It All Started with a Wedding Cake

Pastors love telling their call stories. It seems that most of us know the exact time, the exact moment when we first felt that nudge from God telling us we had bigger fish to fry.

For me I suppose it didn’t really start with the wedding cake. It really all started with my mom making sure my three siblings and I got to church, at least for special Sundays. We were very involved in our Ukrainian Catholic congregation and learned Ukrainian dancing. We were taken to catechism class for the prescribed year but at a Roman Catholic School (Mary, Queen of the Universe- I love that name.) When a nun came to our front door one evening carrying a box with a clear cellophane window containing a bright red confirmation gown just the right size for me, my mom firmly turned her around explaining that in OUR church babies were confirmed into the faith when they were baptized. I can still vividly picture the expression on Sister Mary Elizabeth’s face dropping so quickly that I almost felt an urge to wrap my arms around her waist and tell her everything would be ok. I was disappointed. I would have loved wearing that red gown.

Seeing those Roman Catholic nuns at Mary Queen of the Universe so close up made me want to be one. I thought long and hard about being a nun, marrying Jesus and wearing ‘his ring’. Sigh….
It seemed like it would be an ok life when I was nine or ten years old.

But my mom had to have been the biggest influence on me as I grew up. My mom was VERY religious and that meant she even went to church on days she didn’t have to. The irony is that if you asked her if she was religious, she would have denied it.

She often gave us a choice about going to church with her on those extra church days. My choice was always to go and not so much because I just had to be part of the special worship service but because I didn’t ever want to leave my mom and I never wanted her to leave me. (One time she was getting ready to go bowling with her bowling league. And frankly she deserved time away from her children. The writing was on the wall that Wednesday night. She’d already told us no when we asked if we could go too. I went out to the car and found the door unlocked so I opened it and climbed into the back, hunkering down on the floor in front of that long back seat. My mom, always very astute, probably watched all this from the living room picture window. All I knew was that some how her ma-dar told her I was there so as she opened the car door she said simply and firmly, “OK Alana, get out of the car.” I was crest-fallen.)

I didn’t realize the significance of those special worship services we attended on occasion during my childhood. I know now that many of them happened during Holy Week. The sanctuary was darkened and mostly filled with short, stout babushkas wearing black dresses and looking sad and serious. They would lie prostrate on the floor during parts of the service. And at one point in one of these special services mom and I stood in a long line of grandmas waiting for a chance to go by what was probably a paper-mache cave, very large and realistic, with a plastic covered two-dimensional image of a bleeding Jesus lying inside. As we walked past we leaned in and touched the image or even more often, kissed his wounds. More prostrating always followed this.

Like any good Catholic teenaged girl, I turned away from the church. The whole thing just seemed silly to me for a while except for the brief time when I dated my boyfriend Jimmy, a Roman Catholic who I would sometimes go to church with on Sunday mornings.

By college though, I was completely gone from the church. Too busy wearing bell bottoms and flannel shirts, working through the night on art projects for my college classes, going to church seemed a ridiculous idea. What was the point? I certainly didn’t believe in God though even then I was searching for something. I wrote a paper on Taoism and it seemed like a very good idea for staying connected with my spiritual nature. But I was just too busy even for that.

It wasn’t until after my first child was born that I began once again to feel a need for some sort of religion. David, my husband, raised Methodist, was not at all interested so I went to church by myself and though I had no idea at the time, chose a very liberal church, the First Church in Oberlin, United Church of Christ, which was walking distance from our home. I chose it because Carol Longsworth never stopped inviting us over the years.

It wasn’t until an interim minister who was there for a year or so between ministers asked in worship one Sunday if any of us had ever thought about going into ministry. She was the first woman I’d ever seen in the pulpit and that made an impression. I sheepishly raised my hand along with only one other person in the meetinghouse.

About five years later, a caterer and restaurant owner by that time, I was delivering a wedding cake I had made to a very tiny church in the country. I set the cake down on the table as I’d been directed to do. I carefully placed the fresh flowers I’d brought for decorating the cake between the layers and around the bottom layer. I loved the way those cakes looked after they were all finished and ready for the reception.

