Separation Ethics

April 16, 2019

It has been my joy to serve as your pastor for the past eleven years.  As we both transition into new realities, it is my responsibility to let you know about the Presbytery’s “Separation Ethics.”  Basically, friendships continue but pastoral responsibilities do not.  The Presbytery’s policy includes the paragraphs that follow.  I ask you to read this carefully and understand that it is my intention to follow this policy faithfully.

The life of every congregation is punctuated by the coming and going of pastors. For both the congregation and the pastor, it is important for these transitions to take place in as healthy a manner as possible.

Pastors and congregations form unique, personal bonds and relationships during their times of ministry together. When a pastoral relationship is ended, it is understandable that the pastor and former parishioners would like to stay in touch and continue the relationship they have enjoyed. However, doing so makes it more difficult for congregations to begin forming new bonds and relationships with their new pastor.

Therefore, the Presbytery of Winnebago rejects any pastoral activities which invade another minister’s call without a specific invitation from that minister, including returning to a former calling body for pastoral services. “After the dissolution of the pastoral relationship, former pastors and associate pastors shall not provide their pastoral services to members of their former congregations without the invitation of the moderator of session.” (G-2.0905)

The Presbytery opposes any fostering of informal relationships in congregations in which a former pastor has served, which, in the perceptions of the current pastor, session, or the Presbytery harm the ministry of the current pastor.

It is important that, with particular friends, it be made clear that the pastoral relationship will come to an end. This does not mean that friendships must come to an end. Friendships are priceless and are to be preserved, but there is a special responsibility on the part of the departing pastor to prevent friendships from becoming confused with the pastoral relationship.

The pastoral functions of counseling, calling, conducting weddings, funerals, or baptisms are not appropriate. Neither is the rendering of opinions or judgments about the ministry of the former church or its new pastor. In the current age of social media, all on-line interaction must be handled with great care.  The departing pastor should exercise discipline in order to find ways to remove undue social media visibility.

Pastor Announces Retirement

February 27, 2019

Many of you will have received a letter from me or will soon.  At the recent Session meeting, I announced my decision to retire.  I don’t think this decision will come as a huge surprise since everyone knows I am of retirement age (66 in April).  I want you to know that it was not an easy decision to make, nor would it have been any easier a year or two from now.   I announce this decision as we approach the season of Lent and Easter.

It is sometimes said that as Christians we are to “live the Christian year.”  Lent and Easter are about remembering the past and anticipating the future.  What God has done in the past (the cross) and what God will do in the future (the resurrection) bears on our lives in the present.  We are part of a story that changes the way we view reality.

The present reality for Ann and I is that we plan to move to Iowa City this summer to be closer to Sam and Ashley and our grandson Fletcher.  For us, this presents a unique opportunity to live into the season of Lent and Easter.

We have much to be thankful for as we remember the past (Lent) and what God has done through our special relationship as pastor and congregation these eleven years.  We have worshiped, prayed and served together.

We also have much to anticipate (Easter) because the God of endings is also the God of new beginnings.  For my part, I may do some adjunct teaching or interim ministry.  You should be confident that you will be blessed by new pastoral leadership during the transition time and in the years ahead.

I invite you to “live Lent and Easter” with me this year.  Let us be grateful for what God has done in the past and expect the new things God will do in the future.  We are part of God’s story and a reality that takes us ever deeper into the mysteries of faith.

2019 MAP (Missional Action Plan)

December 24, 2018

First Presbyterian Church has a new focus statement for 2019:
We will build strong relationships with children and young families.”

We will provide a variety of ways to accomplish this so that members and their families can find opportunities that fit with their particular interests.

Christian Education
Grow the average number of children attending Sunday School each week
Further expose children to the building blocks of the Christian faith
Provide more educational opportunities for youth, including increased participation in Triennium
Initiate and grow the young adult gatherings

Increase participation of children and youth during the worship service
Use A/V technology to feature the presence and role of children, young adults and families

Increase the interaction of youth with the community
Involve children and young families in the activities of the Deacons and Outreach Committee in the neighborhood, including the Seymour Park picnic
Encourage children and young families to volunteer in the ministries of the Pantry and Feed My Starving Children
Promote child-friendly practices of stewardship
Feature the contributions of children and young families in the stewardship campaign

Fostering Church Family Ties
Create a display with a photo/bio/interests of every child and youth
Continually remind all church members to develop relationships with children—by addressing them by name, expressing interest in their activities, serving alongside them, and offering encouragement and support

Committees have other important goals and we believe that working together to accomplish them will also strengthen our bond as a church family

Five Focus Points

October 25, 2018

I recently spent a week at Princeton Seminary to attend a class on “transitional ministry.”  This phrase has been coined in the last few years to describe how pastors and congregations can be successful in these rapidly changing times.  There is no longer a settled or stable ministry.  Change is the new constant.  One of the things I learned is that, in the midst of change, healthy congregations work on five focus points: heritage, mission, connections, leadership and future.

