This Unique Gathering of the Church

positive-attitudeIf you cannot find me in a congregation, you can surely find me in a Presbytery meeting. Rev. Jordan Davis and I spend much of our time attending Presbytery meetings to do the work of building church relationships with Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Imagine if your responsibilities included attending these meetings all over the state? I strive regularly to make the gatherings of three regional Presbyteries which total about twelve meetings per year…

How boring, right?

If some small voice inside of you shouted, “YES!” at my comment, then you are not alone.

I have spoken to teaching elders, ruling elders, and staff who recognize the importance of a regional gathering as the Presbytery, but perceive the meetings to be inconvenient, laborious, and predictable. And these comments are not particular to one geographic area over another. It seems many of us feel this way. However, there are no easy answers when considering how to better improve meetings when we wrestle with the following decisions:

Should we meet on a Tuesday or Saturday?

Would an afternoon meeting be better than an early morning meeting?

Where can we find the best space to accommodate the entire Presbytery?

Should lunch be free?

What about child care?

Will worship include a sermon or will there be a Bible study?

Do we use The Presbyterian Hymnal or should we sing from Glory to God?

Does the hosting site have wifi access?

…Why doesn’t the hosting site have wifi access?!

The answer to each abovementioned question will suit some but will be difficult, or require flexibility, for others. Similarly, there are items of importance which will occur at every meeting but there are also opportunities for fluidity and creativity in the schedule.

My hunch is our attitude toward this unique gathering of the Church influences our experience. Our attitude determines how we engage and value the time.

If we believe the meeting is an impediment on our work or life schedule, we may end up running through our mental to-do list during worship rather than being present with our sisters and brothers in Christ. If we believe the meeting to be laborious, we may lack a sincere interest in future candidates for ministry or we may decide to leave the meeting early. If we believe the meeting to be predictable, we may be less inclined to study up on important items brought forth in the agenda.

Our Book of Order defines the Presbytery as, “the council serving as the corporate expression of the church within a certain district and is composed of all the congregations and teaching elders within that district” (G-3.0301). The Presbytery is the larger, living, breathing body of Christ with a specific charge to be, “responsible for the government of the church throughout its district, and for assisting and supporting the witness of congregations to the sovereign activity of God in the world, so that all congregations become communities of faith, hope, love, and witness” (G-3.0301).

At Presbytery meetings, we gather to rejoice and worship the Lord, our God, in response to God’s amazing love and faithfulness. At Presbytery meetings, we discern the work of God’s Spirit among us through discussion and debate from our individual experience. At Presbytery meetings, we celebrate milestones and retirements, giving thanks for those things in the past and for those things in the future yet to come.  At Presbytery meetings, we share our perspectives, we share our lives, and we are the body of Christ.

Therefore, if we believe these things to be true about the role and responsibility of the Presbytery, our attitude toward this unique gathering of the Church may influence our experience.

If we believe that the Presbytery, gathered, serves to support the true witness of God’s sovereign activity in the world, our attitude toward this unique gathering of the Church may influence our experience.

If we believe that, through the diligent work of committees and task forces, missionaries and candidates for ministry, God’s amazing love is shared and celebrated in worship, consent docket, and at table over fellowship, our attitude toward this unique gathering of the Church may influence our experience.

In the words of Pastor Lon Solomon, “not a sermon, just a thought.”

Rev. Nicole Childress Ball, Church Relations Officer

The Dark Part of the Journey: Congregations in Transition

woods

One of the unique aspects of Church Relations is the amount of time that we are able to spend with congregations in a transition stage of ministry. Many times, Nicole and I are called in to fill the pulpit following the departure of a beloved pastor meaning we are able to see the congregation in their most raw moments, wandering through the deepest part of the forest.

There is no doubt that losing a pastor is difficult. Sometimes the pastor leaves unexpectedly and sometimes rumors float around for months before, “I am sure that Rev. X is going to announce their retirement soon! They did just turn 65, after all.” Every departure is different, and every departure leaves a congregation wondering what will happen next.