I don’t remember if I asked if I could see the sanctuary or if I just gravitated in that direction but as I stepped through the door I was awe-struck. It was a tiny sanctuary; much smaller than the church I was attending in Oberlin. I’m guessing now it had a capacity of fifty at most and that would be fifty tightly squeezed in barely room to move people. I stood in that spot in complete silence taking in the darkness. The sunlight created elongated colorful shapes through stained glass windows onto the floor near them. The altar gleamed with modest painted gold detail. And I stood in that spot feeling a sort of chill; a sort of knowing washed over me. Time actually slowed down and I remained in that moment for what was probably too long a time to the church-ladies waiting for me so they could get on with their work in the kitchen. As I prepared to leave, as I turned back to the door, I said to myself, “This is exactly the sort of church I want to pastor.” And at that very moment I knew what I needed to do.

Keeping Office Hours

I saw a post that someone sent out asking how we would be spending Easter Monday. I wondered to myself if Easter Monday was really a thing. Should I be relaxing, enjoying my knitting or reading a junky novel? Because my plan was to go into the church office at one of the two churches I’m serving, and put in my usual Monday four hours. Sitting. Working on the bulletin or visit list. Waiting for someone to come in. Waiting for the Office Administrator to stop being busy and start a conversation. Waiting for a phone call. Sitting in an office, from my point of view, is not a very good use of a pastor’s time unless someone comes in looking for pastoral care or even just wanting to talk. But that happens pretty infrequently. Making an appointment to talk happens more often. Going out to people works best.

Instead of sitting in an office, I could be sitting in a cafe working on Sunday’s bulletin but really people watching and engaging customers in conversation. When I do this I manage to bring the conversation around to church pretty easily as I answer the question, “So, what do you do?” And by the end of these conversations, I often make a point of offering an invitation to church or to some church event.

Establishing new relationships is really important to being the church. Too often in churches a pastor has no time to get out, be seen, do walk arounds in the neighborhood, to pray or catch people doing what they like to do. Just ‘seeing’ the neighborhood is important. But it seems the people inside our churches feel the only thing a pastor should be doing is ministering to “the flock”. (Does it occur to anyone else that sheep are aimless and not very smart so I’m not sure we should really admit to ‘caring for our flock’ in our churches. Might be better to refer to “ministering along side our ‘band'” or “equipping our ‘flange'”. Gorillas and chimps just seem to be more on the ball and have a lot more energy than sheep- not that I have anything against sheep. All God’s children have a place in the choir.)

Some of the habits we have developed and now perpetuate in our churches are problematic. Many members of congregations have been raised in churches where the church is about the building, about finances and members’ happiness. “I paid for this church”. Consumerism consumes us. As a Baby Boomer I was raised on this, so I know. And that attitude seeps into the places that should be spiritual sanctuaries; the place where we should be going to sit with God; where we would be better served if we met to discuss the needs of the community. And then went out and did stuff.

Often times the real concern is money. “We need to get more people in so we can pay these bills”. “It would be helpful to reduce the pastor’s salary, so we’ll have more money to have the floor in the social hall professionally stripped and waxed once a year”. If the major concern is money and not actually putting our faith in God, listening to God, and “doing” the ministry God calls us to do we might as well put a for sale sign on the front lawn today.

It’s a trust thing. “In God We Trust”. We’re proud to have put that on our money though it was only added during the Cold War in 1957 and we sure don’t mind telling other people they need to trust in God. But, actually trusting in God ourselves; listening for God to tell us what WE need to do to live a Christian life, is easier said than done.

Jesus didn’t have a church so he surely didn’t sit in an office either. It seems he rented an Upper Room once in awhile when the ‘band’ needed to be together for something important like a last supper.
They made do.

It’s a Consolidation—– Not a Merger!

If you had asked me a year ago how to merge three churches I would have looked at you with confusion and a big shrug. I have been certain however, that in order to get three long-lived churches to become one new church the churches must first really WANT to change. In fact, over the past several months I’ve become, I’d say, somewhat of an expert on the subject of church mergers. It is not an easy process.

To reach this goal it is necessary first of all to assist the churches in discovering that God has a new mission and new ministries for the churches. If a church has gotten very small and isn’t attracting worshippers then clearly the vision, core values and mission of the church need work.

