Lessons in Transition: A Reflection on Church Relations

CRO Churches

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
Church Relations

 


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!

Clay Macaulay
Director of Alumni Development

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Please, just let me read!

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Catching up on reading while on vacation — I HIGHLY recommend this wonderful book by Union Presbyterian Seminary’s 2017 Sprunt Lectures guest preacher, Rev. Otis Moss III (be warned, it can be a conversation starter!)

As a pastor, one of my least favorite questions when meeting someone new (outside of church) is the incredibly predictable, “What do you do for a living?”

When I was in seminary, I tried to drag out the response — “I am in school… in Richmond… studying religion… no, not at VCU or University of Richmond… at Union Presbyterian Seminary… yes, I am going to be a pastor.” Almost immediately, the new acquaintance would either walk away or launch into a confessional statement about why they don’t go to church anymore, or begin apologizing for a recent joke (which I laughed at), or their language. It gets old, very fast.

Now that I AM a pastor, I just jump on in with feet first and admit to it. The response is usually very similar. I have no problem with that, especially if they walk away and I was in a hurry or enjoying alone time. This is exactly why I figured there would be no problem sharing my profession when on a recent vacation (because who really wants to talk to a pastor while they are enjoying a poolside meal and drink?).

I couldn’t be more wrong.

I quickly learned a great deal about the people I was relaxing and swimming with as soon as they found out that I am a pastor.  I heard the story and fears of one individual who feels he might never be able to return to church because of his past;  the young mom who feared this would be the final family vacation because her child will likely run away when they return home;  the couple who still mourns the tragic loss of their oldest child but celebrates the milestones in the life of their youngest. Our first-name-based friendships grew quickly as we floated for hours, pondering the realities of life and affirming both hatred and love of God. We ate meals together and even danced together. We parted ways, grateful for the conversation, and with no way to connect beyond our small piece of paradise.

Early into the experience, I not-so-jokingly told my husband, “From here on out, I am a middle school teacher. That is it.” He wondered why, and as I explained that I just wanted to be on vacation and leave work behind, he helped me to remember that I can’t do that — I am someone who loves and cares for people in God’s name, and that can’t be left behind.

And that, my friends, is what it boils down to.

As pastors, as congregational leaders, we are called to love and care for all of God’s children in all times and spaces. Even on our vacation when we want to cry out, “Please, just let me read!” Even if it means losing a BINGO game because you were distracted.

We never know who we will meet, and we never know what their story will be. We can ALWAYS know that the individuals we meet are beautiful children of God, and we are called to share God’s love and grace with each and every one – those who are hurting, those who might never set foot in a church building again, and those who want someone to celebrate with who hasn’t yet heard their story.

I imagine I learned of the heartbreak and celebration filling the hearts of the other vacationers because I was unknown and we were all far from home.  I imagine I was seen as “safe” for those who couldn’t relax until they released some of the weight they had been carrying around.  I celebrate every lost minute of reading and swimming, because through each individual I spoke with, I saw a glimpse of God’s beautiful Kingdom taking form.

That is the beauty of being a pastor. That is the incredible struggle of being a pastor. That is why pastors NEED to make sure they take time away to refuel.

Loving those we know is challenging enough.  Loving those we have just met and might never see again is even more challenging.  God has called us to do this for a reason, though.  I pray that each of us is able to take these glimpses of the Kingdom and find more peace there, than in our poolside reading.

But please, take time with that book gathering dust on your shelf and go catch some Vitamin D!

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

“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