A Parable

I heard a parable some years ago that helps us to reflect on the life of our congregations and all of our ministries. Are our churches and hospitals and schools and social service agencies for the people who are members or are they for the members and for people who need to hear the gospel and to know they are loved by God because they know who Jesus is?  Here is the parable.
 

There was a rocky coastline where there were many shipwrecks. The people who lived on the shore knew how dangerous it was along their coast. A lighthouse was there to warn sailors away, but sometimes the sailors were foolish and sometimes there were storms that smashed the ships of even the wisest and most experienced sailors against the rocks, destroying their ships. People needed to be rescued.
 

The people on the shore decided that they would form a life-saving society. They bought small boats that could be rowed out even in the harshest conditions. They trained to row out and to meet the needs of those whom they had saved. They had a plan for how they would help those who were saved to get back on their feet.
 

All of this training brought the life savers together. They enjoyed one another’s company. They needed a place to meet so they built a clubhouse for themselves. They started to plan regular meetings. They had parties together. They had potluck suppers. The clubhouse needed new curtains and a new floor and it got to be too small so they expanded it. Their regular calendar of events was full. For a while, they still dropped everything and rowed out to sea whenever they saw a ship in trouble. But then it became too much to fit into the schedule of their own training and their parties and their potluck suppers.
 

Shipwrecks still occurred. People still needed to be saved. But the life savers had become a club and they could not set aside their Tuesday night card tournament or their Sunday morning gathering or their Friday night potluck to row out to sea. If shipwrecks happened at a convenient time and in a convenient place, they still tried to get out to sea. But as the years passed, the row boats first sat idle and then were put in a museum to remind the lifesaving club of what they had once been.
 

What did the founders of your church hope to accomplish by starting a church in your neighborhood? What did your non-profit set out to do? Is that original vision still at the heart of your work? Has it evolved into a new vision that still brings the good news into people’s lives? Or has it become a club, more focused on the needs of its members than in bringing hope in the name of Jesus?


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Finding Bright Spots

Are you a gardener? Then you know what I mean by “that smell.” It is the smell that makes gardeners breathe in deeply in the spring and probably even close their eyes. It is the promise of what is to come. It is the reward of making it through another long, cold winter. It is part of what makes you get out your gardening gloves even when you have to still wear a warm coat so that you can get started on what lies ahead.
 
If you are not a gardener, then you may not know what I am talking about. It is the smell of warm, damp earth when you first turn it over in the spring. All of the hopes and plans for the gardening year ahead are held captive in that first smell.
 
I read a book about change, one of the ones by the Heath brothers. (If you have not read these, you might look for them.) I find their writing to be very accessible and their stories to be encouraging. For instance, one of the stories they tell is about a study that was done in Viet Nam in the last century. There were toddlers in many villages that were failing to thrive because of malnutrition but there were a handful of places where the toddlers were healthy. Someone from a Western aid organization was sent to find out what was causing the difference.
 
This aid worker knew that he would not be the best investigator so he enlisted some local women to observe what was happening in each place. They noticed a few small changes that made all of the difference in the lives of the children.
 
First, it was the custom for children to feed themselves from the common rice bowl as soon as they could sit up. In the cases where children were thriving, adults were helping them to eat and making sure they ate enough. Second, most families ate twice a day and expected their toddlers to eat only twice a day. This was not providing their children with enough nutrition since they could not consume enough calories in only two meals per day. The toddlers who thrived were fed more often. Third, the children who were thriving were eating slightly different food. Their parents were including tiny shrimp that live in rice paddies and some greens with the rice that the children were eating. Those small changes made all of the difference. The foreign aid worker had looked for bright spots and found what was creating them.
 
One of the ways to identify the bright spots within our ministry settings is to first define what a bright spot would be. Here is a question that the Heaths say that therapists sometimes use with their clients: “If you woke up tomorrow morning and your life had changed to be the way you wish it was, what would be the first small change that you would notice?” In other words, what bright spot would you see?
 
