Year in Review

201807-08-Year-in-Review

One year ago, on August 20, 2017, I started as the Senior Pastor of First Church of Christ in Longmeadow. So much has happened in this year!

My first service was outside in the garden. The weather was nice and the Search team provided us a picnic lunch. I preached about how to build a community. My stomach was nervous but my heart was excited. I had already felt the wonder of accepting God’s call to be your new Senior Pastor. Now I was ready to fall in love with the church and all of you.

I was primed to love you. When I read the church profile and saw that you lived boldly—serving and witnessing outside your building, caring for the broken, marching for justice — I was intrigued. I believe that church cannot be church just sitting inside our own building trying to please each other. Jesus showed us how to be church by taking to the streets to heal, feed and stand up for the oppressed. Churches that focus on “pleasing” everyone in worship are usually dying churches. And besides, preaching to “please” is the opposite of preaching a prophetic word. As pastors, our job is said to be “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

I loved your commitment to growing your community in Longmeadow and surrounding areas. The church’s role in interfaith and ecumenical partnering made my heart glad. We can learn so much from the faith of others. We can be stretched to we see the world and our lives in new ways. Interfaith and Ecumenical work models Jesus claim that the Kingdom of God is now. In God’s kin-dom, we love our neighbors and live in peace.

I loved your desire to grow ever more lay-led. Your new government system of teams within circles offered a flexible way to grow as a permission giving place. A “yes church,” where members are inspired to hear God’s call and act— joining teams, bringing new ideas or reaching out past our walls.

This last year has been a time of new beginnings for me and for our church. Together we have found new ways to partner and I hope you have found some new things to love about our church. I certainly have.

Worship

We began the process of adding more lay participation to our planning of worship. A team of 8-10 now meet and look at an entire season at a time. We work to unify our service through music and theme. We try to bring a
coherent focus that provides members an emotional experience—an encounter with the divine.

Our worship team has been using The Worship Design Studio materials to teach us how to craft a worship service that speaks to all our senses and engages our different learning styles.

A good example of a new worship idea was our recent Music Sunday (or as I like to call it “Choir Shine” Sunday). Our music director, choir, instrumentalists and soloists planned the “all music” worship where every part was music led. The service was a huge success. And we had the opportunity to see just how talented and dedicated our musicians are.

We intend to continue to refine our worship service. This summer we are planning ahead for the fall, Advent and even ideas for Lent. By getting ahead, our choir has time to find and learn new music that suits the service to a T, and our Sunday School teachers have more time to design classes for our children.

We want to have a creative arts person thinking ahead and designing visuals to transform the physical church — like the beautiful “fire” colored ribbon wands of Pentecost. We also want to have more drama, reader’s theater or skits to bring another dimension to the scripture.

Another piece of worship that we have added is testimony, a chance to hear our members share their experiences of God, church and being transformed by their faith. We hope to continue hearing testimony on a regular basis. Every single person in the pews has a story we need to hear.

Community Building

I have particularly enjoyed building relationships with members. Many of you invited Doug and me to “Meet and Greets” with fellow church members at your homes. It was a time to really learn about each other. We shared dreams for our church and our past histories. You had a chance to ask us any question and I got to ask you what you loved about FCC, what you hoped I would do, and what you hoped I would not change. Your answers told me much about you and about how we can dream for the future.

Doug and I went to Friday Evening Fellowships and had a good time with you. Then Doug and I told personal stories one night — and you honored us by packing the place.

I have enjoyed meeting and building relationships with our local clergy, university leaders and town agencies. We are planning two projects with the town and our local clergy group — ways we can serve Longmeadow together.

Both our Jewish and Christian friends in other congregations are going to share a book study this fall and next spring. There will be classes where we compare how we read the same text in the Bible or Torah and discover how we understand God’s teachings.

Town agencies and faith houses are working together to combat isolation for some of our neighbors. We are seeking to learn how we can reach out to them and make sure they have the resources they need.

Bay Path University, St. Mary’s, St. Andrews and First Church will host a progressive dinner in September. We’ll move from church to church, sharing a meal and introducing the students of Bay Path and these three congregations to each other.

