From Crisis to New Discoveries: Five principles for churches considering transition

In times of change, churches, like many organizations, engage familiar paradigms and old ways of coping, much to the frustration of those involved. Here are some helpful principles as you consider moving from crisis to new life.

ONE: Practice judo, not karate: Both are martial arts. However, one is aggressive while the other uses the momentum of the attacker to cause disequilibrium and render the attacker vulnerable. Every crisis that the church faces has the potential to become an innovative and creative growth opportunity. A church building that burns, the death of the pastor, a noisy community centre next door, the decline of members and reduced financial giving are all opportunities. How we use these can make the difference between life and death, literally. The ways we respond can indicate how tuned in we are to God, ready to accept the excitement that awaits us around the corner. To learn, we need to change our posture: from talking to listening, from arrogance to humility, from resisting pain to engaging it and letting it drive change.

TWO: People first, not institutions, buildings, or programs: The greatest and most precious asset of the church is not property but people! Yet we seem to pay scarce attention to that asset. Lately the church has largely been a place where individuals gather to worship and where specialized people in specialized roles deliver an experience that is consumed by those who attend. That is not the church … it is a gathering of the church! The church is the body of Christ, called to live its faith in public, wherever God places us. Unfortunately many in that body don’t know how to do this or feel inadequate as God’s representatives in the world.

The most effective strategy for the church to flourish in this time of uncertainty and anxiety is to equip, empower and mobilize the laity. It has to be done with intentionality and urgency. We don’t build better buildings or more programs to bring outsiders into the church; rather we build insiders (the church) to go out and live among outsiders, as the church. Growing a missional church involves growing missional members!

THREE: Think Realm of God, not empire; whole not part: There is a reason that the metaphor of the “human body” is used to describe the church in the New Testament. Even though every part is of equal importance and value, and has a different function, it has one singular purpose: to ensure the health of the whole body! Understanding and living this is key to a healthy church and to the will of God for the whole Church. Quite contrarily, we seem to have taken the opposite route, in our desire to specialize, by separating and isolating the different functions of church life and expression. So we have mission committees, service teams, social justice advocacy groups, and so on, each of which fulfills their particular mandate. Sadly, they often work in isolation, unable to tie in to the overall purpose of the church in terms of God’s Realm. From local congregations that find it difficult to collaborate for the greater good to church agencies that operate in silos, we seem to have lost the ability to engage a holistic approach to mission. Fortunately there are signs of change as we are pushed into crises and tight corners.

FOUR: First a compass, then the clock: Churches get mired in the details of strategic planning. The usefulness of planning, however, is limited to environments that are relatively predictable and stable. Such is not the landscape today. Often the goals are unclear and the pathways are like shifting sands. Today, following the Spirit and using the Spirit’s compass that sets direction and priorities is the most effective way to approach the mission of the church. Setting our compass means that we develop sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit, find out where God is at work, and discern our path forward. Often however, in our haste to “do something,” churches get trapped in planning and implementation without a clear sense of purpose and direction. In a context of dwindling resources, this is disaster in the making!

FIVE: Marathon, not a sprint: We want change yesterday! We expect that the culture of church will be reshaped and reformed in a year, maybe two. Annual budgets are made with the hope of short turn-arounds; people are assigned impossible tasks; and worse still, committees get busy applying the usual technical fixes to challenges that require new learning.

Building communities of faith is a long-term project that may look (and feel) hugely different from church models of the past. New versions will emerge, but not at our “fast-food-take-out” pace. They will grow in unlikely places and in unconventional ways as outposts of God’s Reign and centres of new life, grace, and gospel for their communities. Partnering with the Holy Spirit in listening actively to the community, developing trusting relationships, and engaging in loving service all require patience. We need to see this as a long distance race, and prepare for it.

A final word: Knowing these ideas is a good start; applying them is what’s important. This takes leadership, sound strategies, and supportive structures, all of which will look different in each local context.

Chris Pullenayegem is Animator for New Ministry Development in The United Church of Canada, providing leadership in the development of new ministry, evangelism, and discipleship.

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Weird or Relevant? You pick.

At the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis a few years back, I heard Bishop Will Willimon speaking in a revived (not resurrected) Methodist church about culture. He noted that Billy Graham and Jim Wallis usually begin sermons with cultural problems.

Willimon argues that most of the biggest theological mistakes the church has made have been made in the interest of evangelism. The second biggest theological mistakes have been made in the name of apologetics. “Attempting to make the Gospel credible doesn’t help,” he says. It’s one thing to make contact with the culture around us but ultimately we’re stuck with Easter.

And here’s where Willimon stopped me dead in my tracks, because I’m the type of person who always tries to apologize, explain, and adapt: “Church shouldn’t relate to culture but should smack the culture.”

Harsh language, I know.

But his point was this: we have limited our preaching to those on top of the culture, the people in power. When culture is more interesting than Jesus, we give away the story and limit our scope. “Our greatest challenge is to be relevant to the God who meets us in Jesus Christ.” It was a call to disconnect ourselves from the culture long enough to be in relationship.

