Tuesday, August 25, 2015

NGLI: Creating the Church of the Future

"Church can't and won't look like it looks today."

That's Rev. Corbin Tobey-Davis, Associate Minister at Parkview Congregational Church in Aurora (and Program Director of the church's ROCK Center) on the UCC's Next Generation Leadership Initiative (NGLI).

NGLI is a developmental program for young pastors within the UCC that focuses on building the church of the future, rather than trying to figure out the future of the church.

As Christians, a large part of our faith centers around our relationship with Jesus. But, as Rev. Ben Konecny points out, "the Historical Jesus alone doesn't always activate people's faith."

Rev. Ben Konecny
At First Congregational Church in Greeley, where Ben serves as Associate Minister, he focuses on understanding family systems within the congregation. NGLI's influence plays a huge role here. Along with fostering energetic young clergy who will push the church forward, NGLI wants to help young clergy understand why the church acts the way it acts, and how to have healthy conflict.

I asked both Konecny and Tobey-Davis the same question they hear all the time: "What is the church going to look like 10, 20, 30 years from now?" Both Tobey-Davis and Konecny feel that, in a way, this is a flawed question. We can anticipate some changes due to technology and generational differences, sure, but "the church of the future" will look extremely different for each community.

"You can't necessarily write a book about pushing church forward and replicate it across all churches," Tobey-Davis explains. "A praise band won't work in every church." In the NGLI program, Ben and Corbin are both interested in which risks to take in their respective churches, and which successes or failures might result. But, what might thrive at Parkview might very well crash and burn at First Congregational, and vice-versa.

Rev. Corbin Tobey-Davis
No matter what kinds of revelations and peaks result from the NGLI program, it's interesting to imagine what our churches will look like when their head pastors will have been born in the '70s and '80s. It must have been equally as shocking and exciting when baby-boomer pastors stepped in for their predecessors.

No matter who is leading the church, every community needs new ideas to keep from growing stale, and new generations of clergy will bring these new ideas in spades. To think even further down the road, 40 years from now, pastors who were born in 2015 (!!!) will be doing things in churches that we never thought feasible. "Church is an evolving organism," Konecny says. 

Tobey-Davis agrees. "There's a fallacy in applying old models of problem-solving to new problems," he says. Symptoms of our problems might look the same (stagnant membership, maintenance issues, sluggish revenue, etc.), but the resolution to these issues is going to be much different in 2025 than they are in 2015. 

One way NGLI is helping to strengthen our church is by focusing on the unique gifts of pastors. There's some nuance there; we're not talking about letting the pastor do all the fun stuff while passing off the business items onto some unfortunate Office Manager. Instead, the idea is that if a pastor can spend more time developing their strengths instead of compensating for their weaker areas, they'll be that much more able to do what they do best, and lay-leadership will organically fill in the leadership gaps. 

To learn more about NGLI, its mission, and how to apply, please visit their website!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Plymouth UCC is Radically Connected to Archway Housing

Recent, Plymouth Congregational UCC allocated a portion of their endowment to Archway Housing & Services to support their mission of providing low-cost housing for those in need. 

We reached out to Plymouth's Acting Associate Minister Jake Miles Joseph to learn about the partnership, and to find out why Archway's mission was so important to Plymouth.

Read the interview below!

How did you get connected with Archway?

I got to be Radically Connected at Annual Meeting. Plymouth has graciously allowed me to serve as a Commissioner on the Fort Collins Housing Authority (FCHA) for a five-year term. I then was able to have a long conversation at La Foret with the Director of Archway, Joyce Alms-Ransford, about housing. 

It was the highlight of the Annual Meeting. I was so excited to learn from her about the history of the UCC’s work in housing and homelessness issues. Immediately, I wanted to find a way to get Plymouth connected with Archway. This is a radical connection that can really inspire us as a congregation! 

How were the funds allocated? 

Plymouth has an endowment distribution every year that goes to a UCC-related cause. This is a relatively new endowment at Plymouth, and it is exciting to see it become a reality. 

This year, I brought the proposal to Plymouth’s Outreach and Mission Board to help reconnect the UCC to Archway by donating $1,000 to them and saving the balance of our dividend for other concerns that might come-up. Instead, the Board said they wanted to give the whole $2,329.64 to Archway, since it is such an incredible organization. They are direct, decisive, and Spirit-guided. 

