Friday, December 5, 2014

What do you DO for the community?

Recently this question was posed by one church member to another: "What does OUR congregation do to make our community a better place to live?" I had two simultaneous reactions: 1) WTF? Aren't you paying attention! Don't you read the reams of paper I put out each week/month/ season clearly outlining how we are engaged in caring for the common good in this town, region and world? (Apparently not...) And 2) Histories die hard. For much of our recent popular history, we've been known as the church of the elite, not a socially engaged faith community. Our individual members may be active throughout the region - and are - but the congregation as a whole rarely becomes involved in grassroots actions. And while this has changed significantly, old histories/memories have a long shelf life in popular culture.

Last night, at our annual evaluation of the highs and lows of our shared
ministry (not just me as pastor but all of us on the leadership team), we had this conversation out loud in a way that was insightful.  

+ First, we gathered for dinner and conversation. I am a firm believer that church leaders need to experience authentic table fellowship and trust if we are going to do the work of Christ in our time. And nothing helps strengthen the bonds of love and respect like good food, shared wine and compassionate conversation. NOTE: this happens at a members home - not the church building - as people are more relaxed and real in a home.

+ Second, we moved into a review of our goals, accomplishments and concerns. For the past four years we try to state the 3 or 4 essential goals for the year that we have discerned through prayer, conversation and working together in community. These goals - and our mission statement - guide and shape how we use our time, energy and resources. It is a humbling but also healthy practice to take stock of what we accomplished and what did not happen. It is a way of holding ourselves accountable to one another and the Lord. (And let's just say that churches in my tradition have a dismal record of accountability on almost every level.) 

After noting where we have hit the mark for the year and where have missed and why, we list and discuss a comprehensive list of our accomplishments and concerns. To see what we actually did in real time is another important tool for doing shared ministry. This is where we talked about all the things that we actually do in the community, region and world to care for the common good. It is equally important for us to be candid and clear about those places where we found problems, challenge, incompetence or trouble. They, too, are part of what we need to know as we seek first the kingdom of God in our small place of worship for 2015.

+ After a break for dessert, we took about another hour to explore where the Spirit is calling us in 2015.  Because of the pastoral/congregational sabbatical this year, a key goal will involve: a) interpreting the sabbatical; b) implementing it; c) evaluating what took place; and d) gathering together as leaders on the other side of the sabbatical to plan for the next few years. We know that this will be an exciting journey into creativity for everyone, but we do not want to even hint at knowing where God will lead us afterwards. Two other clear goals were articulated:  1) Take our experimentation with new and creative technologies to a deeper level in 2015 so that we strengthen both our connections and commitments as a faith community; 2) Advance our social networking throughout the region to share our building (and its expenses) for new ministries to the community.

At the end of the three and a half hour gathering, I asked if there were other
voices that needed to be heard before we prayed and went our separate ways? A few asked about my own personal and spiritual well-being: we all know this has been a demanding and hard year. (I am grateful for the true concern my leaders share with me and one another.) Another word was lifted up about making certain that the leadership team stay connected during the sabbatical time; some may want to "take a vacation while the pastor is away" but we must remain clear that "we're in this together." That was a good way to close and I led the team in a closing prayer.

When I got home I reviewed the whole evening - and week - and decided it was important to clearly articulate - and list - the ways our small community of faith makes a difference for individuals, for Christ and for the community at large. There are two broad categories - the inward and the outward journey - that look something like this:

1) Monthly participation in Habitat plus 2 house-builds each year
2) Participation in St. Joseph's Kitchen: 3-6 volunteers each week - in addition to the Thanksgiving Angels (740 pies this year) - and monthly special collections for the hungry/homeless
3) Annual emergency fuel assistance program
4) Summer river clean-up work and fundraising
5) Cooperation/solidarity with GLBTQ youth group
6) Weekly clean up of Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Park Square
7) Chief organizer of annual CROP Walk to fight hunger
8) Partnership with local synagogue re: understanding and strengthening community relations
9) Downtown ecumenical youth group
10) Three music/spirituality events to raise awareness of local issues AND raise funds (TGE, Beats 4 BEAT and Good Friday hunger emphasis)
11) Founding member of Berkshire Organizing Project: a regional social justice organizing effort with an emphasis on food insecurity and transportation for the working poor in our county
12) Weekly PCTV local cable access show
13) Solidarity and partnership with Berkshire Citizens for Peace and Justice Vigil
14) Pastor serves as Registrar for the Berkshire Association of the United Church
15) Periodic film and study series re: culture, spirituality and social transformation
16) Small emergency food pantry
17) Inter-faith community organizing
18) Networking with social service/governmental leaders in pursuit of new ministries necessary for our region

19) Midday Eucharist every Wednesday
20) Sunday worship incorporating music and the arts in non-traditional ways
21) Pastoral care for the elderly
22) Emergency counseling for people in distress
23) Inter-generational events
24) Training in the way of prayer and contemplation

We average 70+ in worship on a given Sunday - that means there is a core of about 100 adults engaged in some part of church life. When we reviewed the way we care for the common good last night, we rejoiced in God's bounty. And as is often the case, thought of these words from St. Paul in Romans 5:

Since we are justified by faith (that is, made whole with God), we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; so we celebrate by sharing our hope in the glory of God. Not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

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