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.

Blessings,

Laurie

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

How Long, O Lord?

May 28, 2013

It’s on the lips of every United Methodist clergy every year.  “How long, O Lord?  How long am I going to remain in this appointment?  Could this be the year?”  The cry is often a lament because we don’t want to move.  But it could also be a plea, “Please, Lord, get me out of here!”

 

     At the same time it’s on the lips of every United Methodist layperson unless they come from another religious tradition and don’t yet understand the system.  “How long, O Lord, will you leave our beloved pastor here?”  Or “How long, O Lord, will you afflict us like this?”

 

“How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?”  (Psalm 13:1-2a)

 

     It’s annual conference time around the United Methodist connection.  We’ll be inspired by guest speakers, vote on constitutional amendments and other legislative items, reconnect with friends, and watch our bishops set appointments of clergy for the coming year.  Some clergy are grateful to be moving while others are upset at being uprooted from a congregation they love.  What we all hold in common, however, is a vow to be itinerant, to go where we are sent.

 

     John Wesley used an appointment system to deploy clergy in order to spread scriptural holiness across the land, make disciples, and start new churches.  In America this system was highly effective as our country moved west and Methodist circuit riders fanned out across the wilderness. 

 

circuit rider

(Circuit Rider: Illustration from Harpers Weekly, October 12, 1867)

 

     Clergy were appointed to circuits that might have up to eighteen societies or churches.  They were expected to visit each church at least once a year.  The role of the pastor was to preach, administer the sacraments, and train laypersons to do the work of ministry by forming class meetings, which were small groups that worshipped, studied, served, and witnessed to their faith.  After a relatively short stay clergy hopped on their horses and headed to the next church on the circuit.  Circuit riders never asked, “How long, O Lord?” because they expected to stay in their appointment for just a year or two before moving on.     

 

     When our country began to “settle” in the early twentieth century, so did the clergy, who began to assume responsibilities that were formerly done by laity: visiting the sick, leading class meetings, and evangelizing.  Congregations gradually grew larger and more stable, and circuits became smaller.

 

     Today we emphasize longer term appointments in The United Methodist Church in the belief that clergy can do their most effective ministry after four to six years.  It takes time to develop relationships between clergy and laity so that congregations can be equipped and empowered to foster holistic growth and effective outreach.  Pastoral stability is often a sign of vitality and health.            

 

     At Plainfield UMC, one of the churches I am currently serving, the pastoral record began in 1879.  For the first twenty years the tenure of the clergy was 6 months, 1 year, 1 year, 1 year, 2 years, 1 year, 3 years, 1 year, 1 year, 4 years, 1 year, 1 year, 3 years.  For some unknown reason W.E. Frye hit the jackpot and stayed four years. 

 

     Despite occasional remarkably long tenures, short term appointments were commonplace into the 1960’s.  Over the years I’ve heard elderly clergy reminisce about the good old days when they would not know what their appointment was until annual conference.  When the bishop read their name and the clergy found out they were moving, they’d call back home and say, “Guess what, honey?  Pack your bags.  We’re moving again.”

 

     Life is different in 2013, and the needs of families in the twenty-first century are an important consideration in appointments.  Spouses often earn a higher salary than the clergy.  Teenagers may not want to leave their high school.  Frequent moves are not helpful to congregations or clergy families.  The itinerant system is not for everyone.  Yet “How long, O Lord?” is on every United Methodist clergy’s lips because we are still appointed for only one year at a time. 

 

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? (Habakkuk 1:2)
      Even today clergy occasionally stay for only a few years in an appointment for various reasons.  After serving appointments of 3 ½ years, 4 years, 4 years, 13 years, and 6 years as a superintendent, surprise!  I find myself serving only one year in my present appointment, just like so many of my circuit rider predecessors.

     My circuit consists of just two churches, but I have discovered that positive, transformational ministry can take place in very short appointments as well as quite long appointments.  Here’s what I’ve learned from my one year appointment.

 

·         Because clergy never know the answer to “How long, O Lord?” effective short term clergy quickly discern the state of the church, gain a good grasp of current reality, and use their time in a way that will best benefit the needs of the congregation. 

 

·         Effective short term clergy gain trust early on by building primary relationships with lay leaders, who help clergy establish priorities while they do the rest.  Identifying, cultivating, training, and encouraging lay leadership bears fruit in every congregation, especially in brief appointments where the imprint of effective clergy will be found in leaders who will carry on ministry for years to come.

·         Effective short term clergy know that the conventional wisdom to wait a year before initiating any change does not apply uniformly in every situation.  Comprehensive transfer of information before an appointment begins can prepare clergy to hit the ground running.  Sometimes immediate change is essential and welcomed.

 

·         Effective short term clergy thoroughly review the mission, strategic plan, and systems of a congregation to determine how they can build upon the church’s strengths at the same time as they address weak links that threaten to derail ministry.

·         Effective short term clergy nip conflict in the bud by practicing open and honest communication and self-integration.

·         Effective short term clergy usually don’t have time to sweat the small stuff, play on the church softball team, or lead the breakfast club because they are spiritually preparing the congregation for growth, health, and the next appointment, which will hopefully be a longer tenured pastor.

·         Effective short term clergy focus their best effort on energetic, creative worship that connects people with God and each other, inspiring them to reach out beyond the church in ministry to the world. 

·         Effective short term clergy can make a huge impact in a brief time by the witness of their life as well as the sound of their words.  They model faithfulness by their encouragement, gentle persuasion, positive attitude, and unquenchable hope. 

·         Five or ten year guaranteed contracts are not offered to clergy in The United Methodist Church.  Therefore, because short term clergy don’t have an answer to “How long, O Lord?” unless we are specifically designated as an interim pastor, we must rely on the intuition of the Holy Spirit to custom make our ministry in every location. 

 

     The most important lesson I’ve learned over the past year is to live and serve fully in the present moment because that’s all we have.  It doesn’t have to take thirteen years to leave God’s mark on a congregation through your ministry.  In fact, in a span of thirteen years during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, A.D. Newton, S.G. Warner, J.P Force, A.J. Russell, H. Borgelt, L. Dodds, W.M. Puffer, D. Kronk, A.J. Wheeler, and W.D. Frye all served Plainfield UMC, most of them for one year.  And what a legacy they left!    

 

     Some clergy and congregations can accomplish more for the kingdom of God in one year than other churches can do in fifty years.  God redeems everything, even short-term appointments.  We never know who will be touched by our ministry, brief as it may be.  In the twinkling of an eye, lives can be changed, congregations can be turned around, the Holy Spirit can set a church aflame, and ministry can be revitalized. 

 

      “How long, O Lord, will you look on?” (Psalm 35:17)  I never dreamed that God would look on my appointment as a one year adventure of faith.  But I thank God for the opportunity to impact the life of two congregations in a short term way that will lead them into a bright future.  Most of all, I am grateful for the long term joy and hope that two congregations have given to me.  “How long, O Lord?  Never mind.  However long you wish.  Where you lead, I will follow.” 

 

Blessings,

Laurie

 

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?

Blessings,

Laurie