Discerning Our Values 1

June 20, 2017

I recently took a week-long course in religious fundraising at Luther Seminary. As a requirement for the course, I had to submit a project proposal. My proposal was accepted and I now have to implement it. The Session and Stewardship Committee have been supportive of my plan. We are going to carry it out. The interesting feature of this project is that it requires your participation! I hope you will find it to be an enjoyable experience.

We will attempt to come up with a values statement for our church. We have relatively new vision and mission statements, but we have not yet tried to articulate our values. One of the things I learned from the class was how essential values are in driving our vision and mission, and thus our stewardship.

Image result for clip art vision mission values

Those who give to support the vision and mission of the church ask questions like:

  • What value will my giving address?
  • What is precious and of value to me and my community?
  • Why am I doing this?

As a community of faith, we want to be clear about what we value, what we want to be known for, and what stirs us and causes us to act. This will benefit our congregation beyond the upcoming fall campaign as we continue to develop new missional action plans in future years.

The value statements cannot simply be drafted by the pastor. The statements need to come from church members themselves. We will accomplish this by offering three open forums between July 1 and August 15. One will take place during Sunday morning coffee fellowship, one on a weeknight evening, and one for parents/grandparents who bring children to VBS.  We will also have an online version of the forum. The purpose of the small groups is to engage in an exercise together that will help us articulate what we value. Please watch for these upcoming dates and participate in a small group.

The group exercise will be guided by a team representing the ministry areas of our church. This team will listen well and then meet from August 15 to September 15 to draft a statement of our values. This will be presented to Session on September 26.  These values will become the focal points of our fall stewardship campaign in October.

Hopefully, this process of discernment and the values we identify together will motivate us to be even better stewards of the gifts we have received and the mission to which we are called!

Session Retreat 2

June 15, 2017

It has now been a month since our Session retreat.  The consultant, Sarai (pronounced Sara) Rice, shared with us the feedback she heard from phone interviews with members of the congregation.  She then led a long and fruitful discussion on ways that our staffing pattern could change to address the concerns raised in the interviews, as well as other concerns.  She encouraged us to focus continuously on our “mission” and the staffing we “need” to carry out that mission.

In the coming months, the Session and the Personnel Committee will be prioritizing and implementing some of our findings.  Sarai suggested that we start by doing a better job of creating awareness of our missional action plan (MAP).  She said that copies of the MAP should be “plastered” all over our building so that people see them everywhere.  We made a first attempt at that.  Perhaps you have seen some of this new signage in unexpected places!

Sarai also thought we should gather in small groups to discuss the MAP.  You will hear more about that in coming weeks.  I have submitted a project proposal to Luther Seminary that uses small groups to help us discern the “values” that inform our MAP and our missional approach.  I hope you can be a participant in one of these upcoming groups.

At this point, I want to put the MAP in front of you once again.  You first saw it at the time of our Annual Congregational Meeting.  You now see it in various places around the building.  I include it here because it will play a major role in the coming weeks and months.  Please take the time to read and reflect on it.

2017 M.A.P. (Missional Action Plan)

I.     A staffing pattern that best serves our missional church emphasis
II.   Build upon current efforts to collaborate in outreach and mission
III. Faith development and ministry involvement of young families
IV. Good stewardship of ministry income and endowment funds in carrying out our mission

2017 M.A.P. (Missional Action Plan)

I.  A Staffing Pattern that Best Serves our Missional Church Emphasis

  1. Participate in a Session retreat on staffing led by a consultant.
  2. Move from an interim to a permanent Director of Christian Education. Personnel and Christian Education Committees to revise the position description.  Search for and hire a successful candidate.
  3. Communications and Marketing Committee to evaluate the increased time and workload of the Director of Communications.
  4. Worship Committee to build/expand the Music and Arts program by recruiting directors/volunteers for one time or occasional performances (e.g., an intergenerational contemporary choir, youth instrumental ensembles, youth dance and/or drama).

