Riding the Wave of “Yes We Can”

I hadn’t yet decided where I was going to throw my hat in this presidential year. I’ve had a hunch that it was Obama for a while. I was sent this video today. And it’s pretty nice. I’ve embedded it from YouTube. But to get the credits and all go to: http://www.dipdive.com/

Here’s a nod towards all those who have the Audacity to Hope. Peace

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An Open Letter to the Noble Road Congregation from Pastor Francis

Dear Friends:

I spent last the Friday and Saturday of January on retreat with 12 of our colleagues who are serving in churches in Cleveland or first-ring cities. These representatives were commissioned to this retreat by a larger group invested in working for a strategy within the presbytery that will address the specific needs of these urban and metropolitan churches. We were led by the Rev. Phil Tom who is staff associate for small church ministries for our denomination.

Our intent was to make a list of goals and objectives within this strategy and walk out of the retreat with individual responsibilities that we would bring back to our churches.

The strategy never materialized. I could go into the many reasons why, but I will cut to the chase and share with you one of the major issues on which we were stuck:

Triage v. long-term goals

1. Triage: We’ve already seen three metro/urban churches close in the past four years: Heights, Bosworth Rd., and Immanuel. Without some intervention, a couple more are looking at closure either within the year or not long after. {Let me add, if not for the rebounding of Discovery Preschool, we would likely be on that list.} The delegates from First Church, East Cleveland said straight out that unless they get a tenant in their building, they will close, therefore having no need for a long-range strategy. So, what do we do about the immediate needs of some of these churches, who feel like they are still providing relevant and needed ministry in their communities?

2. Long-term goals: How do we make our presbytery colleagues see that its urban churches are vital to its witness? How do we engage our suburban sisters and brothers in symbiotic partnerships? How do we discover beneficial community partners for each individual church? How do we write a strategy for the whole presbytery that will have some teeth—accountability—to it; ie. so it is not just rubber stamped only to be forgotten as each presbyter steps out into the parking lot following the meeting?

Added to this was the question of how any of us–clergy and lay–in urban/metro churches finds the energy and time to steer the presbytery along this strategy while trying to do what we are called to do in our own contexts.

I shared with my colleagues that I was going away from the meeting feeling both tired and adrift. Many spoke of being hopeful and encouraged by the relationship-building that was established throughout these frank and honest conversations; and that we were well on the way to creating something, but the time was not yet right.
As I have had some space away from that retreat, I have realized that I, tending to be an optimist, join alongside them in their hope. I believe that if God really wants us to be doing things in the Presbytery of the Western Reserve then God will equip us for the journey—urging us to evolve/change/transform in the process.

Alright, so how do these reflections serve as an annual report?
Our work together over the past four years has led us right into the middle of the tension that was revealed this weekend with this group of urban practitioners.
We went through the whole mapping process to help us internalize the general directions we need to be heading as we live into our vision of “transforming lives in Jesus Christ.” All signs point to the fact that the direction-setting responsibility has moved out of a small group of visioners and into the capable hands of the Session.

We literally bought into working with some of these same sibling churches in being equipped by the resource-rich Partners for Sacred Places organization. Through this we have begun to ask how our ministry in the community can be most enhanced in this facility? It has also encouraged us to seek out a variety of partners with whom to serve and find common grounding. As I listened this weekend, I was again reminded that these partnerships are the keys to a vital ministry as we move into the future.

In our engagement with the Justice Ministry’s offering of the Racial Diversity Assessment, we have been challenged to throw open the door to our understanding of Jesus’ call to embrace all of humanity—in its complexity—in hospitality, in action, in witness, in mission, in study, in worship, and, again, in partnership.

We have some hard work ahead of us.
On the Sunday following the retreat (27 January), the Rev. Phil Tom preached at our church. His message was about the need for changing one’s ways lest one suffer fatal consequences. He gave several examples of individuals needing to make life-changes in order to stay healthy and how hard it can be to change habits. Churches like ours, Phil added, are in similar situations; if we don’t take a fresh approach to ministry we will soon find ourselves closing our doors. He cited examples of ways people have changed life habits (diet, exercise regimen, etc) and suggested churches can do the same.

Doubtless you are responding in a similar way as I: we’ve heard this song before, we’ve talked about change—and experimented with it so much—that we’re not even sure who we are anymore. As I continue to reflect and be challenged by this notion of change I have had one recent revelation: we have changed a lot of the programming we do, but we have not necessarily changed the program. Here’s what I mean:

Change in the way we function: For as long as I can think of, the “way of being church” has been defined as program- and worship-centered. We who have grown up in the church (irrespective of Christian background, I think), and I who was trained to serve the church, expect that we will engage one another through programs like Christian education (children’s and adult forums), bible studies, and more recent popularity of small groups. Also, a primary focus of our life will be centered around Sunday morning worship. These programs and events are the ways we traditionally measure our ministry: how many members or visitors show up for worship, study, or potluck supper? I might add that another yardstick this particular church has used was how many rallies, protests, support marches did we initiate and/or attend?