So if you walked into church, or the health facility where you work,  or the educational institution where you carry out ministry, and it had become exactly the way you hoped it would be, what would be the first thing that you notice? What small change would show you that things were different? For instance, maybe it would simply be that people are smiling and engaging with one another in a way you have not seen for some time. The therapist’s question is then, “What small change might you make to begin to make that happen?”
 
The bright spot I notice in my garden every spring is that smell of overturned earth. I have to actually go out there and get my trowel into the dirt to enjoy it. That first small change of spring shows me that the soil is ready to bring about the beauty that will be produced. It shows me that there will be warm, sunny days to work with my flowers. It shows me that the promise of new life will be fulfilled.
 
What is the first small change that you would notice if your ministry setting became a bright spot for you in a new way? What can you do to help bring that about? How will you continue the work of bringing hope in the name of Jesus Christ?
 

Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago
312-488-3015


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How Do You Demonstrate “Welcome?”

I once knew a congregation that was struggling to find its footing. It had once had 300 members and was now holding steady around 60 members. The church is in a small town and most of its members were either born in the town or surrounding area or lived there for decades. Some of them have adult children and grandchildren in town. The children had grown up in the church but none of them now attended. I thought it was kind of odd that none of these people were around anymore. Then I heard a story of something that happened when those children of the church were teenagers and I wondered no more.

A person who is still active in the church had been the youth leader for these people who were 10 or 20 years younger than him. In the Christian Education area of the church, he had the teenagers do a project in which they took great pride. They painted bright colors in abstract patterns on the cinder blocks that made up the walls. This leader of theirs went into the building by himself one evening to tidy up the paint a little and get the new artwork ready for the congregation to see it on Sunday morning.

An older member of the church happened to come into the building while this tidying was going on. The older person was appalled by the bright colors and abstract nature of the work. The youth leader told him how much the kids had enjoyed doing it. The older member said that it was not in keeping with the dignity of the church. The youth leader went home, thinking that this other person did not understand but hoping that others would appreciate the work.

The next morning, the youth leader arrived for worship only to find all of the hard work and bright colors painted over with the same neutral color that had been there before. The older member had hired painters to work late into the night to restore the walls to what he thought they should be.

Now I know why none of those adults in that town who were teenagers in that church come there for worship. Would you?

Ironically, decades after this incident happened, the older member—now quite elderly—made a substantial donation to the town library. In order to honor him, the library has named the children’s section of the library after their donor. Really, you cannot make this stuff up.

Every church wants more members. Most churches want younger members and their children. Sometimes new members, no matter their age, will upset the status quo. The way we react when they do will tell them who we are and whether or not they are really welcome. Growing churches can tolerate a little bright paint on the walls as they continue to find ways to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ.

Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago
312-488-3015

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Easter at the Pastors’ House

Easter at the pastors’ house—oh, how complicated it can be!

 
My husband and I were married six days before we moved to the seminary campus to start our studies. Our two children were born while we were co-pastors. One was born while we served two very small rural churches in West Central Illinois. The other was born while we were co-associate pastors in Champaign, Illinois.

 
The Easter Bunny never came for them on Easter Sunday morning. Who had time?! They were pre-schoolers and elementary students while we lived in a small town in Iowa. My husband was the pastor there and I served five different churches as interim or supply while we were there. That meant that he had a busy Easter Sunday and I had a drive of at least 30 minutes to get to where I was going. So I would have him take the girls out into the yard; I would hide the goodies in the house; and then I would go to the door and tell them the Easter Bunny had been there! I was so glad when our youngest finally figured out who the bunny was. I remember saying to her “And who else comes in the middle of the night and delivers things? Yes, Daddy and I are also Santa Claus and the tooth fairy!” (Because Christmas in the pastors’ house is equally challenging.)

 
When we moved from that small town, we became co-pastors again in a larger church. We ended up for several years having three worship services on Easter Sunday morning. The sunrise service (that church has a gorgeous Easter window that faces East) was at actual sunrise, so often around 6 a.m.; then an 8 a.m. service; Easter breakfast; and the big service at 10 a.m. This, of course, followed a week that started with a “Donkey Walk” through town and two worship services on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday worship and meal, and a Good Friday service. One year we even had three funerals during Holy Week just to keep it interesting. Of course our girls were also busy junior and senior high students during this time. We were lucky to eat anything that week, let alone a nice Easter dinner!

