Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 7, 2008

2008.09.07 1st Anniversary Sunday

Central United Methodist Church

1st Anniversary Sunday

September 7th, 2008

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11, The New Revised Standard Version

It was one year ago this weekend that I led worship and preached here for the first time.

You were grieving the end of a pastoral tenure of 20 years, that of Pastor Bob Burkhart; I was grieving the loss of my friends in West Chicago and reeling from a move, after 17 years. 

Perhaps you’ve heard of The Holmes Stress Scale? It’s based on the notion that any change in life, whether good or bad, causes stress.  The Holmes Stress Scale assigns a point value to major stresses.  Anytime you score over 300 points, your chances of a serious illness – and hospitalization – rise to about 90%.  My (and my family’s) stress score at that time came to about 341.

I hope it was not obvious to you, but I’ve grieved my losses for most of the year.  Don’t get me wrong; I chose to move, and was happy to come here. It’s just that, after 17 years, it was hard to walk away from the friends and the life that I had lived for almost two decades of my life.

When I came to you I also told you of my plan, based upon the advice of church consultant Roy Oswald, to make no major changes during the first year. Oswald suggests pastors spend their first year in a congregation listening, learning, and loving people, and I’ve tried to do that.  Even now, I’m not going to change everything, but I am going to start nudging, pointing, leading you in some definite directions.

If there is one thing I want to say today, it is to say how much I have enjoyed getting to know you, and the character and personality of our congregation. I consider it a joy, and look forward to continue getting to know each and every one of you better in the days and years ahead.

I am also grateful for the staff here, one of the best church staffs I have ever worked with: first Marlene and now Bob Reid, Joe and Millete, Joe Hays, and Ellen Mittman, down in the nursery. Add to that the volunteer leadership, you who do so much with so much dedication and commitment. I am truly thankful.

Even though the year went quickly, for most of the year I was running to keep up; and I regret there was much that didn’t get done. Together, we went from fall startup to charge conference to Advent/Christmas to Lent/Easter to Annual Conference to summer. Michele and I haven’t yet finished unpacking: I haven’t gotten all my books unpacked, haven’t gotten my pictures on the wall, and we haven’t yet gotten the cars in the garage.

Now, it’s a year later.  One year in the church’s cycle – a year’s worth of services and meeting and events, and I feel more at ease and more at home. There were some definite losses: Glen Blaylock, Alan Wadleigh, Betty Cooley; but there were also joys: new members, new worshipers, new energy and vitality. One year has past, and to borrow a phrase from a certain political candidate, I’m all fired up and ready to go.

The second big thing I’ve learned in my first year – and in reality, over the last 20 years – is that this is no time for business as usual.

It was during the last 17 years – I can’t pinpoint the exact date – when it became apparent to me – that everything had changed in the church.  This was because society changed, while we in the church, for the most part, did not.

For pastors, the change was that it is possible to do well the six major roles of clergy that we learned in seminary – worship, preaching, teaching, pastoral care, counseling, and administration – yet for a congregation to die.

What were the missing factors? Two, I think. Vision and Leadership. The first is the ability to “see” down the road to where we need to go, and the second is to lead (not force, nor drag) us there. Apart from worship and preaching, I consider vision and leadership two of the most important things I can do for our congregation. 

I read once that someone said of Walt Disney, referring to Disney World, “It’s too bad he didn’t live to see this!”  The other person answered, “He did see this, that’s why it’s here.”  That’s vision and leadership.

There are, of course, other pressures making this no time for business as usual. The first is that like most mainline churches, we seem to have lost our ability to reach 3 critical constituencies vital to any congregation’s future:  young adults, men, and people of color.  The second pressure follows as a result of this, which is that – like most mainline churches — too large a percentage of our congregation is older. While we honor and respect the work and wisdom of our elders, to be composed primarily of seniors is not a good future for any organization unless you’re AARP. The third pressure follows upon these two: most of our giving comes from this older segment of our congregation, and denomination.  What this means is that unless we find a way to deal with this, in another decade or two, we will be out of business.  The clock is ticking . . .