As our membership numbers decrease we become frustrated when any of these measurements fall short because of low attendance…. But, when we are dealing with a small church, and people are spread thin, this is an unfair expectation!

We are challenged to move away from centering our lives on worship and church programs, and to move into a model offered by Jesus, the disciples, and apostles…sharing life with folks one-by-one, two-by-two, sometimes peaking with groups of 4000 (i.e. loaves and fish story).

That’s why I believe we have some hard work ahead of us. The work will be hard, not because it is going to require that much more time than we are used to spending in, at, and for the church; although maybe it will, I don’t know?? But, rather, the work will be hard because we’re doing some things which we are not used to, and, for which we have not been trained…yet. Kind of like those fisherfolk Jesus met and had to change their perspective from catching fish, to catching human beings in the story of God’s grace-, justice-, and love-filled kin-dom.

So, what is our call, here at Noble Road?
That’s a good question, and one with which we have wrestled for a long, long time. I imagine each of us has our own understanding of it, and we’ve boiled it down to that oft-quoted and not real concrete vision of “transforming lives in Jesus Christ.” And that statement is true. Others we could use: to promote abundant life, to share the light we know in God’s love with the world, to live into the welcome we have come to understand in Jesus Christ, etc.

If you want to skip the preface above, here are some of my proposed actions steps:
But how do we put these wonderful creeds into action?? Here are a few suggestions I have discovered along the way:

I think we are called to find out what the community needs, and find ways of bringing people together in order for these needs to be met. We are in a position to use the bricks and mortar around us to offer a meeting place for folks; a place where short-, medium-, or long-lasting programs come to find hospitality and welcome. This is why we are engaged in discussions about renovating our building and grounds; so, in the process of discussing the needs of our neighbors we have a place that is ready to comfortably receive all who wish to use the space we hold in trust of our mission.

Bringing people together means using the connections and associations we already hold within our daily lives to be pulled together at appropriate times. Bringing people together means taking time to do research of existing programs/organizations that already do what we are looking to do. This doesn’t have to be painstaking work, nor does it have to be about recreating the wheel. This can also include any of our interests…we should be engaged in things that we enjoy and love and for which we have passion.

We need to be sharing with one another what we are doing out in the world. If worship is our main time to gather as community, then we need to use that time to tell stories, ask for support or to make invitation.

Most of all, we need to be in conversation—as a congregation. Session has been having plenty of conversations about the direction of the church. But we don’t have enough forums where critical mass of the church community is able to come together, and talk with one another in an open, frank, trusting, patient, non-critical, hopeful, yet realistic way.

As the Annual Meeting came to a close, we had a glimpse of how this type of sharing can be. About 15-20 folks—with some flow in and out of the room—shared and listened to thoughts about what we need to be doing concretely as a congregation, as well as some things people see we are currently doing. Like with the folks at the retreat I attended on Saturday, the NRPC folks on Sunday didn’t come away with a concrete plan. But, we named the fact that by engaging in the conversation we made a little bit of movement. And the momentum must continue! As we sang in the service on that Sunday (with a little bit of lyrical license thrown in):

Inch by inch, row by row,
we’re gonna make our ministry grow…

Let’s keep it up, good people of Noble Road Church. I welcome your feedback in whatever form you choose: with comments in my box at church, email, or leave a comment on this blog.

Peace,
Francis

Vote for BRC

You’ll note the badge on the left that supports the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow standing for Moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I would urge you to click on it and check out what Bruce has to say.

Bruce and I were in graduate school together at San Francisco Theological Seminary. He and I worked together for a year in campus ministry at UNITAS Presbyterian House on the campus of Cal-Berkeley. We have also staffed college and youth events, as well as shared in groups supporting the work of young presbyterian pastors and pastors who work in urban settings.

I have come to regard Bruce not only as a trusted and valued friend, but as a pastoral colleague in whom I have the utmost respect. I have appreciated Bruce’s ability to be a forerunner in the movement of pastors who aren’t interested in maintaining the church as it has been throughout the 20th Century. Bruce had the grace to realize early in his pastorate that a typical church wasn’t going to nurture him and his gifts for ministry. Instead, he challenged himself to look deeply within and fashion a ministry that would have great integrity within who he is. In the process, he has discovered that not only are there other clergy people who are looking to emerge into a different way of engaging the gospel, but that there are a whole lot of people searching for meaning who, for a variety of reasons, aren’t going to find it in the church as we’ve known it.

Even while Bruce has been testing the waters for new expressions of ministry and mission, he is deeply committed to the Presbyterian Church. You will find as you engage him in conversation, that his faith and witness are steeped in the reformed faith. He will be an excellent leader to bring people of divergent beliefs together. As I’ve spoken with him about his hopes as Moderator, Bruce has spoken with great energy about wanting to find a variety of forums for promoting constructive conversations in order to unite the denomination in its interface with the world.

It is without hesitation and with great expectation that I endorse the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow as Moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) .