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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) or me, Clay Macaulay (email@example.com), 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
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?!
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?
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?
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.*
This past Sunday I had the honor and privilege to administer my first baptism, immediately followed by my first confirmation at the church where I spent my teenage years. As a young pastor, both events carried a great deal of weight but also offered an incomparable experience of joy. Add to that the fact that I used to babysit the young lady being confirmed (she was baptized around the same time I myself was confirmed), and the experience was taken to another level!
In addition to these two joyous moments we also celebrated those women in our lives who have nurtured us and helped us to answer God’s call. Unfortunately, we also prayed for a mother, a friend of the congregation, whose son was shot and killed the night before.
I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on that worship service. I have spent time praying for all of these individuals.
As pastors, we are welcomed into some of the most sacred moments of a person’s life– the most beautiful and the most dreadful. We are invited and we are called to embody God’s love and grace in these moments when a person needs that the most. We are urged to empower others to do the same, with both as little and as much as they have.
The text that I chose to preach on for this unique service was Matthew 28: 16-20, otherwise known as “The Great Commission”. The part that I love most about this text is that even in their doubt the Disciples went to the mountain to meet Jesus and even in their doubt, Jesus called and sent them to all nations.
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go.17 When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.18 Jesus came near and spoke to them,“I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth.19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
Matthew 28: 16-20
The little boy who was baptized on Sunday, the young girl who was confirmed, the son was killed, the mother who mourned— each was called by God to change the world in some way. Each person’s story has helped to shape the life and story not just of that congregation but of all those who they have met along the way. Each story has been shared with me as a pastor so that I might bring God’s presence into their lives in a new way. Even in their doubt, even in our own doubt.
I am a part of a Facebook group called “Things They Didn’t Teach Us in Seminary”. This past Sunday was a perfect illustration of just that– they can tell us that we will be a part of big moments, they can tell us stories of their own experiences and others they have heard of, but no one can teach you or begin to prepare you for that morning when all curtains are pulled back and you see God’s presence in the most powerful way yet.
Following the baptism, I walked down the aisle carrying a little boy who had snuggled down so close against my chest that I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to hand him back. As I turned around to come back, the young girl being confirmed took him from me and carried him back to his parents. I took this time to pray for the mother who lost her son, praying for the words to share the tragic news with the congregation– doubting that I would have the right words to do so. In these moments, I walked with and carry a child of God through that sanctuary. In those moments, even as I doubted, I learned what it is like to truly minister to God’s children and watch God’s grace at work. I learned what seminary could have never taught me.
When has God used you, even in your doubt?
When have you seen the curtains drawn back in your own ministry?
What have you learned in active ministry that seminary could never teach?
This past Sunday, I sat back in the pew and enjoyed a wonderful performance of “The Tale of Three Trees” (music by Allen Pote and words by Tom Long) by the Junior and Children’s Choirs at University Presbyterian Church (Chapel Hill, NC). While the entire performance was absolutely wonderful and endearing, as well as a nice change of pace for my church visits, one particular song stood out to me–
A Prayer for Tomorrow (Tom Long & Allen Pote)
Dreams, we all have dreams, what we can be, what we can do.
Lord, with all we are, we pray that our dreams will lead us, will lead us to you.
See our hands, what will they make, Lord?
See our feet, where will they run?
See our hearts, who will they love, Lord?
See our lives, we’ve just begun!
In our eyes you see tomorrow.
On that day one thing we know:
there’s a dream from one who loves us that is greater than our own.
Listening to the beautiful voices of these children, I began to wonder what the dreams of this congregation and the larger Church might be? During the break between the two worship services, I decided to find out.