And finally, there is the other side of the equation: the skyrocketing cost of those things which, for most of us, make church, church: clergy, staff, and buildings (and the insurance and energy they require). You don’t have to be much of a visionary, nor even a mathematician, to know there is a crunch coming.  Even a decade ago, church consultants were saying that it was no longer feasible for a church of less than 100 worshippers to afford a full-time pastor.

On these dull notes, this is why I have chosen the texts for today, messages of hope, by earlier generations of God’s leaders, for God’s people undergoing difficult times. 

For example, that wonderful text from Jeremiah:  “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

You see, I don’t believe church revitalization is only nuts and bolts: change this; rearrange that; copy that church’s program; “build it and they will come.”  No, I believe church revitalization is first of all spiritual revitalization in the people of a congregation. It must come from all of us:  pastor and people alike: a desire, a hunger, an energy that people can feel when they come here.

Accordingly, I want to tell you that I am going to try to take care of myself — spiritually, emotionally, physically – to try to be the model of what we all desire.  There is no worse advertisement for a congregation than a pastor who is boring or burned out, spiritually and emotionally, which inevitably shows in their bodies, their health, their relationships, and of course, their spirit – maybe the first thing to go. 

Having said all this, what are some of the directions I think we need to go in?  Looking down the road, what do I see?

Worship Revitalization. I confess that for most of the year, I felt at unease in worship, like I was leading someone else’s service.   That’s passing, and I’m feeling more at home.

I value the feedback we got from the worship survey we did, and will continue to draw on those results, which tell me that worship is important to all of us, perhaps the most critical factor which attracts or repels people to our congregation.

So I warn you I will keep “fiddling” with it, hopefully for the better, and not worse.  I believe worship is contextual.  What that means is, we have to find the service that right for us, as well as those we hope to reach. That may take some experimentation, until we find it. 

Having said that, I think we need to do updating of our worship styles.  While the quality of most of our music is high, I think it needs to be even better and broader yet. After the sermon, I believe the music is the most important factor in worship.  (And, I might have those reversed, since after all, I am the preacher.) I heard someone say once, that it’s not the congregation that determines what the music is, it’s actually the music that determines the congregation.  It’s that important.

I also think we need to update our worship media.  Just as I’m not wild about worshiping in the clothing of medieval Italians, I’m also not wild about worshiping solely in the mode of the 19th century: text-based rather than image based, as the younger generations are.  Let me ask you this:  Has anybody been to a rock concert lately?  In addition to the music, there are lights, images, special effects, state-of-the-art modes of communication.  And what do we find in church? The reading of texts and the preaching of sermons. And we wonder why we have no appeal to the younger generations?

        Worship is so important, I have decided to do a series of five sermons on worship over the next several weeks.

The next thing I have come to believe is very important for our congregation is Missional Renewal.  If worship revitalization is an attempt to get the community into the congregation, missional renewal is an attempt to get the congregation out into the community)

        You see, the old model of growing a church, the one that we most know, is called the Attraction Model. It’s an attempt to grow the church by being “The Church of Come and See.”  In a time when people used to go to church, when people chose churches on the basis of family or congregational loyalty, it worked.  Unfortunately, it rarely does any more.

        The new model of church growth is called the Missional Model, which we might call “The Church of Go and Do”.  It says that we grow best not by trying to get the community into the church, but the church out into the community, to take and make our name there.  You — the people of the congregation — are our best missionaries, our best witnesses, not by what you do here, but by what you do out there.  I would like to see our church’s name in the paper.  I would like to see each of you armed with church calling cards, passing them out in the places you go.  I want us to become, in the eyes of the to people you meet in the places you go. I want us to be the “Church of Something Happening.”

        I’m going to do that too.  After a year’s break, I’m going to become a Fire/Police Chaplain here in Skokie.  It looks like I’m also going to be a Chaplain for the Chicago based, 2nd battalion, 24th Marines.  You see, my personal model of ministry is not the old “CEO” style adopted by many, it is get out in the community, out in the streets.  This will be my way of community service, of getting our name “out there.”


