SHARING A VISION
© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine
University Congregational Church
January 13, 2008
Reading: “Back of Basics” by Jeffrey D. Jones
“We are living in a time of profound change. Our challenge in this time is to discover the ways in which we ourselves need to change in order to adjust to the new realities of our world. We cannot keep doing things the way we have always done them. But neither will it do us any good to simply change for the sake of change or to jump on the bandwagon of the newest fad of a fickle world. In times of great change, in times when the old answers just don’t seem to work any more, the most important thing we can do is to go back to our roots. This doesn’t mean keep doing what we have been doing, for in most cases that isn’t our roots at all, just old branches. It is the way we had accommodated to changes we faced sometime in the past. Our roots go deeper than that – in both time and meaning. For Christians, those roots are discovered in the Bible, most especially in the New Testament.”
A few weeks ago someone said to me, “Now that you have been here several months, have there been any surprises?” The answer to that question is, of course, yes. And I will bet that some parishioners would say that they have had a few surprises as well. That is always the way it is with clergy transition. I have also been asked to reflect more deeply on the future of our ministry together. And this being the day of our annual meeting, I wanted to take this morning to share with you a vision of University Congregational Church that is emerging in my mind.
This vision is only in its infancy. It is an invitation to a longer conversation through the various committees and boards of our congregation, as well as the Church Council. I hope that together we will build a vision that has measurable and achievable goals with identified strategies by which we can implement them. What I am sharing with you today is only what I have been working on since last September and what we will implement in 2008.
Vision is not something that you just make up. Vision begins with a deep appreciation for the people and the resources that can make a future possible. I must begin by sharing my deep appreciation for the opportunity of serving as the senior minister of this congregation. As I drive in to the church on K 96 toward Webb Road I look at the church’s steeple with a deep sense of gratitude for this calling. I also thank you for the love that you have tendered to Mimi and our children.
A vision begins with the people. From what I have learned about the history of this congregation and my relationship with you so far, we can accomplish any goal we decide on, be it building, program, or outreach ministry. By your leadership and commitment this congregation has grown to a membership of over 600; built this beautiful facility which is debt free; and established an endowment for the future. There is no question that we can achieve what we have the will to achieve. The question is not ideas or resources or leadership. University Congregational Church is awash with these. The challenge is our vision for our congregation. My vision of the future begins with you.
Once I get in the building I am consistently met with a church staff that is dedicated to the fulfillment of this church’s mission. Having worked with all kinds of church personnel over the last 33 years I can tell you that you will not find a more competent or caring church team. Bob Scott, Helen Griffin, Cathy Erbert, Cindy Richter, Karen and Tim Robu work hard to serve you. Every challenge and every new task is approached with a positive attitude. They are happy to accomplish some new program that will meet the needs of our people. They have accepted every proposal I have offered even though that usually means more work for them. And while we inevitably talk about the personalities of our church I have never heard anyone diminish or denigrate a member or friend of this congregation. I am blessed to work with them and you are blessed to have them in your employ.
Several people have said that they expect the Senior Minister to function as the chief of staff. My response is that I can only do that with policies and guidelines that define the boundaries and expectations of our employees. Since my arrival last fall, we have been working to create a personnel policy manual, under the leadership of Phil Rhea. With that we are also rewriting all job descriptions for our personnel. We should be prepared to send to the Board of Trustees and the Church Council final documents within the next month or two. I want to thank the members of the Personnel Committee for their very hard work. It is a pleasure to work with them, especially since our meetings conclude early enough for everyone to go home and watch Boston Legal.
A vision is founded on the people. A vision is founded on the strength and dedication of our professional leadership. There are two areas where I see an immediate need for growth in our professional team. The first has to do with the position of Christian Educator. Karen Robu was initially hired as Director of Youth Ministry. Since that time her position has expanded with many additional responsibilities that have included Maundy Thursday, musical presentations, Family Night Out, Ice Cream Socials, and Vacation Bible Schools. These additional tasks go far beyond her original job description. Karen has been happy to do this work and it has become woven in the fabric of our life together. At her own initiative she has incorporated the rotation model of Christian Education into the morning Sunday school program, which emphasizes interactive and experiential educational techniques. There are many churches that are trying to catch up to this model of education!
At the same time some people have raised a concern that Karen does not have the credentials to be recognized as a certified Christian Educator. Given the work that she has done for the last two years, especially in the circumstances of a dying pastor and interim ministry, I think Karen has done an exceptional job. I believe that she should be given the opportunity to continue her ministry with us and gain the credentials that she needs. I recommended to the Christian Education Board that we support Karen in her effort to earn a Master’s degree in Christian Ministry at Friends University. This idea was approved by the Board of Trustees, offering to pay for Karen’s tuition and fees. I understand that a family has come forward to pay for her books. I want to thank all of you for seeing the future, affirming Karen’s potential to be an outstanding Christian educator, and stepping up to the plate to help with her education.
In the meantime I have introduced to Karen and the Christian Education Board two curricula that we will implement this year. The first is Jerome Berryman’s Godly Play. The Rev. Dr. Gary Cox had introduced Karen to the idea of story based Christian Education and suggested to her a number of Bible stories that would be appropriate for her to use. Godly Play will give our children a more comprehensive introduction to Biblical stories utilizing manipulatives that will enhance the telling and interpretation of our scriptural heritage. Karen will be trained in this material this spring.
