A little spiritual 'R & R' helps churches and pastors
Churches and pastors need renewal from time to time. Here are some innovative ways that some UCC congregations and ministers are doing just that.
For John Lionberger of First Congregational UCC of Wilmette, Ill., it wasn't a thunderbolt that signaled God's presence, but you might say it was something just as dramatic. Lionberger, at the time a committed agnostic, was dogsledding in the Minnesota wilderness in 20-below cold and wind. He says he was there seeking nothing more than the outdoors and the thrill of adventure. But what he felt, standing in the middle of a "vastly gorgeous" frozen lake, was a warmth and a sense of peace he had never felt before. "I was overwhelmed by God," says Lionberger.
Upon returning home, Lionberger had a new life vision: pursuing his M. Div. degree at Chicago Theological Seminary (his ordination is pending).
Pastors and lay leaders find spiritual renewal in the wilderness. John Lionberger photo.
He also wanted others to feel the same wonderment he felt in the wilderness. So Renewal in the Wilderness (RITW) is his new passion, a ministry that takes clergy and lay leaders into the wilderness for week-long journeys (shorter trips are also offered) to places such as the Tetons, the Rockies, the Talkeetna Mountains of Alaska and the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. Olympic physical condition is not required, but a willingness to try new things is a must. Outward Bound, a Minnesotabased wilderness school, supplies equipment, food, shelter and wilderness skills.
Lionberger finds that canoeing is the best way of getting around: rowing partners get a chance to talk and minister to each other while enjoying the surroundings. And evening discussions amongst the group help facilitate moments of discovery.
Lionberger emphasizes that RITW is spiritual and fun. "It is meant to be very life-affirming, very clarifying and very reorienting," he says. "When you're in the wilderness, you find out how little you need to be profoundly happy."
Lionberger says the people who come to him are feeling tired and simply need a break. Although he can't guarantee that everyone will have an "a-ha!" moment in the wilderness, he says few leave without at least a profound sense of self-discovery and inner peace. Lionberger says those wrestling with aspects of their faith benefit most from the chance to ask questions, listen to God and perhaps even to argue with God. "I believe faith needs to be tested," he says. "The wilderness is a great place to work on these issues."
To find out more about Renewal in the Wilderness, see p. A15 of the national section of the January-February United Church News, go to www.renewalinthewilderness.org or call 847-869-5885 to request a brochure.
Congregations ÔCovenant for Renewal'
The Southeast Conference of the UCC, headquartered in Atlanta, operates its Covenant for Renewal program on the basic assumption that churches need each other. Through the leadership of the Rev. Tim Downs, Conference Minister, and the Rev. John Mingus of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Chattanooga, Tenn., churches seeking revitalization can attend workshops, receive counsel from experienced Conference staff, network with appropriate staff members from the national setting, and even learn to use demographic studies through Chattanooga-based Precept Ministries International to more effectively minister to a parish's surrounding population.
Mingus describes the program as holistic. "We have churches who feel it's time for them to grab a sense of where God's leading them," he says. "They're looking for spiritual renewal, renewal in the whole life of the church, and for numerical growth as well. It's very much a long-range program." In its five years of existence, Covenant for Renewal has reached as many as 20 congregations.
"It's very much a peer-led ministry," says Mingus, who volunteers his time for the program. "That's our sense of covenant in the UCC. We're not tied together by authority, but by our covenant together."
Church emerges from turmoil with new vision
Mary Jane Franklin (l.) and Margaret Bilsky distributed M&Ms at Park UCC's Leadership Planning Retreat. Their costumes reminded church members of the retreat's theme: Ministry, Mission and Membership. Michael Larson photo.
Bold words emblazoned on a brochure proclaim, "There is new energy in Park Church É can you feel it?"
Park UCC in Grand Rapids, Mich., has earned the right to be proud. In the past three years, the congregation has emerged from a dark period of political and internal turmoil with revitalized faith, growth and renewal. In 2000, Park lost its senior pastor, youth director and director of music, along with a 30 to 40 percent drop in attendance due to what appeared to be irreconcilable differences. Morale was low.
"We were at a point when we felt we had tried everything we could think of between the parties concerned," says Bob Smith, past president of the church council. It was then that the council made what later turned out to be a life-altering decision for the church. They enlisted outside consultants Venture International, a company helping churches and other groups with conflict resolution. For nearly two years, Venture facilitated small group meetings and retreats, aimed at airing out differences within Park UCC and moving forward with a new identity and a vision for the future. An interim minister (hired with the understanding that he would only be there a short time) helped the church feel more comfortable in its new skin.
Current interim senior pastor the Rev. Maurice Fetty says that the congregation is healthier and stronger after coming through hard times together. "The thrust of the church is forward- looking, positive, and conflict has been reduced to a minimum," says Fetty. He also is quick to point out that there is tangible evidence of the new energy, namely, the most recent stewardship drive. In 2003, they had a 20 percent increase in overall pledge income. And Fetty reports higher worship attendance and renewed interest in Christian education programs. The choir, having lost more than half of its members, is now back to full strength.
"The healing that's taken place is somewhat of an old wound," says church member Smith. "There's a little scar there, but we've moved past that."
"The conflict has almost entirely subsided," says Fetty. "People are working cooperatively and harmoniously."
Sabbaticals refill spiritual well
On a particular morning in March, the Rev. Talitha Arnold, pastor of United Church of Santa Fe (N.M.), begins her day at 6 a.m., hearing news of a car accident involving one of her church members. She's tired, but not complaining.
"That's the reality of it," she sighs. "It's important work to do, but it doesn't allow for God to do God's thing in my life."
In August, Arnold will start her fourth sabbatical, this time to Turkey (providing there is no war), then on to Florence, Italy, to study Italian Renaissance art and architecture.
It's all thanks to Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment Inc.'s Clergy Renewal Program, which will award approximately 125 grants this year of up to $45,000 each to congregations for the support of clergy renewal programs. Up to $15,000 may be used for expenses incurred while the pastor is away, such as salary for an interim.
A pastor's sense of vitality needs to be nurtured, says Arnold. For her, sabbaticals are a time to step back from the day-to-day and evaluate the big picture.
"I know we need to make changes in our worship life and other kinds of things," she offers as an example, "but I don't have the brain cells to think about that in the midst of emergency pastoral counseling, planning programs or getting the weekly bulletin done."
The Rev. Gerald C. Hanberry made history last year at Glade UCC in Walkersville, Md., when he became the first pastor of his 251-yearold church to go on sabbatical.
"The funding [provided by Lilly Endowment] made it easy because it didn't cost the congregation anything financially," he says. "That planted the seed for future sabbaticals for me and for other pastors to come."
Hanberry and his wife—the CEO for Frederick County Mental Health Association—spent 15 weeks in South and Central America studying charismatic churches and being immersed in the local cultures. In between, they enjoyed a much-needed getaway to the Galapagos Islands.
They came back energized and refreshed and hope to use what they've learned to develop an outreach program for Latinos in their area.
After a few months of reflection, Hanberry is taking a new approach to his ministry, facilitating more lay leadership. "Rather than working harder," he says, "I'm working smarter."
For information on Lilly Clergy Renewal grants, contact: Lilly Endowment Inc., Religion Divison, 2801 N. Meridian St., P.O. Box 88068, Indianapolis, IN 46208-0068; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; web www.clergyrenewal.org.