Many times, if not all of the time, there is the support of supply preachers. This can be especially difficult for the congregation. Supply preachers rarely know the back-story of the recent departure and are therefore unable to speak about it and begin to offer healing words. It doesn’t help at all that this transition time will likely mean a different pastor every week, making it hard for the congregation to find the consistency they desire.

These weeks following a departure also leave the congregation with a loss of leadership. There is no denying that parishioners look to the pastor for guidance in most things, and even if there is an Elder or Deacon in charge, it can seem like no one is without the prominent figure and “go to” person.

Lately, I have thought a lot about what a congregation goes through during this initial transition. I have worshipped with and led worship for some of these congregations. I have experienced the hesitant welcome that gradually, week by week, turned into a warm embrace. I have heard the laments and the celebrations of departed pastors. My heart has hurt and smiled with each congregation, and my prayers have been filled with thoughts of them.

 

As we are in the season of Lent with one another, I wanted to share some thoughts for these congregations, but also for everyone in a transition phase of life:

1) Consistency is not always key! While consistency is comfortable, it can stunt our growth. This is why the best physical trainers will change up your work out every day. Just as our bodies get tired and quit responding when the same muscle is worked in the same way every day, our minds and spirits grow weary. Yes, it is confusing and tiring having someone new every single week, but it also gives the congregation time to wake-up and learn about other preaching and leadership styles. So often, we think we prefer one thing over another, but it isn’t until we actually experience the other that we can make that decision! Different preaching and worship styles can awaken different senses and parts of Spirit. Different stories can trigger new and fresh ideas.

2) You don’t need a pastor to function! Some of the strongest congregations I have spent time with had no consistent pastor. The Body of Christ is led by Christ, and each of us serves an equal role within the Body. Yes, the pastor has the seminary education and the preaching experience, but that is not what keeps the congregation functioning. Use this time to take inventory of the gifts within your congregation. Is there a desire for Bible Study? Ask each person to bring their Bible to share their favorite verse and why it means so much to them. Does your congregation miss fellowship dinners, but the budget won’t allow for them? Invite each person to bring their dinner from home and join around the table together with your different meals, but sharing the time with one another. Do you want refreshments before or after worship? Invite one or two families to provide snacks every other week or once a month (every week if there are enough willing and able bodies!) It doesn’t have to be fancy and it doesn’t have to be huge. Jesus Christ said “where two or more are gathered”, he didn’t say “where the spread is fancy and the leader is ordained.”

3) You are not alone! While it might seem that you are on an island alone and no one sees you or understands, know that there are so many thinking of you and praying for you. The departed pastor, the committee helping you in the transition, each pastor that fills the pulpit, and the neighboring congregations. We are all praying for you! Even if it feels like all hope is lost, when you gather in the Sanctuary on Sunday morning, even if it is just because “it is what we do”, there is someone standing with you. When it feels like you are most alone, reach out and hold the hand of your neighbor. Pray hand in hand and share the Peace with a hug. See and feel God’s presence through the embrace of one another and know that even if it seems like nothing is happening, God is creating an incredible thing in and through each of us!

 

These thoughts don’t save the transition, and they might not make any sense right now. However, I pray that if your congregation is in transition, they might offer some guidance at some point along the way. If you are in transition in your own life, know that every thought applies to you as well. Transition is never easy and it can be terrifying, but know that transition does not mean “the end”, it means that something else is coming.

If you are in a transition in your own life or in your congregation, know that we are walking with you and praying for you! If you have a specific prayer request as you move through Lent and this phase of life, feel free to share those.

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

Living as Neighbors

One of my favorite things to look at in a Sunday morning bulletin is the weekly calendar. This is the space where I learn about the life of this congregation beyond the weekly worship hour. When is Youth Group? What studies are going on? What meetings are taking place? What other organizations use their space?