The second piece of curriculum is entitled Our Whole Lives, written in collaboration between the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association. OWL is human sexuality education. OWL is both biologically and medically accurate and reflects deep faith values such as the inherent worth of every human being, personal responsibility, and the rights and decisions of other people. This material is so well written that some public schools have adopted it to replace the “abstinence only” material that eventually fails our adolescents. A number of Planned Parenthood affiliates have also adopted it for use in their teen sexuality education programs. There are five age groups that OWL has been written for, beginning with elementary aged children through adults. The age group that we will begin with is the junior high class, believing that they are our most vulnerable group. Each age level in the OWL program requires training of the people who will teach the course. We cannot even purchase the material without the training. No child may participate in the class unless his or her parents have consented to participation and attended a parent meeting. Classes will be held at a time other than Sunday school. Karen and two adults from our congregation, who do not have children in our junior high program, will be trained this spring and we will offer the class beginning in the summer. It is also our plan to welcome other congregational churches in Wichita and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation to participate in OWL.
The second position that needs to expand for the 2009 church year is that of Office Assistant. If you were to visit the church during the week you would know that this is a very busy place. Cathy and Cindy work hard from the time they get here in the morning throughout the afternoon. Aside from the tasks that need to be accomplished the phone is constantly ringing; people come and go with deliveries, questions, and expectations. Cathy and Cindy meet every demand with grace and diplomacy. They have taken one lunch break since I have been here, which was for the staff Christmas luncheon. If they eat they eat at their desks. And while we say there are church office hours they are often here beyond those stated hours, not to mention the work they do on Sunday mornings. The work demand is great enough that we frequently pay Cindy overtime to compensate her for the extra hours. I think we should recognize the overtime hours and expand the position beyond the twenty hours to a full time position. With that I would also add the responsibility of volunteer coordinator. A volunteer coordinator would go a long to help us staff projects that include teaching Sunday school, volunteer maintenance projects, special projects like Habitat for Humanity or other community service, and a growing church program. With a growing ministry administrative responsibilities will grow as well. She has not only the skill level but also the personality that would equip us to better recruit, train, sustain, and celebrate the many volunteer hours that are essential to any vital church.
An area of deep concern for me is pastoral care. With a membership of about 600, eighty-five percent of whom are over the age of 55 you can imagine that pastoral care is a significant part of the senior minister’s work. In the eight days before Christmas Sunday I conducted four memorial services and a wedding. Add to this pastoral calls to hospitals, nursing homes, homes, and office visits. I seem to making between 25 and 35 calls a month. Much of the time that I commit to pastoral care is given to crises in families, deaths, and hospitalizations. I am not able to give the longer commitments of time to grieving families or people who need sustained care and attention. For example, when a person dies pastoral care does not stop with the memorial service. The rule of thumb is that a family needs contact six days after the service, then six weeks, six months, and at the anniversary.
Pastoral care is the responsibility of the entire congregation. Congregational care not only sustains those who are in immediate need, but also lifts up the entire body of Christ, blessing our fellowship with a love and grace that every member needs. To that end, I am proposing to the Board of Trustees that we join the Stephen Ministry program. Stephen Ministry training begins with intensive education of congregational leaders who will then return to train others on the psychology and spirituality of mutual support and care. This will be a program of intentional and structured congregational care giving. The cost of training each Stephen Ministry leader is just a little over $1,000. Three of the lay people who have volunteered for this program have offered to pay their own way, cutting the total cost to the church down to about $4,000. I believe that if we can see our way to fund this program for 2008 it will sustain the fellowship of University Congregational Church for many years beyond. This will be an investment in our own members the value of which cannot be measured.
Beyond 2008 we have a great deal of planning to do. I have been working hard to bring University Congregational Church into a full service congregation. I have only mentioned a few initiatives for this year. Ted Blankenship has been nominated to be our Moderator for next year. He and I have talked about the need to begin planning beyond each year. We will engage a strategic planning process that will help us articulate our mission, establish goals that will fulfill our mission, and define the strategies that we will implement to achieve our goals. Planning processes take a tremendous amount of time and work. And some people might be wondering what’s the point? Why would we do that? Well, it goes back to vision and mission. What is the identity and purpose of the church?
I begin to answer that question with a conversation I had last Wednesday evening. Karen and I met with about twelve parents to talk about Christian Education at University Congregational Church. One of the most important topics that we discussed was the purpose of Christian Education. We wanted the parents to identify the most important values they placed on Christian Education. We concluded that we wanted Christian Education to equip our children with the skills and courage to make moral decisions in light of the life and teachings of Jesus. The outcome of Christian Education, we agreed, was a child who could discern ethical issues and live their lives with integrity as followers of the Way of the Cross.
Now the word we used to use for such a person was disciple. Disciples are the follows of Jesus. Christian Education is discipleship training. One of the finest Christian Educators is Thomas Groome. Discipleship training, or Christian Education, is the process we create to prepare people for the Kingdom of God. Groome writes:
“Completion of the Kingdom will mean the fulfillment of all the authentic yearnings of the human heart and the needs of humankind. God wills to love God’s people, God wills justice and peace, completion and wholeness, unity and happiness, fullness and plenty, joy and victory, an end of human suffering.”
Groome’s understanding of the Kingdom of God is parallel with the covenant of this congregation. We gather in the name and spirit of Jesus. We are the disciples of God’s love and justice, peace and brotherhood. We exist to promote the Kingdom of God. Our work must necessarily be the ministry of making disciples, sustaining disciples, and caring for disciples. And there are some disciples like me who need a whole lifetime to get it right. That is why I need this church. That is what I hope my family will receive from this church. That is the meaning of my ministry, and I am very privileged to share it with you.
 Jeffrey D. Jones, Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple-forming Congregations (Herdon: The Alban Institute, 2006), p. 17.
 Thomas Groome, Christian Religious Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1980), p. 37.