It is busy to be home with all the resting routines bouncing into place.
Here's a summary of the summer.
"The best experiences are surprises (beyond our control) or invitations (relational and personal)."
-Journal note Mon. June 27, 2016
"I am creating something new. There it is! Do you see it? I have put roads in deserts, streams[a] in thirsty lands."
-Isaiah 43:19 (CEV)
No easy answers emerged by taking time apart, but clarity and renewal surfaced. The path yet ahead holds many challenges, all able to be met with God. Experiencing God in this summer stands above the information, although the insights and learning will be vital. God moments flowed. Here are a few:
- On June 5th, the day before departure, I received two glorious prayers and one complaint. The email complaint clouded my mind briefly until Dave Yascavage stopped in the office and offered to prayer for me as I set out. What a gift. Then Mike Poltonavage led the 9am congregation in prayer for me, hands laid, and encouragement abounding. Unexpected. Unparalleled. Wonderfully uplifting. God at work.
- Toward the end of June (29th) I was driving toward Haywood St. UMC in Asheville, NC. Frustration was high between their pastor being on paternity leave and playing email and phone tag for months, so I was just going to drop in and see what I could find. 150 minutes before my arrival I took a call from Haywood's Executive Director letting me know that their weekly meal was on Wednesday and followed by weekly worship at noon. It was 9:30am Wednesday! I made a bee-line to a most amazing worship service and ministry setting. God's timing.
- In July (26th) I spent a week with my extended family at Ocean City New Jersey, only to discover "A Future with Hope" United Methodist Housing ministry working 2 doors down from us. I peeked my head in the door to meet Katie Quigley, their regional coordinator and a team of High School girls doing rehab work. Turns out this work parallels our PF 6:8 work, and John Schol (Now bishop and previously long-time Eastern PA colleague) was instrumental in its beginnings. A moment of celebration and learning from being present between the plans.
- There are more stories about the amazing ministry of PFUMC with youth taking new leadership, Noah's Little Ark team intentionally stepping into and handling new challenges, and SPRC hiring a new choir director. I could add many "aha!" moments where God spoke deep in my soul to my dreams and my fears. All important and ready for our conversations and work together.
Of all the ministries I visited, 5 stand out as most relevant and most enjoyed. (See notes that follow summary) All taught me something important. The 5 are Haywood St. UMC-A ministry with the Homeless, A Church for All People UMC-A ministry with the community, Calvin Presbyterian-A contemplative ministry approach, Rutherford Campus of Crosspoint UMC-a church restart with a homey feel, and New Birth UMC-a ministry rooted in the Latino community of Lebanon. If I am to keep this report manageable I must move to the common ground these and other churches demonstrated to me. As well as a few insights.
Small, large, rural, urban, new, established, contemplative, active...no matter the unique personality and circumstance of the congregation, they each shared these 7 attributes:
- Community -- Each congregation found ways to build intentional outward reaching relationships that made a difference in the life of the larger community, that if withdrawn would be noticeably missed. This was not a single ministry but an ongoing dialogue;
- Listening -- Deep, constant, responsive listening to one another and the world.
- Flexibility -- Each ministry could tell stories of hearing about a changing need or circumstance and within weeks adapting structure, funding, staffing and/or program to address that discovery. The speed and risk-taking were amazing, faith-filled, and a consistent theme;
- Prayer -- Every last group spoke of prayer and discernment. It took varying forms in each setting, while consistently looking to God. More often than not, the prayers were non-traditional and interactive. (Walking prayer, labyrinth, staff devotional exercise, intentionally listening conversations in the community...)
- Authenticity -- Holding conversations about all of life, including sin and salvation. Not a finger-point or blame game, but a consistent acknowledgement of our struggles and God's desire for transformation. This honesty was always a mutual journey with one another, and never a spiritual fix-it clinic. It's expression often used language of love, support, challenge and mutuality, grounded in Christ.
- Focus -- Each church was persistently listening for their calling and continuously adapted to meet that calling by going somewhere new, ceasing something familiar, failing often and trying again and again and again. This was a discipline of passion.
- Tables-- There was a lot of eating! Eating around tables provided connection to community both within and beyond. Tables openned to the homeless, the inquirer, the questioner, the friend. Tables set weekly at a predictable place and portable meals. The Lord's Table consistently showed up in worship on a weekly basis. And tables were a primary place of relationship building, learning together, caring for one another... holy conversation.
What I haven't accounted for are the predictable church commonalities.
- All sought to Love with the "Everybody's Welcome" Love of God and it showed.
- All worshipped, even though no two worship services happened the same way or all at the preferred Sunday Morning slot.
- All cared for administration, staffing, funding, education, and the variety of method continued to span the spectrum of familiar patterns to experiments of grace.
I note the alignment of these common observations with the Bishop's 5 Call to Action measurements of worship, small groups, new faith commitments, people serving in mission and resources given to mission. I can see many of these elements in the work of Palmyra First UMC.
So what does all this mean? My growing insights and thoughts are:
- Pay attention to the common elements. For PFUMC we struggle with focus and flexibility (quickness), perhaps most, but they all are important;
- Build on Assets, strengths, and gifts. Asset Mapping and encouraging people to work in areas where they have passion, gifts, strength, and interest is key;
- Encourage Stories and Conversations. We are a task culture and not always encouraged to share leisurely conversation or stories. Testimony is story. Teaching is story. Strong community is built on healthy conversation and story. We need to intentionally make space for these encounters;
- Engage a systematic approach to life together (not legalistic) but a pattern to help with the routine. (Remember these communities might change on a dime too!) This was harder to quantify yet evident and anecdotally important to pastors and staff;
- Focus with Love-- Hold tight to the mission and not the method. Welcome all knowing that our call may only touch a particular group today. We trust that God is bigger than any one moment or movement.
Next Steps that I'm suggesting:
- Study Renewal Conversation -Sept. 18th, 11:45-1:15pm. The format is a coverded dish or simple lunch (30min), a 20 min laity presentation on insights from "Faith in Action" and summer, a 20 min presentation by Pastor Dave on insights from the Study & Renewal time, and finally 20 minutes to begin a conversation and ask one another questions.
- Plan Monthly conversation gathering(s) for 90 minutes around tables to explore Asset Mapping, our call, our focus and things that grow out of our learning.
- Leadership look at staffing and structure for emerging ministry, consistently simplifying board/council/administrative structure and staffing for focal areas was a common observation.
- Pray, Worship, Love -- stretching ourselves to renewed openness to the Holy Spirit.
There are many more stories and observations to be shared in sermons, around tables, in conversations, and beyond. God was at work when I crashed into the bee on I-26 in South Carolina. God showed up with power as I attended AA meetings. God spoke to me through two Taiwanese strangers and my grandson. Ask me to tell you more stories. They are many because God's generosity is great.
Salvation/Discipleship is not a commodity to be distributed or traded, but an adventurous relationship to be invited into. Places making disciples and making a difference in the community are engaging the 7 common elements listed and the predictable commonalities with passion, and God-given uniqueness, on a journey with Jesus Christ.
One last word. On my return I am not planning to change everything. The only changes will be God's. I'm simply planning to ask renewed questions and share the stories of my journey and see where God takes us. Remember that this journey unfolded with your willingness to risk a new experience of Study Renewal. Never forget how powerfully God used you during these summer months. Hold tight to the God who promises us new life and willingly walks with us in the good and the hard. Onward in Christ!
10,000 Joys in The One Who Makes Us Whole