The first thing I noticed was a dream for the children of the congregation. Not only did I see parents and other volunteers working to make sure everything went smoothly with the performance, but I saw opportunities all around for the children to be involved in worship. Teal bags hung in the narthex, ready to be carried into the sanctuary by little hands that would explore the bag’s contents and be tied into worship in a creative and active way. In the bulletin, scripture readings were not just provided with page numbers in a pew Bible, but also in a Children’s Bible that was available right next to the pew Bible. I spoke with one young man who delighted in the greeting of a toddler and shared with me his love for the smallest children and his time volunteering in the nursery. As the sanctuary was prepared for the second worship, I saw a banner hanging at the baptismal font for the young girl who would be baptized later that morning. Everywhere I looked, I saw a dream for the faith formation of those who might not fully understand yet, but will show us the way if we let them.
I enjoyed a cup of coffee as I listened to the story of a woman who makes blankets for those children being baptized, but also for those members and friends of the congregation who are hurting– those who are grieving, those who are sick, and those who just need a warm embrace. If she can’t make them a blanket, she is sure to send them a card. In the passion and delight of this woman who grew up in this congregation, I saw a dream of caring, warm, embracing love.
I walked outside of the front doors and looked up where I saw a banner, visible from the UNC Chapel Hill campus, “WE CHOOSE WELCOME”. Throughout the building, I found copies of the PC(USA) statement on immigration. I found brochures and pictures of outreach and I witnessed the embrace of members and new visitors. I saw a dream of inclusivity and truly living as the ONE Body of Christ.
As this congregation prepares for the retirement of beloved pastor for 26 years, Rev. Bob Dunham (M. Div. 1975), I heard stories of a ministry that has marked and changed hundreds of lives. I heard lament and grief, but I also heard a spark of wonder and dreaming as they asked for recommendations of pastors to call upon and things to do in this time of transition. I saw a dream for future ministry, one that holds the traditions of the congregation close but one that will challenge them in this next chapter.
Every dream was clearly visible, it took almost no effort to find them. Every dream is leading this congregation closer to the Lord, just as the song states. Every dream is fueled by the dream of Jesus Christ.
I wonder, what are the dreams of your congregation?
What dreams do you have for your own ministry?
One of the greatest parts of being married, I have learned, is having someone to share my dreams with each morning. Voicing the excitement of my dream, or sharing the struggle of the dream; bringing life to a dream by bringing it into the light and out of my mind.
I invite you to think about who it is that you share your dreams with, and how your congregation shares their dreams with one another? What do you have around building? What stories are members and friends sharing? Invite others to take a look and share with you what they see. Do they match up or do they seem something different from you?
I invite you to dream– big and small– dream a dream that leads you and your congregation closer to Jesus.
“Dreams, we all have dreams, what we can be, what we can do.
Lord, with all we are, we pray that our dreams will lead us, will lead us to you.”
6 years ago yesterday, I received a phone call from my parents informing me that my brother-in-law had taken his own life. That day, and those days which followed, are impressed upon my memory in vivid and visceral ways.
Prior to this marker moment in my life, I felt to be in a fertile place of growth toward vocational discernment. I was in the final weeks of my seminary education and looking forward to graduation. I was working at a local congregation, serving as Youth Intern. I was recently engaged to my college sweetheart. I had just returned from a discernment weekend to find out my placement as a Young Adult Volunteer through the YAV Program of the PC (USA). Life was good!
The emotional toll of my grief, after learning of Fernando’s death, seemed more than I could handle at the time. I heavily depended upon my family, my faith community, and my seminary community to hold me and assure me of God’s presence in my darkest hour.
Prior to my time as Church Relations Officer, I worked as a healthcare Chaplain in a small, community-based hospital. I witnessed the deaths of many individuals, from 22 weeks of age to 98 years. As I digested each experience, I was eager to find an algorithm of support which worked in every situation, with every type of traumatic event, and with every type of person. I wanted to know what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. I yearned to be a great pastoral care provider!
Upon reflection, I soon learned that it was my being human which gave me the best tools to support another in their time of grief.
