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.

How Public is Your Life of Faith?

There is a new movie called “The Two Popes.” Several weeks ago, I saw an interview with the two stars of the movie. One of them looks so much like the current pope that, apparently, his own son kidded him about being the pope. Because it is a movie about religious people, the interviewer asked each of the stars about their religious backgrounds. One was a Roman Catholic as a child. The other came to faith when he became associated with a 12-Step Program. Kind of interesting information to know about these two people portraying religious leaders.

I was disturbed, though, by the way the interviewer asked them about their faith/religious lives. She asked, “Did you go to church as a child?” The assumption was, I think, that no self-respecting, intelligent adult would still go to church. Some might have it as a childhood practice along with jumping rope or playing with dolls or believing in Santa Claus. The implication was that adults leave all of those things behind.

This is not only an assumption by this particular interviewer. Many people in the 21st Century in the United States view faith as a quaint, old-fashioned and childish attribute at best and as something sinister at worst.

When I meet with sessions about the future of their congregations, I sometimes ask them what they brag about with regard to their churches when they are talking to their friends. Or, I ask them how they answer the question “What did you do this weekend?” When a co-worker or acquaintance asks that innocuous question, do they only say, “I saw a movie, I went to the grocery store, I watched the football game on TV”? Or do they also say, “I went to church.” And, are they prepared to respond if their inquisitor says, “Why?”

Even those of us who are very active in congregations have adopted the attitude that it might be embarrassing to admit that we are part of a faith community and that it is an important part of our lives. People might think we are unsophisticated, or naïve or stupid. Maybe we should just keep it to ourselves.

Scripture, of course, does not treat faith as something we grow out of as we grow up. Instead, we are encouraged to mature into our faith as we grow older. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult I put an end to childish ways.”

How has your faith matured as you have grown into it? What is different now about your understanding of God’s grace in your life than when you first came to awareness of it? How do you act on your faith in a more mature way than you once did? How does your faith inform our call to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ wherever we may be?

The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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Preventing Close-Out Sales

Have you ever gone to a local store that is closing because they are having a close-out sale? You know, they have hired a company to come out and hang up big signs and mark down their merchandise in order to liquidate it, and (at least it seems like this to me) sometimes bring in merchandise that did not sell someplace else?

If you were a loyal customer of that store, the owner and staff probably welcome you to that sale. You can commiserate with them about how the times are changing and that people just don’t shop locally anymore. But if you rarely or never patronized that store, don’t you feel just a little bit guilty or vulture-like if you swoop in only when the prices have been slashed? It reminds me of the scene in A Christmas Carol where people come in to steal the bed curtains from around the dead body of Ebenezer Scrooge. They did not visit him when he was alive, but now that he’s dead, there is a reason to go there.

Unfortunately, the reason this image has come to mind for me lately is that I have spent a fair number of Sundays in the last two years at the closing worship services for some of our Presbytery of Chicago congregations. In every case, the leaders of these congregations did what they knew how to do in order to keep their churches afloat. But changes in the way people interact with the world outside of their homes and their phones, aging buildings, aging congregations, and sheer exhaustion have just gotten the better of them.

A few Sundays before that closing service, there may have been as few as five people in those sanctuaries. But in every case that I have seen, the sanctuary is full on that last Sunday; and nobody traveled on an airplane to get there. They are all people who live locally and have a warm spot in their heart for that church. They want to be sure to be there on what may be their last occasion to be in the building. They want to remember their wedding or their Sunday School class or to see one last time the window dedicated to their grandparent. They thought the church would always be there and it made them feel better about the community to know that it was.

But that warm feeling and that sense of the church being an asset to the community did not influence their behavior in the last decades. They did not go to worship there. They did not contribute financially. They did not make suggestions about how the church might become more relevant in its community. Instead, they just gather at the deathbed and take away the valuable memories.

What to do, what to do? How can we help to prevent more of our congregations from becoming a stale symbol of what used to be valued? Gil Rendle, a well-known and respected church consultant, suggests asking three basic questions.

1) Who are we? That is, analyze your assets as a congregation.

Perhaps it is the location or the space that can be provided for community groups or the huge music library. Perhaps it is the cadre of retired teachers who still know how to encourage young people to learn, or the huge church kitchen and a patient person who could help provide food for hungry neighbors, or the insightful pastor who knows how to make the gospel come alive. Perhaps it is simply the deep faith of members that cannot be contained.

2) Who are our neighbors? And no one is allowed to start their answer with “I remember when…”

Do a demographic study, or hang out at the grocery store, or talk to the local elementary school principal. Who lives in your neighborhood? What do they need? What prevents them from living as freed and forgiven children of God?

3) What is God calling us to do? How do our assets match up with the needs of our neighbors?

In other words, why has God placed us where we are and helped us to survive? How will we share the gospel with our neighbors in a way that will change their lives?

