In order to get a sense of the work people have been engaged in during the past year, we invited hub teams to share stories from the people, pastors, and congregations they are working with. We asked for two kinds of stories: experiences of vocational loss and grief as well as stories of creativity, innovation, and promise.
Below are stories of congregations, individual members, pastors, ministries, and teams. Please read or view each set of stories prior to the annual meeting on December 8, 2020.
American Baptist College
St. John AME (Nashville) credits their time and experience in the ABC|CLMPI’s discernment and design-thinking centered process with supporting them in revisiting their ministry plans with the Holy Spirit after the March 3, 2020, Nashville destroyed their historic church building. And they share powerful testimony on why it’s important in serving as the church to remember that we are the church, not the building, and that, disaster or no, we should remain in faithful and continual process of realigning in our vision with God.
The design thinking process encompasses so much of what St. John AME has experienced working through the effects of the tornado and the onset of COVID-19. After a few years of discernment and research, the congregation was poised to open a cooking school in their church building for youth in the neighborhood. The cooking school would have served as both training for the youth to work in restaurants, and to help them connect with available jobs.
St. John AME had begun planning, assembled a team of community partners, and was preparing to submit their grant application to ABC|CLMPI when a tornado swept through Nashville on the evening of March 3, 2020. Their neighborhood was devastated, and the congregation’s building—home of the Mother AME church in Tennessee, originally built on Capitol Hill in Nashville—was declared a total loss.
Discernment and design thinking have helped them to “pivot” and rethink how they are called to serve—immediate community needs, as well as reorienting their original vision such that they are building new community relationships and partnerships in order to fulfill it. Some powerful summary lessons and thoughts from the congregation in their process:
- Trust God in it all. It may seem overwhelming to have to pivot, pivot again, and pivot some more. Trust God.
- Trust the design process, and the people in it. It works. There is a point where it will click.
- Lean into and embrace the uncertainty—and strive to be okay with it. This is hard for those of us who like to plan our work and work our plan. But something can happen to the plan—a tornado, COVID-19, all kinds of other things. This is going to be hard, but do the best we can to be okay with it, because where we are is where we are.
- Press forward with holy anticipation and excitement for next steps. Be more willing to look forward to what God has for us, than to look back at what we had. God has promised that our latter will be greater than our former. Believe that this is where pivoting with the Holy Spirit is taking us— forward to our greater, not back to “what we were.”
- Pay attention to your discernment.
- Not all money is good money, and not all productivity is beneficial. There were a lot of people who wanted to help, but what they wanted to do or give was not in alignment with what we needed or where we were headed.
- Beware of people who are trying to tell how to do what God has already told you to do, and present themselves as higher than the Lord.
- Be open to the move of God in whatever method it arrives. God manifested Themselves in a variety of ways in the resulting four months since the tornado and the onset of COVID-19.
For more detailed information, you can view Pastor Lisa Hammond’s powerful presentation at our July 2020 Summer Institute.
The Soundings Project at Baylor University is engaged with a wide range of congregations, and the struggles of 2020 have affected them in different ways. Two of our congregations—a small town, rural church and a large African American congregation in the suburbs of a large metropolitan area—are examples of how vocational loss and grief also have led to creativity and faithful, traditioned innovation.
Before the pandemic, the small church had been experiencing some difficulty engaging in a project simply because it questioned whether it was up to the task. This lack of confidence became even more pronounced once the pandemic took hold. The church closed its doors; worship went online. Communication about their project stopped altogether. The church began to question whether it would be able to participate in the Soundings Project at all.
The Soundings Project director met with the congregation’s working group and offered encouragement and a strategy for reimagining their participation in the project. Coming out of this meeting, the congregation has not only been encouraged but actually sees its participation in the Soundings Project as an opportunity for revival; the project team has been shifting from a mindset of surviving to thriving. Although the team is still working out the details of its calling in the midst of a pandemic, the members have renewed hope and even excitement for the project.
