Journeying toward change

The First Baptist Church of Bennington, VT, is undertaking a season of transitional ministry. Working with an intentional interim minister, the congregation seeks to build a new way of carrying out the gospel.  We invite you to learn about our congregational journey, and we hope that you will join us in this holy work.


June 2008 "Building Ministry" Pastor's Notes from Jerrod H. Hugenot

Pastor’s Notes  June 2008

“Building Ministry”

When you think of First Baptist, rightfully you think of the people first. Each congregant brings something unique and diverse to our church and its ministries, and together we live out the faith as American Baptists, committed to the continuing story of the First Baptist Church of Bennington, Vermont. At the same time, when we think of “First Baptist”, we also bring to mind the physical edifice that sits on the corner of Valentine and Main Street. Indeed, we are graced with a beautiful building where our worship and spiritual life take place week to week.

As we think about the church in a time of transitional ministry, we should take note of the good things that have been happening with our building since the congregation entered into a three-year interim period. The trustees have brought about several improvements to the aesthetics of the building with new floor tile in the hallways, a beautifully renovated church lounge, new paint here and there, a handicap accessible bathroom, and a facelift for the church office area.

[On this latter count, let me extend gratitude for the redesign of the pastor’s office. The new ceiling, better lighting, a good size closet and storage space, and the reconfiguration of my workspace is quite helpful. The pastor’s desk no longer dwarfs the useable floor space, so it has been wonderful to welcome people into my office for conversations and meetings. I am working on making the pastor’s office more as the pastor’s study, less of a place geared toward an administrator’s office, and more a place where you can sit down and talk about the life of faith. I still have files and spreadsheets and committee notes piled here and there, but it is starting to feel more like a place where I can tend souls. I hope you will visit me in “the pastor’s study” and we’ll talk a spell.]

Another way that the building is changing can be noticed when you look at the “master calendar”. We have events, meetings, and other opportunities for the community to utilize our building, quite different from where we were a couple of years ago. First Baptist is becoming a great place for groups to meet, and Cindy Watson (in her role as building coordinator) is fielding phone calls to rent out space for events to community groups. This summer, we will be the site for three community events: June 7 is the annual Chocolate Festival and Play benefiting PAVE (The Project Against Violent Encounters). June 21 and 22 will be the Bennington County Chorale Society’s last concert of the season. We are working right now on arranging an evening in August featuring a rabbi and a Muslim who perform stand-up comedy that will be a riotous evening of interfaith mirth.

In May, the congregation voted affirmatively to install a lift to make our second floor accessible to all persons. The capital improvement (project cost: $32,000) will answer a long-standing problem with the Nichols Educational Wing, allowing everyone to access the great space we have upstairs. (Did you know that the second floor has more useable space and more bathrooms than downstairs?) While we are looking at this improvement as a necessary improvement to allow more use (and we hope more building rental income) for First Baptist’s space, I find the handicap accessibility that the lift and the new first floor bathroom symbolize as good theology at work. We are making “all persons” welcome, and when we complete the lift installation later this summer, we will take an opportunity to give thanks and bless these new and accessible additions to our physical space as sign and symbol of our increasing ministry of hospitality.

I also take joy in seeing how our space is allowing other groups to flourish. For the last several months, PAVE has offered a multi-week parenting course through its Family Time program. Families are encouraged to learn various skills to build healthy communication and relationships, and the program is growing as word of its helpfulness is getting around town. PAVE hopes to expand the program so they can keep up with the list of folks wanting to take this course. Your building is helping make these things possible!

Sometimes when we think of First Baptist, we think of the church building as the place we go Sunday to Sunday to receive the spiritual nourishment to get us through the week. Perhaps during the week, we might pop in for an event, a committee meeting, or something else that causes us to drop by the church. Know that as the congregation is rethinking its ministries and we are working together to bring about a new day, your building is also doing new things as well. Indeed, the tenets of faith are being lived out as we share our space and allow many good things to flourish through partnerships with community groups looking to improve the social, cultural, economic, and spiritual life of Bennington through time spent at that wonderful place we call “First Baptist”.

