Celebrating the sacred at church council...

Tonight is church council night: in some congregations this is a dreaded event - or boring necessity - or even an encounter that is understood to be organizationally necessary but mostly a nasty waste of time - but not so with us. Rather, church council has become a place of study, song and prayer in the spirit of Jesus where the necessary business of the congregation is addressed but most of our time is given to going deeper in faith. 

Not long ago I mentioned this reality to a few friends and they were stunned. All too often clergy get hammered at council meetings - and lay leaders discover that they don't care about most of what takes place. Worse still are those meetings where there isn't really any point except to jump through yet another institutional hoop. Our evolution towards spiritual formation goes back to my work in Tucson almost 15 years ago. 

Under the guidance of a very supportive moderator (who continues to be a dear friend) we crafted a year that turned traditional meetings on their head: all our committees started with someone telling their faith journey because we discovered that most people had been in the church for generations but had never once been asked how they had encountered God in their lives. After 20 minutes of conversation and sharing we prayed for the story-teller. That left about 30 minutes to address whatever "business" was necessary. Each meeting lasted just an hour and then the council was convened. After a time for opening prayer, we then spent the next 30 minutes reading/discussing Henri Nouwen's book, The Life of the Beloved, before any "business" was considered.  

That Arizona experiment showed me how important it is for church leaders to study and pray together. When we arrived in Pittsfield I was ready to take this to a deeper level. At first we started with reading a few shared books that included Graham Standish's Becoming a Blessed Church. For special projects, we committed ourselves to Saturday study/prayer retreats. (This is how we crafted both our general mission statement for ministry as well as our unique calling into the Open and Affirming commitment we made five years later.) And from time to time, when genuinely complicated problems were before us, we met weekly in one an other's homes for an evening meal before gathering for prayer and conversation.

Each of the moderators who have worked with me over the past seven years have not only embraced this process, but they have each offered their unique gifts and skills to this process, too. Consequently, we continue to go deeper. In fact, we now have an adult Christian Education commitment based on the real needs, questions and concerns of those in key leadership roles. Every month a new question or concern is lifted up - and I am charged with finding some resources for our common study and conversation. I get those out to the council members in a timely fashion so that when we gather on the second Monday evening of each month we are ready to talk through some tough stuff. 

This year, the person who picks the question also opens the meeting with prayer and a hymn or song of their own choosing. As one of the younger council members has said a few times, "These gatherings are sometimes the BEST thing that has happened in the whole day." Another put it like this: I was dreading our meeting but left feeling inspired and encouraged. 

I cannot commend this process too highly:  councils and clergy must be allies - they must love and trust one another - and this isn't always the case. But it can be with prayer, time and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.


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