Archive for ◊ March, 2011 ◊

• Monday, March 28th, 2011

Gretchen Switzer

Co -author of Finishing With Grace: A Guide to Selling, Merging or Closing Your Church

Last week, Linda and I had the privilege of sitting down with the Reverend Jim Antal, Massachusetts Conference Minister and President for the United Church of Christ. We had sought him out to discuss our concerns about churches in the Mass Conference who are struggling to “stay afloat,” and how we, as a conference are supporting them. As we sat together, Jim began talking about supporting congregations, at any point in their lives, to make “bold decisions.” In one church, that might mean the congregation daring to dream of becoming more than it has ever been. In another case, a church’s choice to stand up in its community for a challenging cause can be a bold decision. When a struggling community of faith makes the decision to end their ministry, that too is bold.

I have had the distinct honor of working with and belonging to two congregations whose ministry is marked by bold decision-making. Grace Church United Church of Christ in Framingham, Massachusetts is over 130 years old. Grace is an extravagant conglomeration of unusual people — poor, outcast, middle class, aging, lonely, disabled, troubled…No one is ever turned away. Grace made the choice a very long time ago to be this kind of community. Grace has re-made that decision multiple times while traveling all the twists and turns of their life together. They are bold enough to be different; Bold enough to be the church Jesus calls us to be; Bold enough to live out their faith by making unconditional love a reality – by placing the highest value on tolerance and finding the good in each and every person God brings their way.

When my husband and kids and I moved to Worcester, we tried out a number of churches. In one church, it was evident that our bi-racial family (Our children were born in South Korea) was a little out of the ordinary for them.

Their discomfort with us sent us off to try other churches. Eventually, we heard about United Congregational, United Church of Christ in Worcester, Massachusetts. “You’ll find them a little offbeat,” somebody told us. “It’s kind of the church where you go around here if you don’t fit in anywhere else.”

“Cool!” we thought. “What a nice reputation for a church to have!”

The following Sunday, My husband, and kids and I ventured out to explore United Church – not because they had a great website (it was okay at the time), not because they had ads for themselves everywhere you looked in Worcester (which they did not), not because they had a fantastic choir, a brilliant organist and a wonderful pastor (yes, they did), but because we heard they welcomed everybody.

When we walked through the doors, the welcome was warm. It almost felt like they’d been expecting us. Everyone we talked to seemed genuinely interested in who we were. The first people we chatted with we’re adoptive parents who never batted an eyelash at our multi-colored family, but showed genuine interest in how our family had come to be. As we looked around that Sunday, we saw people of all different sorts. We would later learn that the congregation was made up of upper middle class folks to the homeless, gay people and straight people, disabled individuals and healthy, happy local college students. Folks who live in the street , in public housing and in their own homes. And yes, United has its share of off-beat characters, all of whom seem to coalesce into one caring, compassionate crew pulling for each other in every circumstance. It is an extraordinary community formed by the bold decision to extend God’s love to anyone who needs it. It is, in fact, the type of place, where I sometimes expect to find Jesus walking around. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, after all. Jesus came for the love of “the least of these.” At this church, we don’t argue over what color the drapes should be. We don’t bicker among ourselves about pointless issues like an ill-mannered family. We don’t focus on what makes us different from one another, but on what makes us the same. We raise a light for those who don’t fit in other places and say, “We invite you in, ” and this is the boldest decision of all.

To Purchase “Finishing With Grace” click here

Click here to email Gretchen

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• Monday, March 21st, 2011
The ways friendships develop is an interesting phenomenon.  When Gretchen came to Grace Church nine years ago as our interim pastor, she and I immediately hit it off.  I was the church moderator so we worked together pretty consistently.  Sometimes we’d have dinner to go over church business and we’d often have a telephone conversation after a church meeting to discuss how it went.   I got to know Gretchen’s husband and children and she connected with my two daughters.
As the church moved into challenging times around the sale of its building and as I took on the additional role as head of the Building Task team, Gretchen and I connected even more.   There were many “aarrgghh” phone calls about the selling, merging, closing process.  And there was jubilation at times. Of course Gretchen connected with many of the church members.  It wasn’t just me.  By her very nature, she was supportive and kind to all in the congregation. She was our pastor and she cared about us all.
Finishing With Grace, A Guide to Selling, Merging or Closing Your a Church chronicles what the church went through at that time (feel free to order your own copy by clicking on the link below!!).  The book purposely does not have an epilogue: a what happened next.  That’s because Grace Church is still evolving and the next chapter is still being written.
But what happened with a friendship is another story.
Gretchen left the church after two years (by then we had found a new building. She was not with us when we made the move into that new church home). She and I kept in touch sporadically via email.  After 21 years in the ministry, she had decided to stay at home with her young children and, by then, I was happily involved with my grandchildren.
Neither of us ever forgot that we had once vowed:  “Someday we should write a book about the Grace experience!”  Four years after the church had been sold and we moved, Gretchen and I  had lunch one day and the subject of the book came up.  We agreed that the time was finally right to begin this new venture.
Of course Finishing With Grace now exists and, hopefully, it’s helping churches all across the country.
There is a rest of the story that has to do with friendship.  A decision to write a book with someone is fraught with dangers.  We already knew and respected each other, but could a friendship survive around a task as monumental as co-writing a book?  We were different woman – with quite an age difference between us and with different perspectives.
YES – our friendship not only survived, but became deeper.  We divided the tasks: Gretchen wrote the religious perspective and I did the practicalities. We wrote independently and then edited one another.   An unanticipated thing happened.  Throughout the year-long writing process, we kept each other going.  That inspiration – that pushing one another – created a bond.  We’d lovingly nag one another e.g., “Where’s that chapter you were working on?”  Or we’d offer constructive criticism: “Okay – what you wrote is a good vent that you needed to release, but do you really want that in print?”  A week or two might go by when we’d both become disconnected from the task before us, then we’d have a lunch and brainstorm and come home with a fresh infusion of enthusiasm.
Our friendship grew on the basis of mutual respect.  Somehow, two distinct women were able to dovetail their skills and work not only as a team, but as cheerleaders for one another’s gifts and abilities.
Gretchen often responds to good news with “That’s cool.”   I use that term now as well.  Our friendship has turned out to be very cool – and treasured.
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• Monday, March 14th, 2011