As pastors, educators, lay leaders, and people of faith, we are called upon to nurture and guide one another as we wade through the storms of life, including moments of grief and loss. One of the most precious gifts we may offer to one another is our gift of love, listening, and empathy. Here are some practical ways to put those gifts into practice:
Practice empathy, not sympathy
An empathetic posture towards another who is grieving creates space for mutuality, processing of emotions and deeper understanding. A sympathetic posture towards another who is grieving creates an emotional imbalance between the care giver and the one grieving. Metaphorically speaking, we might create a better connection with those who experience grief if we choose to put on our rain boots and experience the storm with them rather than floating by in our safety raft, looking on with pity and disbelief. Empathetic responses require us to tap into vulnerability and truly seek understanding of the other. We do this best through listening and being aware of our own emotional processes with traumatic situations.
Your grief is not my grief
When we project our stuff—our feelings, our experiences, our trauma, our vulnerability—onto another, we limit the grief of another. This is most often reflected in our response to another person’s experience of grief. Some people experience shock and cannot comprehend the reality of loss. Some people transition into autopilot and prefer to keep busy in order to protect themselves from feeling their feelings. Some people roll on the floor, pound their fists and cry out to God in anger. Some people remain stoic and hold their feelings in. Some people burst into tears and seem to cry for days at a time. Some people feel relief, but may be afraid to say it. We all grieve differently, and that is okay.
Your grief is not my grief, so when providing care to another who is grieving, it is important to keep our projections about how grief should look, feel, sound, taste, and smell out of the conversation. Leave aside anecdotal words of wisdom, bad theological commentary about tragedy and your personal story of loss. Instead, practice listening to hear rather than to respond. Allow the grief to manifest how it may, and love them through it.
Those who grieve don’t always know what they need
How often have you heard another say to you, “Let me know if you need anything” when faced with a traumatic situation? We say this to one another with the best intentions and our comment comes from a place of sincerity; however, traumatic situations inhibit coping skills in the throes of grief so such a question can be overlooked by the grieving. What can I do to help?, we may think, and so we whole-heartedly tell our hurting friend, “Let me know if I can do something, anything!”.
It is important to remember that those who grieve don’t always know what they need, or what to ask for. They may be so overwhelmed by their circumstances that even the simplest tasks like eating, drinking, or using the restroom are pushed aside. Here is a nice opportunity to do rather than ask. Arrive with snacks or refreshments. Encourage hydration or a break by invitation to do something with you, whether it’s a coffee break, getting some fresh air, or making a trip to the restroom with you. As time goes on, coordinate hospitality needs with family members, friends or other members in the faith community. People may not remember what you said to them, but they might remember how you cared for them.
Anniversaries are important
Grief is like a deep cut in our skin. At first, it is raw and fresh to the touch. The pain is ever-present and we fear it will never subside. Over time, however, our bodies begin the healing process to repair the wound. The fresh cut becomes a scab, and then the scab falls away to allow for a pink scar. Soon, the pink color fades from our scar and our skin returns to normal, though the scar remains. It no longer causes us immediate pain to touch, but we can run our finger along it and remember the ache of when it first happened.
Grief can be triggered by persons, times, places and events. Anniversaries of traumatic accidents, deaths or loss are important and we can be most helpful to one another if we remember and acknowledge the event with a phone call, a card, a coffee date or some other extension of care. Holidays or other gathering times for family and friends can trigger feelings of grief so remaining aware of these times can greatly impact care. Most importantly, we should be gentle with ourselves and with others as we approach, and work through, the anniversaries of grief and loss in our lives. Taking time to acknowledge our pain, celebrate those whom we lost or gathering to share love with one another can be helpful for all involved.
Looking back on my experience of loss on this sixth anniversary, I can tell you that I felt loved and cared for by those who held me through that painful time. I don’t remember what they said to me but I remember how they made me feel. Pastors and lay folk, seminary classmates and professors, neighbors and long distant friends alike responded with support in meaningful ways.
As you seek to guide your congregants, family members, or friends through loss, be encouraged that your presence and love is enough. Your gifts of listening and compassion are integral to those who grieve. For it is, indeed, in the blessed community where we find our sense of belonging and the courage to face the next minutes, hours and days. Grief is not partial to some, but visits us all. May we find comfort and encouragement in this knowledge, knowing we can be God’s presence to one another even when we face the valley of the shadow of death.