General Presbyter’s Report to the November 21st Presbytery Meeting
The Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:3-23)
13 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
11 He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’[a]
16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.
17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.
18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
Report to Grace Presbytery – 11/21/14
This presbytery meeting, and the last one, include a series of reports from Administrative Commissions which mark the end of ministry of particular churches in Grace Presbytery. These congregations took actions to ask Grace Presbytery to do what we call in the language of the PCUSA constitution “dissolve the congregation.” As someone who grew up with quite the opposite understanding of ministry, the image of “dissolving” a congregation has seemed to me to be bitter language for the remarkable history of congregations serving in places across Grace Presbytery where they had many fruitful years of ministry and often due to a series of circumstances beyond their anticipation and ability to move into the future, they elected to close their doors.
As I have come to receive letters, emails and phone calls about churches typically reluctantly taking this step, it has caused me to think again about how we measure ministry.
I confess that I worked in the Office of the General Assembly where annually statistical reports would be sent out and congregations dutifully or with great reluctance or annoyance would complete the form. More and more I came to realize that what kinds of data we collect about churches fails to tell the story of who they are, the challenges they have faced and are facing, and to engage the challenges of ministry on the front line.
Whenever I think of the Statistical Report, I am reminded of a favorite congregation in Albuquerque founded originally as an Hispanic congregation because the large Anglo church they could see from their own site did not want them in their pews. Over many years, both congregations have thrived and shared ministry in the same neighborhood. But the church I know best comes to the statistical report every year and refused to complete the section which describes the racial makeup of the membership because they know that their members are now made up of the mix of marriages and children, of family histories and multi-racial communities that they believe are the Gospel as they know it.
In his recent book, Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness, and Metrics, author and church consultant, Gil Rendle, picks up that same kind of critique. He talks about the ways we have traditionally calculated ministry –
How many new members did you receive this year?
How many adult baptisms?
How many deaths?
What is the size of your church school?
How much money did you receive?
How much money did you spend on yourself or on others in mission?
Rendle begins by saying that we are measuring in the wrong way – that the easily quantifiable ways of calculating what we thought of as measurable success don’t measure the work of God through Jesus Christ. They are not irrelevant, he argues, but if that is the way we think about accomplishments in ministry, we have entirely missed the boat.
In one sense, it is with some risk that I open this topic for what certainly needs to be a much broader discussion in this presbytery than the Committee on Ministry or reports to Grace Council. Since Sunday, four of us on this staff have sat with four congregations who see themselves as ready to close or deeply challenged about what kind of future they can have in ministry. And that is just this week. Congregations are increasingly saying to COM that they can no longer afford a full-time pastor, or that they realize they likely need to shift to someone who comes Sunday and 1 day a week. In those congregations, that might be possible, but many of them have members who believe they have served their time in the church and no longer have the energy to think about reinventing themselves for a neighborhood which changed demographically, or the challenges of a stewardship effort when the major donors have died or moved. One of our COM members on Tuesday said to the entire committee that we have 70 congregations which have temporary pastoral leadership. That’s almost half of the presbytery. And by “temporary,” most of those are not interim positions but part-time pastors or pulpit supply.
I share this with you today for several reasons. First is that when you come to a quarterly presbytery meeting, you rarely hear these challenges. For the most part, people tell me they draw great energy from our corporate worship, as they will tomorrow morning. Or, they relish the moments of examination of candidates for ministry or the welcoming of new teaching elders in the life of our congregations. In other words, they, no more than I, find much more enjoyment in the moments of celebration than listening to administrative commissions make final reports about the closing of congregations.
A second reason is that this presbytery has just become the recipient of some rather incredible resources for mission. Some of you have said to me already what you believe the money from the resolution of the lawsuit with Highland Park should be used for. Someone else, actually from that congregation which left us, wrote me that we should not squander it. But regardless of its source, I know that many of you, myself included, are pondering in what ways we can plan for ministry tomorrow as well as anticipate the needs of Grace Presbytery (meaning all of us in ministry) in the next 10-25 years.
A third reason is what we will do shortly – our discussion groups this afternoon. The Council has suggested a series of areas of ministry which are a starting point for inviting you to talk about your hopes and ideas about how Grace Presbytery can be engaged in ministry in the next several years. There are 10 topics. Each topic will be the basis of a conversation group in which you will be invited by a facilitator to share your ideas for what that idea might look like if opened up for discussion – ideas from evangelism to youth ministry to stewardship to church development. Each group will meet for 45 minutes and the purpose is to listen to your ideas. In the time block this afternoon, you’ll have the opportunity to visit 3 different groups. While I know some of you have critiques, this is rather a time for you to share your hopes and positive ideas. If you have more to say than the time and size of your group provides, write an email to Ben Dorr or me as we work with the Council. In each of your groups, a recorder will write down what you offer and share this with the Council. At the March 7 presbytery meeting, Council will report back to you what you said about your hope for the direction of Grace Presbytery in these 10 areas (or more) and we’ll talk about where we believe we could be headed in the next several years.
For a few minutes, I’d like to go back to Gil Rendle’s book about measuring ministry. Rendle argues that the way we count in statistical reports is not the kind of measuring we need to do. “Measuring focuses not on resources and activities but on outcomes – change. Measuring relates not so much to what is but rather what could be. It is more about call, purpose and possibility….over the last 6 months or a year, how have we progressed toward the difference that we believe God intends us to make?” (p. 17)
Reflecting on the work of Robert Penna and William Phillips, he suggests the following questions (p. 22):
- Think of a problem in your church.