This is a keen awareness of our past and what has brought us to the present.  For us, it is a recognition of our 142-year history as a congregation and the influence of a Reformation tradition that reaches all the way back to John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism.  While we cannot replicate the past, we have a “use-able past” that has shaped our identity and that we can and should build on.

This has to do with our core values and what we believe we are called to do.  There needs to be clarity in our mission and vision statements, and how they give expression to our core values.  Our mission and vision statements are recent and clear.  Just last year, we identified our core values as: mission, strong relationships, meaningful worship, active faith, and acceptance.  These values guide us in our mission of “inspiring all to love and serve with Christ.”

This major focus point is about strengthening relationships with the denomination, other churches, non-profits in the community, and the neighborhood.  The emphasis is on using modern technology and social media to communicate.  We have made huge strides in this area and must continue to do so.

It is imperative to develop new and effective leaders within the congregation.  This requires that we identify the gifts of members and align their passions and abilities with the church’s mission and values as we recruit and select potential candidates for positions such as elder and deacon. We honor those who have exercised leadership in the past and we discern and nurture new leaders.

Healthy congregations have a future orientation.  They recognize that current realities and changing circumstances require them to be innovative.  Such congregations are open to the new things that God may be calling them to participate in and ultimately to become.

As we give thanks for the blessings of 2018 and move forward into a new year with new goals, may we continue to work on the five focus points of healthy congregations.

Children’s Ministry 3

August 27, 2018

There is much in our newsletter and on our church calendar related to Christian Education opportunities.  Our Director of Children, Youth and Family Ministries, Ben Menghini, and our Christian Education Committee, have been working diligently to provide classes, activities, and programs that will help us grow in our understanding of what Scripture leads us to believe and do.  I hope you will participate in the educational offerings of our church and benefit from them.

Behind the scenes, our church leaders have now read and discussed the book Sustainable Children’s Ministry by Mark DeVries and Annette Safstrom.  We also met this past summer with Pastor Michael Goodwin from Memorial Presbyterian Church in Appleton.  Michael shared his church’s experience with the consultant group Ministry Architects.  We learned that there are no “quick fixes” to growing children’s ministry.  As we engage in best practices, the ministry becomes healthy for the children, parents, teachers and volunteers involved.

We are now discussing next steps.  Several ideas have emerged.

  • Should we form a Task Force, with a strong representation of parents, that will evaluate our children’s ministry and recommend changes or experiments?
  • Should we focus on how we can all best support Ben in his new role and responsibilities?
  • Should our 2019 MAP (Missional Action Plan) focus singularly on children and ask every member to assume a personal goal related to children?
  • Should we respond to the appeal of megachurches in a way that highlights our strengths?

The last two bullet points are touched on by David Fitch in his book Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission.  Fitch believes that one of these disciplines is “Being with Children.”  He describes how his church tried to practice this discipline of presence:

All adults were asked to be in the children’s ministry a minimum of once every eight weeks.  They were asked to be present with our children, to know them, to be changed by them . . . At one point we had 70 percent of adults, in a church of two hundred, participating in our children’s ministry.  There was a sense of community with and around children like few had experienced.  It was a foretaste of God’s kingdom” (pages 136-137).

Fitch goes on to say that it is this very dynamic of adults being with children that is often missing in the megachurches.  He tells the story of how he and his wife would take their young son Max to the local megachurch so that they could have some quality time together:

We would go into the large foyer of the ministry, sign Max up, get a printed bar code with adhesive, which would be stuck to his back.  We’d get a number for him that would be displayed on one of the large video screens if Max needed us.  We would then take him to the entry into the Children’s Wonderland, where he would be mesmerized by a stunning array of play areas akin to a local mall.  Children could use a slide to descend into this play area.  Once on the slide, within thirty seconds, Max would be so distracted by everything that he would forget we even existed . . . much of a child’s life in our current culture can be taken up with distraction, and if children’s ministry becomes all about entertainment, moving objects, and distraction from the absence of parents or adults, it is in effect moving our children away from presence” (pages 147-148).

