Assembling the Pieces of Ministry and Mission

If you have ever been in a retreat center or even a resort lodge, you might have come across a partially finished jigsaw puzzle in the public space. It may have the edge pieces put together; it may have all of the red pieces in a pile, waiting to be put together; or it may look like the people who have worked on this puzzle before you had never put a puzzle together before and had no plan when they worked on this puzzle.

I had such an experience a few weeks ago at Montreat, the PC(USA) retreat center in the mountains of North Carolina. I had a few extra minutes before I needed to start teaching Interim/Transitional Ministry Training classes. I also love puzzles of any kind. I was drawn to the table with the puzzle that had been started by strangers.

What a metaphor for any kind of ministry! No matter to what ministry you have been called, someone else came before you. Even if you started a not for profit organization or were the first pastor of a new church, others plowed the ground before you. They helped to prepare the soil for the good fruit of the ministry in which you are currently engaged.

Think about all of the metaphors of the puzzle that help us to understand ministry:

  • I do not know who started the puzzle. Before I walk up to the table, I do not know if they have the same approach to putting together puzzles that I do. All I know is that we are working within the same arena—trying to fit together the pieces to create the picture on the box.
  • Once I walked up to this particular puzzle, I could see that they did not have the same approach that I had. The edges were not put together and they had already started to put together some of the other pieces. Heresy! But, that did not mean that I could not use the foundation that they had laid to make progress toward the same end to which they had aimed.
  • I took the work they had done, rearranged it so that it reflected the way I put puzzles together and proceeded. I could not have made the same kind of progress at the pace at which I did unless they had gotten things started.
  • As I worked on the puzzle, some of my friends walked up and helped. We worked together, all working in the same direction, heading for the same end.
  • We did not know if we would be able to complete the puzzle. We had no indication about whether or not all of the pieces were there. As we got closer to the completion of the picture, it became clear that a few of the pieces were missing. We would never be able to achieve perfection. When the last piece that we had was clicked into place, we had to walk away from imperfection, knowing we had done the best we could do.

Any ministry is so much like walking up to this partially completed puzzle. We pick up where others have left off. We add the wisdom and insights we bring to the project. If we are wise, we do not abandon everything others have accomplished before us: we use it, we learn from it, we build on it. We welcome the help of others, especially if we are headed in the same direction. And, we can never know if we will completely reach the goal toward which we are going.

Whatever we do, whether it is the foundation on which someone else will build or bringing their work to fruition, we are all moving in the same direction so that we can bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ.
Rev. Sue Krummel, Executive Prebyter
Presbytery of Chicago

Read more

Managing the Weeds

If you see me early in a week while the weather is clement you can tell immediately whether I have had time to do any gardening over the weekend. As I write this note, I have about 20 bug bites that are driving me crazy, and my right hand and arm have all kinds of scrapes and scratches on them. I pulled a splinter out of a knuckle on my right hand this morning (not easy to do when you are right-handed) and something pretty nasty stung me on my forearm and left a welt.

Ah, the joys of gardening! But, I have enjoyed this hobby for my entire adult life. When I am in the garden I do not take my phone, I don’t listen to anything except the sounds around me, and my family pretty much leaves me alone. They know they might be asked to help if they appear in the yard. I know whether most plants are weeds or not (at least in the Midwest) and know which ones I can pull with my bare hands and which ones to avoid. I know my way around a garden and I am attracted to the work.

When I walk up to a church building, I notice the landscaping. I mentioned a few weeks ago visiting a church that had an overgrown perennial garden that made it seem like no one loved the church. I was so tempted to start pulling weeds, but I did not do it; after all, it would only be a temporary fix. I cannot go there every week to weed their garden. It also does not address the underlying problem of their lack of attention to the way their building appears to their neighbors and potential members.

What do the signs of neglect on the outside of the building say about the life of the congregation when they get inside?

The dilemma of seeing what needs to be done, knowing how to do it, but knowing that doing it for the church will not be helpful in the long run is the dilemma of presbytery work. Whether it is a member of the Commission on Ministry or the Mission Committee or the Commission on Anti-Racism and Equity, we walk into the circumstances of your congregation with fresh eyes. We have no particular stake in the details of how your congregation runs its life together. We have experience in other places that might lend itself to your situation. We notice things to which you have become accustomed.