II.  Build Upon Current Efforts to Collaborate in Outreach and Mission

  1. Enhance our efforts with the Presbyterian Food Pantry.
  2. Transition the Feed My Starving Children committee into our system of governance.
  3. Outreach Committee plans an intergenerational mission trip.
  4. Session reps collaborate with counterparts from First United Presbyterian Church in De Pere to plan a joint mission project.

III.  Faith Development and Ministry Involvement of Young Families

  1. Each committee to make a special effort to include young families in their activities and experiments.
  2. Worship and Christian Education Committees to revisit the value of children’s sermons during worship.

IV.  Good Stewardship of Ministry Income and Endowment Funds in Carrying Out our Mission

  1. Stewardship Committee continues the “Pay It Forward” theme (e.g., raising funds for sanctuary carpeting).
  2. Session to explore a budgeting process more connected to committee goals and the church’s mission.
  3. Session to undertake a discernment effort on the use of endowment funds.

Session Retreat 1

April 25, 2017

On Saturday, May 13, Session members will be attending a retreat led by staffing consultant Sarai Rice.  Sarai (pronounced Sara) is a Presbyterian minister who heads a non-profit organization in Iowa.  I have previously attended two of her workshops at Pilgrim Center in Green Lake, Wisconsin sponsored by Winnebago Presbytery.  I found them to be very helpful.

Sarai has conducted phone interviews with many of our church members and some of our staff.  She will soon be having a phone conversation with our Personnel Committee leading up to the retreat.

Why this retreat topic?  As you know, we recently added a staff position in Communication and Marketing.  We are also thinking about how we might benefit from a part-time Director of Music & the Arts, and a Mission Coordinator.  We currently have an interim Director of Christian Education and will soon begin a search for a permanent Director.  Before we make more additions, and/or changes in current position descriptions, we need to discern what staffing pattern (design) and functions (performance) will best serve our mission.

I have been in touch with Dr. Craig Van Gelder about this topic.  Missional church advocates have recently been writing about church structures, but most of this is focused on the denominational level rather than the local level.  At the local level, reflection on our peculiar context and a willingness to experiment are key.

Van Gelder has written that “A Spirit-led, missional congregation develops organizational forms to carry out its ministry and to structure its life.  It must be understood that these forms bear the imprint of particular contexts.  Organization in congregations is, therefore, always contextual and provisional in character” (The Ministry of the Missional Church, 66).  Later he writes that “It is essential for congregations to attend to the feedback loop of information . . . ” (145).  Sarai Rice has been gathering this feedback for us and the purpose of our retreat is to attend to it!

Van Gelder shared with me a chapter from a forthcoming book in which he continued this line of thought about context.  “Every context is different . . . This is a transition time in which old paradigms and structures endure even as new ones struggle to be born.  We can expect ambiguity, stress, and a certain amount of chaos for many churches and church systems as they seek to navigate these cultural shifts . . . Faithful navigation . . .  calls for an open-ended posture of learning and experimentation, which requires, as well, vulnerability and risk-taking.”

To be faithful as a missional church, we must understand our peculiar context, attend to the feedback we hear, and be willing to take risks in experimentation.   May the Spirit lead us into the future God has for us!

Engage: Mission 7

March 29, 2017

This is the final chapter in our Session study.  We began with the hymn “Lord, You Give the Great Commission.”  Some of the phrases in this hymn are quite striking:

That the world may trust your promise, life abundant meant for each
May your care and mercy lead us to a just society
May we serve as you intend
Give us all new fervor

The chapter is titled “Identifying Ministry Shifts in order to Accomplish God’s Mission.”  Three ministry shifts in the life of a church’s thinking and behavior were identified:

  1. Moving from an inward focus to an outward focus
  2. Moving from a program-development focus to a people-development focus
  3. Moving from an institutional perspective to a spiritual perspective

The scripture passages assigned to this chapter related to shift no. 1.  In Genesis 12:2-3 we read that Abraham is blessed to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.  In Matthew 5:13-14, Jesus tells his disciples that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

The authors conclude from these passages that the church needs to intentionally engage its communities.  “It’s important to understand that the church engages the community and the people outside of the church not in order to grow membership or to increase budgets so that it can continue to exist; it engages those outside of the church because loving outreach reflects the heart and mission of God” (p. 41).  We cannot fulfill God’s mission if we restrict ourselves to a church building or a faith huddle.