I have a phobia about large gatherings of clergy. It’s usually in such groups I hear phrases like, “cutting-edge worship.” Whose cutting edge? Yours? Is it because you use candles? Good for you. I’m really happy that you’re happy.

But here’s my take on this ‘cutting edge’ business in church-speak: Stop trying to make church relevant. It isn’t. It can’t be. It shouldn’t be. It won’t be.

If you’re like me, your greatest competitor for Sunday morning isn’t sports or the mega church down the street; it’s Hallmark. Or, the theology of Hallmark to be more precise. The phenomenon of Niceianity.

I have a vivid memory of standing outside the funeral home at my mother’s wake when a well-meaning Christian walked up to me and said, “We both know that God did this for a reason. Everything happens for a reason.” I’m not sure, but I think I grew fangs and my eyes glowed at my displeasure by the comment.

A Baptist pastor friend of mine (who strongly disagrees with me on this) calls it a classic tool for evangelism: the bait and switch. Twerking for Jesus? Sure! (Twerk: True Worshipers Effectively Reaching the Kingdom.) U2charist? Why not. (I can’t actually say that word out loud.) Matrix-themed church service? Jesus knows Kung-Fu, too.

Our relationship with culture is part of the reason why we experience a certain anxiety when church people now expect Christmas to start the day after Remembrance Day, and when people are led to believe that (according to advertising) “Nobody knows Easter like Cadbury.”

I can hear the holy “Yeah, Buts” (and I agree with a lot of them) yet I really do think the argument can be summed up best with a bumper sticker from a car that almost ran me over in Nashville: “Keep Jesus Weird.”

Aaron Billard serves in ministry with St. John’s United Church in Moncton, NB and is digital abbot of Unvirtuous Abbey (

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Trudging Towards Resurrection!

“This year I’m trudging towards resurrection,” he said as he handed me the article in which he’d read the phrase.

My friend had finally signed the lease for a retirement residence. After a three-year search and 12 visits to different residences, he is ready to move into long-term care.

Perhaps ready is not quite the word. He is left with no other options.

I was helping him pack pots and pans, when he said, “Do you know how difficult it is for me to get rid of these things!” And when he heard himself say it, he was bold enough to say, “this is not about things, this confirms my loss of independence and what appears to be a loss of personhood. It’s my ever-increasing dependency on others to do the things that I took for granted. It’s my diminishing vision and my fragility; it is my grappling with all of this.”

We packed in silence. No words necessary. This was the transition from one stage of his life to another.

The fact that this is likely the final stage of his life is what he wrestles most with. “I’m trudging towards resurrection,” he declared. “My experience tells me it will be enough!”

That morning I left my friend and went to a hospital downtown to see a couple who had triplets. A few days after the triplets were born, I officiated at their wedding ceremony in the chapel at the hospital, a place where they had spent many hours over the past four months in reflection and prayer for safe delivery, and then praying for the development of their premature little ones. The hospital chapel had become a place of deep significance for them. This was a time of transition in their lives, and they were trudging cautiously, tentatively, hesitantly towards resurrection.

Walking out of the hospital, I met a colleague and we both said in synchronized harmony, “what are you doing here?” He told me that he and his partner had just lost a baby. “I’m too exhausted to even think now.” We did not need to say anything else.

During Lent, I kept wondering what this astounding journey of transitions, of transfigurations, of denials, of transformations, of letting go, of embracing, of giving up, of Good Fridays, of Holy Saturdays, might mean as we ‘trudge towards resurrection’ in our own lives!

Might it mean a transition from independence as an able bodied man, to one who is learning to open himself to interdependence, and likely in the near future, to a deep trust in others who care for and nurture you?

Could it look like a transition from a longing and yearning for a child, having lost two in recent years, to the joys, interwoven with fears and uncertainty, that accompany now having triplets?

Maybe it is a transition from joyful expectancy, to pinching grief and pining after that which had been, and is no more.

Perhaps as we “trudge towards resurrection” each day, we remind each other that we cannot avoid any of these transitions. Nor can we manage them like we attempt to manage so many things in our lives.

But we can learn to hold them close and allow them to hold and enfold us, knowing that we do not walk alone.

The God of Resurrection journeys with us!

Basil E. Coward serves in ministry with Victoria Square United Church in Markham, ON, and teaches at George Brown College in Toronto.

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The Resurrection Stone (based on John 20:11-18)

The tears of a woman weeping, wond’ring
Lost and Frightened
Grief is heightened
Because he’s gone

The eyes of a woman seeking succour
Searching inward
Searching cautious
Where has he gone?

Where has my Lord gone?

And the angels sit watch
Healing hearts, healing hands
one at the head and the other at the feet.
The cries of a woman, making demands
Alone and abandoned
Where has he gone?

Where has my Lord gone?

