For a Time

Dale wasn’t a member of the church but was there most Sundays this past year and called us the “Broken Pieces Church.”  He named it as:

  • A “foster” church for those in spiritual transition
  • A home for as long as people needed
  • A safe place to heal from brokenness
  • A place of restoration and resurrection
  • A home into which all are united and welcomed
  • A place to remember how to return thanks by giving of self to others
  • A place with high expectations to participate fully
  • A place for folks for whom a traditional worship service won’t fit

Over this last year of Plainfield United Methodist Church’s 134-year-old worshipping community, several people have become a part of our “broken pieces church” for a time.  I noticed it last summer when the attendance of our very small congregation began to increase.

Trumpet and kidsWe were in a time of discernment about our future, compelled to face the grim reality that we no longer had the human or financial resources to do effective ministry in our community.  Our plight was known by the Grand Rapids United Methodist community because our twenty metropolitan churches have been intentionally supporting each other in various ways for a number of years.

Our congregation of about twelve active members (the disciples) kept going because they were absolutely convinced that God wanted ministry to remain at this critical location of need in urban Grand Rapids for more than just a time.  But we were tired and overwhelmed from plugging leaks, fixing boilers, repairing roofs, and wearing way too many hats.

Almost every Sunday over the last twelve months we had at least one guest from another United Methodist church who was led by the Holy Spirit to offer support and encouragement for a time.  These guests always lifted our spirits.  When our pianist found another job, we hired a husband/wife duo who offered contemporary music to our congregation.  We could have never paid Zach and Lindsay what they were worth, but they felt called to walk with us for a time and immediately elevated the energy level of worship.

A few months ago when we were serving a dinner to the community on Friday night, our cook became ill.  The call went out around the district, and we were flooded with volunteers from other churches who came for a time and embodied our trust that “God will provide.”

I soon noticed, however, that some of our guests kept returning.  They didn’t join the church, but they became part of us.  They were “all in.”  Last fall Dorothy was on the way to her own church when she felt the Holy Spirit calling her to drive past the exit.  She ended up at Plainfield UMC and was with us almost every Sunday over the past year.

Dorothy’s husband died the year before after a long illness, and she was seeking healing.  She wondered who she was in light of her loss and what plans God had for the rest of her life.  It was just for a time, but Dorothy was a leavening influence on our congregation.  A person of deep prayer and spiritual perception, Dorothy could tell who was struggling and spoke gently to church members after worship.  She even came to our meetings “of the whole” and offered a fresh perspective when church members could not clearly discern the way.  Dorothy found new meaning by giving herself away to us.

Aileen, Steve, Ava, and Isaac decided to make Plainfield their home for a time when the White Pines UMC new church start to which they had been committed closed after teetering on the edge of viability for years.  Even though Plainfield was another struggling congregation it became a tranquil resting place on the way and a place to regroup.  Their very presence filled our church members with hope.

Dale, the one who called us the “broken pieces church,” was a local pastor without an appointment after having faithfully led the White Pines UMC through their painful closing.  At Plainfield he found safety, welcome, and unconditional grace in the knowledge that each one of us was also broken in some way.  Dale, too, was here for a time and served as liturgist, committee member, and steady presence.

Other White Pines refugees included Stephanie and her children John and Claire, and Charlie and his children Rose and Grace.  They found Plainfield to be a place to recover hope.  Teens John and Rose participated in the sermon on several Sundays.  Other times the children would go to Sunday school and help with the ten to twenty neighborhood children who were hungry to learn about Jesus.  These families, too, were with us for a time.  Because they became part of us, we grew, learned, prayed, and healed together.

Kids CommunionWhy did our for a time friends imitate the apostle Paul, who had a vision one night where a man of Macedonia pleaded with Paul to “come over to Macedonia and help us?”  Convinced that God called his party to proclaim the good news to Macedonia, they set sail immediately.  (Acts 16: 9-10).

Why did our new friends respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to come and help us?  All I know is that our congregation’s attendance more than doubled over the last year of our existence… for a time.  All I know is that the atmosphere in our congregation changed from one of depression and despair to anticipation and excitement at what God was about to do with our broken pieces.  The Holy Spirit seemed to literally dance around the sanctuary for months before our final worship service.  I could see it, feel it, and was caught up in it myself.