Shift no. 2 was of special interest to those who are active on our Christian Education Committee.  This committee has a number of programs that it oversees throughout the church year.  We have been struggling with low numbers of children, youth and adults in some of these programs.  However, those who do participate report experiencing significant faith development.

We should not measure success by how many people are involved in church programs.  “Instead of focusing on programs, entertaining people, or maintaining the institution, churches need to focus on developing vibrant and transformed disciples of Jesus” (p. 41).  There is no easy metric for gauging success, but making disciples needs to be what the church is about.

This is obviously related to shift no. 3.  Church meetings are not simply business meetings, nor can we make decisions because “we have always done it this way.”  In the church, we must give significant time to prayer, discernment and the leading of the Holy Spirit.  We expect our leaders and decision-makers to be spiritual men and women.

After reviewing the three ministry shifts, the authors provided a number of “bullet points” that illustrated specific ways a church could help make the shifts happen.  Some of our Session members said that they were actually encouraged because we are currently doing or have recently done many of the items in the list.   Our church also has a good awareness of our mission statement and we try to relate it to everything we do.

However, when the authors ask final questions like “Are we equipping members?  Are we empowered for mission?  Are we being held accountable for our discipleship?” we have the sense that we are falling short.  We could and should do more.  So while we ended on a note of encouragement, we also felt challenged.  Hopefully, we will keep this challenge in front of us!

Engage: Mission 6

March 1, 2017

We began with the hymn “Will You Come and Follow Me.”  The first four stanzas are a summons in the voice of Christ.  The fifth stanza is our response:

Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.

The hymn makes the point that the church is a sent community (“I’ll go!”), which is the theme of chapter 6.  This chapter opens by quoting a statement from the Book of Order on the apostolicity of the church.  We confess in the Nicene Creed on communion Sundays that we believe in “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”   An apostolic church is a sent church.  The Greek word “apostle” means “one who is sent out with a message.”  The Book of Order puts it this way: “To be members of the body of Christ is to be sent out to pursue the mission of God.”  It then defines this mission in quite broad terms:  “The Church is sent . . . participating in God’s mission to care for the needs of the sick, poor, and lonely; to free people from sin, suffering, and oppression; and to establish Christ’s just, loving, and peaceable rule in the world.”

We were then asked to read Luke 10:1-12 in which Jesus commissions the seventy for this very kind of mission.  The authors of the study give several examples of how Jesus’ instructions to the seventy “are applicable for our mission today.”  These examples reminded me of how missional advocate Dr. Craig Van Gelder also used the Luke 10 passage in our last Session retreat.  Three of the examples elicited comments from us:

  • Worship is not an end in itself but it’s about equipping and nurturing the body of Christ to serve people in our communities.
  • Mission takes time because we are sharing life with neighbors and building relationships with them.
  • While we need to move on when we do not encounter receptivity and openness, we cannot use this as an excuse to give up too quickly or not go to others at all!

One of our Session members was particularly struck by Brian McLaren’s comment on what it means to think of the church as Christ’s sent ones.  “In this line of thinking about the church, we don’t recruit people to be customers of our products or consumers of our religious programs; we recruit them to be colleagues in our mission.  The church doesn’t exist to satisfy the consumer demands of believers; the church exists to equip and mobilize men and women for God’s mission in the world.”