Gretchen Switzer

Co -author of  Finishing With Grace:  A Guide to Selling, Merging or Closing Your Church

I have spent the last 6 days enthralled with The American Church in Crisis by David T. Olson.  The premise of the book is to offer the reader realistic statistics on the decline/suspected decline of the American Church.  The real “meat” of the book, however, is the set of profound observations and provocative suggestions that the author  gives us about stopping our ecclesiastical decline and even expanding our revitalization efforts.

As an author of Finishing With Grace, I applaud Mr. Olson’s belief that some congregations should be allowed to die with dignity, but as a parish pastor, I am completely enthralled with his philosophies of creating and maintaining healthy and growing churches.  I am particularly interested in  his observation that many churches today see their central purpose as the maintenance of the “institution” we call “church”  and the preservation of the church building itself.  His assertion that Jesus and creating relationships with Jesus should again be at the core of our life as a church is spot on.  It is this central premise that creates an atmosphere of intimate communion with God and with one another, and it is the story of Jesus being told and acted upon daily that will truly attract others and increase the influence of the church in the world.  It is this sort of transforming presence for which people outside and inside the church are yearning.

So my question is, how can we not know that?   Is it because the continuing of the “institution has become so important to us that we’ve forgotten why the institution came into being to begin with?  Or is it that we use the day-to-day issues of institutionality to avoid the transformative power of a true heart-to-heart  relationship with Christ?  The truth is that living a relationship with God that requires us to be moral, ethical, just, compassionate human beings is infinitely more difficult than re-pointing the steeple or even choosing the shape of a new addition to the building.

What Jesus asks us to be and do is hard.  It requires us to first see ourselves for who we are, even though we’d rather not.  Then it demands we change into generous, faithful, kind followers in response to feeling God’s love.  Hardest of all, Christ asks us to live lives that are rooted in that divine love – to build a spiritual foundation on what Jesus teaches and to move out from there to share those stories with others.  All in all, fixing the plumbing or updating the church software is lots easier, so we choose to focus on the practical instead of the heavenly.  Problem is, visitors come to our church looking for a community of intense love and deep compassion.  The building can be perfect and big and beautiful, but if a visitor doesn’t feel unconditional love among us or feel the joy we have in being together in God, they lose interest.  In fact, even members will eventually fade away if their souls are not being fed by the community.  Rightfully so.

For years, I have heard church folk say, “You know, if we could just get a young pastor in here with lots of energy, new people would come”  or  “When we get a pastor who can really preach an exciting sermon, we’ll be turning people away.”   The truth is that a great pastor and preacher is a wonderful blessing to a congregation, but she/he is not the foundation upon which one can build or grow a healthy church.  The foundation, as David Olson asserts,  must be the sacred story — the teachings of Jesus, the story of the cross, the Resurrection and the Ascension — and a community in which the love of Christ is so completely obvious that one can actually feel it the moment they walk in.

To Purchase “Finishing With Grace” click here

Click here to email  Gretchen

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• Monday, March 07th, 2011

Linda Hilliard

Co -author of  Finishing With Grace:  A Guide to Selling, Merging or Closing Your Church

The Grace Congregational, United Church of Christ (Framingham) experience was the basis of Finishing With Grace: A Guide to Selling, Merging or Closing Your Church.   Of course the Grace story – dealing with a painful closure – applies to a growing number of churches around our country – and the world.

When Gretchen and I wrote Finishing With Grace, we purposely did not do an epilogue called Grace Church: Part 2.  Our story was specifically about how Grace – and other churches – deal with the emotions and the practicalities of closing their doors.

Some of you who have purchased the book (thank you!) may be wondering what is the Grace Church Part 2 Story. Well here it is:

The small but mighty church congregation (that’s one of our oft used phrases to describe ourselves) continues to exist.  It’s been almost five years since we left our large stone edifice.  We now worship in a “house.”  That is – we purchased a building that used to be a house, but had more recently served as a religious business office and day care.  We have worship space, classrooms, offices, a kitchen, a fellowship hall and a huge parking lot. The property sits on an acre and a half of land, so we also have green grass (with an occasional deer and bunnies).

When we arrived at this new location – we took a deep breath and chose to do nothing.  Oh, we replaced the building’s roof, put in some flowers and did minimal remodeling to serve our needs.  But after that, we relaxed.  We made a conscious decision to “find ourselves.” We needed time to figure out who we were as a religious community.  Once a major downtown church with lots of space, we had perceived our mission as a community center (a meeting place for AA, a large ESL program and even a thrift shop).  In our new home, surrounded by dramatically different demographics, we were unsure about our identity.

It’s taken five years, but we now know we are a social justice church.  We care about the earth, helping others, mission and outreach.

We haven’t grown much in membership in five years and we partially fault our worship space (what would have been the house’s two-car garage). We have visitors, we are welcoming – but our small worship space lends itself to a more interactive and conversational service (which we now like, but is not for all).  We miss having the spiritual feeling of high high ceilings and big windows.

Now – at last – we’re ready to make some changes.  We’re preparing to remodel – to look more church like – and to proclaim our identity to the world.

There’s a lot of enthusiasm at the church right now.  We have high hopes for our future.  In another year or so – watch this blog for Grace Church Part 3!

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