- Pose and answer these questions: Why do you have this problem? Who caused it? Who is to blame? What are the obstacles in solving it?
- Now, take the same situation and think of it this way: What do you want instead of the problem (be sure to go beyond just eliminating the problem)? What would it be like if the problem were solved? What would you see, hear and feel? Imagine the problem has been solved. What has been gained?
What difference can you already begin to feel as you think of these questions differently?
Rendle calls these outcomes, and here’s his definition: (p. 23)
For the church, an outcome is (1) the difference that (2) you believe God has called you to make (3) in this next chapter of your life. An outcome is:
- A measurable/describable difference. The fundamental and obvious proposition of the Christian faith is that because Christ in in our lives, something should be different. We should be different. What we give ourselves to should create a difference. We are not here to preserve and protect but to challenge and change.
- You believe God has called you to make. That is, the product of the purpose God has given you – what is to be different – is not about our preferences but about God’s purpose. The outcome of a congregation is not about what we can think of to do next but about what God calls us to make different. A faithful outcome of healthy ministry requires more discernment of God’s will than decision making about our own future.
- In this next chapter of your life. So it is to be accomplished in a clearly defined, and relatively brief, period of time: an outcome is not for all time but is the necessary next step of development toward the larger dream that God has but which we cannot yet fulfill. Outcomes are time limited. They are about what we need to learn how to do, how to live, next.
Let me return for just a minute to the financial gifts we have recently been given in the closing of churches and in the settlement of the Highland Park lawsuit. My confession is that it would be easy for me to imagine a grant to 35 struggling congregations so that they could all have full-time pastors for a three year period, with the predictable assumption that having a full-time pastor would allow each of these congregations to add 50% membership and to develop a church school and choir they long ago gave up. Do you see where I’m going? The challenges of ministry are no longer solved by the easy formulas we once used. A full-time pastor in a congregation of white people largely 60 and older in a neighborhood becoming Hispanic is not going to solve the long-term future of the congregation. Much rather, the challenge is how to engage the congregation so that it can decide how or if it wants to be transformed by individual and corporate encounters with Jesus Christ so that the engagement with the community will continue to change how they see the world and themselves as part of God’s vision in that place.
Lest you think the reframing Rendle poses are only for congregations of under 100, he tells the story of a large Midwest PCUSA congregation where the church discovered through counting that it had seen a large increase in children in the church school. However, much to their amazement, the session members also were told that the number of adults in adult education had dropped significantly, particularly among the parents of the children in the church school. The congregation had a tradition of outstanding adult education, great speakers and energizing topics. As they talked with the people who were dropping out of adult education, they found that the younger parents had zero interest in attending a lecture or class presentation, which was their experience of this outstanding adult education fostered by the church. Instead, they wanted a place to come to talk with other parents about the challenges of parenting, the complexities of children with learning problems, the difficulty of finding time to be together as a family and figure out how to engage Christian discipleship in their daily lives.
Or he tells the story of a congregation who decided to welcome an Hispanic congregation which needed a place to find a church home. They opened their chapel and it was quickly used by the group. The nesting group needed a place to store snow tires for their church van so they stored them in the back of the chapel. Before long, some of the welcoming congregation members turned out not to be so welcoming. They insisted that the chapel had to be used exclusively as a chapel and that there could be no snow tires stored there. Before long, the nesting Hispanic congregation felt like they were not genuinely welcome to be who they were and to use the space they had been given.
All of this is to say that we are in a time of enormous transition in each one of our congregations. There are no simple answers and a lot of questions. These are not questions we want to face at 7:30 on Tuesday night at a session meeting after we’ve worked a full day. These are not questions we know how to address from the pulpit in easy ways. These are not questions we know how to talk about in the Committee on Ministry and feel we are easily equipped to meet with sessions and pastors.
At the same time, I see many places in Grace Presbytery where we have begun the process of our own transformation. I see it at Northpark with the new reverse food truck and the upcoming green house, and with the welcoming of a Thai fellowship where the members joined Northpark and have added enormously to an already diverse congregation. I see it at First Lewisville with the weekly challenges of Keunnamu Korean congregation sharing their space and being a larger congregation than that of First Lewisville. I see it at The Colony which opened its doors to our growing Brazilian congregation and discovered a tremendous resonance together for ministry across language, and with two pastors appreciating the engagement with one another. I see it at First Dallas in the way children are encouraged to think of all the places Jesus goes with them when they leave the church building, or the way children can help with Stewpot. I see it at Northridge in the work with refugee ministry. In other words, we are learning how to live in the midst of this transition. We are teaching each other how to do it. And most of all, we are giving witness to the Gospel as we discover that ministry is not as predictable as we learned in seminary, or that being an elder is much harder work about the future of a congregation than we had imagined. I do not know all your stories. And some of the stories I know I want to be told in Grace Presbytery as well as the ones I’ve reflected.
This is, I think, what Jesus meant in the parable of the sower. It’s not a story about the sower going out with seed the first time. It’s about the how the sower pays attention to the results so that after watching what’s happened, he develops a different way of tending the wheat. It’s not just about the faithfulness of being a faithful sower; it’s about fruitfulness, being wise and accountable to make something different happen because of our willingness to let God’s word in us be shaped by the challenges of our own fields. What will you sow? What will you reap?