 
There was a very kind family in that church who realized the kind of schedule we had. They fixed an entire meal for us to have late in Holy Week and did it for several years. They just brought the food to our house and told us to get the dishes back to them whenever we could. It was wonderful to have this food so that whenever we passed through the house there was something to eat. It was also so thoughtful of them to realize what it can be like in the pastors’ house during Holy Week.

 
How might you ease the burden on your pastor this upcoming Holy Week? What might you pick up to do at church to relieve the pastor of something that they usually handle? Is there a way that you might provide a little respite for them at home? Maybe walk the dog; fix a meal; give the children a ride to school events that do not take Holy Week into account?

 
Even if none of those work for you and your pastor, here is something you can do. Once worship is done on Easter Sunday do not, under any but the most dire circumstances, contact your pastor before noon on Tuesday!!

 
Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago
312-488-3015


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Our Core Mission

The demise of traditional retail stores continues to grow. The BonTon group, which had bought up several regional retailers, ended in the last year and took with it the Bergners stores in Peoria at which I had shopped all of my life, along with the Younkers stores which we had frequented in Iowa, and the Carson’s stores that were always the more glamorous sibling of these other two.
 
The first mall built in Peoria was completed in 1973 and decimated the downtown shopping area. Its anchor stores were Carson’s, Penney’s and Sears. Now the huge space that was Carson’s and then Lord & Taylor and then Macy’s now has two tenants. One is an inexpensive furniture store where one is, apparently, expected to buy a whole room at once. The other is a video arcade and bowling alley—another national chain—to which the police had to be called several times within the first few weeks it was open. It seems to have calmed down now.
 
As I still have to explain to my grandchildren from time to time, shopping and buying are not the same thing. One can spend a whole afternoon at a retail mall and come away with nothing; well, nothing that is except the memory of a really good pretzel or a scrumptious ice cream cone.
 
One can shop in the same way one goes to the zoo. I like looking at the giraffes in the  zoo, but I am not going home with one in the backseat of my car. Just so, I can look at the $500 shoes, or the sparkly prom dresses, or the latest electronic gadgets without having the salesperson wrap them up. I am doing cultural inquiry at the mall, seeing what is interesting, discovering things that I never knew existed. That was never the store’s primary focus, unless such inquiry led to my making a purchase. The music and the aroma of expensive perfume and the beautiful displays of merchandise were not there to entertain me. They were there to entice me to spend money. But entertain me they did.
 
Where will I find a place to spend a little time looking but not touching, as I was taught to do as a child, once the brick and mortar retailers are gone? Sitting on my couch with my tablet does not create the same atmosphere. Retailers had to make money or close; that was their core mission. My entertainment was not part of that business model.
What are the collateral ways in which our congregations provide value for our communities? What would they miss if we all disappeared? For most of us, we are not reaching the same numbers of people we once did. Many congregations worry about whether those who still attend and contribute will be able to financially sustain the building and the ministry.
 
If we close, our communities will not, apparently, miss actually being with us on Sunday morning for worship since they are not there now. But they will miss the idea of our churches. They will miss the sound of the carillon. Or they will miss the stability that the church family and its building have provided in the community. Or they will miss the luminaries on Christmas Eve. Or, we hope, they would miss that little hint at the back of their minds that if they really, really, really needed spiritual or even temporal help, our churches would be a place to which they could turn.
Have you found a way to build on those warm (or at least neutral) feelings your neighbors have about your church before it’s too late? Do you build on their sense that they could find welcome there? Do you fulfill their idea that you do bring stability and peace to your neighborhood? For surely our core mission is not the maintenance of our buildings and the programs that sustain a smaller number of people every year. Surely our core mission is bringing hope in the name of Jesus Christ in any way we can.
 
Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago
312-488-3015

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