Keep our ongoing efforts in your prayers as well as the staff of the congregation as they help coordinate this work. Say a word of thanks to the hardworking trustee board, and give yourselves a pat on the back, too! Our desire to share the building is doing great things. It is indeed building ministry!


Missional Work at First Baptist

I write these words just after our Easter service, so there are a few alleluias still ringing in my ears from our hymns, prayers, and proclamation. Easter is the “center” of the Christian year, and the celebration of resurrection and new life is the constant rhythm underlying all of our religious observances. We are a people shaped by great hope!

Sometimes, though, that great hope seems a bit distant. We live in the midst of a challenging time as North American Christian congregations are largely in decline. Nevertheless, First Baptist has a unique opportunity to “practice resurrection” (poet Wendell Berry’s provocative phrase). Indeed, there are congregations just like First Baptist who are experiencing new life, even though the trends and experts would say otherwise. In part, this change is due to a willingness to look out at the unknown and start rowing towards it.

Last year, Ron Carlson from National Ministries introduced us to the concept of the missional church. Missional churches are congregations willing to look at their ministry with new eyes. “Mission work” becomes less of a line item in an annual budget for ministry in places elsewhere (global or national, but not “right here”) or the occasional provision of emergency benevolence funds or assistance when persons are in crisis. “Missional churches” are contrary minded enough to know that the measure of a congregation’s health is not attendance numbers at a service on Sunday morning. Rather, a congregation flourishes when the persons who are part of the congregation become involved in the issues and needs of the community where they are located. We become the “hands and feet” of Christ in the world.

Such congregations also realize that they do not need to depend on their own resources and people alone. Partnerships and creative networking will move a congregation forward when they want to get involved in their community. Congregations who become “missional” in their outlook begin to find themselves proclaiming the faith in a new way. Not just through Sunday morning worship or occasional acts of benevolence, but in ever deepening and creative ways.

Bits of this way of thinking are already showing fruit in the life of the congregation. This winter, the deacon board heard of the need in area schools for warm socks. Many children in our schools go through the winter without “winter weather appropriate” socks. A school nurse mentioned this, and the deacons began working on finding quantities of socks. In the end, shrewd shopping netted enough socks that three schools, rather than just one, received socks for children.

A missional approach to this scenario might look like this: congregants from First Baptist agree to learn more about the school children’s needs in Bennington area schools. They meet with school officials to learn what sorts of needs can be met (one early learning: school nurses need underwear as well as socks for children). Talking with social service agencies in town will build partnerships, so that whatever First Baptist helps coordinate is not redundant to already existing efforts. Congregants invite others that they know who would be interested in joining the effort: persons from other religious groups as well as persons who are not necessarily religious but feel some “common ground” or affinity with this project. The project becomes more organic than institutional: an effort began by First Baptist multiplies far more broadly than if just left to our own resources.

Missional ways also enhance the way that we share the gospel with other people. St. Francis of Assisi wisely said, “Preach the gospel always. Use words when necessary.” We still worship each Sunday to the glory and praise of God. The missional way, however, allows us to connect the faith we proclaim to the world in ways that will be as diverse as they are many.

Grace and Peace,


The Rev. Jerrod Hugenot



Three Dates to Note (Pastor's Notes March 2008)

Three Dates to Note

On March 23, we celebrate Easter, the most holy day of the Christian year. While the average American (and maybe even more than a few church-goers) thinks of “Christmas” as “The BIG Day” for the Christian calendar, Easter is the high point of the Christian way of reckoning time.

