At this point, many if not most of you have heard that our Church Relations program at Union Presbyterian Seminary is changing shape over the next period of time. It is a bittersweet time for me personally as I have said goodbye to my colleague, Rev. Nicole Ball, who also wrote for this blog and now as I say goodbye to my many congregations. As I wrap up my loose ends, I wanted to write a special blog about what I have learned during these three years, my first years of ordained ministry.
I can go on for hours about what I have seen and heard. If you are just finding “Congregational Corner”, I invite you to read some of our previous blogs highlighting the ministries we have found and experienced. I pray that these reflections have helped you in your own ministries, personally and professionally. I have recently spent a great deal of time trying to summarize all of this into only a few lessons:
Every congregation has a story that needs to be shared. This is exactly why this blog began, actually. Early on in my time as church relations officer, I shared these stories only with my supervisor and others at the seminary who might benefit from them. It didn’t take long for us to realize that more people needed to hear what was going on in our local congregations! I have shared many of the stories here and have greatly enjoyed your feedback to the questions at the close of most of the blogs. These responses only support this idea further as one unique story spurs on the sharing of others. I have written about this idea a few times, and encourage each congregation to continue to find ways to share your story with the world — on a sign, in pictures, on bulletin boards, through relationships. These stories shape our communities and they bring life to God’s Word in unique and beautiful ways! Celebrate your stories, no matter how insignificant they might seem. Every shared story has a chance to change your ministry and someone’s life, while every forgotten story only limits our opportunities!
We are a connectional church and need to find more ways to celebrate and practice this. I have yet to find a congregation thriving because they worked in a silo. God’s Word can only be shared through relationships and collaborations. The Presbyterian Church (USA) celebrates the connectivity within the denomination and between denominations. I have spent the past three years focusing on the connection between one of our many fine institutions and our congregations. In my writing, I have tried to celebrate these connections which I find in your congregations, whether they are mission based, worship based, or fellowship based. The blog itself has been an effort to continue to strengthen the connectivity not just with the seminary, but between congregations. It has been my hope that through learning about the work of other congregations, each leader might find inspiration and even ministry partners who they might work with in the future.
The beauty of Christianity, and all major religions for that matter, is that it was not created by one sole individual. These faith traditions would not have taken off and become so important in our lives if individuals and communities had not gathered together and moved together, making things happen and standing together for their shared beliefs. On that point, I believe that we won’t be able to continue to move forward and thrive if we try to do this alone rather than working with one another at the congregational level and also connecting congregations to institutions (like Union) and our governing councils.
The Church is not dying. If you have been reading this blog for any span of time, you have likely gathered that this is my strong belief. The Church is NOT dying, it is changing. Congregational life is shifting and people’s approaches and needs are changing. This does NOT mean the Church is dying. I honestly do not care what the statistics say. Numbers are not HEARTS. Numbers are not PEOPLE. Yes, congregations are shutting their doors all over. I am painfully aware of this and mourn the loss of many congregations I have come to love. That being said, I am also seeing doors open and I am seeing new and even more people coming through them.
I wrote about this about a year into my tenure at Union and received a wide variety of feedback. The best way I can summarize my strong belief that the Church is not dying but is instead changing is simply this — Jesus Christ was hung on a cross and died. He was buried. On the third day he rose again from the dead and sits on the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. Jesus DIED. Jesus ROSE AGAIN. We cannot get to Easter Sunday if we don’t go through Good Friday.
The Church is needed. More than anything else, the Church is needed. This is probably the most important lesson I have learned. This is a lesson that I had hoped to be true and have now experienced in so many beautiful, painful, and celebratory ways in my time with your congregations. God’s children are seeking. We are hurting. We are longing. We are crying out. We need a place to go, to belong, to be loved-on just as we are challenged. We need to know that it is ok to be angry with God, we need to know that someone is there to hear us out when we are. I saw this most recently when strangers opened up to me on vacation. I have heard it when parishioners found me in your offices before worship and shared their personal stories with me, simply because I was perceived to be a safe and a listening ear. I see it in the eyes of those walking through the doors. I hear it in the “Amens” during sermons; in the frustration of the session meetings and the pure joy of the fellowship events. I hear it and read it in conversations with friends who do not have a church home and long for one, not sure where to begin or if they will be welcomed. I read it on the signs and in the eyes of those on street corners. All of it, every last bit shows that the Church is needed. We just need to rediscover what church is today, for our people in our neighborhoods. Church may not be 11 am worship anymore. Maybe it is in a coffee shop or a bar, maybe it is on a farm or on a bike.
Wherever, whenever, whoever… the Church is needed and as long as we remember that and strive to make it available, God’s Word will never die.
I came into this position only months out of seminary, and still several months away from ordination. I wasn’t completely sure of my own pastoral identity and my knowledge of ministry was limited to what I had learned in seminary and through my internships. This real life, on the ground, getting my hands dirty ministry was terrifying and exciting. Mix into that the fact that I would not be with any ONE congregation, but with almost one hundred by the end of my time, and I was more unsure. That being said, I couldn’t have asked for a better first call! I have learned so much and treasure these experiences.
My joy in this transition is that these reflections will not come to an end. They might shift in focus at times, however I will still strive to focus mainly on congregational ministry as I experience it as a congregational pastor and as I hear about it from others who I work with in different capacities. These lessons will guide my own ministry and future reflections, and I pray that they will guide yours as well!
Thank you for reading. Thank you for responding. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for your love, support, and individual ministries! I look forward to sharing my reflections from my own congregational ministry very soon!
Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Postscript: The Advancement and Alumni Offices of Union Presbyterian Seminary remain deeply grateful to the Rev. Jordan Davis and to the Rev. Nicole Ball for the tireless service they have offered to the seminary and to our congregations as Church Relations Officers over the past three years! Our prayers remain with both Jordan and Nicole as they continue their ministries for the Church in the World! God be with you!
Director of Alumni Development