in our programming and refreshments.

Our greeters should warmly and genuinely welcome all who walk through the doors and save the gossip time for later.
Our ushers should be present to make sure all find an appropriate seat, know where the restrooms are and have what they need.
Our liturgists should read the bulletin and scripture readings ahead of time and excitedly lead us in the liturgy and readings.
Our preachers should take pride in what they have worked so hard on all week and share their interpretation of scripture with emotion and a passion which draws the listener in rather than puts them to sleep.

I personally don’t buy it that the shrinking attendance is a young adult problem. I don’t believe that increased or more diverse programming will fix the problem.

Passion, excitement, genuine welcome, and “real” worship will draw people in. A true desire to build and share in relationship, a challenge to go out and be a better example of Christ’s ministry – this is what I believe people seek in the midst of this broken and hurting world. Not scripted, ritualistic, boring church.

It is time that we let go of the formalities and reconnect with the people. It is time that we, as leaders of the congregations, give permission to share real emotion as we share our own. It is time that we return to worship in the church, focusing on our Creator rather than the building.

When do you experience genuine excitement and worship during
your worship service?

What aspects of leadership and worship do you think could use a jump-start?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

Upcoming Changes at Union!

Dear Friends,

Grace to you and peace!

I  wanted to update you with news from Union Presbyterian Seminary!

Many of you – some 200 churches – have worked with at least one of our two Church Relations Officers, the Reverends Jordan Davis and Nicole Ball, as they have visited with individual congregations and presbyteries. They have heard incredible stories of ministry and brought experiences back to the seminary, sharing them with our faculty, staff, and board as well as through the “Congregational Corner” blog. They have helped Union understand what ministry means today so that we can truly be “For the Church in the World.” They have helped to connect congregations with resources at Union about which they might not otherwise know. There is no doubt that their work has been transformational for many aspects of our shared ministry as churches and our seminary!

In the coming months, the church relations program will enter a new phase of ministry. Early this summer, Rev. Nicole Ball will complete her full time work with the seminary to balance her call to ministry and motherhood on a part-time basis. The Rev. Jordan Davis has accepted a call to serve as the transitional associate pastor for youth and young adults at Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian in Cary, NC. Her work with the seminary will conclude around mid-August as she embarks upon this new call in ministry.

As August approaches, we encourage you to contact Hayley Mathews (hmathews@upsem.edu) or me, Clay Macaulay (cmacaulay@upsem.edu), for any church relations needs you may have. As my schedule permits, I will gladly come supply preach and also teach for your congregation. Likewise, you are encouraged to contact and invite members of the seminary faculty to preach and teach in your church, as well.  Just click the button at the bottom of this email. This will link you to a “speaker’s bureau” brochure entitled “What’s Union’s most valuable resource to share with your church?” The brochure will give you the direct contact information for you to reach our faculty members. Hayley is available to connect you with any needed resources and will be continuing our seasonal devotions in Advent and Lent that so many have come to appreciate.

“Congregational Corner” – that many of you have read and have enjoyed online – will continue, but with less frequency. Jordan has agreed to continue writing for us and she also has some ideas to get you involved in this blog as well!

We are incredibly thankful for the work that both Nicole and Jordan have done over the last two and three years in sharing the story of our seminary with you and many others! Should you have any questions regarding this unfolding chapter in our life together and how we might assist you and your congregation in your ministry, please feel free to contact me in our Alumni Office in Richmond. (804-278-4382).

I know that you join with me in giving thanks to God for the great ministry Jordan and Nicole have shared with us over these past three years, and wish them well in their ministry and vocation both at home and for the Church in the years to come!

With thanks for your continued prayers and support of Union Presbyterian Seminary,

Yours faithfully,
Clay               

The Rev. W. Clay Macaulay (D.Min.’85)
Director for Alumni Development

The Act of “Being”

How often do we miss parts of conversations, meetings, even worship services, because we are still so focused on the last thing we did or already thinking about the next thing? I just returned inside after meeting our new neighbor, but was so focused on drafting this blog that I don’t even remember her name! It didn’t help that my FitBit was buzzing on my wrist during our conversation because I had just received a text message.

