Care circles energize members' experience of God
The "care circles" at Garden of Grace UCC in Columbia, S.C., are small groups that meet twice-monthly on weeknights.
Originally, the groups — led either by lay leaders or Associate Pastor Candace Chellew-Hodge — followed a common curriculum. But as each Circle gelled as a group, their unique needs and visions began to take form.
While one circle is geared towards families with children, another group might choose a book to study and discuss. For Chellew-Hodge, what started as an innocent book discussion quickly transformed into discussing some issues that really got a few of the members squirming uncomfortably in their seats.
"I guess I still miss seminary, where you can sit around and talk about your beliefs and nobody says, 'That means you're not a Christian!' You were trying to seek that understanding and ask those hard questions and not get kicked out of the faith!"
Some in Chellew-Hodge's care circle fell away, and she saw a new need emerging in the group that remained. Chellew-Hodge says the group good-naturedly referred to themselves as "The Heretic Group."
"But we figured we couldn't be the only ones who were struggling with these questions about our faith," Chellew-Hodge says. So she introduced the "Living the Questions" series, a 21-week series of video and discussion developed by two United Methodist ministers in Phoenix, Ariz.
"It's been an amazing experience," says Chellew-Hodge. "It gives a place where people can come and express their doubts or questions and not feel some judgment will be made against them for the place in their faith where they are. We're all on that path somewhere."
Chellew-Hodge says the care circles are gradually changing the dynamic of the congregation. "[Parishioners] come to church on Sunday morning and want to hear the Word of God from the preacher. As a pastor, I want to know what the Word from the Lord is from you! Because God isn't just talking to me."
At a recent Care Circle meeting, Chellew-Hodge and the group tackled the questions about the Bible, and she prepared herself for some thought-provoking discussion.
"Sometimes we give the Bible to people and say, 'Read it,' without any further instructions. Or we preach from it without context. So you get people sitting around the table saying, 'What do you mean the disciples maybe didn't write the gospels? What do you mean perhaps the crucifixion accounts aren't eyewitnesses?'" says Chellew-Hodge. "What do you make of all the years of councils and theologies laid on top of the Bible? How do you sort through it, and what does it mean to you after that?
"We have a very conservative fellow in our class. We're saying things about this book he's held dear that he's never heard before. This is rocking his world! Much to his credit, he's hanging in there."
Chellew-Hodge is energized by hearing the stories, hearing the ways God is working in people's lives.
"I have the privilege of sitting in rooms with incredible people, hearing incredible stories about God," she says. "[Care circles] are a way people can feel that their experience of God matters. And their experience of God is important … and worthy of sharing."
'Lay Academy' builds capacity, energy for ministry
The Wisconsin Conference's successful Lay Academy, currently in its 14th year, has hit a chord among faithful Christians in the UCC who are searching for more meaning and understanding to round out their faith journeys.
The central course of study, "Faith Foundations," is a two-year program consisting of five weekends per year, and has proven to be the popular and consistently attended.
"I think there is a deep hunger," says the Rev. Gail O'Neal, Associate Conference Minister. "All Christians are hungry to grow deeper in faith and to study the Bible. I think the UCC has a particular willingness to learn and to discuss, to bring their doubts to the table and to explore together what it means to be the body of Christ."
The Lay Academy courses are held at the Conference Center in DeForest, and attendance is growing steadily. What makes the courses unique, says O'Neal, is that many of them are taught by professors from seminaries, such as UCC-related Chicago, United, and Eden, as well as UCC-related Pacific School of Religion.
"People are amazed to have this kind of access," says O'Neal. "It's a little intimidating to think a seminary professor who is a scholar in the New Testament is going to be teaching these things."
O'Neal says most students are surprised to find out that that the professors are humorous, knowledgeable and approachable. By bringing in professors, or ministers who are dynamic teachers in their area of expertise, the Conference is able to offer something that would be hard to duplicate in a Adult Education hour at a local church.
Besides Faith Foundations, the Lay Academy delves into further topics for those who want even more. There is a one-year study called Lay Leadership Skills, for those who are interested in being a church moderator, or Sunday School Superintendent; another year of study is called Lay Ministry Skills, covering preaching and teaching, pastoral care, administration and worship.
The Rev. Chris Myers, pastor of First Congregational UCC in River Falls, Wis. has had 13 church members attend the Lay Academy, and he says his whole congregation reaps the benefits. "They come back and they understand the Christian story in a deeper way than before they participated. They understand the United Church of Christ in a much better capacity.
"It's hard being the solo pastor in a congregation of 550," says Myers. "But when you've got these Lay Academy people, they are like missionaries. They lead Bible studies, they do Habitat for Humanity projects, and small group faith formation ministries. They're more excited about church life and their faith."
O'Neal sees the contagious spirit of the Lay Academy spreading even further. "Some pastors are sending teams of people to build energy and excitement locally. They bring that back and then they get things done! Or at least they understand a little bit about what the pastor's doing, and how to talk about stewardship and evangelism. They see a bigger picture," she says. "And they see a wider church."
Lay ministries empower church members
Edwards Congregational UCC, located in Davenport, Iowa, draws on the five different communities that make up the Quad Cities flanking the banks of the Mississippi River. It's because of these geographics, explains the Rev. Katherine Mulhern, that the Edwards congregation has to intentionally build community from the inside out. "We have no built-in basis community here," she says of the Quad Cities metropolitan area, with a population upwards of 250,000 people. "Our kids don't all go to the same schools. There aren't as many places of overlap in the community."
Two lay-led care ministries at Edwards has played an integral part of keeping the congregation connected. Lyle Stratton, a National Certified Counselor, serves on staff as the church's Care Giving Coordinator. He primarily leads two groups at Edwards: Caregivers and CareNet.
"Caregivers is a group of 15 volunteers," Stratton explains. "Those 15 individuals do hospital and homebound visits, and also visit nursing homes. They help out with funeral luncheons, and they meet once a month to discuss an in-touch list: people to follow up on a regular basis."
The second group, CareNet, divides the congregation into families, each with a CareNet coordinator. That coordinator is responsible for calling those families every six weeks or so, just to keep in touch.
"People who may not be involved directly in church activities still feel a connection because of the CareNet volunteer," says Stratton. "If the families or the individuals they contact are experiencing any life transition difficulties, then the CareNet volunteer can be involved in coordinating support type of assistance to those individuals, like providing a meal, transportation, or referral to social service resources."
Stratton says the CareNet and Caregiving Ministries have helped over the past few years, since the God is Still Speaking advertising campaign infused some significant growth into the church.
As the church grew, so did the Caregiving Ministry. Stratton says that the Caregiving is a cross-generational focus, including the Christian education children in making get-well cards, and knitters who have started a successful Prayer Shawl ministry.
"[The ministry] helps in terms of reducing the statistical loss, the people who gradually fall away from the church, for whatever reason," says Stratton. "And it spreads the responsibility for caring, so that the staff doesn't get burned out trying to keep up with everything."
"The best part? I think what it does is empowers the lay members of the congregation to really get involved in pastoral care and the joy of pastoral care," says Mulhern. "It makes them much more of a partnership between me and the congregation."
"Everybody's on board," says Stratton. "Everybody's involved in spreading the blessings around."