Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations Officer
Every congregation, every organization, inevitably has times of transition. Just as we can learn more about an individual by the way he or she handles change, we can learn a lot about a congregation during a transition time as well.
This past Sunday, I had the wonderful opportunity to guest preach at West End Presbyterian Church in West End, NC. This vibrant congregation has found themselves in a web of transition, but someone just coming in for worship for the first time probably wouldn’t even notice. Despite the fact that their minister retired only weeks ago and they are entering phase one of a three/ four phase renovation, everything went smoothly and felt as if it were any other Sunday for this congregation. I know there is an element of anxiety present, however when the time for worship arrived, all that was set aside with a brief reminder from one elder that “No matter what, Jesus loves us” (which was oddly enough part of the focus of the day’s sermon).
As we approached the time for worship, I noticed that conversations about the current phase of transition came to an end as the sanctuary filled, as if someone had said “from 9:45am until 12:30pm, no one talks about work.” Space was made for the congregation to worship instead of worry. Following worship, time was made for the congregation to laugh and enjoy fellowship instead of making sure they were following a meeting agenda.
It seems that West End Presbyterian planned the start of construction at just the right time, as they are currently able to move many activities outside. Following a beautiful worship service, the congregation met at the bottom of the sanctuary stairs, underneath a huge tree offering some much needed shade, for Ben’s Ice Cream and conversation. This may be something that is done every summer (and I couldn’t blame them with how great the ice cream was!) or it could be the first time. Either way, this time of fellowship in an open space brought a calming excitement as I heard conversations about updates in the pastoral search and the construction before worship, transition to updates on family members, and vacation plans. As a guest, I felt part of the family as I stood under the tree and listened to stories from different members.
As I thought about what was going on behind the walls of that sanctuary and what was likely going on in the minds of the congregational leaders, I began to think about how we as individuals and as congregational leaders can continue to open the doors of our church and the hearts of those there, even when the hallways are barricaded by walls and drywall (both physical and metaphorical)? How can we move out under the tree for ice cream and let our worries go, even if only for an hour or two to praise God in our relationships with one another?
We might not all be able to stand under the shade of a tree after worship, however we can find other ways to bring comfort and peace in times of change. We also should remember that even when our congregation as a whole is not in a time of transition, individuals in the congregation might be.
How does your congregation prepare for worship in those final moments before the hands on the clock reach the hour mark? In my many church visits, I have seen a question for consideration at the very top of the bulletin that usually points toward the sermon focus in some way. In other churches, the organist plays something calming and reflective that inevitably brings those who are visiting with one another slowly back to their seats in those final few minutes. One thing that I have seen and truly appreciated was when announcements were pushed to the very end of the service. When I asked the minister about this, they explained that they had noticed people worrying about the upcoming meeting and bring that up during “Passing of the Peace” rather than focusing on praising on God. When announcements were at the end, the only thing standing between the announcement and the time to discuss was a benediction.
Every congregation, every individual, needs something different when transition is taking place. If a minister has just left, it may mean that the “Elder of the Month” takes the main leadership role in worship that month to provide some familiarity and continuity. When a part of the building is blocked off for construction, it may mean taking advantage of a space not regularly used. Sometimes, it may mean that we simply remind one another that no matter what happens, Jesus still loves us. Every week, however, we can provide a worship-filled time and space for all those in their own transition time if we only take a few extra minutes each week to consider what is needed at that time.
We learn a lot about who we are and what we need when things change. On Sunday, I learned that West End Presbyterian is a strong congregation that won’t let anything stand in their way of praising God. I learned that personally, just as many of the leaders that I spoke with, I was quite distracted by my own transitions and appreciated the reminder that no matter what happened in this time of transition, Jesus still loved even me.
What will you learn about your congregation, the individuals in the congregation, and yourself when you make a point to set aside time when you don’t talk work, but only praise and worship God?