(In full disclosure: I was just appointed to the Archway Investment Corporation Board.)

Why did Archway speak to your congregation? 

Plymouth recently had a congregational survey that asked what was most important for our congregation to be involved in with Outreach and Mission. The results were soundly within the realm of homelessness, poverty, and housing issues (as well as immigration). 

Discovering Archway was like discovering that there is a sacred match here in the Rocky Mountain Conference for what Plymouth is already passionate about. It is a way to connect our mission funding with our mission goals in our own regional local area! It was God. It was Conference radically (DIVINE) connection. 

How you hope your donation impacts the charity?

We pray that our contribution this year will be more than charity. We hope that it continues the work of changing systems of housing shortages and injustice that Archway is already alleviating by providing housing and supportive services in Colorado. 

We hope it shows that Plymouth and the UCC are dedicated to the work Archway does. It is a small amount in the big scheme of things, but it is only our first way of being invested in this work. The prayer is for sustainable relationships to be formed. 

Is there anything else people should know about the work you are doing? 

This is a really important moment in Colorado for housing affordability. We know that the UCC will need to step up, not only in its involvement and dedication to Archway, but in every way to advocate for an affordable housing future in this place we call home. Creating endowments that allow us to support that work into the future is a great place to start. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Faith and Student Loans

True Obvious Fact: When we have an unhealthy relationship with debt, our lives can get complicated in a hurry. 

Like butter, debt can either be good or bad, depending on how it's used.
Last week, I had the privilege of attending a seminar at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. The seminar dealt with Iliff's own SIFR Program, created for the purpose of "developing leaders who can create and sustain financially resilient institutions." 

There were so many powerful and thought-provoking ideas shared during the seminar that it would be difficult for me to capture it completely, but here are a few takeaways: 
  • Along with creating good theologians, Iliff wishes to create financially savvy leaders of institutions. 
  • Many of those who attend Iliff accumulate student debt; often times, this debt is compounded with substantial undergraduate debt. 
  • Debt is often accompanied by guilt, stress, and shame, enhanced by matters of class, race, and gender. 
  • Our society sees debt as a sign of poor financial planning and fiscal irresponsibility.
  • By helping students manage their debt in a healthy and productive way, Iliff can graduate theologians who realize how important healthy debt relationships are, and can bring that energy to their institutions. 
A core problem of student debt seems to be that it is so stigmatized, we hardly ever talk with each other about how to tackle it. I consider myself a pretty open person, but up until this very moment, only my wife knows that I still owe $15k for my undergraduate degree and $35k for my MA in philosophy. (Whoops! If anyone would like to purchase some philosophy, please contact me at your earliest convenience.) Meanwhile, I will freely tell anyone and everyone how much I paid for my house, my car, and my flip-flops. 

$948.75, including tax.
Making student debt so private just makes it scarier, which in turn makes it harder to navigate. 

One fascinating idea that came out of the seminar has to do with stated vs. lived values regarding student debt, and how to narrow the gap in between the two. If I'm a young theologian in a congregation preaching anti-materialistic views, how do I reconcile that with the fact that (a) churches need money to survive, and (b) I need a certain salary to survive? What does it mean to be a humble follower of Jesus who also desperately needs money to support my family? What is the church's role when it comes to finances? 

What other questions should we be asking? 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

"Rather Than Label and Limit, Embrace and Love."

Eva Graham of Ft. Morgan writes a lot. Much of what she has to say centers around her spirituality, and her faith that God is good and gives us a unique path to walk. 

While she is often optimistic, she will be the first to admit that her faith has wavered. For almost 36 years, she has cared for her son John, who has a moderate-to-severe form of autism. Because John doesn't function very well on his own, Eva must be with him at all times. 

Christ Congregational UCC; Ft. Morgan
Eva's story amazes me. I can't imagine what it would be like to have unimaginable love and frustration day in and day out. I don't know if I've ever felt emotions as intense as Eva must feel most days. 

After reading several of Eva's accounts from the newspaper, and after speaking to her on the phone, it is clear to me that she's not after commiseration. She just wants connection and community. Her main contention with her situation is that it lends itself to loneliness. 

