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.


"Everything nailed down is bustin' loose!"

Since First Baptist called me as the intentional interim in March 2006, I have worked with you to address issues of congregational transition and change. Last fall, we engaged in a few learning experiences related to change (i.e. exploring the congregation’s history, mapping out our abilities and assets as a congregation, and talking about our self-image as a congregation). This spring, we spent time with consultant Dr. Ronald Carlson, who introduced the idea of being a missional church over two different workshop weekends. Each event brought opportunities for participants to reflect on change, transition, and how First Baptist could flourish as you seek ways to write that next chapter in ministry.

As this fall gets underway, First Baptist will have further opportunities to explore and redefine itself. September marks the return of Sunday school for all ages. On Sunday mornings, we expand our religious education to include children and adults in a variety of classes during the 11 o’clock hour. As we prepare for 2008 (yes, now is the time!), we will experience a new type of stewardship emphasis over a series of Sunday mornings, led by Cindy Watson, Mary Harrington, and Darcy Oakes. New choral activities are being offered for children and adults on Wednesday afternoon and evenings. You may not think of “stewardship” or “choir” as a way that churches experience transition, but indeed, these are signs that the congregation is experiencing redevelopment. Each of these things is indeed “change” at work!

When discussing the experience of transition, the authors of Temporary Shepherds: A Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry draw upon a line from a play by Marc Connelly called Green Pastures. Spoken by an old deacon, the line goes like this: “Everything nailed down is bustin’ loose!” Then the authors make the following observation:

“Congregations tend to think that they do not change over time, but nothing is further from the truth. Congregations change significantly as they respond to different pastoral leaders, to changes in their societal context, and to alterations in their internal circumstances.” (p. 8)

Two years ago this month, your last minister departed, and you began a search process in the form of a three-year season of interim ministry. Think about where First Baptist has been since you began talking of transition in the fall of 2005. What do you believe has changed or “bust[ed] loose”? What still seems “nailed down”?

I believe it is critical to the health of any congregation, whether an active membership of 20 or 200, that care is given to dealing with the inevitability of change. Most often, a change in pastor is the most visible, but the changes that occur when one’s ministry setting, or context, changes is equally important. Bennington has changed greatly over the past fifty years. How well do the congregation and its ministries connect with the community? Do we know our community well?

Attending the Children in Poverty study conducted this September and October will be an excellent opportunity for the adult congregants to reflect together on the realities of social and economic conditions in our community. I hope that the sessions will encourage some critical and careful thought about how First Baptist reinterprets its mission, vision, and identity.

After the Children in Poverty study concludes in mid-October, a series of workshops on “Vision” will be offered over the course of four Sunday school sessions for our adults. During this time, a team of lay leaders will lead the adults through a time of reflecting upon and dreaming about a vision for First Baptist. Too often, congregations in transition just settle for the minister setting the tone, and in the case of interim ministry periods, the congregation is even more tempted just “to wait until the real minister gets here” before getting too excited about much of anything.

Obviously, the past two years have not been just about waiting around. First Baptist has addressed some short-term and long overdue issues during this time. The reality, however, is that the work of transitioning the church into a new chapter of ministry is still underway. We need lay members and lay leaders to wrestle about “what’s busted loose” and “what’s still nailed down” in the ministry of the church. As we get closer to Thanksgiving, perhaps we can celebrate the autumnal harvest with a vision that brings us ever closer to being the healthy, intentional, and engaged congregation that you started yearning for two years ago.

Until then, may we hear around the church: “Everything nailed down is bustin’ loose!”

Celebrating Milestones in TImes of Transition

In February, we had the opportunity to learn about being a “missional church” from Ron Carlson, who will be returning to instruct us again during the first weekend of June (June 1-3, mark your calendars now!). Part of the work of Ron’s first visit was to help us see that we are not going to get anywhere worrying about the pews that are empty. Instead, we need to learn how to empower those already here to be grow deeper in faith and more adept at using their gifts.

Right now, we’re doing great for a “small church” (defined as 60 or less), but if we wish to see the church flourish, it will take helping the people already here flourish in their own faith first. Adding ten more, let alone forty more adults every Sunday to these pews will be hard, but not unattainable work, and it will not happen immediately. If there’s any word of advice I try to give to myself, it is this: growth takes time and intention.

A good example of this is in the work of the altar guild, a group that didn’t exist a year ago. Little by little, talk about “sprucing up the church” began to get people who have interest and creativity together to plot out ideas for the church altar. These gifts are being put to use. Openness to try, willingness to risk, joy in experimentation, embracing the new. These were key factors in getting things going, but remember the beauty of it: gifts of people already here were finally able to be cultivated and called forth! God is already at work, bringing you and you and you here to this place. Now it’s time to figure out how to work with our giftedness!

And speaking of gifts, we need people to help us discern wisely our next steps in ministry. The board of trustees is actively taking on the challenge of getting the building more up and running for more community involvement. There will be some conversations about how we talk about stewardship and long-term management of our finances. There will be opportunities for people to get involved in issues around “Children In Poverty” down in Washington, DC, so they can come back and help us get involved in these critical matters.

The Christian education board is asking you to be part of a present day effort to return to “Sunday school” each week for all ages. It is part of our past, but I believe that if we are to have a future, Sunday school and other educational opportunities MUST be part of our present day work. Your time this morning will help educate the congregation about what we are already doing well (Sunday school for ages up to ten) while thinking about how we need to get adult education going, and continue the ministry of “Vacation Bible School” this summer with loads of helpful volunteers tending the children we know already and hopefully a dozen more kids who have never stepped foot in the church.