The large congregation has long been pursuing its vocation of loving God and neighbor in its community. Yet the congregation has been grieving for decades the violence and racial injustice that have become so pronounced in 2020. Out of this grief, the congregation has been deepening relationships with community partners and facilitating conversations about systemic racial and ethnic divides. It has hosted webinars, participated in a march for justice, and organized trainings in cultural intelligence and bias. Much like the small-town church, this congregation sees the present-day challenges as an opportunity to deepen its engagement with its vocation, in this case responding to injustice in the world with love of neighbor animated by Divine justice. The congregation hopes that other churches will be able to learn from its example both in its particular community and beyond.
These two congregations, from different contexts, illustrate how Soundings Project partner congregations are responding in hopeful ways in the midst of loss and grief.
Boston University School of Theology
Loss and Grief
This video, created by Pastor Ingrid Rasmussen of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, is a powerful walking witness to the pain Holy Trinity’s neighborhood went through at the killing of George Floyd and during the uprising of grief and anger that followed. Her slow journey through the smoke and debris of the neighborhood marks the end of so many vocational dreams: thriving immigrant-owned businesses and restaurants, a non-profit acting “as a circle of support that nurtures native American youth.” National Guard and State Patrol troops stand guard as she makes her way, greeting congregants, neighbors, and strangers. One man, noticing her pregnancy, begs her to leave the smoky street for the sake of her child. “Don’t do it,” he says. And then he adds, “God bless you, though.” Ingrid introduces several of the businesses with, “Our beloved…”: “our beloved Gandhi Mahal, our beloved Endeavor Glass.” As part of their work on calling, the congregation had been in the midst of interviewing immigrant business owners about their sense of calling to their work, when they were interrupted by the pandemic. Now the fate of so many of these businesses is unknown.
Tending the Flame
On June 3, Ingrid wrote the following account:
As I was finishing a conversation with a NY Times reporter yesterday, a man approached me carrying a lantern. He introduced himself as Brian Dragonfly, an employee from MIGIZI, an organization that is (was) located across the alley from the church. MIGIZI was founded in the 70s with a goal of countering misrepresentations and inaccuracies about Native people in the media. In addition to its communications work, it also focuses on Native youth empowerment. MIGIZI’s building survived the first night of unrest in the neighborhood. The second night, members of AIM (the American Indian Movement) were on site, monitoring activity around the building, but no amount of goodwill could stop the fire that spread from a neighboring building. MEGIZI’s building, completed late last year, and many of its contexts, were destroyed.
Brian Dragonfly said that when he came to assess the situation, he found that the building was still burning. “I decided to capture the fire,” he said, holding up his lantern. He wondered if Holy Trinity would tend the fire with MIGIZI until they could rebuild. He thought that the flame—the fire—might bring some comfort to his community.
In we went to the sanctuary. Brian set the lantern on the altar. I ran to find a candle. We shared the fire—and along with it the trauma of the preceding days, the conviction that not all that was destroyed is to be mourned, and the hope that this ashy moment in our neighborhood’s life will be an opportunity for new life. MIGIZI shared on Facebook: “Despite the flames, we as a community burn brighter…. We look forward to showing our resilience once again.”
Congregants of Holy Trinity continue to share responsibility in caring for the flame, moving it from house to house.
Innovation and Promise: “We belong to each other”
In their project proposal for this year, the Holy Trinity congregational team described the conditions that shaped their proposal as: Covid-19 isolation/uncertainty; worldwide racial reckoning following George Floyd’s death; and rebuilding efforts in Minneapolis following the uprising. In response to these conditions, Holy Trinity’s first vocational project for this year is to serve as the host for a series of virtual and socially distanced neighborhood meetings to gather all the stakeholders around the vocational question of what kind of neighborhood they want to work toward becoming. They have sought local BIPOC and immigrant participation in the dreaming and planning, as they seek to become a place where all can flourish together. Holy Trinity’s central role as a trustworthy neighbor was tried and proven over the course of the summer as they answered the call of the moment to become a community hub for a wide range of immediate needs, including food, first aid, and the need for a place of rest and safety in the midst of the turmoil. That work extended for more than three months. Their decades-long faithfulness to their core calling to be a neighbor gave them the flexibility and clarity to sense the urgency of the immediate needs as well as trust that God will be with them as they work to rebuild together in ways that no one has yet imagined. They are following the unfolding of the guiding commitment for their work this year: “We belong to each other” (Romans 12:5).