As a church, we have said that we value “strong relationships.”  This obviously includes our relationships with children.  Whatever next steps we take in children’s ministry, “being with children” should be our foremost concern.

Children’s Ministry 2

June 19, 2018

Our church leaders continue to read and discuss the book, Sustainable Children’s Ministry, by Mark DeVries and Annette Safstrom.  We have been learning some “best practices” from these authors.  If children’s ministry is a topic that interests you, or if you are a parent or grandparent, you might want to pick up the book for yourself.  In any event, I want to invite you to a town hall meeting on July 18 at 6:30 p.m.  Rev. Dr. Michael Goodwin, pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Appleton, will be here to discuss his church’s recent experiences in the area of children, youth and family ministry.  This will offer us yet another opportunity to learn.  What follows is a brief outline of the second half of the DeVries and Safstrom book.

Chapters 8-9: Building A Team
Three roles need to be filled: architect, general contractor and skilled laborers.
Three kinds of work need to be done: building relationships, managing tasks, executing events.
The essentials of delegation: provide instructions and resources, empower, and manage.

The recruiting process for volunteers:
1. Pray
2. Start early, six months ahead of time
3. Develop a list of your volunteer needs for an entire year
4. Make your prospect list with three times the number of unfilled positions on your needs list
5. Put one name on each of the slots on your needs list, start with your first choice, your dream team
6. Send an email to every person on your dream team list the first week. Don’t use a group email.
7. Keep contacting. The process may take weeks.

Rotation Models for volunteers should only be used for a year or two.
Make training of volunteers irresistible: re-frame, create a culture of value, make it fun, respect their time.

Chapter 10: Navigating Church Politics
Take politics out of the conversation and replace it with relationships.
Three steps to making relationships count:
1. Step out of the isolation of your own ministry area
2. Find ways to bring value to the church not just your own ministry area
3. Elevate the profile of the children’s ministry by being its champion

Chapter 11: A Recipe for Turning Parents into Partners
We get more kids by giving persistent attention to reaching out to new families.
As a starting point, spend 20% of your time on the following ideas:
1. Invite nearby families to events you’re already doing. Requires three strong systems: promotion, contact information gathering, and follow-up.
2. Sponsor a program for the community
3. Be pleasantly persistent with neighboring families
4. Stay connected with inactive families and children in your church. Invite to a fun, one-off activity or a town hall meeting or a one-on-one meeting.

Basic components to connecting with parents:
1. Provide the basics and beyond: take-home sheets and a periodic parent workshop
2. Start a parent-connection plan. Each week connect with one new family.
3. Ask your volunteers to find one good thing each week to tell parents about their child.
4. Provide shared experiences like family game nights or service projects.
5. Encourage faith formation practices at home
6. Pray for your families

Chapter 12: Managing Chaos or those unintended ministry surprises
Use 10% of your time as balcony time: strategize, refine processes, plan the next few months or next year.
Develop a “rhythmic week” schedule when you are “on” and “off” and “flexible”
Have a daily list of the six most important things to accomplish.
Don’t let others put a monkey on your back.
Create a children’s ministry preventative maintenance calendar.

Chapters 13-14:  Self-Care and Keys to Longevity
Some questions to guide your spiritual maintenance plan.
Warning signs of the walking wounded.
The process of recovery.
Find your bounce when failure happens: be humble, learn the lesson, and talk most about what you want most.
Develop a constellation of support: mentors, supervisors, coaches, and friends in the wider community.
The biggest struggle is to go from a skilled laborer to a general contractor: the story of Gina.

Children’s Ministry 1

April 25, 2018

Our Session, Christian Education Committee and Personnel Committee have begun an exciting discussion on children’s ministry.  We are attempting to educate ourselves on best practices and are using a new book published by the highly regarded consulting firm Ministry Architects.  The book is titled Sustainable Children’s Ministry: from last minute scrambling to long-term solutions (2018).  The lead author is Annette Safstrom.

We are told in the introduction that this is “a book written primarily for the children’s ministry professional, whether part-time, full-time, or volunteer.  It’s also written for senior leadership and the volunteer teams taking responsibility for their church’s ongoing ministry to children, birth through fifth or sixth grade.”

I want to share with you a brief sketch of the first half of the book (chapters 1-7), so you can appreciate the kinds of topics we are talking about.  If you are a parent or grandparent and share this interest in children’s ministry, you might want to order the book and read it for yourself.  It offers some lively reading!

