When the Rev. Patti Aurand decided to take a sabbatical, the people of First Congregational UCC in Mason City, Iowa, got creative.
From the first of March to the last of May, you might say church members are practicing a "self serve" approach – developing and presenting sermons of their own. Musicians, illusionists and guest speakers are bringing a broad range of biblical messages on Sunday mornings.
"The early reaction was, 'Oh, my goodness,' " says Russ Hardy, church moderator and 35-year member of Mason City Congregational. "It was a great source of consternation – 'How are we going to be a church for three months?' we wondered. We prayed and asked God to help give us direction, and then we chose the theme 'Giving and Growing: Exploring New Ways.' "
The nine-member sabbatical team began to meet in October to prepare a plan, parishioners wrote a sabbatical song titled "C'mon Along Our Journey," and the rest is history – or history in the making.
"We've got such a creative bunch, you just can't believe it," says Mary Powell, a 55-year member of the church. "We're just coming up with all sorts of different things that might be exciting but things that all mean something to us."
One of the first – and most moving – services was led by Dave Janssen, who suffered a near-fatal swimming pool accident at age 12. Titled "Growth Through Dying," Janssen presented a video slideshow illustrating images of what he saw during the blackout as CPR was being administered.
"He used pictures he found on the Internet, and it was fantastic," says Powell. "It really was. He planned everything for the service that day except for the lectionary."
Among the other featured services:
* Church member Rich Dean will lead a Dixieland service. "They will do the whole service, and there is a message to it. We're not just going to have fun," Powell adds with a laugh.
* Dean's wife, Shirley, will organize the May 8 Mother's Day service focused on the role of mothers.
* The Rev. Jonna Jensen, Iowa Conference associate minister, led a "timeout" service, speaking in particular to children to draw parallels between life and the game of basketball. The need to take time periodically to pause, regroup and recharge cannot be overemphasized, she noted.
* Former First Congregational pastor, the Rev. Jim Brasel, will be on hand for Maundy Thursday, Palm Sunday and Easter services.
* Hardy's son, Adam, will travel from Minneapolis – bringing his pastor with him – to talk about the mission trip to Africa the younger Hardy took with his church last summer.
* Illusionist Mike Prestby has already wowed congregants, placing into a bag white rings that were red, blue and yellow when he took them back out. At the end, he placed the three individual rings back into the bag. When he extracted them out, he had one large ring.
"God loves everyone," says Hardy, a 35-year member of the church, of Prestby's presentation. "It doesn't matter what color you are."
Powell says one longtime member was noticeably absent at Prestby's illusionist service.
"It was because of the illusionist," she says. "Having an illusionist in the church on Sunday morning did not sit well with her. It's too bad because he was very church-minded and told such good stories, ones that the kids could understand – and we had a lot of kids in the congregation that day."
"We are seeing fewer younger people coming to church these days," adds Hardy. "So were looking to see new ways to help get them to join us."
Reached on her sabbatical, Aurand says she has served as "an occasional resource person," but basically has let the planning team run with the ball.
"I believe that this experience is full of potential as the congregation has the opportunity to not only think outside the box, but also to reflect on what elements make worship relevant, fulfilling and transformative," she says. "We are all called to be disciples. By utilizing the gifts in the congregation, our church gets to rediscover the gifts for ministry within. That excites me."
Hardy says that when Pastor Patti returns, he hopes the congregation is able to "mesh together" what everyone has learned while she was on sabbatical.
"I think we'll have a renewed energy and a new focus when we get together this summer," said Hardy.