Recently, I have an increasing awareness of outside organizations using the different spaces of the congregations. Even beyond when the different areas of the property are in use, I am especially interested in the relationships between these outside organizations and the congregation. I love to ask various members about their involvement in these different gatherings but sadly, I am learning that the relationship is usually mostly financial.

Renting our available physical space is a wonderful way to round out the budget and help a neighbor in need, but our welcome and shared grace can help to nourish and feed a hungry soul who has come to our doors seeking. They might be seeking a safe community who shares in their struggle, or maybe they are seeking another badge for their Girl Scout or Boy Scout sash. Maybe they are seeking a more fit body or a work space away from home.

No matter the organization or person using the space, every time the physical space of our church is used, we are opening our doors to individuals who might be seeking God’s grace in their lives. Some of the organizations they come with might offer a glimpse of that, but are we doing anything to help in the offering– to be the Church outside of the Sunday worship hour?

greetersWhat would the Church look like if even once a month, members brought refreshments or stood as door greeters when outside meetings are taking place? What would we learn about our neighbors who use this space if we asked if we might sit in on a meeting sometime or offered a brief prayer at the opening of the meeting?

I regularly read mission statements and see signs that say “All are welcome!” Sermons are preached on welcome and visitors are greeted during the worship hour with smiles and open arms. Following worship, though, the lights are quickly shut off and the doors locked until the next meeting when we rush in and out, focusing only on the next thing on our own to do list and very little on the strangers, the neighbors, we pass.

Our welcome, not just on Sunday morning, is what shapes each congregation and the wider Church. I have left workouts in church parking lots disheartened after overhearing conversations  along the lines of “I thought about coming here on Sunday, but they just don’t seem very welcoming the way they look at us and complain.” How would those conversations sound if the person dropping by for a book walked over and greeted the group in the parking lot, or even offered a case of cold water at the close of the workout? I have visited churches during the week for studies or to leave information and been greeted with “Why are you here?” followed by a grunt. Would I have returned for the study the next week if the greeting were a smile and “How can I help you?” Probably, but instead I stayed home to work.

Signs, like we talked about last week, can help to bring someone in. It is our actions that will help to embrace and nourish those who are now here in this Holy space, no matter the reason! The people we welcome may never come on Sunday morning, but they just might leave feeling refreshed and encouraged and might even recommend our church to a friend; OR maybe our welcome will be exactly what they were waiting for and they will be the first in the pew next week! The most important thing to remember, though, is it that it is not about what we receive, rather it is about what we give– God’s grace and love through our welcome.

How does your congregation minister and walk with organizations using your physical space?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

What Story Does Your Cardboard Tell?

homeless sign.jpgHow often, when we see a person standing on a street corner, do we roll down our window and give them money?

Rarely.

We all wrestle with this decision but my guess is we may be unsure of how our monies might be used. We may be more inclined to engage one standing on the corner because of their sign.

One gentleman in Richmond stands on a corner only blocks away from our campus, with a sign reading “Smile, it isn’t that bad!” and it wasn’t long ago that another young man found a seat just down from my neighborhood in Durham with a similar sign, “I bet I can make you smile.” Just the suggestion of a smile inevitably makes me smile and even laugh a little bit.

Then there are those signs that tell a brief story of health concerns (a gentleman who cleans up the parking lot at our Food Lion has one on his book bag stating that he has a history of strokes, both as warning if something happens and a story of his life) or stories of war (the wounded veteran who sits at the exit about I-40 nearing the Raleigh-Durham airport). Some signs simply state, “Any help is appreciated.”

These individuals use their cardboard pieces to share their story, to tell where the money goes and why it is needed. They grab our attention and pull us into their story as participants, whether through our smile or our money. Their story is meant to tug at our heart-strings and engage what some might call a guilt complex. And it works. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t see them so often.

As I thought about this sitting at a traffic light the other day, I began to wonder what might happen if our congregations told more stories. What if we told our parishioners where our money is going? What if we showed pictures and put faces and other images with the needs? The very next day, I got my answer when I visited Howard Memorial Presbyterian Church in Tarboro, NC.