We agreed that “equip and mobilize” is an area of need in our church.  Much of what we do in worship, Christian education, and small group ministry should be focused on this.  We equip and mobilize “the sent ones” so that they can discern how God is already at work in the community and freely talk with people about life and faith.

The study ended by suggesting that as “the sent ones” we go to a particular gathering place in our neighborhood and ask questions such as:

  • What is the greatest need in this community?
  • How could a church help meet this need?
  • When you hear the name Jesus, what comes to mind for you?
  • When you hear the word Christian, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

The PC(USA) has created a video in which these very questions are asked.  You can watch it here: Engaging the Community.  The video stresses how important it is that we listen first.  Only then, do we have the opportunity to be heard in a way that is relevant and important to people!

Engage: Mission 5

January 25, 2017

Lesson Five of our study was titled “Living as Missionaries.”  We began by reflecting on the African American spiritual “I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me” (and work, pray, sing too!).  We were amazed that slaves could have such a strong sense of not serving their masters, but serving God; and not just in the cotton fields under a blazing sun, but “God can use me anywhere, Lord, any time!”   We were inspired by these simple yet profound lyrics.

We then read 2 Corinthians 5:14-20 from The Message.  It was interesting how this translation connected with the hymn because at one point Eugene Peterson renders Paul’s words “God uses us . . .”  The point is that God uses us as representatives (The Message) or ambassadors (NRSV) or missionaries.  We are sent (anywhere, Lord, any time) with a very positive and uplifting message for everyone.  We tell everyone that Christ offers new life, a far better life than people could ever live on their own.

The study identified six characteristics for being a missionary in our local context.

  1. Build relationships with people. This takes time.
  2. Hang out with people where they live. This means leaving our comfort zones.
  3. Be humble. Be open to the stories of people and how they find meaning.
  4. Believe that God is already at work in their lives.
  5. Identify with/share their suffering and hardships.
  6. Speak about a loving God who desires fullness of life for them.

Our conversation about these characteristics led to a discussion of some “experiments” that we could do that would foster people to people relationship building.  We saw the success of this approach in our church’s involvement with the Hmong immigration a few decades ago.  We would like to find ways to do this again.  Are there “experiments” we could do to build relationships with the growing Hispanic community?  With the parents and children at Tank Elementary School?  With those who hang out at the Cup O’ Joy Christian coffee house?  With our neighbors who visit Seymour Park?  With those who use our Food Pantry?  Such efforts would take us away from our building and into the lives, hangouts and homes of community members around us.

Finally, we spent some time with this idea:  “Another way of seeing our lives on mission is simply being open to inviting people into activities in which we already love to engage.”    To reinforce this idea, the study suggested we watch the short YouTube video Missional Community Simple (please click to watch).  After watching the video, ask yourself the question: How can God use me in what I already enjoy doing with others?

Engage: Mission, An Interlude

December 21, 2016

We took a break in December from our study.  In this blog, I want to write about the joint Session retreat with First United Presbyterian Church in De Pere.  After dinner and some icebreakers, the evening consisted of a presentation by myself, a presentation by Rev. Luke Farwell, and an open discussion of some mission questions that were circulated ahead of the meeting.

I gave a quick overview of our Session’s experience with the missional church concept.  It began with Lucia Stanfield’s question, “What dreams for the future are you wishing for?” Lucia gave us a gift of $10,000 to explore this question.  We held three open forums for church members to share their dreams.  This led to a very detailed “chart of dream options” categorized by area: facility, worship, members, community, and mission.  There were 15 or more specific dream items in most of these areas!  What to do?

The Session used a book by Danny Morris and Charles Olsen, Discerning God’s Will Together, to engage in a process of discernment.  From our discernment work, we knew we had to sift through and prioritize items.  As we began to identify 4 or 5 high priority items, we noticed a common theme.  We were being drawn to items that reflected “people to people” mission.