A favorite story involves an American chaplain observing a Russian Orthodox Easter Vigil service. The priests are conducting the liturgy while running back behind the altar area and putting on stoles for every color of the Christian year (Pentecostal reds, Common Time greens, Advent and Lenten purples, and yes, even the brilliant whites of Easter). It was a hectic experience for the priest and his helper, trying to make sure that they got all the colors in the correct order! Nonetheless, the majestic liturgy heralded the proclamation of Easter: the promise of new life and New Creation found in Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

As a people who celebrate the fullness of Easter, with its promise of resurrection resounding in our souls and in our pews, we remember anew that God is calling us to spread the Easter faith. It might be a hard sell when thoughts turn to how full the sanctuary was a generation or two ago on Easter, but we are not a people of despair. We are a people called to herald the liberating and daring news of the gospel.

Another observance in March—This month American Baptists will participate in the annual “America for Christ” offering, which supports the “home mission” work of our ABC/USA family. By “home mission”, we mean “ministry in the United States and Puerto Rico”. More to the point, we American Baptists recognize that “home mission” happens right on our own doorstep!

Our support of the America for Christ offering ensures that the work of National Ministries in Valley Forge and the work of our ABC Vermont/New Hampshire region receives funding for bringing about programming, ministries, mission, publications, education, and personnel that is geared toward serving the fullness of the Gospel message.

NM’s executive director, the Rev. Dr. Aidsand Wright-Riggins, III, writes, “It often surprises me that the United States is the third largest mission field on our planet. We have millions of people right here, on the doorsteps of our churches, our homes, our schools, who have deep hunger—and not just for food or education or a warm bed, but also for comfort, hope, and the assurance that someone, somewhere cares.” This is an Easter faith at work!

In March 2008, we mark a third date. March 1 begins my third year as your intentional interim minister. I could look back and give the play-by-play of the last two years, but the prospect of Easter asks me to say instead, “Will this be the year when we start heralding the gospel in a new and astonishing way? Will this be the year that we start to move from the pews and out to our doorstep to discover ‘home mission’ opportunities abound?”

This past month, we learned a lot about our community through hosting a well-attended and appreciated community conflict transformation conference and through our engagement with PAVE’s executive director sharing from the pulpit on a Sunday morning. There is conflict, violence, economic hardship, and many persons with “deep hunger” right on our doorstep! We could settle for ignoring that troubling in our souls that this knowledge causes or pains us, but we are an Easter people!

The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot


Insights from Another Congregation in Transition

Midway through seminary, students are required to complete two units of field education as part of training for ministry. At Central Baptist Theological Seminary (the alma mater of Kerry and myself), some students split their field work between a unit of hospital chaplaincy and service to a congregation. Others, already called into ministry, completed their ministry work with their employing congregation. I found myself at this time in seminary thinking, “I want to do something really different!”

I grew up in a congregation that had a long-time pastorate (1971-2001), and I felt like I was well acquainted with congregations enjoying a long and fruitful season of ministry thanks to my years as a congregant. So I set out to find a church that was experiencing transition.

Little did I know that years later, I would be writing this column sitting in Vermont, called to serve a congregation as part of a three-year intentional interim ministry period.

What did I learn seven years ago that still serves me well in the practice of ministry here at FBC Bennington?

(1) I learned that a congregation in transition is fragile yet gracefully resilient.

The church that I served as an intern had gone through a difficult church split. A theologically progressive Baptist congregation in the Kansas City area, the church nonetheless encountered some impasses that resulted in a decision of some folks (about 180) to leave and reform a congregation elsewhere after things became untenable. The church found its own voice and footing over the next few years, thanks to a wise intentional interim minister and a group of very dedicated lay leaders. Some folks thought that the “new” congregation would struggle to make it, but little by little, healing, grace, and more than a little hard work created a viable core group who birthed a new church.

(2)  Transition means that loose ends can be tied up, and you can untie knots more easily.

The intentional interim minister was able to engage the congregation around some key questions of identity, purpose, and vision, while helping put the unfortunate and painful recent history into appropriate context. The church took the opportunity to relearn and redefine its basic understanding while also allowing new voices, ideas, and thoughts to add to the mix. (Also, more than a few skeletons were cleaned out of the closet, and a herd of elephants tromping around the middle of the room were able to be discussed freely and frankly.)

(3)  The more we talk of change, the more change happens.