One of the three churches in this consolidation did not have a very close connection to the Spirit of God. An ethnic congregation, the members had settled into routines that mostly involved watching the pastor in the pulpit on Sundays, singing the same old hymns they’d sung for years, violently protesting even subtle changes, and preparing ethnic foods to sell to create income to help the church survive. The entire mission was to support the church so it could continue to do more fundraisers to support the church so it could do more fundraisers to support the church so it could do more fundraisers….. You get the idea, I’m sure.

It had become difficult to feel God there. Because of the small numbers, there seemed to be quite a bit of gossip, back biting and judgment. The culture was not a healthy one. This has changed somewhat as it has been made clear to members over the past few years that the church belongs to God, and not to them. Some chose to leave once their sense of ownership was called into question. All in all, the church feels healthier.

One day I walked into the social hall of this same church to find lots of the dishes, kitchen equipment and kitchen supplies spread out on a few tables with a sign, “Take what you want.” One member of the Dorcas Guild, as the guild cleaned the kitchen, had decided that the church would never again be able to do large dinners so made the decision on the spot to start getting rid of items deemed too numerous for the church to ever use. When questioned the response was, “We can do what we want with this stuff. Afterall, our parents and grandparents bought it all.” There is a more exact name for all that stuff on the table, and that is “church assets.” Consolidating churches helps one to understand better the importance of church assets.

When a group of church members see the church as belonging to them and not to God, then something has gone horribly wrong over the years. Sadly, this is pretty common in churches. We church members seem to be a lot about hammering in our stakes and claiming territory to the detriment of a church’s culture. It makes it almost impossible for new people to feel as though they’ve come to the right place.

Since the decision to merge was voted on this past summer we’ve been moving more quickly. One of the three churches was a latecomer, and that has required us to do some back peddling. But, all three churches bring many gifts to the table and at this stage I’d say our greatest asset is knowing that God is directing us. We pastors and church members alike feel a very strong sense of excitement at the way the Holy Spirit has filled us to over-flowing and caused us to want to do a new thing. It IS exciting. It’s a fascinating process. But it’s also a little scary.

Now THIS is What I Signed on For…..

Accidental Minister

Ten years in ministry this past year, and I am just amazed at all that has changed in the ways I do ministry. I listen much more closely for God now. I try to let my direction come from sacred silence as much as possible. Sometimes it’s tough to be quiet long enough to hear. But, it seems that when I do take time to listen, the most amazing things happen.

Yesterday I went to see my Spiritual Director at a retreat center in Cleveland that I visit about once a month. I headed straight to my favorite small chapel because I’d deliberately left an hour early to sit in the quiet. To my surprise, one of my colleagues happened to be in that chapel. She said she’d JUST said a prayer for her Association colleagues and then, I walked in. We talked, had tea in the dining room, and talked a bit more. We’re both working on New Church start kinds of stuff, so it was a good thing.

Before I’d left home that day, I loaned one of our two cars to a young woman who I employed 20 years ago in the café I owned. She was in high school then. She now has two children and Rheumatoid Arthritis. She lives with a lot of pain. Her husband left the family. He sends a little money but not enough. She’s afraid that if she tries to get child support she won’t get any money at all while waiting for a decision and that can take months or even years.

She applied for disability but was refused disability. She was refused low-income housing. So now she is in the process of looking for a job that she can handle through her pain. She called last night very excited because of the productive day she’d had. She dropped an application off at Drug Mart then picked one up from Family Dollar. She ran to IGA and had a conversation with a nice man stocking cereal on the shelves. They talked about how nice it would be if the store made all their own salads. (She worked as a deli prep person while she put herself through college). Turns out he’s the owner of IGA and by being friendly she’d developed some rapport with him. She went to the local Community Services agency and got a hat, gloves and scarf for her five year old, lots of food and a promise that the agency will find a way to pay her February rent so she can use her rent money to get her car fixed. She was on cloud nine when she called me last night. She thanked me for letting her use the car. She later wrote on Facebook about how blessed she felt because of all that God seemed to be providing right now.

I suppose it shouldn’t really be amazing that having transportation can make an enormous difference for those who are struggling. Today, she’s going to see a pain management doctor to find out about injections that will help with her pain. Later today, since schools are closed and her children are home, I will care for them while she goes back to IGA to fill out a job application, and goes back to the community service agency where one of the interns will help her put together a resume. I’m praying for her, that her life becomes easier, that she can provide herself all that she needs to live. Meanwhile, she’s been attending one of the two churches I serve.