We are constantly distracted as we try to handle too many things in too little time. We are connected, we are planning, we are tracking, we are talking. With everything going on, it makes me wonder when was the last time I gave something- or someone- 100% of my focus?!

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A few weeks ago, I was so happy to be visiting a local church that I was already planning where my husband and I would meet for brunch. I was also trying to make my mental list of things to mention in my upcoming “Minute for Mission”. I vaguely remember hearing the gathering music come to an end in the beautiful chapel at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church (Durham, NC) before Rev. Katie Crowe stood up to welcome the congregation to worship and share a few announcements. As we began to make the transition into worship, her words called out to me and helped me push everything else aside (at least for a few seconds), “…as we transition from arriving to being together in worship.”

These words- so honest and real- have sat with me for weeks now. We are always arriving and leaving, but when are we “being”?

To truly “be”, takes a great deal of focus and effort. It takes becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable, silencing the deafening calls for attention, letting go of what we have left while we set our planning aside. For someone as “Type A” as myself, it can be very stressful to “just be”.

Rev. Crowe’s words sank in though and gave me permission to stop. Her words closed doors and opened my heart. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. For even just that moment, I was able to simply “be” and enjoy the gathering of God’s children in a full and beautiful way. I wish it had lasted longer, but I had to work (and my stomach was already grumbling and wondering how it would be filled later on!)

As I continue to think about this, I continue to try to “be” more. I try to set the phone down and focus on the person talking. I try to close the computer and enjoy time with my husband. I put the pen down and pray through the bulletin before I make my notes all over it.

However, just as I needed permission, I wonder if our congregants might need it as well? Each person is coming in from any number of things, anywhere on the range from exhausted and stressed, to joyful and energized. Each person has come to belong and worship, but first we must BE. I wonder, what would the conversations following worship sound like if we were more intentional at the beginning? How would relationships change, how would our personal and communal praise and worship change?

This week, I invite you to take more time as you transition from arriving to worship to being in worship with your congregation. I invite you, to invite them.

In a world of chaos, what will it be like to simply BE together?

How do you invite your congregation into the worship time and space?
What words of welcome have you find particularly inspiring and helpful as you prepare for worship?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

Our Biggest Flaw

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If you were to ask my husband about my biggest flaw, I can guarantee he will say that I apologize too much. I apologize for things I do and do not do, or have control over. When he tells me I don’t need to apologize, I will apologize for apologizing! I attribute this quality to the fact that I was raised to “be polite”– there was only “yes” in our house, no “yeah” and ALWAYS “yes/no sir/ma’am.” If we did something wrong, we were expected to take ownership of those actions and apologize.

The reason this is a “flaw” for me is because I believe I have control over a situation which I did not, or that I meant to do something wrong when I didn’t actually mean to do it. I give myself too much credit in thinking that I could have done it better than whomever “did it wrong” and too little credit when I shrink away and think my best isn’t enough. Apologies are appropriate in many cases, but can also be inappropriate and may cause more trouble.

I hear apologies from churches almost weekly.

I’m sorry so many are missing…

I’m sorry the space isn’t better…

I’m sorry we can’t do more… be more…

I’m sorry for their actions or words…I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I’m sorry.

If you ask me, I would say that the Church’s biggest flaw is that we apologize too much (I guess it takes one to know one, right?)

There are so many things out of our control– people do and likely will miss church on holiday weekends (and I honestly support that if it means they are catching up on the just-as-important family time), the size and appearance of your worship space, office, or fellowship hall means so little in the bigger picture, the “not so great” choir is making a beautiful and joyful noise, and each and every one of us gathered is a beautifully flawed child of God who is still figuring things out… It is okay.

These apologies frustrate me because it seems as if those apologizing may not see their value as a congregation or do not think that they are enough when it comes membership size, budget size, building size, and appearance. Apologies regularly come in light of comparisons to another congregation that the person seems to see more value in. They focus on the negative (that might not have been noticed, even!) rather than on the positive.