When I look over the church newsletters and various mementoes from that internship period, I see more clearly that the leadership of the congregation was able to keep “change” at the forefront of the discussion. While other questions needed to be tackled (where do we meet after the current rental agreement runs out? How do we throw a good potluck? What Sunday school curriculum do we utilize?), the congregation kept asking itself questions that kept “the big picture” in front of them rather than just off to the side of the radar screen.

(4)Congregationally led” is a beautiful and very good phrase for a bunch of Baptists to toss around in their conversation and planning for a new chapter in ministry.

The church split happened largely over a long history of allowing only one (or a few) voice set the agenda. In this case, the congregation allowed a minister to wield more power than prudent. The result for those who split and went to this other group was a common mantra: “We want to be congregationally led”. This was shorthand for acknowledging a very dear and essential bit of Baptist congregational identity and authority. The strongest Baptist congregation is one that is led by lay leadership. A pastor serves as the equipper of the saints and skilled shepherd of the flock, but the “tone” and “voice” of the congregation is set by the congregation working together, especially through key lay leaders trusted and called forth to discern wisely where the congregation’s ministry and mission can be best utilized.

I offer these thoughts as we prepare for the 2008 annual meeting. While the context and situation of our church differs from the one I served as an intern, I think what I learned along the way might be of use to us as well. Let me know your thoughts and responses to these reflections!

The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot



Dear congregant:

I am writing to encourage your attendance of the next series in our Adult Education hour on Sunday mornings. I am grateful for the renewed ministry of education at First Baptist this year, celebrating a return to Sunday school “for all ages”. Over the next four Sundays (October 28 through November 18), we engage in talking about First Baptist’s need for a vision for our ministry. PLEASE PLAN TO ATTEND! YOUR CHURCH NEEDS YOUR VOICE!

In a time of transition, congregations find it helpful to assess where the ministries of the church are “right now” and discern where the church needs to be “next” in order to be relevant to the changing needs of the community as well as the internal life of the church. Vision statements help guide a church toward a new day for ministry, and so now is the time to help First Baptist begin discerning what a vision for ministry looks like.

The four Sundays are scheduled as follows:
October 28—Congregations benefit from regular opportunities to think about their ministry and use these insights to make course adjustments to the direction of a church. I will facilitate a discussion around the “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats” of First Baptist as an organization or spiritual community. Where do we see opportunities and ways to improve? This discussion is crucial to the remaining three Sundays, so I am hopeful that we will have close to fifty adults in the room discussing a very important issue: the present and future of YOUR congregation. (See the other side of this letter for thoughts on the SWOT analysis exercise to help you prepare.)

November 4—One of the key ways that a congregation makes its ministry happen is through a robust sense of stewardship. As the church is progressing through its first multi-week stewardship emphasis in years, the stewardship planners will guide the congregation through a new way of thinking about stewardship: more than just “talk about money”. Stewardship can be a way of expressing our gratitude to God through the giving of our time, our talents, and our tithes. In my absence, Darcy Oakes, Mary Harrington, and Cindy Watson will be facilitating worship and adult Sunday school that morning.

November 11 & 18—During these two Sundays, we will begin a process of discernment that culminates in a draft (or two) of a vision statement that helps First Baptist move forward in its ministry. Your voice is needed as we listen for God together, finding words that summon First Baptist to a new day for ministry. What will that vision statement look like? I am not even going to guess, other than that with many hearts and minds working together, we will hope to catch a bit of the Spirit’s calling as we look forward to a church that is ready to move forward!
Grace & Peace,

The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot, Intentional Interim Minister

P.S.—This past week, we completed the first unit, a seven-week session utilizing our denomination’s Children in Poverty curriculum and the wisdom of speakers engaged in religious organizations endeavoring to address the hard questions posed by the social and economic realities of living in Bennington, Vermont. It is my hope that First Baptist will be in the midst of these questions, helping provide the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus, the One who left no child behind and indeed ministered to all in need. As disciples of Jesus, we can do no less!