We are at an unique place in our history right now. Today’s “newcomer” is tomorrow’s active congregant, if we can make a place for them to flourish and use their gifts. We do all of this not to keep an old building alive or a quaint old tradition going. We do it because we give thanks to God, the one who graces us with every gift, with one another, and all through our belief in Christ Jesus. We give thanks for 180 years behind us, all the years ahead of us, and most of all, courage to live faithfully in the present.


"Missional" is our future!

“Missional” is a new word that First Baptist is just starting to learn about. (Don’t worry! “Missional” is a new enough word that the word is still catching on in seminaries and denominational offices, so just think, you’re ahead of the curve!) Thanks to a weekend in early February with Dr. Ron Carlson of ABC National Ministries, we began a conversation that I hope will continue onwards as the transitional time unfolds. Indeed, if we live out the definition of “missional” as a congregation, and even as individual disciples of Christ, we will experience great things. A church that is “missional” is defined by Dr. Carlson in this way:

“A community of faith which directs

its ministry focus primarily outward

toward the context in which it is located

and to the broader world beyond.”

To help us understand this definition, think about being “a missional church” in this way: For years, the emphasis of many churches has been to worry about declining numbers rather than figuring out how to utilize the creativity, gifts, and talents of those who are already faithful members of the congregation. Worrying about the pew that is empty has not allowed us to look at those already in the pews.

Becoming a missional church also asks the church to understand its identity anew. When you think of the church and its ministry, is it a fairly static understanding that has not changed for as long as you can remember? Does the phrase “mission field” sound like somewhere far, far away, and in turn, no place that we would expect to find ourselves?

Missional churches look at their community intentionally as a mission field and their ministries as more the result of creative thinking and praying about “how can we reach people and meet their needs?” Being this sort of church is to be less about worrying about “keeping the doors open” in the sense of maintaining an aging institution and more about keeping the church current by addressing the changing needs of the community.

Think of this sort of church as leaven in a loaf of bread. Jesus called the “reign of God” as such. A missional church finds little ways to effect the bigger picture, perhaps in small, sometimes imperceptible ways. Rather than being on edge about if there’s a tomorrow, a “missional” minded church is able to live “on the edge” of where the gospel is needed most.

Some of these initiatives can be the work of our existing boards and committees, however, a missional type church gives permission for “the whole people of God” to get involved. We will be offering another weekend with Dr. Carlson in the early part of summer to learn about how to organize “mission teams”, a group of people interested in tackling a particular issue or need—perhaps a team comprised of members of First Baptist as well as others in the community who would help resource the need being addressed, and in turn, learn that faith can indeed connect with these critical issues.

One way that First Baptist can become involved in missional ways is by tackling the issue of poverty in our community. Later this summer (June 27-28), American Baptists will gather in Washington, DC, for a conference called “Seeing the Children—Transforming the Church”, a national two-day event helping congregations engage their communities around the issue of children in poverty. We are hoping to send several congregants to this event, and in return, help those congregants put into action some of the ideas that they learn. If you would like to help underwrite the expenses of these folks, please send your donation marked “Poverty Conference” to the church, and we will help provide some assistance to our folks going to DC this summer.




Retreat Weekend coming up!

When I worked for the seminary bookstore, local church pastors and lay leaders would often stand in front of the “Church Leadership” section pondering which books to buy for long stretches of time. “What are you looking for today?” I asked one person. “The answers,” was the reply.

Congregations struggle. First Baptist is like most American Baptists, and indeed most mainline Protestant churches, with a very familiar story: figuring out how to address our changing context for ministry. Many churches join us in the experience of declining attendance numbers since the late 1960s, or wondering where all the “young people” went, or becoming anxious about the rising costs of maintaining buildings, salaries, and programming with ever-shrinking dollars. The region office calls this effect being “stale, stagnant, or stuck.” And about 2/3 of the ABC V/NH congregations are there right now!

How we choose to live in this day as a congregation will help First Baptist see today as a new day for ministry or as a waning memory of past success and minimal hope for the present. The good news is: we are choosing to be in transition and transformation, and we celebrate success in 2006. Now it’s time to wrestle with the more significant long-term issues of being a congregation ready for “what’s now?” and “what’s next?”

At month’s end, there will be a significant opportunity to learn together as a congregation. Dr. Ron Carlson from ABC National Ministries will offer a weekend event for the church to learn about the present day for ministry and mission work. This is an “all church” retreat for adult members of the congregation. It is my hope and prayer that you will be able to work around work, family, and other obligations to attend this event.

We will begin on Friday evening, February 23, at 6 PM for a potluck meal and a time to reflect (up to about 8 PM or so) about our understandings of where we are and how we can “beat the odds” that congregations like First Baptist are past their prime. We continue on Saturday, February 24, from 9 AM to 3 PM, trying to connect Dr. Carlson’s thoughts on church transformation to our own ministry field: the Bennington area. On Sunday morning, February 25, at 9:30 AM, Ron will share in worship about churches that he has worked with across the denomination, and afterwards as part of a special coffee hour time, we will reflect together as a congregation about “okay….what do we do now?”

To give you a little bit of background about Ron Carlson, let me share some observations: I met Ron when he came to Central Seminary as a professor of evangelism and church growth. What impressed me about Ron’s thinking on the matter was that he was not the type who believed in “one size fits all” evangelism programs. He is particularly interested in helping congregations learn how to become more open to growth in ways that suit where they are. If you are in an urban area, your ministry opportunities will differ from churches in a small town. For a church rooted in the Bennington, Vermont, area, what will help us play our strengths as a congregation and be proactive in addressing challenging needs within the community?

Ron will share part of what is a growing vision among various churches. This movement of churches refer to themselves as “missional” churches. Indeed, “missional” is becoming a new vocabulary word for seminary students readying to go out into ministry, and it is a word that many churches are finding varying and diverse definitions to what this word means for them.