Bridging Groups

Bridging Groups

By the Reverends Kathryn Matthews Huey and Susan Blain

The United Church of Christ has sometimes been called "the church of last resort" for many of our new members.  Our congregations are welcoming and hospitable to folks who are coming to church, or coming back to church, from many different places and situations.  While some are "un-churched" or simply transferring membership from another location where they were basically happy, others are coming from not-so-happy situations and pasts.  In fact, one might say that a number of them have been "de-churched," feeling excluded or even exiled by their former church home, for any number of reasons. These folks may be in need of healing, or a listening ear, or extra support on their journey toward a new church home. Perhaps they're in a marriage not recognized by their church, or perhaps there is something about them – race, sexual orientation, educational level, or economic class – that made them feel unwanted or unwelcome in the church of their upbringing.  Combined with these factors may be a hesitation, even in the face of the warmest welcome, to cross a great gulf that yawns between their own tradition and that of the United Church of Christ.

Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio, is a church that has grown from about 40 members to over 500 in the last fifteen years.  An intentionally Multicultural and Multiracial, Open and Affirming, and Accessible to All congregation, Pilgrim Church thinks of itself as "The Church of the Open Door" in center-city Cleveland, and it attracts members from all over northern Ohio because of its heartfelt hospitality, vibrant worship, and clear and energetic sense of mission. 

However, about ten years ago, the pastors noticed that many visitors who had been raised in the Roman Catholic tradition would remain regular visitors rather than become members.  It seemed to take them much longer to cross the divide between Catholicism and Protestantism than it would take those who were moving from one Protestant denomination to another.  New member classes weren't helpful, because these longtime visitors were too hesitant even to consider membership.

Because one of the pastors at Pilgrim Church is a former Roman Catholic with experience in teaching theology at all levels, from second grade to university courses, she understood that these potential new members needed special pastoral care and attention as they moved from Catholicism to Protestantism.  Perhaps they were less in need of hearing about the history of the United Church of Christ or the meaning of membership than they were of the opportunity to process their feelings with someone who understood them and had experienced the same thing.  Perhaps they needed a "bridge" across that divide between the faith and practices of their childhood and the new church home to which God was calling them.

The answer?  The Pilgrim Church Bridging Group, an informal gathering, held separately from the new member class and open to anyone, even those who were already members, who wanted to ask questions and express feelings that others might find difficult to understand.  From the very beginning, the pastors knew they were exploring uncharted territory, and opened themselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their midst.

The first challenge was how to publicize the group with ecumenical sensitivity and respect for all traditions.  The United Church of Christ Book of Worship was helpful, as the newsletter articles inviting folks to attend used several lines from the service of receiving new members:

We rejoice in your pilgrimage of faith which has brought you to this time and place. 
We give thanks for every community of faith that has been your spiritual home,
and we celebrate your presence in this household of faith.

These words were deeply moving to those who had "come a long way" to find a new home at Pilgrim United Church of Christ.  Without bitterness or criticism, they called new members, at this important new moment in their faith life, to gratitude and the awareness of grace rather than asking them to repudiate or deny their roots.  Re-stating these words in a newsletter article was a positive and welcoming way to introduce the Bridging Group, along with an eye-catching, imaginary exchange between two new visitors to the church: "Where did you come from?" "I was raised Roman Catholic…" 

A description of the group followed:  "Each month, Dr. Laurie addresses a group of new Pilgrim Church members with these words from the United Church of Christ's Book of Worship, and for some of us, they are particularly moving, as we have made a long and not always easy journey to our new church home.  Many of us were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, and for some of us, the transition may have been a more challenging one than for others.

"On three Sunday evenings, members and friends of Pilgrim who would like to gather with other friends from the Catholic tradition are invited to participate in a three-week series of reflection and sharing led by Dr. Laurie and Pastor Kate.  Pastor Kate, before being ordained in the United Church of Christ, grew up in the Catholic Church and taught theology for five years at two Catholic colleges."

On that first night, the pastors' intuition was proven right.  There were many people, more than 25, who attended, and they were given the opportunity to ask questions that might not come up in a new member class, or be answered in quite the same way by a person who had been Protestant all their lives.  In fact, the pastors found that having both present, one lifelong UCC member and the other raised Roman Catholic, was particularly helpful in providing adequate responses to the questions, which ranged from "Where did Mary go?" to "Why don't we have more sacraments?"

 Even more than the questions, however, the need was evident to express feelings.  Catholicism is bound up with family tradition, cultural identity, and spiritual heritage.  Feelings of disloyalty for leaving, or anger at feeling rejected, or grief over what has been left behind need processing.  Space needs to be made for painful questions such as, "My mother will be so disappointed if I 'leave the church'," or "Will I go to hell if I join Pilgrim Church?" 