The trend among all churches in North America is decline. When we meet for worship on a Sunday morning, we are doing a counter-cultural thing. So why not be even more counter-cultural? That is, counter to the culture of your church? What needs to be done that would make your grandma roll over in her grave? How can you share the gospel in a way that will have impact but makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up? Who can you invite into the life of your church that will make the curmudgeon on your session threaten to quit? Is it worth the risk? Can you save me from attending more closing worship services? Can you continue to find a way to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ?
The Rev. Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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Leadership Questions

When I visit with sessions of congregations that are considering if and when they should close, I notice a phenomenon that I have noticed throughout my entire ministry. I am often the youngest person in the room. I was 24 when I was ordained, so there was a good reason for me to be the youngest in the room on many occasions. But I would never have imagined that almost 40 years later I would still end up being the youngest person in the room from time to time.

So many churches get stuck with the same people being in leadership over decades and I think this is sometimes a part of what has led to the demise of the congregation. Younger people were either overtly or subtly discouraged from being in leadership. In an effort to keep things steady, to be sure they are done correctly, and (perhaps) to protect young adults from being even more over-burdened than they are, people who are my elders hung onto the reins. For some of these congregations, money is not the deciding factor in closing. Instead, the combination of dwindling resources and dwindling energy on the part of a handful of leaders leads to the inevitable decision.

I was recently at an event at the church my husband serves. It was a fund-raiser for two mission projects—a boys’ home the church started in Mombasa, Kenya after our daughter served there as a Young Adult Volunteer; and a snack pack project for a local school in Peoria. This fundraiser has been going on for about a decade. Until this year, it had been the kind of fundraiser where one is expected to dress up, bid on silent auction items, and wander around with a tiny plate of appetizers and a glass of wine. It raised money, but there were not many young people in attendance. It was too expensive for them and it did not appeal to them. It was planned by people close to my age.

This year it was completely different. It started in the late afternoon. It was a trivia game. No one had to dress up. Babysitting was provided for a small fee. The bidding on a handful of silent auction items was handled in a different way. And, most impressive was the fact that it was planned and executed by people in their thirties. I was commenting to the people whom we had invited to sit at our table (half of whom are not church members) that I thought it was great that the old guard had turned it over to the younger people and was letting them manage it.

The next day, I found out from my thirty-something daughter that it was a knock down drag out fight in the mission committee. The younger people prevailed. One of the people who had fought hardest to keep the event exactly as it had been volunteered her time for the preparations and during the event. She even got her retired physician husband to be the bartender. There were twice as many people as there had been the year before.

Will this make a lasting change in this congregation? Time will tell. But they have all seen that a new generation can have a good idea, that they can carry it out and that it might even be an improvement. Best of all, those who have to set aside their preconceived notions about how things should operate can help something new to grow without losing face.

When was the last time someone in your congregation under the age of 40 was encouraged to be completely in charge of an event? When did your educational institution last let an assistant professor make a change in an existing program and have a full professor serve in a supportive role? When did your health care institution last make a change that was suggested by someone who was in their first five years serving there?

We can cling to systems that underpin our own understanding of ourselves as the true leaders, telling younger people that they must wait their turn so that they can learn from us. Or, we can remember that our purpose is not self-preservation but to bring hope in the name of Jesus.
Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago

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Not Normal, Just Common

How do we talk about race or gender in 2019/20 in the United States? There was a time when neither of these constructed ways of looking at other human beings seemed to be flexible. Race was defined by skin color—we even sang about it at church: “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world. Red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight . . .” Newer versions take out one of the “ands” and add the word “brown.” It’s good to remind us that Jesus loves us all; the song also divides us up by skin color.

I remember watching Star Trek with my family on TV in the 1960s. You might remember that there were actors with different ethnicities who played the human roles on the show. My mom commented that she thought by the time in which Star Trek was supposed to take place that there would not be such distinct racial differences. She thought that people would marry and bear children across racial and ethnic lines in a way that was not very common in Peoria, Illinois in 1967.

Then there is the issue of gender. I was at an apple orchard very early this fall with part of my family. This is the kind of place where you can pick apples, feed the goats, ride the ponies, make yourself sick on apple cider donuts, and so on. Most of the people there were with various kinds of family groups.

There was a young person standing in front of me at the goat pen who was pretty tall. I noticed that the person was wearing a dress. As I looked up toward the person’s face I saw broad shoulders and then the face of a teen-ager with a beard. Later, I was commenting to my daughter whose doctoral dissertation was about bringing diversity into the preschool classroom about this. I noted that I thought it was a bold choice to appear in this setting so attired. I was trying to say that I thought the person was brave.

But then I tried to use pronouns. I was stumbling around and my daughter was just rolling her eyes. I was confused. Should I assign a pronoun based on the way the person’s face looked or the way the person was dressed? I guess I should have adopted the convention that is becoming more normative and called the person “they.”

I heard someone quote Dorothy Parker the other day. Her direct quote is “Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.” It seems to me that we could apply this to many aspects of our life together.

Being a man in ministry is not normal, it’s just common. Being sighted is not normal, it’s just common. Being a native of the digital age (knowing how to use everything on your IPhone) is not normal, it’s just common. Being of a particular racial background in a particular neighborhood in Chicago is not normal, it’s just common. Having a particular body size and shape and no facial hair while wearing a dress is not normal, it’s just common.

How generous is this way of thinking about other human beings! Might it bring hope into their lives and ours if we gave up the notion of “normal” and remembered that Jesus loves us all? This is another way of bringing hope into our lives so that we can bring hope to all those whom we meet.
Rev. Sue Krummel, Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago

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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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