As it turns out, this is a basic premise of the missional church.  I had recently met Dr. Craig Van Gelder.  We decided to use his book, A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation, as a church-wide study.  Dr. Van Gelder has since made two visits to our church to help us understand and implement our people to people missional approach.

One of the first things we learned from his book was that we needed new vision and mission statements.  We created a Vision and Mission Task Group whose recommendations were approved by the Session.  With these new statements in place, we then created another task group called “The Way Forward,” to make recommendations that would help us live into our new vision and mission statements.  For example, understanding the strategic role of communication in reaching our goals led us to add a new Director of Communications to our staff.  Mostly recently, Dr. Van Gelder has taught us the significant role that “experiments” play when the church is facing adaptive challenges.  We are now encouraging committees to add “experiments” to their goals.

This last point tied in very nicely to Rev. Luke Farwell’s presentation.  Luke shared some insights gained from his Doctor of Ministry work at Pittsburgh Seminary and the University of Edinburgh.  He cited several authorities who stressed the importance of adaptation and altruism for survival and success.  He also shared three goals that First United Presbyterian Church recently identified through a process called “Vision Quest 2015.”  It was striking to me that many of the objectives they laid out for reaching their goals involve people to people mission!

The open discussion period dealt with the following questions:

  1. How have you been connected in some way or have had experience with Missions?
  2. Imagine a new and enhanced partnership between our Presbyterian churches. What would it look like?
  3. How do you see it helping others?
  4. What actions could be taken to help realize the promise of the partnership?
  5. Share a time when you most felt like your work was part of a positive force in the community, when you felt an alignment among principles, purpose and practices?
  6. If you were granted three wishes (without worrying how they would be fulfilled) to support your church work in the community, what would these “three” wishes be?

The discussion was lively and engaging.  A possible next step involves appointing a couple of people from each Session to explore areas of potential collaboration and make a recommendation(s) that will take us down the road of people to people mission.

Engage: Mission 4

November 28, 2016

Lesson Four of our study had a title with a haunting question: “Do Our Hearts Break over the Things That Break God’s Heart?”

We began by reading and discussing the hymn “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life.”  The hymn contains lines and phrases that describe our neighborhood.  The “haunts of wretchedness and need” are homes falling into disrepair.  The “thresholds” and “paths” are the porches and streets around us.  Many of our neighbors experience the fears, helplessness, stress and pain that the hymn describes so well.  This dire situation draws tears from God and moves God’s heart.  The hymn ends with a prayer that the Master will walk the city streets again and that we, and all the world, will follow where the Master’s feet have trod.

One of the biblical passages that we reflected on was Matthew 9:35-38.  Verse 36 reads that when Jesus “saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.”  The Greek word “compassion” carries the idea that the seat of our emotions lies in our internal organs.  In English, we would say Jesus was heartbroken.  In fact, this is the way Eugene Peterson translates verse 36 in The Message:  “When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke.

So both the hymn and the Bible describe God’s heart aching over the needs of our neighborhood.  The question is: Do our hearts also ache?  If so, we need to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and start building authentic relationships with our neighbors.  The study suggests that we take a “prayer walk” in the neighborhood just to observe what we see and ask what God is already doing.  As we spend time in the neighborhood, we earn the right to be heard and to share God’s love.

With winter approaching, it is not an ideal time for us to be walking in the neighborhood!  We have done a version of this activity in past summers when we sent teams of people out to meet our neighbors and bring prayer requests back to the church.  Many shared prayer requests with us!

One idea suggested to me that we have not yet tried is that a number of us could get together and walk our dogs in the neighborhood.  I walk my dog in the blocks around the church occasionally on Saturdays and have found my dog to be a good conversation starter! (Can I pet your dog?  What’s his name?  Are you from around here?).  If I am asked questions, it is only fair that I get to ask a few too!  (What’s your name?  Do you live here?  How do you like this neighborhood?)   If a number of us did this, and then gathered afterward to share our stories, we might develop a better picture of the neighborhood.  Right now, most of us do not have a clear sense of who is living in our neighborhood or what God is already doing.

