Monday, February 22, 2016

Vital Congregations - a dialogue to inspire churches with ideas for ministries of vitality

The following is the final installation in a five-part series based on a dialogue begun at the 2015 Susquehanna Annual Conference around stories and experiences of congregational vitality. The team that presented included Pastor Janet Durrwachter, Rev. Rich Morris, Rev. Dr. Randy Willis, and Jaime Carpenter. The video of this session (held Friday morning, June 12, 2015) and a full transcript can be found at tinyurl.com/susumcAC2015.


Passionate Connection
Jaime Carpenter, Laity
Christ UMC, Selinsgrove

edited transcript

I am the director of lay ministries at Christ United Methodist Church in Selinsgrove. I’ve been a part of the church for thirty years, but I’ve been employed there for eleven. I am also the chairperson for the lay servant ministries of the Lewisburg District. God has exactly called me to lead high-level leadership ministries as a lay person in these roles and for this time.

Organizing and teaching “Equipping God’s People” modules 1 and 2, organizing the lay speaking courses, and helping people understand the major shift in all of that, has been solid work. It’s true.

I know that good local church leaders need education. And so our districts have implemented the two modules, and are creating other courses to follow. Many of you are familiar with this. The feedback has been positive, and awareness is growing.

Today I bring along with me Grace Dunagan, a sixteen-year-old youth who has fulfilled her high school requirements, and will begin college in the fall. I have personally mentored her for the past year -and-a-half in church leadership, and truth be told, she has taught me a thing or two. She has been beside me as we organize courses, correspond with lay speakers in the district, and lead trainings in other local churches. As a member of our administrative council, she is a bright spot in our church’s leadership.

And today Grace and I are here because we want to share a characteristic of Christ United Methodist which has been identified as a vital congregation. And I feel the same way as some of the others up here about that. But the characteristic that we’ve chosen to talk about today is called passionate connection.

Eight years ago, the pastor of our church encouraged a few of us to read a book, entitled, “Fusion: Turning First-time Visitors into Fully-engaged Members of Your Church,” by Nelson Searcy. Are you familiar with that book?

We took that book to our hears. We removed the pew pads, and our staff added connection cards to the bulletins. We received lots of good information from our worship attendees. Not only updates to their contact information, which of course is important for our attendance, but also specific ways that worship attendees planned to respond to the message that they heard on Sunday morning.

We included a prayer, joys, and concerns line, and cannot believe what people write on those lines [when we read them] on Monday morning. They move us to tears. People will write things on those cards that they will never say [out loud]. Some Monday mornings get pretty emotional for us. But if there is something that the church staff or care teams need to follow up with, we follow up no later than Wednesday of that week.

First- and second-time visitors receive hand-written cards or emails; then a letter from the pastor; then a visit from one of our ministry staff members. In addition, thanks to the church’s awesome hospitality leader, Jinny Harnum, our ushers and greeters are well-trained.

Ushers stand by, available to assist. They walk worship attendees to their seats — they actually do that! I know that’s what they are supposed to do and it feels like I shouldn’t even have to say that, but sometimes we get involved in our side conversations, and we kind of miss a golden opportunity. The greeters try to remember the first names of the people on the first introduction. Their stations are located just inside the door and out on the street, helping drivers find a parking spot.

From that excellent training, our culture began to shift. The leadership and worship attendees began to care for one another, not simply just for the sake of caring. Not simply for the sake of saying we care, but actually honestly caring. And I know how that sounds. And if I would be [reading this], I would be wondering, ‘Really, it’s really that good?’ But you know, we all have things in our churches, and we have issues in other areas. But in this area of passionate connections, our church is really nailing it.

Taking it up a level, the church is connecting with community agencies, schools, and businesses. We are helping in classrooms, encouraging teachers, feeding hungry schools students on the weekends, and donating our gently-used shoes and so much more. All along we have earned the right to be heard, and we’ve built solid relationships through the community on all levels. I say this boldly and with confidence.

Again, you may be sitting there wondering, ‘How do you know that. How do you measure the trust earned in the community, school, and agencies?’ And again, I’d be asking the same thing.

But here is how we know. On Monday night, May 4, at 9:45 p.m., a report came to the 911 center that Christ United Methodist Church was on fire. Nine companies responded to the scene. The whole community gathered beside us as we watched our beloved church building burn until nearly 2 a.m. Neighbors brought out tables with bottled water. Community leaders came out, even while the church was still burning, to offer classroom and worship space for our preschool and church. The days and weeks after the fire were going to be critical to our recovery. Even those of us who have felt the heaviness of the loss and were beginning a full out grieving process, had a solid understanding of the following things: The last thing is never the worst thing. The church is the people. God gives us beauty for ashes and a future with hope.

So we were publicly grieving. We accepted the help of others. And we faced our struggles with transparency. We invited others to walk with us through one of the most difficult times of our leadership ministry, and we continue intentional connection and care for people of the church.

The Sunday after the fire we included blank pieces of paper which served as connection cards. Actually, it came from a desk drawer of some scrap tables that were in one of our member’s homes. They served as connection cards, and we included those in a bulletin that was graciously printed for us by another church in Selinsgrove. And we connected with the new people, our guests.

We had a copy of our directory and a database of contacts saved on the Cloud and a thumb drive with our servant keeper records saved to it. Are you guys backing your stuff up? You should!

While the pastor, trustees, and finance committees did work with insurance, investigating, and inventory, the ministry team leaders gathered to make plans for ministry. An emergency care team meeting was called, and I had photos printed and copied so that we could take them to our home-bound members and show them the pictures while saying the words, “The church burned. The fire was accidental and electrical. It was nobody’s fault. But it did happen.”

We immediately rebuilt the website to show pictures to tell the story, and designed a blog that gave daily updates from our pastor and staff. The entire community is invited to this story — you are invited to this story.

But here’s the shift I really don’t want you to miss. The community contacted the church to see how we could do ministry together. Susquehanna University, the Selinsgrove Borough, the school district, the county offices, all the local churches reached out. Hundreds of offers came from small businesses, civic organizations, our friends. And the people of the church are being cared for by the people of our community. And this is a true connection.

So it’s been asked of us, ‘If your church would disappear would the community notice?’ I know that the church has built systems, followed through with excellent practices, but we could never really measure the influence, the difference that the church was making in the community. Through the experience of this fire, we found out.

And as it turns out, all of it mattered and none of our resources were wasted. Passionate connection is active. It is well within your budget. It requires true care, which may require deep change, which is hard work.

The fire, although devastating and heartbreaking, provided an opportunity for heightened emotion, and a re-entry point for momentum. Does this sound familiar to anybody who took “Equipping God’s People” module 1, Session 3, when we studied Bob Farr’s book, “Renovate or Die”? That’s what we talk about there.

The fire, like any other tragedy that may have happened in your community or in your churches, can open the door to conversation with people who otherwise would not care to connect with you or the church. It opens doors to reconciliation from previously broken relationships. It allows for deposits to strengthen relationships. Tragedies also pique people’s curiosity. That’s OK, too. We are all part of the story.

The feeling of the longing is the fruit of passionate connections. Transparency of our vulnerability is a connecting force. Once connected, we share the stories of our faith and point others toward God. It is all about Jesus.

My prayer is that our church leadership, our clergy and laity, continue to be teachable, vulnerable, transparent, and hungry to passionately connect. My prayer is that you are earning trust and the right to be heard in your communities. Stay the course.

Sometimes the church’s influence cannot be measured. God is with us. He calls us in big ways to point each other toward Christ. And together we agreed, and all God’s people said, “Amen.”

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