From Sue is a bi-weekly blog thought written by our Executive Presbyter, Rev. Susan D. Krummel (Sue), and published in our e-newsletter, Presbytery Connect.

A Christmas Pageant Casting Call?

During the year before I came to Chicago Presbytery, I was serving a small church as interim pastor and lived full time in Peoria. I have always loved theater of all kinds and, in fact, my undergraduate degree is a performance degree in Speech Communications from Illinois. There were only about 100 of us in that major while I was there and most of the other people were heading toward television. In any case, during 2017 I had enough free evenings to be able to try out for a show and was cast with a very small part in the chorus. It was fun to see the show from the backstage end of it and to help out with all of the kids who were in it.

I also discovered that the community theater groups in Peoria all operate on Facebook. That is how you find out that you made the show; how you are informed about the rehearsal schedule and on and on. Now that I do not have time to be in a show, I still keep in touch with the two theater groups on Facebook since that is also where they ask for volunteers. I saw a few shows for free this summer under the tent in Bradley Park where summer productions are done by volunteering to be an usher.

Because of the Facebook connections, I also see some of the announcements for the very active children’s community theater groups in Peoria. I have noticed that one of the ways both the indoor and outdoor theaters help to fill their seats is by choosing shows that have lots of kids in them. If all of their family members pay for tickets (and some of them, of course, come almost every night) it helps to keep the theater afloat. Many of these kids take acting and singing and dancing classes all year round. They are always on the lookout for places to audition to show off their budding talents.

I know that this time of year is crunch time for those involved with children’s ministry in churches. I was a youth pastor in one of my calls and was involved in youth ministry in almost every church I served. I have directed children’s pageants where no one really learned their lines and our Sunday morning pageant looked more like a bad rehearsal. I have had the lead (who knew all of his lines) walk up to me about 30 minutes before the pageant was to begin and tell me that he thought he was going to throw up. (I told him to go find his mother. Someone read from a script to fill in for him.) I have had kids get microphone cords so twisted around someone else’s legs that we had to stop for a minute to right the ship.

The best one may have been the program with about 100 children and teen-agers all standing at the front of the sanctuary while someone was videotaping. (This was a long time ago so it really was taped.) You could see that something happened that made children and teens alike react by stepping back and then giggling uncontrollably. It was really funny to watch on the video. Apparently one of the little ones had (ahem) had a few too many beans for dinner, if you know what I mean, and the result set off a mini-riot in the program we had been rehearsing for weeks.

With the way that even active church members attend worship only about once a month now, I cannot imagine trying to put on one of these extravaganzas. How can you rehearse during Sunday School if kids are only there occasionally? How can you choose the day for the pageant? And, for those churches with a handful of children or no children, do you have to abandon the tradition altogether?

I wonder. . . what if you advertised in the community theater groups near your church that there will be auditions for kids for this production, that rehearsals will be held at set times, and that the production will be held on a particular date? I wonder if children from your community who like to perform might be part of your pageant as a part of their performance life for the year.

Does that seem like sacrilege to you? Think about it. What is the purpose of the Christmas pageant? Is it to provide a place to show off Christmas dresses and ties; a time to do what we have always done; one more thing to add stress to the lives of the families in your congregation and your paid and volunteer staff? Or is the purpose to help those involved to understand the great gift we receive at Christmas in a new way? Is a part of the purpose to introduce this story to those who have never heard anything about Christmas except that it is a time to ask for something?

For our congregations to survive and thrive, we need to be creative in the ways we reach beyond our current members and friends. Does that mean inviting strangers to be part of the Christmas pageant? That is for you to decide. But it might be an interesting conversation to have. Why have Christmas pageants been important in the past? What is their true purpose? How do they remind us of our purpose as a church: to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ every hour of every day?
Rev. Sue Krummel, Executive Prebyter
Presbytery of Chicago

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On Being Part of the Gang

I am going to admit something that for many people of all ages in the United States would disqualify me as person with whom they would like to have a relationship. I do not know the intricacies of the Harry Potter myth. I think I read the first book when it came out. I know Harry has lightning mark on his forehead and I know what a muggle is, but that is about it. I have never seen any of the movies. If I am with a group of people who are referring to parts of the myth, I do not know what they are talking about or how it relates to the conversation we are having.

I am thinking about Harry Potter because as I am writing this, I am preparing to go pick up my oldest granddaughter in Iowa so that we can go to a Harry Potter event. We will go to a symphony concert during which one of the movies will be shown and the symphony will play the music along with the movie. I am also not a fan of symphony concerts. My feeling is that if I cannot sing along with a song, why would I want to listen to it? (I know that disqualifies me with another group of people from being able to be counted among their friends.)