Sometimes the solution to a problem that has brought your congregation to our attention seems so obvious. The dilemma is that if we point out the problem, that is not always well received. If we try to solve the problem, it does not address the underlying cause. If we order a solution (as if we could!) it does not really solve anything beyond the very surface presenting problem.

The work of a presbytery is to stand alongside a congregation or session as it responds to God’s call and to offer assistance or advice based on our best knowledge about this and similar situations. Oftentimes, sessions want us to make the sadness or the inability to act or the acute presenting problem go away (and then go away ourselves). But the weeds will come back. If we have not helped a congregation understand why there are weeds and how to manage them into the future, we have not really been any help.

The Nominating Committee of the Presbytery will soon be looking for people to serve on Commissions and Committees of the presbytery. If you would like to use your gifts to stand with congregations as they navigate their call, be sure to let them know. Our call is to support congregations as they find ways to use their gifts to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter

Read more

In the Pew Next to Me

When I worship at the church where my husband is pastor, I am in a sanctuary with quite a few people I have literally known for my whole life. You see, we live in our hometown. My home church went through a little kerfuffle a couple of decades ago and some people from there ended up in the congregation that he serves. My daughter and her family like to sit in the balcony. As I was looking down into the sanctuary one recent Sunday, it struck me that I can almost see the ghosts of those who have left us and that I know some of the struggles that people who are in worship are facing.

I notice the widows and widowers whose spouses were my Sunday School teachers and friends of my parents. It is touching to see the way other people in the congregation have filled a seat that might have been empty next to each of these people. I see the brother of the actor who played “Father Mulcahey” on M.A.S.H. on TV who has outlived not only his brother but his spouse. His daughter who is my age sometimes brings him to church; sometimes it is his granddaughter who navigates her tall grandfather and his walker into the pew. I see the business leader who recently retired and then was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. He slips into the pew next to his wife after finishing an open meeting with members of the church who have questions about decisions made by the session.

I see the pastor who was one of two pastors who performed our wedding and, a few years later, our ordination, sitting with his spouse who is still a very active deacon. I see the place where my mom sat next to her second husband (my dad did not live long enough to see us come back to Peoria). She passed away 10 years ago. Her spouse is now too infirm to come to church so his place is vacant as well.

But that is not all I see. There are also the young people in their thirties who are in charge of the mission project that supports a boys’ home in Mombasa, Kenya. There are the babies making cooing noises throughout worship. I see the young man with long hair who dresses very casually for church (especially for this church) who is a member of the session and who preached in my husband’s absence the week before. I see the young doctor who leads a Bible Study. I see the senior high kids leave their seats in the summertime when the children leave; the big kids help with their activities.

Every one of those people and the people with whom you worship on Sunday mornings brings their own story into the sanctuary. Where else in our society do people of such different ages gather to do something together? Perhaps this is a part of that “great cloud of witnesses” by whom we are surrounded. It is not only those who have gone before us. It is also the motley crew who gather each Sunday, with their own memories and needs and visions for the future, who help to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ.

Rev. Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter

Read more

View Your Building Through a Visitor’s Eyes

There are so many churches in the Chicago area that were started by the Greatest Generation when they came back from World War II. They arrived home with a new resolve to expand their horizons; the GI Bill gave people who would never have been able to afford to go to college the chance to do so; transportation was changing so it was possible to move out of the city but still be employed there. Those men and women gathered like-minded people and started congregations all around the perimeter of the city and beyond. They built nice, new buildings for their church and filled them with their children and the children in the neighborhood and their friends and family.
Now, 75 years later, many of those buildings still look pretty much the same as they did when they were built, except shabbier. Those buildings and their long-delayed maintenance are one of the reasons that churches are closing. They cannot afford to make it safe, let alone bring it up to code. If you still have money and energy and your building needs help, don’t put it off.
As I visit with sessions of congregations that are thinking about closing, I realize they do not see what a visitor sees. It is like the characteristic smell of your own home, usually a mixture of the food you cook, the pets you have, the detergent you use, and the cologne you wear. You don’t notice it when you walk in, but visitors do.

