I had another early morning flight to start off my travel period! While it’s true that I am a morning person, it is also true that the early flights mean usually missing rush hour traffic and usually getting an on-time departure, so they tend to make sense for me. An early morning flight meant an early arrival in Cleveland, and, because of exceptionally gracious and accommodating hosts, a trip to the Cleveland Zoo!
I love zoos, especially ones with thoughtful exhibits that educate and are designed with the animals’ health and well-being in mind. I love seeing kids eyes grow wide when they see animals they’d never, ever see in their backyard, and the understanding dawn that the world is bigger and more amazing than they thought. So with several hours before the first official gathering of my visit with Eastminster Presbytery, I asked for a trip to the zoo. It turns out my hosts, Rich and Laura Lapehn, also enjoy zoos. Laura is a schoolteacher and brings kids to the zoo on a regular basis, so my preference for the zoo over another Cleveland attraction made sense to them. We had a great time and the animals were very active. A great way to start the day!
Eastminster Presbytery covers five counties in northeast Ohio, going east to the Pennsylvania line and including the cities of Akron, Ravenna, Warren, Youngstown, and Columbiana. The website lists 45 churches across those five counties. I set my alarm for 6:30 the next day, giving me plenty of time to go for a walk. This is clearly the area where the executives from the industries lived, with beautiful houses and well maintained yards lining the streets and shaded by old trees. After a lovely breakfast, Rich picked me up to begin the day.
The first stop was at First Presbyterian Church in Barberton. They have a weekly “Pastor’s Chat” on Tuesday mornings, with topics ranging from Bible passages to current events to any topic the pastor would like to focus on for an hour. As Rich said, “Today, you’re the topic.”
It was a full room when we arrived, and we started with introductions around the table. I started by telling the story of the Moderator’s cross and passing it around, then we launched into a time of questions and answers. Like many churches in towns who have seen their industry change, shrink, or disappear, First Presbyterian in Barberton is wondering how to grow. When Rick told me they were going to ask me that question, I warned him, “They’re probably not going to like my answer.”
We know there’s no one fix, no one solution, no one program, no easy way to make a church begin to grow. I believe the possibility begins with the congregation first of all tending to its own soul and self. If the spirit of the congregation is not healthy, warm, and welcoming, visitors won’t want to come back. If the relationships within the congregation are shallow or even toxic, it won’t be a place that people wan’t to join.
We tend to think of ourselves as warm, welcoming, and friendly, but the truth is often more complicated. We can be warm to the people we know, welcoming to the people who look, act, or think like we do, and friendly to one another, while ignoring or barely greeting a stranger, a visitor, or someone who strikes us as different in any way. If we are honest, which is hard to be around this issue, we might begin to confess that we didn’t learn the last visitor’s name, we didn’t ask them to return, and we didn’t even say anything beyond, “good morning.” Greeting a visitor with “Good morning” and then moving to the pew is not warm, welcoming, or friendly. It’s simply and only polite.
We have to start with ourselves and change the culture within our congregations so that gathering for worship, fellowship, and education isn’t focused on us but instead focused on God and what God is up to. Then we’re more likely to see a visitor as a gift from God instead of an interruption in catching up with friends.
The other thing that churches that are growing are doing is focusing outside of themselves and into their communities. This does not mean doing mission in the ways we’ve interpreted it for decades by running a food pantry and clothing closet or offering hot meals and places for groups to gather. This means doing the hard and holy work of being in relationship with our neighbors, learning their stories, listening to the challenges, and loving them as Jesus loves us. Instead of doing mission for people in need, we become partners in ministry with our beloved siblings in community. That’s a significant shift, and one that is common among churches that are growing.
It was a good conversation, but we had to cut it short in order to travel to Poland, Ohio, for a lunch gathering with pastors from the eastern part of the Presbytery. Hosted by Poland Presbyterian Church, we discussed how to change the focus of churches that had lost members and were now stuck and how to be both making disciples of Jesus Christ and advocating for justice and changes in societal structures in our communities.
To be blunt, it’s amazing when a church is involved in making sure kids have lunch at school and backpacks full of school supplies. That’s beautiful and fantastic and holy work of love. But wouldn’t it be more fantastic if we also worked to get to the root of the causes of poverty in our communities so there weren’t any kids who needed a reduced or free lunch anymore? Wouldn’t it be more amazing if every child already had a new backpack and supplies because the barriers to getting those things were addressed? We have to start with addressing the need, but our work isn’t complete until the need is no longer present.