Growing out of this, I want to see us develop our congregational Mission Statement, Core Values, and Vision Statement.  What these say, are, “This is who we are, this is what drives us, and this is where we want to go.”


            I’m sorry we didn’t get this done this year, I’d hoped to.  But I found myself – as most of you who would work on it – so busy going to meetings that I just didn’t see how we could do it.  And perhaps it is just as well, because maybe it would have been premature. 

        You see, I think our Mission Statement, Core Values, and Vision Statement grow out of where we are going.  We don’t sit around and think them up, then go in that direction.

Rather, they arise out of movement, out of our experience; not out of our heads but out of our hearts, not out of where we want to go, but where we believe God is taking us. Good mission statements brings not only a nod of affirmation, but a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye. 

Once established, they become the rudder of the ship, the dog that wags the tail, not the other way around. Our Mission Statement, our Core Values, our Vision Statement determine what tools we need for ministry, such as staff and buildings, and not the other way around.  Once we get those “out there”, some things will become a lot clearer.

Somewhere this week I read (I can’t remember where) about missionaries in China at the beginning of the Revolution.  They were told they must leave the country, and could only take 200 lbs. They sorted carefully through their stuff, pairing it down to what they simply couldn’t part with. When they got to the exit, the guards asked them, “Did you weigh the children?  Out the window went most of that which previously, they couldn’t part with.

The next area I’ve learned a lot about is our congregational Leadership.  You’ve hopefully read my article in the Link, “There’s Got to Be a Better Way.”


        There’s an old saying in the military:  “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” That’s a good statement of what church leadership structures do for us:  sometimes we lead them, sometimes they lead us, but I’ve come to feel over my years as a Pastor more often they actually get in our way. 

        Just as society has changed in terms of religious affiliation, so has society changed in terms of lifestyle. People are working longer hours, commuting longer, seeking more time for family, and to put it mildly, we’re not being fair to people nor getting the best leadership for the church when we drag people through long non-productive, meetings. You’re heard the definition of “committee” as a meeting that keeps minutes and wastes hours?  We’ve got to make them less, shorter, and more productive.  When people feel like something is happening as the result of leadership, that’s exciting.  When it’s not, it tends to have a deadening effect.

        In this next Link, our Lay Leadership Committee will be proposing a better way.  As I said there, by itself, it won’t bring in the Kingdom, but hopefully it will help free up more time for those things that do.

Finally, there is the thorny issue of Buildings. One of the most frequent questions outsiders ask me, is:  “What’s happening with the Log Cabin?” My answer is, “I don’t know yet.” That’s why we have yet another Task Force trying to figure it out, because so far we haven’t found an answer yet, or at least an answer affirmed by the congregation. 

        At the risk of sounding like John McCain, “My Friends, we can find a solution to this problem.”  It’s true that we’ve been stuck in it for a while now, but we need to find a solution and get past it, for the future of the congregation. 

        One of the things I learned in my last church, where we went through a decade long rebuilding and relocation process, was this, summed up in this saying: “You can eat an elephant if you do it one bite at a time.”  We can do this!  Remember, Abraham Lincoln met defeat several times, before he became one of – if not the – greatest President our country has ever known.

In conclusion, in the last few weeks I have referred several times in sermons to the book by Paul Nixon:  “I Refuse To Be the Pastor of A Dying Church”. Nixon writes about the church reflecting the changed realities I’ve referred to earlier.  It’s a simple book, but it has functioned to give pastors like me a whack to the head.

To refuse to be the pastor of a dying church, says Nixon, doesn’t mean saying “No” and walking away from struggling congregations; instead, it affirms six critical choices.  It means affirming that:

        I will choose Life over Death

        I will choose Community over Isolation

        I will choose Fun over Drudgery

        I will choose Bold over Mild

        I will choose Frontier over Fortress

        I will choose Now rather than Later

        God, the Bishop and Cabinet, and you willing, this will be my last congregation.  So help me God, I’m going to do everything in my power to make it go, to make it grow, and to serve and honor the Lord Jesus Christ, whose Body we are. 

By your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness, won’t you please join me?

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”


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