What if…We are so sorry that no one will be here today…

Turned in to…We are so excited about those who are joining us today!

If I could share one single message with every congregation I spend time with, it is simply that you are enough. Each person gathered is enough. The roof might have a leak, or half of the congregation may be away on vacation. Maybe the keys were lost and we can’t get into the office or the sound system crashed. However, we are gathered together through the grace of God to praise and celebrate that same God who is with us every step we take. We will make it through worship by that same grace, no matter who is there or what goes wrong; no matter what you think you have to apologize for.

I wonder, what would the Church look like if we quit apologizing for the things we cannot control and began acting and changing the things we can like feeding the hungry, embracing the lonely, and loving one another the way that Christ loved us?

What are you tempted to apologize for in your own congregations?
What action can you take instead of apologizing?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

Busy-ness and Sabbath

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Essentials to staying busy: hydration, a schedule, lists, and pretty pens!

Earlier this year, I jumped on the clergy bandwagon and purchased a liturgical day-planner from Sacred Ordinary Days after several clergy-women friends told me how much they loved it*. There are daily prompts for scripture reading, intentional space for time-keeping and schedules as well as a weekly examen for each Sunday.

Developed from the model first introduced by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Prayer of Examen is a tool designed to take the pray-er through 5 prompts: to become aware of God’s presence; to review the day with gratitude; to pay attention to one’s emotions; to choose one feature of the day and pray from it; to look toward tomorrow.

Buying this resource and actually utilizing all of its amazing benefits has been a real challenge for me. Moreover, taking time to use the weekly examen resource as a means of intentional Sabbath has been even more of a struggle.

I am not one to hunker down and block out intentional quiet time each morning [gasp!] to reflect on my day or the day to come. Perhaps you are shocked and horrified to hear this out of the mouth of a pastor! In reality, I struggle with spiritual disciplines like quiet study, reflecting on my week and praying for the week to come.

I fall prey to the distraction of busy-ness in my life.

Balancing full-time work, my home life (complete with spouse, a toddling 1 year old child and a four-legged, fur child) and a healthy social-emotional-physical-spiritual life can feel like a daunting task. I spend more time thinking about what I have to do next, where I have to be next, and what I need to accomplish next.

I rely on my electronic work calendar, which syncs to my IPhone calendar, which is sent to my husband’s IPhone calendar, where the loop finally closes with my Gmail calendar. This reality exhausts me as I write this very minute…

Perhaps you or your congregants also struggle with the problem of being too busy. I create a busy-ness which becomes a pattern of normality for me and my family. This busy-ness distracts us from meaningful Sabbath practices. We cannot do those things which are edifying to our existence as God’s beloved because…

we don’t have time.

we don’t have the energy.

we don’t have the bandwidth.

there is just too much to do!

The reflection for this upcoming Sunday included a quote from pastor David Lomas:

(I’ll take a big bite of humble pie, along with you, when reading this reminder)

Sabbath reminds us that we are loved for who we are, not for what we can produce…Sabbath does not exist for what it gives us, nor for how it helps us, but for the way it equips us to live into our truest identities. We are not ‘human doings,’ but ‘human beings’.

Sunday may be the busiest day in your congregation. Or maybe a weekday evening includes programming for the whole family with a potluck supper. We pack our schedule for Church-related ventures with things to do: choir practice, youth group, fellowship dinners, committee meetings, worship planning, service opportunities, and the like. These things which we do are vital and important to the life of the Church! However, apart from weekly worship, does the Church serve the needs of weekly Sabbath? What might this look like?

Imagine a weekly prayer hour when members were able to meditate through prayer stations around the sanctuary in an effort to practice a weekly examen.

Imagine a small group gathering in the early morning or evening to share, intentionally, about their experience of God during the last 24 hours.

Imagine the church opening its doors to families who gather to read children’s stories and reflect on God’s presence in their lives.

Does your congregation serve the needs of providing Sabbath during the week?

What does this look like? Share your thoughts!

 

Rev. Nicole Childress Ball

 

 *This is not an advertisement for Sacred Ordinary Days planners. The opinions expressed here are mine, alone.*