This article from the Christian Century tells more of their story.
Fuller Theological Seminary
The “Innovation for Vocation” project at Fuller has likely taken a very different turn as compared to projects in other seminaries of the CLMP cohort. COVID came at a particularly strange time for us. We had completed work with one set of congregations and were just about to work with another group when the world started sheltering in place.
On Thursday March 12th, 2020, we were scheduled to gather many congregations from the UMC Southern California annual conference for an innovation summit – which was to be the beginning of our next phase. The congregations had done good work online to prepare for the summit. And, on Thursday morning, I confirmed with the congregations and found that they were still planning to attend. But by noon, just a few hours later, half the congregations had cancelled as they decided to suspend in-person worship services for the first time that weekend — and by 1pm the bishop had cancelled the innovation summit. We have continued to work with the bishop to figure out how to re-start the engagement with the congregations. But he keeps postponing as the pandemic endures.
There is another reason our school’s experience has likely been different from other seminary’s. A significant part of our seminary’s project involved producing a book, The Innovative Church – which was published in September.
We spent the summer creating blog posts and podcasts on innovation. We produced 18 blog posts and partnered with Luther Seminary to do a thirteen-part blog series on the pandemic called Pivot. Since the book was published, there have also been a number of podcast interviews and webinars.
All this is to say that we have done work for congregations since the pandemic began, but not with congregations. We have stories of congregations doing innovative work, but we cannot claim that such work comes as a direct result of the innovation summits we have hosted. They are more likely to come from the books, blogs, webinars, and podcasts we created. In light of that, let me tell two stories.
- I continue to meet with a pastor from a separate innovation project (one of the Young Adult Innovation congregations) and he said something I have continually repeated. He describes how our people live in the midst of “four crises”: the heath crisis, the economic crisis, the race crisis, and the political crisis. And, together the four crises wash over us like waves. Any one crisis would be manageable, but together they give the sense that we cannot get our heads above water. Indeed, we are talking about helping his congregation create a podcast called “The Four Crises.” The first step in that direction is that the staff of his church is reading The Innovative Church and then, when we meet the first week of December, we will talk about how to use a podcast to, in the words of the book, “make spiritual sense of the longings and losses of the young adults entrusted to their care.”
- The Christian practices of lament and vocation have become inter-twined in this season. Most leaders had, until recently, seen vocation and lament as unrelated. But this wilderness season has helped them understand what our project means when we say that “vocation is not about your passions or your plans; it is about the people God entrusts to your care.” And, as they pay attention to their people, the find themselves turning to lament in the midst of just about every activity that is related to their vocation.
The spring and summer months brought many challenges for congregations navigating COVID-19 and the deep and painful race divisions in our country. One of our churches, Maple Ave Ministries, approached The inVocation Project with an idea.
Pastor Denise Kingdom-Grier heard from several middle school girls who felt isolated due to the virus and were trying to process recent troubling events, including the murder of George Floyd. Desiring to respond to this expressed need, Pastor Denise reached out to us with the idea of launching a virtual program she designed and named the Vocation of a Freedom Fighter.
Twelve middle school girls from the congregation, looking to engage, listen and learn from one another, signed up for this weekly virtual gathering. In Pastor Denise’s words, “they are hungry and eager to become disciples and changemakers for the sake of their community and the Kingdom of God.”
Each week, participants discuss assigned readings facilitated by Pastor Denise and hear from several different female guest speakers on justice, advocacy, empowerment, and self-care. These gatherings are underway, and we look forward to seeing the vision board each girl will create to depict their respective calling to racial justice after the project concludes. One excited participant took this picture and shared with her church-wide small group how much she was looking forward to this opportunity!
Mark and Doreen are husband and wife members of the Regent Exchange team from Bellingham Covenant Church in western Washington. Mark shared about the surprising hopes and opportunities for learning and growth that have come during the pandemic season.
Vocation: Gathered, Scattered, Never Closed
When BCC physically shut down, the leadership taught and utilized the language of “the church scattered versus the church gathered” as a way to frame their calling and vocation in this period of uncertainty and physical distance. Mark credits this framework for helping everyone understand that while they are not meeting together physically, they are still the church. “Sometimes the church is gathered, sometimes it is scattered, but it is never closed.”