20170219_104504Standing outside of the sanctuary and mentally preparing for worship, I glanced up at a bulletin board with a cut-out of a hand water pump. This isn’t an image I see every week, so my eyes began to follow the other images and I took a moment to read the story being told. Here, in the hallway connecting the Sunday School rooms with the worship space, was a visual explanation of the special offering for this season and why it was so desperately need.

The children’s sermon during worship that morning also focused on this offering and helped the kids to understand the need for clean water and the ways to help other children have similar opportunities to their own for the clean food and bodies.

The message was powerful and present. The need was shared in multiple ways, and the congregation was urged to give to this offering so that together they might purchase a water pump for a small community. I do not doubt that they will be successful in this campaign!

Stories pull us in while pictures and written word captures our mind’s eye. Whether it is a cardboard sign held by a scraggly person or a thoughtfully designed bulletin board and Children’s Sermon, these campaigns make us pause for even the briefest of moments as we consider what is being shared with us and asked of us.

The Church is asking a lot of individuals– money, attendance, time, and prayer just to name a few. There are also many questions and concerns about the successes of these “asks” and it makes me wonder how we are sharing our story.

This week, take time consider what images fill the bulletin boards and guide your congregation from discussions to worship, what words are shared and proclaimed with even the youngest of members, and finally– what does your cardboard sign say? These are the images that will stay with us even when we might forget the faces behind them and grab the attention of the passersby, and the stories that will capture the hearts of those who might linger nearby. These are the images and stories which will carry God’s Word into this world!

empty-sign

Make a sign!
Think about your congregation and what IS seen and what you would LIKE to be seen.
What is the story you will share with those passing by your church?
Are you asking for something or opening an invitation?
Are you encouraging the passersby or offering a judgment?

 

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

“We are the Church”

I have a daughter who is 9 months old. At this age, she loves to clap her hands together whenever she hears a song, particularly to the “ABC’s” or “The Wheels on the Bus”. I remember loving to sing songs with hand movements like, “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Father Abraham” when I was a kid growing up in the church.

church_steepleAs an older child, I was introduced to a little rhyme that included lacing my fingers together at the knuckles, fingers facing down, and creating a ball with my fists . It went like this, “Here is the Church (thumbs come out and thumb tips together), here is the steeple (pointer fingers come out and fingertips together), open remaining fingers) and see all the people!”. it up (twist hands inward and upward, wiggling.

The movements were not only difficult, but it took me several tries, watching friends, before I was able to master the lacing of my hands. I was reminded of this song after a visit this past Sunday at Salem Presbyterian Church because the song we learned during the Children’s sermon invited us to consider how “we” make up the Church, together.

Union-PSCE alum Rev. Janet Chisom invited children, and the congregation alike, to participate in singing a beautiful hymn by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh, titled, “We are the Church”. It goes as follows:

(Refrain)

I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world! 

Yes, we’re the church together!

The church is not a building;
the church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people. (Refrain) 

We’re many kinds of people,
with many kinds of faces,
all colors and all ages, too
from all times and places. (Refrain)

And when the people gather,
there’s singing and there’s praying;
there’s laughing and there’s crying sometimes,
all of it saying: (Refrain)

Rev. Chisom proceeded to preach on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, the lectionary text for that Sunday. She highlighted Paul’s reminder that Jesus Christ is our foundation, that God’s spirit dwells within each of us, the people, and not a building, and that we belong to Christ.

The hymn, “We are the Church” embodies Christian unity unlike the childhood rhyme I learned because the church is not about a building, nor the steeple, and we are not bound by our walls to be called “church”. When we gather, there is singing, and praying, and laughing and crying, all of it reminding us that WE are the Church.

Before the service began, Rev. Chisom shared with me that she and Rev. Will Robinson felt called by the Spirit to preach on our unity in Christ despite our differences in age, looks, abilities, and passions.

