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.

Wednesday
Apr022008

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

fbpastor@sover.net

 

Tuesday
Feb262008

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

Tuesday
Jan012008

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

Monday
Oct222007

VISION CASTING

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!

Thursday
Sep272007

Ministers...Everybody

MINISTERS….EVERYONE

 

Each week, Donna Sprague works on the Sunday morning bulletin. It looks wonderful each week, yet Donna sometimes needs a medal (or a trip to somewhere tropical) after getting through the numerous little details. Is the sermon title available? Is this the hymn first or last in the service order? Is the usher schedule accurate? Did the typo about the event next week get fixed? You see…it’s sometimes wicked crazy to get that bulletin ready for Sunday morning. (And Donna is a saint!)

One part of the bulletin that does not change EVER in the bulletin is on the back page, and perhaps you have gotten so used to seeing this bit that you have forgotten. The line reads, “Ministers…..Everyone”

 

In 1982, a remarkable thing happened. Christians from various denominations around the world sat down together and completed a document about the Church. Now, you might think that sounds like a fairly stale sounding meeting. (Indeed, whether local or national, sometimes the yawns are merited as Christian folk gather and still make talking about religion as fun as watching paint dry!) Actually, this meeting was a fairly energetic experience as various Christian movements worked together to talk about core issues of talking about matters of faith. Entitled “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry” (a.k.a. “BEM”), the document is one of many published by the World Council of Churches, and BEM continues to serve as excellent material for Christians to sit down and talk about their particular religious convictions while reading the collected wisdom of the WCC participants trying to work with their differences.

The Holy Spirit bestows on the community [i.e. the Church] diverse and complementary gifts. These are for the common good of the whole people and are manifested in acts of service within the community and to the world. They may be gifts of communicating the Gospel in word and deed, gifts of healing, gifts of praying, gifts of teaching and learning, gifts of serving, gifts of guiding and following, gifts of inspiration and vision. All members are called to discover, with the help of the community, the gifts they have received and to use them for the building up of the Church and for the service of the world to which the Church is sent. (BEM, “Ministry”, paragraph five).

(BEM, “Ministry”, paragraph five).

 

Each person who is part of First Baptist is a minister. The work of the Church (local, regional, national, global) is about the whole people of God. We Baptists would say a hearty AMEN to this section of BEM (even while we fuss at the language regarding baptism and eucharist on some points). The Baptist tradition would call this being “the priesthood of all believers”. Every Christian is called to the work of the Church. Certainly, we call forth individuals to the work of ordained ministry, thus a pastor serves this congregation, and in the broader American Baptist movement, you have chaplains, educators, home and international missionaries, pastoral care counselors, and the list goes on. Nonetheless, these clergy are called to minister just like the person sitting in the pews or swinging a hammer at a Habitat build, or cooking in the kitchen, or

participating in music or educational ministry, or board work.

As part of the transitional journey of First Baptist, you are engaged in asking a number of big picture questions about the ministry of the congregation. One of the critical questions, however, must be “how does First Baptist empower the whole people of God to the work of ministry?”

You can have one person in the pulpit preaching and teaching and caring, but if you do not ask yourselves “what about the rest of us? How does God call me to the work of ministry?”, you will find that not much will get done, and a lot of potential will go untapped. No one person or handful of people can accomplish “communicating the Gospel in word and deep, gifts of serving, gifts of guiding and following, gifts of inspiration and vision.” That takes everybody to see things come about!

First Baptist is thriving due to its people, not any one person (especially not any one parson). Each person indeed is gifted with “diverse and complementary gifts” kindled by the Holy Spirit. As a contemporary hymn puts it, “Let us bring the gifts that differ in splendid, varied ways!”

 

If you would like some one-on-one time with the pastor to talk about how YOU can discern, identify, and share your gifts as a Christian and as a minister of First Baptist, this is a great time!

On Sunday, October 14, we will celebrate YOUR work as a congregant at First Baptist by hosting a blessing of the lay ministry of the congregation. You are invited to prepare for this worship service by thinking about what your gifts for ministry are and how you put them to use in service to First Baptist. Then look for something that symbolizes your gifts. It could be a hammer for the gift of helps, a quill pen or a computer keyboard for your gift of writing, a stuffed toy for your work in the nursery, and the list can go on and on and on. During the service, we will ask you to bring this gift to the altar and we will bless the assembled people and your gifts that you bring to strengthen and further the ministry and mission of First Baptist.

First Baptist has come a great distance in the past two years, thanks to persons living out “ministers….everyone”. Let the whole people say, “AMEN!”, which means, “Let it be so!”

The Rev. Jerrod Hugenot