Responding to these feelings is not so much a "head thing" as a "heart" one.  Perhaps it is more difficult for lifelong Protestants, who have usually been raised in an atmosphere of free speech and less authority, and have been formed in spiritual practices with quite a different rhythm and emphasis, to understand the profound fear and anxiety that accompanies "leaving the church."  Reassurance somehow has to combine a solid scriptural foundation for our beliefs along with a powerful sense of God's presence and grace that will remain with these new members through the crossing and into their new home.  The pastors led the new members in a gentle but close examination of previously held beliefs and their evolution, for example, understandings about Communion.  In fact, Communion has probably been the most important issue discussed at the Bridging Group.  The pastors have spoken of the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup transforming us into bread for the world, through the power of the Spirit in our midst.  There is far less emphasis on the power of the officiant to transform the bread and cup and far more emphasis on the power of the Spirit to transform us into a Eucharistic community that feeds the hunger – both physical and spiritual – of the world God loves so much.

Perhaps the next most important issue that arose was the question of authority.  "Freedom with responsibility" can be liberating and exhilarating, but it can also confuse and even terrify when you leave a tradition with a strong, centralized system for moral teachings, and enter a religious tradition which makes no claim to offer an absolute authority for moral decision making beyond a well formed conscience.  Many participants told exactly the same story about their mothers: "When I was growing up, my mother told me not to read the Bible, because it was too hard to understand and the priest could explain it to me."  Perhaps that symbolizes the different approach to authority between the two traditions, because Bible study goes on at Pilgrim Church in many different times, places, and ways, and a rich new resource of the Stillspeaking God is opened up to those who have hesitated to approach it before. 

Of course, attitudes toward pastoral leadership are different, too, and questions about the ordination of women are interesting to discuss in the presence of two ordained women.  In that case, experience itself leads people to new understandings and convictions.

The Bridging Group has continued to be a place and time of learning not only for the potential new members but for the pastors, too.  After an initial three-week series, the group moved to quarterly gatherings, meeting in the church parlor, around a table, with refreshments and introductions to put everyone at ease and help them get to know one another. 

One session was entitled, "Meeting Mary Again for the First Time: A Woman Raised Protestant and a Woman Raised Catholic Converse."  The two pastors touched base the week before the session, and the senior pastor, Dr. Laurie, admitted to the formerly Catholic Pastor Kate that she didn't have much to say about Mary.  "That may be the point!" Pastor Kate responded, and after ten years of listening to Protestant camp songs, she looked forward to singing a few "Mary songs" from her childhood memories of May crownings.  This session was publicized a little differently, inviting everyone to come, so that lifelong Protestants could come to ask about the sometimes-mysterious affection Catholics have for "the Blessed Virgin Mary."

Another particularly effective method to start conversation was taking the entire group to the sanctuary and asking them to look around for what was different in this setting than their previous church.  Each question provided an opportunity to explain the bigger picture, the "why" of what we do just as much as the "what" that is described in new member classes.  The centrality of the pulpit teaches something implicitly, as does the absence of a tabernacle.  These observations are joined with observations about worship and especially the practice of offering Communion only on certain Sundays rather than each time that worship is held. 

One teachable moment that recurs in the Bridging Group is the opportunity to talk about stewardship and the very different culture of giving in Protestantism, where pledging is commonplace and can be explained as a spiritual practice.  Catholics speak this language of spiritual practice, and it helps to enculturate them if pledging is explained that way.  At the same time, the lifelong Protestants are more and more being enriched by exposure to formerly unfamiliar concepts such as spiritual practices, retreats, more frequent Communion, and even the Easter Vigil!

Yet another approach to a session of the Bridging Group is to open the "floor" to questions, with both pastors present to answer, each from her own perspective.  Sometimes, Pastor Kate would have to "translate" something for Dr. Laurie, and other times Dr. Laurie would offer insights only possible from one who had grown up in the Protestant tradition. This open-forum style continues to be the main approach used by the Bridging Group, with variations from time to time as creative ideas occur.

A curious thing happened on the way to the third year of the Bridging Group. For some reason, the newsletter articles were read by other members as meaning  everyone who came from another tradition, and the fall session that year had many folks who had come from fundamentalist backgrounds.  These visitors presented different questions but similar feelings, and the approach has broadened so that the pastors can more effectively respond to the needs of those who come from traditions with very different approaches to authority, Scripture, worship, and practices.

There are many different kinds of "teachable moments" in our lives, and we are especially open to learn new things when we are broken open, our hearts in particular, and it is at those moments, when we feel lost or hurt or cast off, that we can see things anew, travel in new directions, learn to practice our faith not only in a new setting but in new and gracious ways.  Perhaps this is the most powerful and the most moving part of the Bridging Group experience, as visitors find themselves finally ready to take the steps over the bridge to a new and grace-filled home.

The Reverend Kathryn Matthews Huey is Minister for Covenantal Stewardship, Stewardship and Church Finances  Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries. 
She has taught theology at John Carroll University and has served as Associate Pastor of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland, Ohio

The Reverend Susan Blain is Minister for Worship and Spiritual Formation, Worship and Education Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries.

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