She is not alone in feeling compelled, as a clergy-person, to preach prophetically and rigorously about Christ’s Lordship and our collective call to love one another.

This is an unusual time for congregations around our nation in the aftermath of the 2016 election season. Many congregations celebrate the changes in our political atmosphere. Many congregations are troubled by the changes in our political atmosphere, while others may be experiencing tumult as members feel split between party lines. Paul reminds us, however, that we are all in this together. We belong to each other and we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

So this day, be encouraged that God’s word is timeless and in all times and places, of all colors and ages, WE are many kinds of people who make the Church, together. All who follow Jesus, all around the world, YES! We are the Church together.

Rev. Nicole Childress Ball, Church Relations Officer

Union Ignites North Carolina

DSC_0187.JPGOver the last several weeks, Union Presbyterian Seminary alumni and friends have gathered for a time of fellowship, learning, and of course eating! These “Ignite” events are developed as part of our effort to connect with our alumni and friends closer to home, while sharing resources and keeping them updated about what is going on at our seminary and ways that they can be involved.

The greatest resource that we have to offer to congregations is our faculty. Over the last few years, North Carolinians have been both reunited and introduced to these incredible educators and leaders who are helping to shape the education and lives of our students. Throughout these recent “Ignite” events, they have reunited with Dr. Frances Taylor Gench and Dr. Ken McFayden, and were introduced to our newest faculty member, Dr. Richard Voelz.

dsc_0223Dr. Frances Taylor Gench kicked off these series of events with a bold statement that anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I personally strongly believe as well, “Saying the Church is dying is a self-absorbed view. We are changing. We are transitioning.” She continued the address as she explored Matthew 14: 22-23, the very first text that she assigns for translation in New Testament 1. Dr. Gench reminded those of us gathered in the Fellowship Hall at First Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, that we are not the first disciples to find ourselves in a time of turmoil and that this text presents a realistic picture of the Church in inclement weather, straining to be faithful in uncertain times. Over the course of the next fifteen minutes, everyone gathered was transported back to their own New Testament experience at Union while being reminded of the challenge and encouragement we find in this text for our Church today.

dsc_0279Our newest faculty member, Dr. Richard Voelz, joined a group of alumni and friends at First Presbyterian Church in Durham. This lecture might have been the one that I was most excited about, in part because I had not yet had the chance to sit in on one of his lectures and also because of the title, “Preaching in Unsettling Times to Unsettled People”. As someone who has struggled many times with what to say on a Sunday morning following an attack or shooting, and especially in light of recent divisions, I greatly appreciated his transformation of the title in light of the current climate- “Unsettled Preachers preaching to Unsettled People in an Unsettled World.” Dr. Voelz continued to explain that the call to ministry comes as we receive students who feel deeply and profoundly unsettled and don’t know how to grapple with this call. Union now has to answer the question, and act on the answer of what it means to educate for ministry in this unsettled situation. “The ability to interpret doesn’t guarantee that one can lead with wisdom,” he told us.  Dr. Voelz’s talk filled me with confidence as I reflected on my own education and thought about those who will be entering the ministry soon. It also encouraged me to look at my own ministry and evaluate how I am encouraging each parishioner I come in contact with to move beyond only interpretation and into wise action.

dsc_0416Finally, Dr. Ken McFayden joined an excited (and Barbecue filled!) gathering at First Presbyterian Church in Greenville, NC to share his own excitement for Union and our newest offering for home-based continuing education for Certified Ruling Elders, Pastors, and anyone else who wishes to develop their faith. “Pathways” is an online, five-week program brought to life through the urging of Virginia presbyteries in conjunction with two North Carolina presbyteries (New Hope and Coastal Carolina). This series of nine courses offered over a two-year period serve as a way to prepare individuals to lead a congregation as a Commissioned Ruling Elder. Anyone can join a course for the cost of $100 and then attend each course from the comfort of their own home or office at the assigned time (typically Tuesday or Thursday evening). As individual needs and demands on our time change, it is encouraging to know that there is this option available for those who might not be able to take a full week out of their schedule, or afford the travel expense, to gather in person for this training. Union is excited to begin using this very same technology throughout the rest of campus as we change the way that snow days and other gatherings look! And I am personally excited to gather online with this community next January for the 5-week course on “Addressing Racism in the Church”!