Was it something about our impending congregational death and rebirth as a new church restart that acknowledged death and resurrection in our own lives?  Could it be that the letting go we experienced as a congregation was helping everyone to let go of whatever was preventing us from living fully in the midst of difficult times?  Was it the joy of becoming something greater than ourselves, something God alone can see?  Did we all become wounded healers for one another for a time? 

A critical lesson that I have learned from my year at Plainfield UMC is that it’s okay for church membership to be fluid.  Over the years I’ve seen more and more people moving back and forth between churches for a time, but now I no longer get bent out of shape.  I get it.

When a church member feels led by the Holy Spirit to affiliate with another congregation for a time, whether for missional or personal reasons, I am learning to rejoice rather than cling tightly to “my members.”  If a church member has the gifts to help another church begin a major ministry, I say, “Go for it!”  If someone wants to walk alongside a church that has come on hard times, I say, “Hallelujah!”  If a family decides to attend another church for a time because their children love that youth group, I say, “Thank you Jesus that someone is reaching them.”

After all, what business are we in, anyway?  Is our mission to build our own fiefdoms, or are we called to build the kingdom of God?  And if it’s God’s kingdom, then who are we to buck the Holy Spirit and become possessive of our own?  Could it be that we live up to our calling as a connectional church when we share all of our broken pieces and together fit them together into a tapestry of shalom and hope for our world?

Welcoming and caring for people who are in churches for a time is a cutting edge ministry that can no longer ignored.  Perhaps they are in town for a six or twelve month work project.  Maybe they are in emotional, physical, or spiritual transition and don’t feel able to go back to their own church.  Perhaps they are peregrini, nomadic pilgrims who are “prone to wander” because they feel called to by God to various congregations for specific short-term ministries.

Whatever the reason, our churches must find immediate ways for “for a timers” to connect, be active, and even participate in leadership, if appropriate.  Don’t get hung up on membership.  Don’t make the boundaries around participation too tight.  At the same time let people be if they simply need to heal and only want to worship with you.  And for God’s sake, don’t quench the Holy Spirit.  Let the Spirit move where it will.

Zach, Lindsay, Dorothy, Dale, Aileen, Steve, Ava, Isaac, Stephanie, John, Claire, Charlie, Rose, Grace, and others: your presence at Plainfield for a time has been one of the greatest gifts we could have ever received this year.  Your steady presence has been a symbol of the great cloud of witnesses cheering on the Plainfield congregation.  You have brought with you light, caring, faithfulness, peace, hope, joy, and the Comforter.  Most important, you became part of us.

Wherever God leads you next, remember the words of one of our favorite songs this year,

“You make beautiful things out of the dust.  You make beautiful things out of us.  You are making me new.”  God made something beautiful out of you for a time.  Thank you, dear friends, for a beautiful and holy sojourn together.



P.S. 150 people “for a timers” graced Plainfield UMC yesterday for our last worship service before the new church restart.

Keep Smilin’ for God Walks with Y’all

Dear Friends in Christ, We are circling you in prayer as you remain faithful, “standing on the promises of God.”  God will be with you and lead you in this new pathway.

I recognized him immediately as a guest.  When you have a very small congregation, it’s not difficult to recognize visitors.   I introduced myself, and he said his name was Jeff Gantz, a United Methodist pastor in Texas.

When I asked how he found his way to Plainfield UMC, Jeff said that he was in Grand Rapids visiting family and was searching for a place to worship on the Sunday after Christmas.  He looked up a number of churches in Grand Rapids and was most attracted to Plainfield’s website.

     We are so excited about the future of your church.  Keep the faith!  Praying for you.

So there he was.  During the prayer time after the sermon, the congregation engaged in informal discussion about a major decision facing them.  We have been praying and discerning God’s will for the future of the congregation since last fall.  I introduced Jeff and asked if he would tell us about the congregation he served.  Jeff spoke for a few minutes about First United Methodist Church in Bay City and then offered words of encouragement to our congregation in regard to their impending decision.  It was a tender moment as I witnessed first-hand the power of our United Methodist connection when we bear one another’s burdens.

     Keep smilin’ for God walks with you all.