So far, we have hosted two of our four yearly Saturday Celebration events, which are open to all the town. We bring in live music, serve a great meal and have activities for the kids. We open our doors in the hopes of meeting our neighbors and spending time with them so they can get to know us. Both Mardi Gras and our Pride celebrations brought in new townspeople for us to meet and begin to build relationships with.

Christian Education

When I came to First Church, I brought with me the Spill the Beans curriculum for adult worship as well as for Church school and pre-k. This curriculum allows our children to work with the same Bible stories we are discussing in worship.

Our new Thursday-morning Bible study group reads and discusses the scripture to be preached the following Sunday. I love this class! It is one of my favorite things! It is open to all; come join us.

The class is small, about 6-8, (so there is room for you). What I love about the class is that we wonder together about the text. We try to understand the context, what the world was like when the text was written. We read different translations. We wander around in the story and find ourselves. It is a time of exploration—a place to bring doubts, questions and new ideas.

Studying the text communally also helps me prepare my sermons for Sunday. As I work on a sermon, I can hear in my mind the questions and concerns expressed by the Bible study members. I know this group makes my sermons more relevant.

Youth and Confirmation

We have amazing youth at First Church. I have loved working with and getting to know our confirmands. Their statements of faith were rich and deep. They served communion, did the readings, and showed the church that they were ready to be adult members.

God sent us an amazing leader, Liz Woolsey. She brought life back to our youth program. Unfortunately, her family is now being called somewhere new. But Liz has shown us what is possible. We have wonderful parents, mentors and youth leaders who will remain and work with us until God sends us someone else to lead this program. We’ll do our part with ads and interviews; God will do the rest.

Book Studies

In advent, we sat at round tables in Bailey hall, talking about the holy family —who were forced to flee to Egypt after Jesus’ birth and become refugees. We discussed where our families came from. We told stories of our own migrations — whether across town, across states or across the world. We noticed the courage of our ancestors to brave a new world so that their children might be safe and have new life.

During Lent, we met for small group sessions where we watched DVDs and talked about our own experiences of hearing God. We shared listening practices. And we grew closer as a community as we heard each other’s spiritual
journeys.

Recently, we met for a short 4-week study discussing Hell — what is it, where is it, or is it not? The conversations have been interesting and enlightening. We have learned how little there is about hell in the biblical texts and how much the works of Dante and Milton have colored our beliefs. And we made room to disagree, to question, and to decide for ourselves what we believe.

In our summer preaching series, I Don’t Believe That… we’ll preach about some of the most difficult and often divisive topics in the Christian faith. We’ll take on teachings, doctrines and ideas that many may disagree with or not believe. Progressive churches often shy away from these topics because they are hard to talk about and hard to understand. After church, pastors and members will have a time to discuss what they heard in the sermon and ask questions or disagree. (Thank you to the Adult Ed team for suggesting the Talk Back Sessions!)

God’s Justice

We have a new Social Justice team to help us learn about and show up for opportunities to bring God’s justice to the world. They stay abreast of denominational, regional and even national actions that we as a church can
participate in or wrestle with as we try to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. Their work both represents us and stretches us — but we know that they are modeling how to answer Christ’s call.

Our Environmental Justice team has led us to be named a “Level 1 Green Congregation” by the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC, for the work we have done to help heal creation. They have brought movies to the Storr’s Library and joined Adult Ed in book studies.

Near the beginning of this article, I talked about helping First Church become a “yes” church. Well, that means we are waiting for you to step up and share a dream, goal or prayer for First Church. I have come to know many of you. I know that God is still speaking. And I know that God is speaking to First Church through you. So, bring an idea and we will say, “YES! Yes, we can help you make that dream happen here!” Bring me your ideas, whether they are well-developed or just “idea seeds.” Together we can help them germinate and grow in the sunlight of God’s “YES.”

These are just some of the ways we have partnered together over this year. I continue to find more and more ways to love this church and her people. And we are just getting started. Wait until you hear some of our plans beginning in fall of 2018-2019. (You can read about it in the next COG newsletter.)

What a good year. I am even more committed to First Church and all of you! They say the appropriate gift for a first anniversary is made of paper. So let this newsletter — and all the growth and promise it represents — be our first anniversary gift to each other.

— Blessings, Rev. Pam