When I came into church this morning for office hours. A man I’ve provided pastoral care to was there waiting for me. He wanted to let me know that he had seen his doctor yesterday and learned that the medical issue he’d been too frightened to tell his family about had cleared up completely, on its own. He wanted me to know, he said, because I was the only other person he’d spoken to about it. He hadn’t wanted to alarm his family. He also wanted to let me know that the Epiphany worship service this past Sunday had really moved him. We’d done a combined worship service including four of five of the Elyria United Churches of Christ, at the smallest building belonging to the most aged congregation. The music was fantastic, he said. Having such a large choir of people from at least three of the four churches was inspiring, he said. My message of acceptance of “others” was on the mark, he said, especially since for so many years we’ve kept ourselves walled into our separate churches as though somehow ours is the best one, the only one.

So much of what we as pastors do goes unnoticed or we don’t experience the positive results that happen years after our involvement in a situation has ceased.

But today is a good day. And when good days happen I love to delight in them. And I remind myself that I signed on for both the good days and the not so good ones. The good days may not happen as often as we’d hope but when they do, they are usually very, very good. When I visit people in their homes I pray with them saying, “Thank you God, for never leaving us alone when we most need you.”

Thank you, God, for never leaving me alone when I most need you.

Sunday Morning Prayer 12 14 2014

Holy God,
Giver of ALL good gifts,
It’s difficult to believe that Christmas is just 10 days away. So much to do between now and then. And yet the most important things that we can do and should do are the easiest of all to accomplish; and would be the most meaningful.

To sit in the silence. To pray to you. To lift up all of our friends and relatives to your care. To sit in the silence. To contemplate this gift that we receive each Advent in the waiting and preparing; each Christmas in the celebration of new light and new life.

Your love for creation is such a tangible gift, dear God, when we sit in the quiet and give you our undivided attention.

O Holy One, your love casts out all that is evil. If each and everyone of us would allow you into our hearts and minds the world would be such a safer place.

We feel your love in the air, mixing and mingling with icy bluster and skittering snow flakes.

Thank you, dear One, for all that we become through your love for us; through our love for you; through the love that fills our hearts and brims over into a world that can be so torn and troubled.

You bless us everyday with love and forgiveness. We hungrily ask for more blessings as we lift up to you those on our hearts who need you to be near them. Be also with those who celebrate. Hear their names and our hopes and dreams….

Surprises

One of the biggest surprises to me since being ordained ten years ago is that there are people who are willing to call me their minister even though they would never, ever step into a church. These are usually nice people who have either left the church for some reason, or have never experienced church or have never lived life as part of a worshipping community. I believe we all minister at times to people who call on us out of the blue and begin to tell us about the difficulties they are experiencing in life right now. Some will ask for help. Others just need a listening ear. And when possible I am willing to provide both without expecting any sort of return. Basically, that is the definition of Christian love. I suppose this is a big part of the reason people reach out to ministers. Plus it’s a safe bet that whatever is said to a minister will not be repeated, because to do so would be to betray confidences.

Ministers have connections too. Of course, we have that one most important connection. And that’s the one we rely on most often. A simple request for prayer is easy to accommodate. At times though, the need can be more difficult. Money might be an issue. The inability to purchase end of the month groceries for a young family after a job loss; the lack of health insurance and the need to visit a doctor; the need for a small sum with which to purchase an important medication and other requests like these are sadly common. Money is not something the churches I serve or know can easily provide. But, on occasion we have taken up a special collection for someone with a special need. Ministers are also generally familiar with assistance that is available through area nonprofits, though these resources run out more quickly lately.

And then there is the support needed when someone faces the loss of a loved one. A store-owner in the town where I live who had no church, had no support and called because a friend told him he would find talking with me helpful. The bond created by these meetings are quick and deep.

The question of protecting boundaries is important in dealing with these surprises. If I’m supposed to be having time away yet someone approaches with a need, I have to be able and willing to point that person in a direction where help will be available. While I might have it on my heart to “be the change”, it’s important to recognize when doing so will be a detriment to me and to those I serve.

In ministry there are surprises. But, honestly, from my own point of view the people who come to me with open faces and arms and hearts needing to share and trusting that they will not be turned away are as much a gift to me as I hope I might be to them.

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