Jeff had never been to Plainfield UMC before, but he immediately sensed the importance of the moment and wanted to be supportive.  He said that he understood what we are going through and that many declining churches around the country are having the same discussions.

I said to Jeff, “I feel strongly that there is a reason God led you to Plainfield today.”  Jeff replied that he had no doubt God wanted him to be in worship with us that morning.

     My prayers to all of you.  Just as I have moved to Bay City and am finding a new start here in the Lord, may you find a new start in faith and hope.

Jeff gave me his contact information, and I wanted to thank him for his kindness and encouragement but misplaced the card.  Four days later Jeff called and said that his congregation has the spiritual gift of encouragement.  He was wondering if it would be okay to share the story of his visit to Grand Rapids and give his congregation the opportunity to respond.  Not only would church members pray for us that Sunday, but Jeff wanted his parishioners to write notes of encouragement during communion, which he would then send to the Plainfield congregation.

     The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness SHALL NOT overcome it.  Be the LIGHT in your corner of Michigan.  Don’t lose hope.  Trust God. 

The next day I left for vacation, and when I returned to the office a week ago, a large envelope sat on my desk.  My jaw dropped as 95 cards spilled out, cards from the very young to the very old, along with a letter from Jeff.

“Upon returning to Bay City, Texas, I shared my experience and asked if the congregation would want to help me in praying for Plainfield UMC.  The response has been overwhelming.  Enclosed you will find note cards that my congregation would like your congregation to have.  They are noted of encouragement and support.  It’s just our ‘Texas’ way of saying that you guys are not alone in this transition time.

“Change can be hard and scary.  But change also gives us an opportunity to experience the presence of a graceful and wonderful God.  Like the Magi that encountered Jesus and then took a different way home, we pray that your next journey is filled with wonder and amazement at what God is doing through you.  May Christ shine through your future decisions!

Your brothers and sisters in Christ, First UMC Bay City, Texas – Rev. Jeff Gantz

     A Navy jet pilot told me of having a flameout over the ocean.  The restart procedure was to perform a steep dive toward the ocean.  He followed the procedure and the engine restarted.  What a great feeling when he felt the regained power of the engine.  I pray that you feel the joy of a successful restart.

One of the greatest gifts that we can offer to another person is encouragement.  The word “encouragement” can be traced to the old French word encoragier, which means “to put in courage.”  Even more fascinating is the fact that the Greek word for encouragement, paraclesis, is closely related to parakletos (Comforter), which is the New Testament word for the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is our Encourager.

One of the great encouragers in the early church was Barnabas.  Originally named Joseph, the apostles changed his name to Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement.”  When a person’s name was changed in the Bible it was because the new name better described that person’s character and essence.  This first-century missionary initially appears in Acts chapter four when he sells a piece of property and the proceeds are distributed to those in need.

     Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, Change often is frightening.  Yet it is sometimes necessary and, in the end, greatly rewarding.  I pray that each of you are strengthened by your faith and your love for your neighbor.

Encouragement is one of the ministries of the Holy Spirit.  Every once in a while we encounter an ordinary person who makes an indelible impact on our life because of their encouragement.  When was the last time you inspired someone with courage, spirit, and confidence through your encouragement?  A note, an email, a touch on the shoulder, attentive listening, words of affirmation, a plate of brownies, a phone call, a hug, a crockpot of soup, a special scripture verse, an offer to sit with a friend who is sick.  There are endless ways to encourage.  Who will be a Barnabas?

     Keep your faith dear church, beautiful sisters and brothers in Christ.  We stand with you and rejoice in your faithfulness, and ask continued prayers for what God will do through you.

We often have no idea how a simple gesture of love can rekindle purpose for the hopeless, impart strength to the weary, and offer wisdom to the confused.  Conversely, when we ignore those who are suffering because it’s too uncomfortable or remain silent because we don’t know what to say to someone experiencing uncertainty or distress, we miss a God-given opportunity to offer Holy Spirit encouragement.  Who will be a Barnabas?

     We will keep you in our prayers.  Never lose faith in God.  I praise God for the commitment you have all chosen.