Imagine approaching your church building as a visitor. Here are some of the things I notice.

  • What door should I enter? Many churches have multiple doors and the one that the architect originally intended as the “front door” is not the way most members enter. I have sometimes sat in my car outside of a church on a Sunday morning until I see someone walk in because I have too many times tried two or three doors before I find the right one.
  • What does the outside of the building look like? Does it seem like it is abandoned when you look at the paint or the roof or the state of repair of the sidewalk? If there is landscaping, is it maintained? I once walked up to a church that clearly had planted gardens around the building at one time. (Remember, I am a gardener.) They looked like they had not been maintained for years. A few scraggly perennials were doing their best to grow, but the beds were overgrown with weeds. It was all I could do not to pull a few of them. It would be better to take out the gardens and plant grass that can be mowed than to leave these symbols of neglect.
  • What are the bathrooms like? In many smaller churches, most of the members live close enough and are there for a short enough time that they never use them. I have lost count of the number of times when I have gone into a kind of scary, dark ladies’ room only to find a little sign by the toilet that gives me instructions about how to flush. ‘Hold the handle down and count to 10; wait five seconds; flush again quickly,” or something like that. If you need to give this kind of instructions for this basic task, call a plumber!
  • Are there stacks of dusty old books, curriculum, etc. in the corners of the sanctuary and the hallways? Are there announcements pinned to a bulletin board about events that happened months ago? Does it look like this is a living organization or one that is dying?
Imagine a family looking for a church as the new school year starts, a time when some families decide they are going to get their schedules organized and might add church into it. What will they see when they approach your building? The number of people they see when they come into your sanctuary may not be as important as the impression they have already formed in the time it took them to approach your building from their car or train or bus. Our buildings should reflect our call, not to glorify the history of our congregation, but to bring hope to all whose lives we touch in the name of Jesus.
Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
(312) 488-3015

Read more

Another Mass Shooting

Another mass shooting. Two, in fact, in less than 24 hours. Some news reports say that we are now past the 250 mark for mass shootings this year in the United States. Sadly, it almost doesn’t matter when this note makes it into the Connect. There will be a mass shooting again whether at a school, church, mall, synagogue, entertainment district – anywhere that people congregate.

Guns are too available and too deadly. That seems clear, but it is a topic on which politicians and others will get stuck and then stuck again after the next mass shooting. Guns have always been available in this country, but this phenomenon of mass shootings is new. That is to say nothing of the slow motion mass shooting that occurs every day in Chicago and other cities. Something has changed in the 21st Century.

 What causes these young men to become so desperate or so enraged or so fame-seeking that they walk into a school room which is, often, filled with other students they have known since kindergarten and open fire? What causes them to drive nine hours to shoot people who are different from them and whom they have been told by our leaders are a threat to them? What causes them to dress for battle and then kill strangers and relatives alike? Have they been desensitized to violence by the world around them and by the world created before their eyes on their screens? Have they been abandoned by families who are so busy trying to stay afloat financially or who are distracted by their own demons that they do not notice that their sons are on the edge? Have they been drugged since early childhood in a society that turns to pharmaceuticals to solve problems?  What gives their own lives so little meaning that they are willing to lose it in a hail of police bullets or lose it by spending most of the rest of it prison? And, why do they have access to weapons that were made for use by trained soldiers on a field of battle?

We may not be able to agree on answers to any of those questions. But on what could we agree? Does the gospel have anything to offer these young men and boys? Can we find a way to communicate it so that it is heard and believed? Do we believe that the church can help to provide meaning in all of our lives in a way that nothing else can? Are we willing to find out what is happening for boys and young men in our society by creating safe spaces in which they express their fears and sadness?

If we are called to do anything as a church, we are called to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ, every hour of every day. That works for us in circumstances that seem predictable and about which we are familiar—sending food to a food pantry; collecting clothes for those who need them; conducting worship on Sunday morning. What about the unfamiliar? Are we able to bring the impact of the gospel into spaces where people are told that anyone who is different from them should be “sent home” or, worse yet, eliminated? Are we willing to advocate for a safer environment when it comes to the use of weapons, even if that advocacy makes us unpopular? Can we step into the unfamiliar and share the love of God which gives our lives meaning and hope?
Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago

Read more