Called to Change
Mark noted that the experience of grief due to the loss of physical contact and connection was experienced at varying degrees by people in their church. Yet, he found that BCC was quick to creatively pivot to digital interactions. Notably, one staff member who was already interested in and adept at video editing and other relevant technology was appointed to oversee the church’s online offerings. Because of this, the staff were able, from very early on, to bring high quality, joyous, and fun worship and teaching experiences to their congregation.
Called to Creative Use of Technology
Mark and Doreen engaged in a variety of online spiritual formation groups both as leaders/facilitators and participants, including a book study, a contemplative prayer group, adult formation (teaching) classes, movie and discussion, a Bible reading hour, and a coffee hour. They were and continue to be surprised and encouraged by the depth and quality of engagement made possible through technology such as zoom. They also noticed increased engagement from those who, in the past, tended to say little and keep “to the sidelines.” New voices are emerging.
Called to New Learning
Never before in BCC’s history have they engaged in teaching and learning around racial justice and creation care. Yet in the midst of this difficult season, BCC chose to dive into both of these topics, and have used technology to do so. These topical engagements are a true sign of hope for this church as they go through this fraught period of time together. As a couple, Mark and Doreeen have also felt called to more intentional connection with one another, and with God through renewing contemplative practices in their own lives.
Overall, while the difficulties of the pandemic are certainly top of mind, the willingness to pivot and embrace change has helped Bellingham Covenant Church live more fully into their vocation as the church scattered but never closed.
Life is Calling began a YouTube series called What’s Working Wednesday in early August as a way for churches to hear from one another about how their congregations had adapted to a new way of being in the pandemic without another whole-iHub Zoom meeting to add to the calendar.
One church was interviewed each week, and each pastor or leader shared their answers to four questions:
- What’s working well?
- What’s making it work so well?
- What’s your biggest challenge?
- What keeps you hopeful?
Of the interviews we conducted, two stood out as stories of innovation, creativity, and promise. Below you’ll find a re-cap of these interviews, along with a link to see the complete video.
Rev. Dr. Geraldine Daniels, Pastor, Southside CME Church, Birmingham, Alabama
Rev. Dr. Daniels tells the story of how her congregation went from “just sitting next to each other in the pews to working together” to serve the local community during 2020. Southside CME went through a process of discernment in 2019 which led them to think creatively about how to aid students who were coming to Sunday school at church but were not reading at grade-level. Some church members are also teachers at a local elementary school, which opened the door for conversation with the church about providing reading intervention programs after school and during the summer. Southside’s new ministry, called S.H.I.E.L.D. (Student Helpers in Literacy Development), was put on hold when Alabama’s stay-at-home order went into effect in March. However, the congregation found creative ways to serve the community, among which included a weekly drive-through food box distribution in their parking lot in cooperation with a local food bank. This is where Dr. Daniels really saw her congregation come together to carry on the work of the church even though they were not able to meet in their sanctuary for weekly worship.
The congregation experienced grief, too. It came with the loss of worship, like so many other churches, the loss of personal contact, and especially with the loss of loved ones. One of the biggest challenges Dr. Daniels faced in this year was how to minister to members whose loved ones died since they were not able to celebrate the life of the loved one in familiar ways. One church member, a woman in her early 30’s, died of Covid-19. This was a “daughter of the church,” raised at Southside CME, and the loss was felt congregation-wide.
Dr. Daniels also expressed that the agility she has seen in her congregation keeps her hopeful for the future – not just of Southside, but of the Church. She commented that her members resolved not to sit and wait, but to find ways to worship and gather safely, continue working in the community feeding neighbors and registering them to vote, and to keep “being the church.”
A longer interview with Rev. Dr. Daniels can be seen on the CCR YouTube channel here.
Rev. Elizabeth O’Neill, Pastor, Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Montgomery, AL
Rev. O’Neill sensed early in 2020 that her congregation was experiencing some collective burn-out. Because they are a commuter church, Sundays were becoming marathons of worship, fellowship, Sunday school, shared meals, and committee meetings, making a lot of involved church members weary. Rev. O’Neill began to pray about how the church could step back and engage in Sabbath practices, and then the pandemic shut everything down.