A favorite New Testament scripture is 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 because of Paul’s repeated use of the word “consolation,” (paraklesis), which could also be translated as “encouragement.”  Paul wants us to understand that when disciples share the heartache, difficult decisions, and pain of others through encouragement, the love of Jesus is made real.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all encouragement, who encourages us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our encouragement is abundant through Christ.  If we are being afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation; if we are being encouraged, it is for your encouragement, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering.  Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our encouragement.”  Who will be a Barnabas?

     I have never experienced anything like this in 31 years of ministry:

  • “You are in our thoughts and prayers.  Praise be to God.  Through God all things are possible.
  • Keep the faith and rock on.
  • Be bold and may forces come to your aid.
  • God is with you always.  Keep your eyes on the cross.
  • Hoping and praying that God leads you to a bright future…  We need you.
  • Our church will be praying for you as you make important decisions about your church.  God bless you.

God bless you, Bay City United Methodist Church: aka Barnabas.  Your 95 notes of encouragement have put courage into our hearts.  We have been enriched and strengthened by the Holy Spirit and know that, no matter what decision is made, you and God are with us on this journey.   Who will be a Barnabas?



We are 21st Century Circuit Riders and We Rock

“I really wish I could stay longer for fellowship time, Jim, but if I don’t leave now, I’ll be late to church #2.”

“At least you don’t have to ride a horse.”

“Does a 1969 Grabber Orange Mustang count?” (my first car)

I honestly thought it would never happen.  I sailed through 31 years of ministry, grateful to have served in almost every type of appointment: rural, downtown, urban, and county seat; pastor, program, and corporate size; associate pastor, co-pastor, solo pastor, and district superintendent.

Oops.  I forgot something.  So guess where I was appointed next?  A two-point charge.  After 5 months I’ve concluded that all clergy should have the joy of serving a multi-point charge.  How else will they know what it’s really like to be a Methodist circuit rider?

Every Sunday morning we wake up not knowing how the day will turn out but simply praying for energy and grace.  We gas up our car rather than feed our horse.  If we’re running behind, we take along breakfast, a snack, a water bottle, and even lunch if there are extra meetings after the last church service.  We carefully lay a towel across our lap so that our clothes don’t get dirty.   Although a clergy robe would neatly hide food stains, most of us don’t wear one.  Who has time to change?

We are 21st century circuit riders, and we rock!  If you’re lucky, you’ll be appointed to a multi-point charge someday as well.  I go through the checklist every Sunday before I leave:

√  Cell phone and ear piece (in case the pianist for the 2nd service calls in sick or  construction between churches appears overnight, and you’re going to be late)

√  Food (ever try preaching while your stomach is competing for attention?)

√  Extra pair of hose just in case (does not apply to all circuit riders)

√  Coat and gloves in the winter (if the heat is out in the sanctuary)

√  A fan in the summer (air conditioning is a dream in most multi-point charges)

√  Sermon and worship materials for each church (good luck keeping sins, debts, and trespasses straight)

√  A pen and pad of paper (essential for noting follow-up items in church #1 before switching gears to  give full attention to church #2)

√  A second pair of comfortable shoes (wearing heels for 6 hours doesn’t work for everyone)

√  Patience, flexibility, and good humor (in case the liturgist forgets to show up or half of the already small congregation is gone for the weekend)

We are 21st century circuit riders, and we rock!  The genius of United Methodism’s explosive growth in post-revolutionary America was its circuit-riding clergy.  In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s most Americans lived in widely scattered farms or remote villages.  Bishop Francis Asbury, the leader of early Methodism in America, ordained itinerant clergy who rode on horseback between different stops on a circuit.  The clergyman’s job was to preach, deliver the sacraments, establish weekly class meetings, and train lay people to care for each other in the clergy’s absence.  Because the circuit riders crisscrossed the frontier as America moved west, Methodists were the only religious group to conduct services in many areas.

Bishop Asbury once urged one of his circuit-riding preachers, “Feel for the power.  Feel for the power, brother.”  I now understand what Asbury meant, for the life of a circuit rider was extremely difficult.  Bishop Asbury did not want his preachers to marry lest they choose to settle down with their families and refuse to ride their circuit any longer.

A typical circuit rider was a single young man with a common school education and trained as an artisan (no women clergy yet).  After a dramatic conversion experience he would be appointed to a rural circuit of between 200 and 500 miles, which was normally completed in two to six weeks.  The average circuit rider in 1800 earned $80 a year.