When I sit there watching the movie, listening to the music, I anticipate that people around me will be enthralled by what is happening. They may respond to things in the movie that I don’t understand. They may hum along with music that is very familiar to them. Some of them may even come in costume as one of their favorite characters or with some accoutrement that signifies their love of the myth. Let’s just say I anticipate that there will be wands, perhaps even one in the seat next to me! I will be glad to have seen the joy on my granddaughter’s face. I do not expect that I will become a convert to the whole Harry Potter world by attending this one event.

Everything I have just described could also be said of people who attend worship for the first time in one of our congregations. They probably know a little about the central story to which we will be referring during worship. They may kind of know who Jesus is and may even know a fact or two about him. Some of the music they will hear may have leaked out into the culture in a way that they will realize they have heard it somewhere before. There may be oddly dressed people, especially at the front of the sanctuary.

Others may be wearing jewelry or other accessories that mark them as a part of this gang. There will be announcements about programs they do not understand; there will be language used that is incomprehensible to them; people around them will suddenly stand up without warning and either sing something or say something that the new worshiper does not know. They will probably go away wondering about what they have just witnessed; they also will probably not become a believer because they have been there once.

The concert to which I am going is designed for lovers of Harry Potter and/or lovers of the symphony. Our worship services are usually designed for insiders—people who already believe, people who are supposed to bring two dozen cookies to the event on Tuesday, people who know that your Aunt Maude had surgery three weeks ago and are happy to hear that she is better. They are not usually designed to convert people.

How would your worship service be different if you were ready to welcome the uninitiated every week by telling them the story of our faith in such a way that they could not help but believe?

A funny little story about conversion. One of my favorite members in a church I served was Annabelle Dahlsten, the tough older lady whose father was a UPNA pastor. (No one ever looked or acted less like an Annabelle.) Near the end of her life, she was a patient at the University of Iowa hospital. When people end up there, they are in bad shape. I made a pastoral call in the ICU. The nurse there told me that they were trying to convert Mrs. Dahlsten because she was in A-fib. Her heart needed to get back into rhythm. She was conscious and listening to our conversation. I told him that I did not think they would be able to convert her. Her dad was a Presbyterian minister and she had been a Presbyterian all her life. She was pretty set on staying that way. She thought that was funny.

God moves in people’s hearts to make them open to responding to God’s grace. Will your worship service be a place where they will be welcomed into the family of faith as we bring hope in the name of Jesus?
Rev. Sue Krummel, Executive Prebyter
Presbytery of Chicago


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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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But We’ve Always Done it That Way

I have had the privilege of sitting in on the meetings between members of the Commission on Ministry and the Mission Team with sessions that are requesting Salary Supplement funds. As you may recall, the presbytery voted to begin using funds from two sources in order to provide salary supplements to small churches with limited funds of their own. The application period has now closed for 2020 and seven congregations made application. There is a three page document that becomes the basis of the meeting to discover more about the congregations and to see if they qualify for this grant. It has been a privilege because we get to hear so many good things about the mission and ministry of these congregations. Some of them average 40 or 50 people in worship but their impact on their communities goes far beyond what you might imagine a small group could do. They host people without secure housing; they feed people with fresh food; they work with children from nearby schools who need time with caring adults and so on. I heard something in one of the visits that sounds like such a good idea that I wanted to pass it along. At the Presbyterian Church in Palatine, they have seasonal teams instead of standing committees. On their pledge Sunday each year, they have sign-up sheets for people to use to volunteer to serve on one or more seasonal teams. Each team has about five members. For instance, you might sign up for the Advent team. That team meets with the pastor and musician about eight weeks before the season begins. They spend time on the lectionary readings for that season and look for a theme. They then build everything that will happen in the congregation during that season around that theme: education, social events, mission projects, worship. One individual can sign up for two seasons in a row if they choose, but then they must take a break for at least one season. What a great idea! Imagine being a member of that church and looking at your calendar for the whole year. You realize that you will have the time and energy to serve during the summer and from January until Lent, for instance, but not to sit on a committee that meets every month whether they need to or not. Imagine the new ideas that can be generated when you have a new group of people handling these aspects of a church’s life. There is less of the “we have always done it this way” approach to the church year. Just imagine using the lectionary readings as the basis of your decisions instead of thinking that it is February so you must serve something with cherries, or it is the second Sunday of September so you must serve the same hotdogs at the Sunday School kick off that you have always served!

The pastor at Palatine, RJ Kang, and the session there would be happy to talk with you about how this works. I wondered with them about how they convinced the people who have run a certain committee since before the Ark was built to give up their hold on that work. They admitted it was a little bit of a struggle at first but now the church loves doing things this way. Just imagine how your congregation might work if you set aside the ways you have always done things, listened closely for God’s guidance, and set out on a new adventure to bring hope in the name of Jesus!
Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago

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