Chapters 1-2 illustrate some of Annette’s early negative experiences.  She names these experiences, the Workhorse Syndrome.  This is when the point leader for children’s ministry shoulders all of the work with very little help from a team.

Chapters 3-7 offer an introduction to a systems approach.  Implementing these systems will alleviate the Workhorse Syndrome.

Chapter 3  is a transitional chapter that uses the Parable of the Dance Floor.  The point is that if a dance floor has a rotting board that is never repaired, it does not matter how skilled the dancers are, eventually they will get injured.  So, too, those in children’s ministry, no matter how talented they are, get hurt and frustrated when they are not provided the proper foundation.

Chapter 4  covers the idea of capacity: matching expectations to investment.  How many children do we want to serve and what will the ministry cost?  Ministry Architects has discovered what they call National Norms or Rules of Thumb:

  • The investment for sustainable ministry is $1,000 per child
  • It requires one full-time staff person for every 75 children
  • It also requires one adult volunteer for every 5 children
  • The number of children attending weekly is 15% of adults attending worship

Chapter 5  lays out the foundational systems every children’s ministry needs.

  • A database of children, parents, volunteers, visitors, outside resources
  • A 12-month calendar for the coming year
  • A plan for recruiting volunteers (coming in chapter 8)

It is the third bullet point that is the most difficult.  For many children’s ministries, the number one challenge is staffing all of our programs and events with the appropriate number and the right kind of volunteers.

Chapter 6 presents the remaining systems necessary for a sustainable ministry.  Annette tells stories illustrating the important role of these systems and acknowledges that it may take a couple of years to get some of them working the way you want.

  • A communications plan
  • Attendance tracking
  • Visitor and absentee follow-up
  • Safety and security policy and practice
  • Check-in and check-out system
  • Facilities and equipment maintenance plan

Chapter 7 stresses the creation and function of visioning documents.  These documents include:

  • A mission statement
  • Measurable 3-year goals and 1-year benchmarks
  • A statement of values
  • An organizational chart
  • A Christian formation plan

The Session plans to discuss the second half of the book at the June meeting.  Over the summer, we hope to invite members of the Christian Education Committee and Personnel Committee to join us in a brainstorming session to talk about next steps.  If we know of others who have read the book, we will invite them to join us.  Please feel welcome to be a part of our discussion of children’s ministry!

Being Disciples 6

March 26, 2018

There was a consensus in our group that chapter 6 was the best chapter in the book.  Maybe Rowan Williams was saving the best for last!  While the earlier chapters were helpful, participants in the Saturday group said this chapter was easier to understand and more readily relatable to their own lives.

The main point of the chapter is that “Life in the Spirit” is NOT about some spiritual ecstasy that occurs in some corner of our lives, rather it is about the “the kind of humanity we are living out” as those who have been made alive in Jesus Christ.

Williams uses British slang to describe this kind of humanity as “bog-standard human goodness.”  He has in mind “run-of-the-mill” goodness (to use a metaphor we are more familiar with), that is, ordinary human kindness and generosity.  He has in mind the virtues that Paul lists as the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

Williams suggests that there are four “dimensions” or “trails” or “building blocks” that together contribute to this “bog-standard human goodness,” namely, self-knowledge, stillness, growth and joy.

When I asked the group which of these four points caught their immediate attention, the answer was joy and stillness.  Joy, because there was a recognition that as Presbyterians we fall short of expressing joy as outwardly as we should, especially in worship; stillness, because some of us had experienced a memorable intimacy with God during a retreat or a personal quiet time.

I also asked the group which of the four points was the most challenging for them.  The answer was self-knowledge or self-awareness.  This is the ability to step back from what is happening and look at our emotions.  We tend to make quick, knee-jerk reactions (see Mark 9:5-6, for example) rather than take a “time out,” create some space around our feelings and ask ourselves what is really going on.  There is a great freedom that comes from this practice of self-differentiation (a word Williams does not use).  It frees us from the expectations of others and positions us to listen to God.

The last point left for our group to discuss was growth.  I pointed out that our church’s vision statement is that “God nourishes all to grow.”  We agreed that we all expect to grow in faith and in the life of the Spirit.  In addition to the thought of being “stretched,” we were impressed with Williams’ idea that one should “expect there to be a bit more of me” at the end of a period of prayer or worship or service.  That’s growth—a bit more of me!

What keeps us going as disciples?  While Williams acknowledges that he has offered no guaranteed recipe for success, he has certainly given us food for the journey.  In that respect it was a great book for a Lenten study.