These itinerant clergy rocked around the clock!  They preached almost every day of the week, starting at 5 a.m. in the summer and 6 a.m. in the winter, sharing practical religion with zeal and passion to a spiritually hungry young country.  The pace was brutal, with uncertain lodging, uneven food, poor weather conditions, illness, the danger of attack, and horses pulling up lame in the middle of nowhere.  Life expectancies were short.  At the same time the church exploded in membership.  In 1771 there were 600 Methodists in America.  Forty-five years later, when Bishop Asbury died, there were 200,000 Methodists.

In 1836 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church organized the Michigan Annual Conference, which sent a preacher to Grand Rapids every year.  The Grand River circuit was part of the Marshall District, and in 1838 two preachers were assigned to the circuit, one of whom was Allen Staples.

According to the written history of First United Methodist Church, Grand Rapids, Staples was licensed to preach in 1836.  “An ‘attractive speaker, unwearying and unceasing in the salvation of sinners,’ he over-worked himself, causing his death at the age of thirty-seven.  He had a revival on each of his charges, and after his death it was computed that he had received over 1,300 into the church during his ministry of a single decade.”  Poor Rev. Staples rocked himself to death. 

Pastoring a multi-point charge is not as grueling today as it was 200 years ago.  After all, our Mustangs are cars, not horses.  Nevertheless, the challenge is enormous.

  • Early circuit riders had very few sermons, but today the same sermon cannot always speak effectively to churches with different needs.  One size doesn’t fit all, but it’s the best we circuit riders can usually do.
  • How do you maximize your gifts in each congregation at the same time as you train, equip, and empower the laity to be the church without your full-time presence?
  • How do you treat your “children” fairly in terms of time and energy without hearing grumbling about favoritism?
  • How do you handle the grind of never having a break from preaching unless you’re on vacation?  Even when one church has a guest speaker, thinking it will help you out, they don’t usually realize that you still have to prepare a sermon for the other church.
  • How does a perfectionist learn to say “good enough,” knowing that it is impossible to give more than one church what they need in terms of pastoral leadership?
  • How do you connect with people in church #1 when you have to leave immediately after the service for church #2 and then maybe church #3?  Forget about teaching Sunday school.
  • How do you cope with the administrative demands of several churches, let alone mounds of church conference paperwork?  You think one church is a handful?  Try doing nominations work for two to three churches and attending two to three Staff Parish Relations, Trustees, Finance, program, and church council meetings.  Got any more complaints?

I often hear grumbling about small membership churches. “If they can’t grow, why don’t they close or merge?”  “Small churches can’t be vital, and their buildings are way too big.”  “Why waste our valuable clergy by making them spend hours every week in the car driving endlessly between churches that are going nowhere?”

Now that I’m rocking in the circuit rider trenches, my perspective has changed.  I love the small churches that I pastor and see their potential.  Some small churches will never grow significantly.  However, vital, transformative ministry that effectively reaches their community is usually possible.  The laity in many multi-point charges step up to the plate and assume responsibilities that are expected of pastors in larger churches.  They are committed, generous, persistent, savvy, loyal, flexible, and spiritually mature.

In addition, the possibilities are great for small churches to engage in collaborative ministry.  It’s the way of the future.  Why can’t we do youth ministry, Stephen ministry, Bible studies, outreach, and small groups together?  Why can’t we share staff?  We can, and we are!

It’s afternoon on the second Sunday of Advent.  I and my fellow 21st century circuit rockers are utterly spent, having prepared the way of the Lord, offering up to God and our churches everything that we have and are.  We are acutely aware that the energy to keep at it day after day does not come from us.  Rather, we preach what the 19th century itinerant circuit rider Henry Smith referred to as an “irresistible holy knock-em-down power.”

We are local pastors, provisional members, DSA’s, retired clergy, elders, and even bishops, and we rock!  We don’t often receive awards and accolades for church growth, but we rock.  Our churches and ministries are usually under the radar, but we are faithful, persevering, and resilient, and we rock.  We are still feeling for the power, but right now we can hardly keep our eyes open, so we rock ourselves to sleep until the Sunday night Christmas program.