These gatherings have brought encouraging and exciting news to North Carolina, and we look forward to traveling to other areas very soon! If you are interested in attending an “Ignite” event, we invite you to join us at one of the following (For more information and to RSVP, please contact Bernie Howell at bhowell@upsem.edu):

First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota
Sarasota, FL
March 19, 2017; 6pm
Speaker: Dr. John Vest

Riverside Presbyterian Church of Jacksonville
Jacksonville, FL
April 2, 2017; 3pm
Speaker: Dr. Christopher Richardson

Royster Memorial Presbyterian Church
Norfolk, VA
April 23, 2017
(During the 11am worship with a reception to follow)

Cedar Point Country Club
Suffolk, VA
May 4, 2017; 6pm
Speaker: Dr. Brian Blount

If you are interested in hosting an “Ignite” event, please reach out to our Director for Alumni Development, Rev. Clay Macaulay at clay.macaulay@upsem.edu.

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

Taking Jesus Seriously

18-lady-gaga-super-bowl-feb-2017-billboard-1548
Lady Gaga performs at Superbowl 51

This past Sunday was the Super Bowl 51 and no matter what side you cheered for, it was an epic game. I am a sports fan, but I was not particularly interested in the game this year apart from wanting to watch Lady Gaga perform during half time.

The thirty year old millennial superstar preaches a message of radical love of self and others, demonstrated in her most recent, blockbuster ballad, “Born This Way”. While her style of music and provocative artistry raises eyebrows around some religious communities, the chorus for “Born This Way” hits the nail on the head in terms of articulating a theology of inclusivity:

 “I’m beautiful in my way

‘Cause God makes no mistakes,

I’m on a right track baby

I was born this way…”

God did not make a mistake when creating all of us who make up the fabric of humanity, though we might side-eye a neighbor from time to time and think otherwise. Particularly in our current social and political situation, we may be more inclined to pray to God something along the lines of:

“I’m beautiful in my way, God,

And I know You don’t mistakes…

But Sally is making a mistake…

So I hope you can change her heart, oh God…”

Sound familiar? I will be the first to admit that my prayers, as of late, sound more like “Help (him/her), Oh God…” rather than, “Help me, Oh God…”.

I was reminded of this subtlety in my prayer life after visiting with Bayside Presbyterian Church, in Virginia Beach, Virginia this past weekend. Nestled near Lake Smith and to the northeast of Virginia Beach, Bayside Presbyterian Church has been serving the Church since 1948 and is currently pastored by Rev. Dr. David Rollins.

tree
Love Tree at Bayside Presbyterian

Upon entering the front doors of the church, one finds a beautifully crafted, wooden tree structure just before the main entrance to the sanctuary. Red and pink hearts are strung up by decorative ribbon. Each heart includes the name or names of individuals listed by members of the congregation. This community prayer project was inspired by Valentine’s Day and Christian love.

Rev. Rollins shared, “The idea is to get people to take seriously Jesus’ command to love one another or try to see our neighbors as ourselves, even when we have great differences because of our unity in Christ. It is easy to think about and name those people that we find easy to love, but God asks us to love our enemies.”

Paper hearts were handed out to congregants as they entered the worship space on Sunday morning and folks were invited to string up their names or prayers on to the tree at the conclusion of the service. As Rev. Collins and I processed out, I went over and tied my prayer to the love tree. My heart stated, “My prayer is that I work to see the image of God in all those I encounter. Help me, Oh God.”

How is your congregation addressing unity amidst our divisive cultural climate?

Comment below!

Rev. Nicole Childress Ball, Church Relations Officer