Saturday, September 10, 2011

Risky Business

It was really risky. Because the congregation had reached somewhat of a plateau in its redevelopment and because of the serious financial pressure created by the economic downturn of the last three years indicated the congregation would not be able to sustain all three full-time ministry staff, I threw my hat in the ring with the other staff. The “ring” I threw it into was an ad hoc group of lay leaders who were scheduled to meet with a human resources consultant to pray and deliberate about future staffing for the mission and ministry of our congregation. I threw my hat in the ring because I knew I had came to this congregation with a call to turn their self-absorption outward and help them to do mission and ministry so that they would grow to reflect the changed and continuing-to-change community they were in. From 1990 to 2010 the community demographics have completely flipped. Once 70 percent Anglo and 30 percent Latino, the 2010 Census revealed the reversal. It is now over 70 percent Latino and less than 20 percent Anglo!

By the power of God and with the partnership of two other ministers who are Latino and lay leaders willing to take great risks, the congregation has been transformed. A third of its members were over eighty, 98 percent were Anglo, and most were middle and upper middle class. Eight years later we are over 50 percent non-Anglo, 60 percent under fifty and as diverse socioeconomically as anyone can imagine. The congregation has been transformed and much more accurately reflects the surrounding community. But now it needs to be taken to another level of transformation. Though my heart longs for stability and job security, my heart longs even more for this ministry to thrive and make a difference for the kingdom of heaven. I wanted the congregation—very well represented by this lay ad hoc group meeting with the consultant—to be able to openly and honestly deliberate about what kind of leadership the next level of development would need. So I threw my hat in the ring.

I really expected them to thank me for my years of service and the critical role I played in the transformation of the congregation up until now, but to say they needed a very different leader for the future. It was scary. But I determined to practice what I have preached and to trust the Spirit of God working in these lay leaders to discern together what leadership they needed for the future. This is one of the distinctive of reformed theology and significantly shaped the polity of the Presbyterian form of government. We believe God speaks most clearly through his gathered, praying, studying, worshiping people. It is not easy to trust God in times like these when both your professional and personal future is at stake. But I knew that Christ cares for this ministry even more than I do and that he cares for me too. And I had seen the spiritual growth of these lay leaders and their engagement with the tremendous changes that had taken place in the congregation. I had to trust the Spirit of God would lead them. I had to trust that the Spirit would provide for me and my family as had always been the case in the past.

After several meetings with the consultant they asked me to join them in order to inform me about their process and to get my input. What a surprise! I was actually left speechless at first. I am hardly ever speechless! The ad hoc group had determined unanimously—Latino and Anglo members alike—that my particular leadership was still necessary for the next phase of redevelopment. I was stunned. I had already begun to work on networking for other employment. When I regained my speech, I questioned them. I challenged them. My main concern is my very limited Spanish. They remained steadfast in their determination.

A few days later I was in flight to Pittsburgh for a conference and some study leave time, and I read A Future for the Latino Church by Daniel A. Rodriguez. Holy cow! It is full of the affirmation of this group’s decision. The U.S. Latino population is increasingly bilingual and increasingly English dominant. According to Rodriguez the most rapidly growing Latino churches have Spanish-speaking ministries, but they are predominantly English-speaking congregations.

I am so grateful that I trusted these lay leaders. I am grateful to God for their risk-taking spirit and for their dedication to the ministry and mission of our church. I have renewed energy and commitment for what lies ahead. I have very little idea what it is going to look like, but that is exactly where I found myself eight years ago. God was faithful through it all. He will continue to be faithful. That completely changes the risk factor.

For anyone in ministry facing cultural shifts of any kind I would highly recommend Rodriguez’s book. The principles are transcultural and really helpful in understanding the current changing demographics of the United States. If you have other recommendations for a good read on the subject please share that with the readers in your comments.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Let's Get Physical

I know. It is the name of a not-so-spiritually-enriching song. But it is the words that come to mind when I think of the deep significance of what my family did yesterday. On August 16 we learned that our grandson due in December had died in utero. On August 18 our daughter delivered this precious little life. He was named Elijah Evan. We determined to mark his life on Labor Day weekend when our immediate family and his paternal grandparents would be present. How do you do a memorial service for a little boy whose life ended at five months in the womb? With just a few family members gathered in the back yard, how could we adequately mark the immense depth of the experience of love and loss? Words are powerful. God’s word is especially so, and there was plenty of that spoken and heard. But with such gut-wrenching pain, with such physically visible sorrow, how could we memorialize Elijah in a way that would be remembered and cherished? I realized in reflecting on what we did, we got physical! For Elijah’s memorial we participated together in some very physical ways.

Our son wrote a song for Elijah. Wow! As Elijah’s father said, “How many children have a song written for them?” This five-month-old, taken-before-he-was-born little boy does! This was such a physical expression of remembering. My son spent a week writing and practicing. He played it on his guitar and he sang it for them. His sister sang with him. It is called “Little Feet.” The chorus says, “Li’l Lijah was just too good for this world” and “his little feet never even made footprints in the dirt.” The songs speaks of our sorrow but also our hope that someday “we will see his little smile and touch his precious face.” It was a physical act born out of sadness and love and hope. We all were in awe. We all were in tears. It was such a physical experience. And the wonder of modern technology allowed my son to record and send the song for Elijah’s parents to keep.

Our daughter wrote a poem. It too was born out of sorrow and loss and hope. In her own reflection time she wondered how she could be so sad about a little boy she never saw. Then she realized she had seen him in her heart and mind. Her poem chronicled all the ways she had seen him. She had seen him in the joy in the faces of his mom and dad preparing to introduce him to the world. She had already imagined him playing with Laurel, our granddaughter born in July. She had imagined him visiting me and me scooping him up in my arms and not wanting to share him! She had already envisioned what future Christmases would be like for Elijah. And she had seen in her heart and mind her own child someday joining these cousins. Her poem was a very physical expression of how such a young and unseen life could create such a visible and heart-wrenching loss. We all “saw” Elijah with her, and as she read her poem we all physically mourned. Beautifully framed and mounted in an originally crafted work of art, the poem will hang in Elijah’s parent’s home, an enduring physical reminder of Elijah.

And we all planted something. On Sunday, September 4, in memory of Elijah Evan, I had ordered an arrangement containing seven separate plants for our church’s Communion Table. I had planned to pot each one to give to different family members in memory of him or to plant them around the yard. My daughter, Elijah’s mother, wanted to plant them. So at the close of our time of remembering, we did. What an incredible experience! Some of us took a turn of the dirt. Some of us helped to water. Under the careful and experienced guidance of Elijah’s paternal grandfather, each of us participated and watched as these plants were given a new lease on life. And two of them were planted next to plants from the memorial service of my father who died in 2006. Elijah’s plants right next to Great Grandpa Davis’—this was such a physical act of hope for all of us. The closing of Elijah’s memorial was very physical.

Through the song and poem written for him and through the plants given new life we will have constant and beautiful reminders of Elijah. These acts promote healing as well. We got physical. It was healing and it was very spiritually enriching.

Everyone has had experiences of loss. Many have known the loss of a little one like Elijah. What are the ways you or others you know have memorialized a loved one that has helped you to remember and to heal? Add a comment and let the readers know.