Being Disciples 5

March 19, 2018

I began our reflection on chapter 5, “Faith in Society,” by calling attention to the Scripture passage cited at the beginning, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26.  I pointed out that the broader context of 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 is one in which Paul is developing the idea that we all have spiritual gifts to share and we all need one another as members of the body of Christ.

In the light of this Scripture passage, we sought to answer Rowan Williams’ first sentence of the chapter: “What place does Christian discipleship have in a modern democratic society?

Our group’s answer and subsequent discussion went in a direction that I did not expect.  Of course, we all readily agreed with the three major points of this chapter.

  1. We are each of equal value to God.
  2. We are all dependent on each other.
  3. We can make a difference through voluntary activity, such as Christian hospice, fair trade, the environment, prison reform, etc.

But as we talked about the “types of behavior that embody the radical respect” we are to show everyone (points 1 and 2), we did not go first of all in the direction of political or social behavior (point 3).  Our group went in the direction “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Here in Green Bay, a body had just been pulled from the East River.  It was the body of a 25-year-old young man who died when he fell through the ice when trying to cross.  This man had been missing since December 22.  His father had described him as a troubled young man who had issues with substance abuse, mental health and homelessness.  For 3 months, his father had lived with the pain of not knowing what had happened.  In an interview, he now expressed his gratitude that he at last had some closure.

This incident had a huge emotional effect on a member of our group who said he could relate to the father because his own son had substance abuse issues at age 25.  This incident brought those memories back.  He said he was going to write a note to the father and also donate to his son’s funeral expenses on his GoFundMe page.  A woman in our group then shared that her son’s birthday was on December 22, the day this young man disappeared.  She too expressed her resolve to write a note to the father.

I was struck by how our group was suffering with this father and reaching out to him in his need.  It turns out that the behavior embodying a disciple’s radical respect is often a very personal behavior that has no political or social ramifications whatsoever.  But what these two members of our group were proposing to do was just as powerful and meaningful, perhaps more so.

These two group members were an inspiration to us.  They were demonstrating what Rowan Williams wrote in conclusion to this chapter: “Being disciples means being called to see others, and especially others in profound need, from the perspective of an eternal and unflinching, unalterable love.”

May we all see others this way, and act accordingly.

Being Disciples 4

March 13, 2018

I began the discussion on holiness by asking the group what their understanding of holiness was before reading this chapter.  For me, as for many of them, it was a standard of goodness that was near to perfection.  As such, it was something unattainable for me.  It was only for a select few, and (to be honest) I did not particularly envy them the need to be so good all the time.

We agreed that this chapter changed our view of holiness.  For Rowan Williams, holiness is being absolutely involved.  It has to do with going where it is most difficult.  We were impressed with his insight that the crucifixion of Jesus is “the holiest event that ever happens—and yet it’s found outside conventional holy places and a long way from conventionally holy people” (p. 49).

We were also taken with the idea that holy people enjoy being who they are.  They spread joy to others and help others recognize that God is active in the world.  As Williams described what it is like to meet a holy person, I was reminded of the artwork on the book’s cover:

“ . . . the landscape changes with a new light on it.  A holy person makes you see things in yourself and around you that you had not seen before; that is to say, enlarges the world rather than shrinking it.  This is why we say of Jesus that he is the ‘most Holy One,’ because he above all changes the landscape, casts a new light on everything” (p. 53).

The cover art is titled “Biblical Landscape (with Seven Trees)” by Georges Rouault.  The left side of the painting is lit up by the sun, and so is the central character Jesus, who is walking with two of his disciples.  When we follow Jesus, he illumines everything in our lives and enlarges our world.   Rouault is an example of a “great artist” who helps us “to see what we would otherwise miss: dimensions and depths in the world that we might not otherwise spot” (p. 56).

It was interesting to consider this new perspective on holiness in terms of the first question at the end of the chapter:  Have you met anyone who strikes you as holy?

With our old understanding, we would have had to think long and hard about this.  But given the new perspective articulated so well by Rowan Williams, members of our group actually named one another, as well as others in our congregation.  And even if we do not think of ourselves as holy, we can agree with the premise of the second question that we can regard ourselves as “called” to be holy.

In essence, the call to discipleship is the call to holiness; that is, to be involved, to go to the difficult places, to spread joy, to recognize God’s activity in the world, and to enter into the world in love and in service.  May we all discern this call and follow Jesus!