Engage: Mission 3

October 26, 2016

The topic in chapter 3 of our study guide is “The New Normal.”  Session members had a vigorous discussion about what it means for us as the church to carry out our mission in a postmodern, post-Christian, and image-based culture.  At the end of the night, we expressed our gratitude for the open and honest way that we all could share our views and be respected for our various opinions.

Jonah 1-4
The study used the prophet Jonah as an example.  Jonah was sent to Nineveh, a place he initially resisted because it was so different from Israel.  So also, “Our culture is very different from what many of us are familiar with and appreciate.  We know we have a call to reach people who want nothing to do with us, but we are hesitant to leave our churches and reach the people God wants us to reach.”

God overcame Jonah’s resistance.  Jonah did bring God’s message to this different place and the city repented.  Through Jonah’s hesitant steps, God’s work was accomplished. This is good news for the people of Nineveh, for those in our culture and for the mission of the church!

Express the Faith in a New Way
The challenge facing the church is that “Our culture has changed dramatically.  People are not waking up on Sundays wondering which church to attend.  Church is not on their radar.  Even though people are spiritually hungry, many do not see the church as an answer to their spiritual longings.  Therefore, we are called to live differently.

We start by listening to those we want to reach in order to better understand them.  We then re-think the ways in which we share the good news of Jesus Christ with them.  The goal is to express the Christian faith in new ways.  The study guide asked us to study and reflect on the differences between how we did things in the past and the new normal.  Some examples:

          Past       New Normal
Single encounter Relationship building
Monologue Dialogue/discussion
Gospel presentation Story
Giving lots of information Asking good questions
Presentation Demonstration
Individualistic Community centered
Being the expert Being a fellow journeyer
Argumentation Consideration
Eternal benefits Earthly impact and mission


First Presbyterian Church may be somewhat hesitant, like Jonah, but our missional emphasis does encourage us to recognize the new normal.  Our missional approach gives us the opportunity to build bridges and to engage those who are seeking things in life that only God can provide.  As God blessed Jonah’s efforts, may we also be blessed!

Engage: Mission 2

September 28, 2016

The theme of the second chapter in Engage: Mission is “God’s Mission” and in particular how we communicate God’s mission inside and outside the church.  Session members had an energetic discussion about mission, church, and communication.

I began by pointing that chapter two in Engage: Mission relies heavily on the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity in our Book of Order.  This is a new section that was added when our Book of Order was revised in 2011.   Engage: Mission quoted from the opening paragraphs of this new section which clearly describe the church as missional:

The mission of God in Christ gives shape and substance to the life and work of the Church. In Christ, the Church participates in God’s mission. . .”

God’s mission is realized in Jesus and the church continues that mission in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus was sent to proclaim the good news of God’s in-breaking realm (Mark 1:14-15) which arrived with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  So also the church is gifted by the Spirit and sent to announce and live out the realities of reconciliation, healing, renewal and joy.  This was God’s intention from the very beginning.  Abraham was called and sent to be a blessing to others (Genesis 12:1-15).  The question now for the church is “How are we living as a blessing?”

I heard several things from our Session.  We are living as a blessing when we teach and equip our own members so that they grow in their faith and commitment.  We are living as a blessing when we are intentional about building authentic relationships with people outside the church.  We are living as a blessing when we personally (as well as communally) step out in faith for God’s mission in our daily lives.

As a church, we communicate the challenges and joys of participating in God’s mission in a variety of ways—through how we equip and use our building, how we design our print materials, and how we employ social media.  In each of these areas, we have to ask questions like:  Is this user-friendly?  Is it warm and welcoming?  What first impression are we creating?  Are we connecting people to activities that may interest them and inviting their participation?

We are here for others.  May we be a blessing to our neighborhood, the greater community, and the world.