“They have taken away my Lord,
and I do not know where they have laid him.”
He has gone, and he is gone, and he will be gone

For everything there is a season?
Turning, turning around to go
Turning around forlorn
And torn
Time to walk, time to go

The tears of a woman, river run dry
The eyes of a woman, too tired to spy
The cries of a woman, the man mystified

“Woman, why are you weeping?
Whom are you looking for?”

And the woman begs and pleads
To the man of the earth
To the man of new birth
Downward glancing, she needs
To know where has my Lord gone?

“Tell me where you have laid him,
and I will take him away.”

The words of the man, consoling, kind
Strong and tender
Words defend her
Heart from breaking
He is not gone

The hands of the man, welcoming, warm
She wants to grasp
She needs to clasp
She must not touch him

“Do not hold on to me”
The feet of a woman, never fleeter
James and John and Peter
Run out to meet her and hear her
Words of greater wonder
They had never heard

“I have seen the Lord”
He has come, and he is coming, and he will come again
I have seen the Lord
He is risen!

Lorraine Hill is a doctoral student at Emmanuel College in Toronto and serves in ministry with Home United Church in Caledon, ON.

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Easter Day

Easter 2015 from Unvirt Abbey

Props to #unvirtuousabbey

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Because you came

Because you came and sat beside us,
because you came and heard us speak,
and we ignored you
and we refused you,
we ask forgiveness, Lord Jesus Christ.

Because our peace was your agenda,
because you wept to see us war,
and we love power,
and winning battles,
we ask forgiveness, Lord Jesus Christ.

Because your cross compels an answer,
because your love absorbs our sin,
and we are wounded
because wound you,
we ask forgiveness, Lord Jesus Christ.

“Because You Came”
Shirley Erena Murray
vv.1, 3, 4 of #64 in More Voices

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Till Death Due Us Part…

“…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, ’til death do us part…”

It was Holy Week and I was cramming in an extra pastoral visit amid daily services and preparation for the big Easter weekend. While I usually called before making visits, one day I stopped unannounced at the home of church members who were struggling.

Bob was a successful, small town businessman. When his wife Evelyn was diagnosed with cancer the year before, however, Bob quit his job (early retirement actually) and stayed close to home to care for her. As Evelyn’s health declined Bob was called on more often to do the chores around the house like making meals, doing the laundry and cleaning the floors. It was quite a role reversal since Evelyn had kept house over the years and raised the kids while Bob was off travelling for business and building his career.

I knocked at the door around 9:30 am and Bob greeted me warmly, inviting me in to their home. “We’re just finishing breakfast,” he said, “come and join us in the kitchen.” Evelyn tried to stand up, but in her weakened condition I got to her before she could rise. I gave her a hug and helped her ease back on the chair with the special cushions. She was terribly weakened from her last treatment and it was sometimes hard to tell whether the look on her face was a smile or a scream.

“You’re here in time for our little ritual,” Bob said, “we used to do this once a month but now…now…” he said his voice trailing off, “now we do it every morning.” He pulled out a yellowed piece of paper with the date 1953 on it. Before my head could catch up with my heart, I listened as they spoke the following words:

“I choose you, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, ’til death do us part…”

Their wedding vows from so long ago, first spoken in a little Baptist Church outside of Ottawa, now echoed in their large kitchen, bouncing off grandchildren’s rainbow coloured drawings attached to the fridge with magnets from all their holiday destinations over the years.

I sat there and heard their wedding vows spoken with deep, deep reverence, one to the other. It was holy week and I was preparing for the Maundy Thursday service the next day. In that kitchen I felt the Holy Spirit nudge me, hearing another vow from long ago, “A new commandment I give you, that you might love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

John’s gospel (written in Greek) places the words Agape (not Eros or Storge, etc) on Jesus’ lips – a deep, abiding, self-giving love – a love that gives without counting the costs.

This Holy Week we will hear the “Maundy” or Commandment to love one another once again. It is a call to action for followers of Jesus to show deep love and compassion for others – not the carnal or cheap love that we see splashed across movie screens, tv channels or late night 1(900) commercials.

This is the deep and abiding love that Jesus shares with a servant’s heart, as he stoops down to wash the feet of his friends, taking the lowest paid household servant role and offering love and hospitality to others.

Looking back I witnessed that same kind of love in that kitchen many years ago. I sat and talked with Bob and Evelyn about the next round of treatments – their hopes and their fears. Before I left that day, we sat in a circle and reached out our hands, three and yet one, a heart-beating glimpse of the inner life of God- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I prayed with them for a couple of minutes and then came the Amen. As I opened my eyes, I saw tears flowing down Evelyn’s cheek and Bob jumped up and grabbed the Kleenex box. He carefully and lovingly wiped the tears away and I thought to myself I’ve seen that before. I’ve seen that with a towel and a grace filled bending towards disciples’ feet. If you listen carefully you can still hear in the distance a voice still calling:

A new commandment I give you…that you might love one another…for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish…until death due us part…

Ross Lockhart is an Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver.

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