Eastminster Presbytery gathered for their third stated meeting of the year at Petersburg Presbyterian Church, a congregation known in the community for the best desserts around. They had taken advantage of a visioning process at the Presbytery level to come to an understanding of their call: to practice forming compassionate community wherever God is found, which, of course, is everywhere.
The meeting began with registration as people trickled in from across the Presbytery, then prayer, introductions, and elements of worship. The Vice Moderator elect preached on a passage from the book of Jonah, focusing on his prayer from the belly of the fish. The book of Jonah has a soft place in my heart as it’s one that I’ve returned to again and again for guidance when God and I have wrestled about my call.
Before we broke for dinner, I was invited to bring greetings and lead a brief discussion of the book Neighborhood Church, our offering to the church for the One Church, One Book initiative. There wasn’t a lot of time for a full discussion, so after giving a quick overview of the chapters, I asked one question: for those of you who have read the book, what was one thing that challenged you or hooked you in a way that you knew it was something to work on?
Many people lifted up the chapter about stewardship of the building, wondering what “integration” means and what it might look like to be ministry partners with everyone who uses the church space. One pastor lifted up the call to practice listening, acknowledging that he thinks he knows his parishioners stories, but probably hasn’t listened to them as carefully or deeply as he could.
After dinner, the meeting reconvened with committee reports and sharing about mission in the life of the Presbytery. They’re in the process of raising $10,000 to support refugee children from Syria in going to school and preparing to launch the Vital Congregations program.
During her report, the Stated Clerk and General Presbyter acknowledged the rare occurrence of having moderators from every council of the church present. The Synod of the Covenant’s moderator is a member of the Presbytery, so with me, him, the Presbytery moderator, and all of the session moderators, we represented all of our governing bodies. I got a selfie with the moderator of our hosting church, along with the Presbytery and Synod moderators, at the end of the meeting.
The last order of business before ending with communion was a Question and Answer session with me. People were invited to submit written questions, which were then posed to me by one of the pastors in the Presbytery.
One of the first questions asked went something like this: what do we say to young adults who tell us they don’t need the church in order to do mission or practice charity? I told the gathering that young adults are right when they say that; the church is not the only place to do mission or practice charity, and in fact many organizations offer more opportunities and expanded impact beyond what the church can do. What they do need the church for, though, are the deeper questions about life. Who am I? Is there more than what I see? Is there a purpose beyond my understanding? We offer a place to explore questions of faith and doubt, but young adults won’t trust us as conversation partners if we tell them the mission and charity work they engage in outside the church isn’t good enough. Let’s honor how they try to make the world better, and offer a place for them to process the questions about why that’s important.
The most serious question had to do with politics, the divided state of our country, and the church’s role, essentially asking if we should be involved in those things. I started off by asking, “Who did God send the prophets to speak to?” There were a few mumbles, and when I asked again, I heard “the people.” Yes, the prophets spoke to the people but they were specifically tasked to speak to the leaders, to the kings, to those responsible for making wise and just decisions for the greater good and in accordance with God’s wishes. I reminded them that Jesus stood before both Pontius Pilate and King Herod, then said, “The Bible is political. From beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is political. It speaks about living in the polis, the city, and the right ways of governing and being a nation.”
The biggest mistake we make, and I’m not the first to say this, is equating being political with being partisan. The Bible is political and calls for righteous government, but it is not partisan. It is not Republican or Democrat or Independent or Green Party or Socialist. It is not partisan, but it is political. We are not called to tell people to vote for a specific person or party, but we are called to lay out the qualities of a leader based on what we are given in the Bible.
I believe if we try to strip away the political nature of the Bible, the demands God makes of nations and kings, the prophetic words calling us to right government and just laws, then we are sinning against the Word of God. And that’s serious.
Besides, if the church doesn’t lead the country in reconciliation and repairing relationships, who is going to? Who else has the language of confession and forgiveness? Who else knows what it means to receive and offer grace and mercy? If we do not begin, within our own walls and then within our communities, the hard work of listening to understand and seeking to love in difference, then our divisions and wounds will only grow deeper. If we want a country that once again can stand together in dignity, respect, and common purpose, it is the church that will have to lead the way.
The last question was “how can we pray for you?” It is a gift beyond measure to have people around the country and the world praying for Vilmarie and I and our families while we undertake this ministry, and I am always deeply grateful when a Presbytery offers prayer on our behalf. Thank you, Eastminster, for your prayers and hospitality, for inviting me into your midst and for welcoming me with love and grace. Thank you for a wonderful visit to northeastern Ohio. And may God bless you as you continue with the holy and challenging work of being the faithful body of Christ in this time and place.