As Rev. O’Neill pondered ways for her congregation to stay connected in the shutdown, she had the idea of a rope labyrinth on the lawn of the church for parishioners to come and walk outside, giving them a sacred practice and a chance to see each other (distanced and masked) in a familiar place. The rope labyrinth turned into an idea for a more permanent installation, and as the call for justice intensified nationwide after George Floyd’s death, it gave church members who did not feel comfortable (for health reasons) attending a public protest a place to come and pray and gather. The church continues to work on the labyrinth and the surrounding space, making it a place for prayer, small gatherings, and including some art, which is important to the congregation.
Rev. O’Neill has commented that their congregation has found that a lot of the “usual” church programming is not life-giving, and in some ways has failed to provide us with the disciplines and practices that sustain us in times of crisis (including pandemics). Her congregation remains hopeful that rethinking their own programming will see them get “back to basics” and focus their worship and ministries on the things that are most life-giving and best form them spiritually into the future.
A longer interview with Rev. O’Neill can be seen on the CCR YouTube channel here.
Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Inc.
An amazing quote from Tom Sauline reflecting on how calling (and C3) has impacted the culture of their congregation in these uncertain times: “Helping people reflect on God’s action in their lives is going to make them disposed to trust that God will help with whatever changes they are dealing with and whatever changes are coming. This makes you more open to adapting to changing circumstances and seeing God’s call in it. What is created is a disposition of openness to God’s activity in your life, trusting that God will help you deal with changes in a Christ like loving way, and how, as a community, we do the same together.”
Virginia Theological Seminary
Hope Street & Colville Community Church: Discerning a Calling
The Hope Street Colville project grew out of the Called to the City Calling Community, a group formed on the conviction that the city and the church should be in partnership in serving the local community. In gatherings, group members focus on things like mapping the neighborhoods around their church buildings and forging relationships with the individuals who live in immediate proximity. Out of those practices have emerged new ministries and programs designed to fill unmet needs right on the church’s doorstep.
Hope Street Colville began with a BIG vision to construct a “mixed-income village” that included 154 homes, apartments and a common building to serve the homeless population. The project leaders, including Colville Community Church and the Hope Street organization, had already developed partnerships with the city of Colville, churches from across the denominational spectrum, local schools, and area businesses. Yet after a lot of excellent work and planning, the initial vision for the project felt too big – exceeding the capacity of the local community to deliver at the scale envisioned. In light of this, the churches in Colville and the leaders at Hope Street spent a significant amount of time discerning the path forward and made the decision to scale back the project and focus significant efforts on the homeless and housing insecure people in Colville, all of whom are known well by local aid organizations, including Hope Street.
Together with local churches and Hope Street, Whitworth’s Office of Church Engagement was able to provide $15,000 in addition to $10,000 in matching funds to donations from local churches, businesses and individuals. In total, the project received $35,000. To date the funds have been able to cover development costs for seven acres previously owned by Hope Street, including engineering, drafting, design and architectural work, and feasibility planning for an additional land swap (in partnership with the City of Colville). Funding also helped to complete the hookup costs, foundation, and final construction of a donated tiny home, which will provide one more family with shelter this year. Colville churches have also deepened their involvement with Hope Street and serving the homeless by donating hygiene kits, cleaning supplies, bottled water, and other much needed supplies.
In addition, the team was able to move forward with plans to build a 6-unit apartment which will go a long way to provide housing for the poor. Boris Borisov, coordinator for this Calling Community says, “This is an excellent example of the community dreaming big, identifying an ambitious goal to meet the need, and then discerning the small, incremental steps that can be taken today.” It can be easy to lose hope when trying to reconcile huge needs and a lack of resources in the city, but it is precisely these small tangible steps that can be the catalyst to spark additional partners from a broad spectrum of institutions to come forward and participate. The project has been visited by government, business and church leaders from around eastern Washington and north Idaho – all with the vision of replicating such a strong partnership between the city and the church to serve the local people.
Session 3 reading – “I Hear Them … Calling” by Vincent Harding. From Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, Second Edition. Edited by Dorothy Bass and Mark Schwehn (Eerdmans, 2020).