She's grateful for her faith community at Christ Congregational UCC. The members of the Ft. Morgan church have also embraced John, and welcome him openly every Sunday. But, during the rest of the week, it is harder for her to feel connected. She and John can't easily leave the house to socialize with people. And, there's a stigma associated with disabilities that can hold some people at bay. 

I understand some level of discomfort when meeting someone with a disability ("What if I say the wrong thing? What will we talk about?"). I get that it can feel weird. But I have seen that, with minimal effort, this discomfort easily fades. Three minutes of conversation with someone who has a disability makes a huge difference. 

As Evan points out, people with disabilities merely want to be embraced and loved, just like anyone else. She doesn't want special treatment for her son (and I doubt John wants that either). Their one wish is to be treated normally. 

While on the phone with Eva, I asked her, "What is the main takeaway you'd want someone to have after hearing your story?" I'm paraphrasing here, but her hope is that, if people can overcome whatever notion they have about the disabled and reach out in some way (even just a "hello" and a handshake), that makes an immense difference. 

"We should quit being too busy to care," she says. 

There's something else Eva made clear as well: Despite his disability, John doesn't miss much. He may not speak or write very often, but he is taking it all in. And on the rare occasions when he does write down his thoughts, it's pure poetry. 

I'll end this blog with a poem John wrote years ago: 
“I walk this road myself, thinking always, though my words are silent, my thoughts need not be so. There is a string of thoughts inside me that only God and I know. He is always with me. Happy is my heart and full of hope are my thoughts and ideas. God is my voice out of the silent words. My life is different, my road to walk is a stranger to some, but I know God who is the Master of it all and He is not silent nor still, for He is all about us in everything, a helper of those who ask.” 

Friday, August 7, 2015

How Often Do You Write Something and Then Scrap It, Because it's Garbage?

I wrote a draft of a blog yesterday, and then today, I decided not to post it. At first I thought the blog was insightful and clever, but lucky for me, I always let a blog sit for a day before I officially post it. 

Thank God, because it was bad. Not "Michael Jackson" bad or even "so bad it's good" bad, just regular bad-bad. Like milk. It's so gross! How do milk salespeople make any money? 

Milk: "It's Disgusting!"
It was about this quiz from the Huffington Post, which is actually pretty awesome. You should take it if you have a few minutes and are interested in the faith experiences of the GOP candidates. Most of it's not that shocking, but one of the candidates has partaken in an exorcism, which was somehow surprising to me. 

How often do YOU get really excited about something you're working on, only to realize that it's just not your best work? 

For me, it's most of the time. Usually with bad jokes. But for some reason, I tell the bad jokes anyway. I hide the bad blogs and stash away the bad songs, though. 

When failure happens, I try to remember this: Being brave enough to create anything at all is amazing. So, when you create something that just doesn't feel that special, give yourself some God and grace. Then, grab yourself an Ecto-Cooler and wait for the inspiration to come. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Guest Blog: "Domination is Violence"

The following is a guest blog from Rev. Todd Smiedendorf, Sr. Pastor at Wash Park UCC in Denver. If you would like to contribute a guest blog to Radically Connected, please email Cory at cory@rmcucc.org


Rev. Todd Smiedendorf
The tragic death of Sandra Bland is on my heart and mind. This woman of color was pulled over in Texas last month for an improper lane change, then arrested, and then found dead in her jail cell three days later. I feel sadness, upset, and grief.

While it remains to be seen what can be known about her suspicious death, we do have a recorded video of her arrest. And in that recording, we can see in the exchange of words between Bland and the police officer the seeds of violence that escalated the situation. We can see violent communication. Communication that attempts to dominate the other.

What I heard was a woman who was upset about being pulled over and an officer who recognized that and asked about it, but who then made a choice (unconscious or not) to try to control and dominate Ms. Bland. The moment the officer said “Are you done?” with that tone, he showed that he was losing his professional composure. The moment he asked her to put out her cigarette, he was stepping over the line of professional interaction into control and domination.

Sandra Bland
The situation escalated from there as the officer’s determination to force Ms. Bland to comply with his wishes collided with her desire to not be dominated. This situation is particularly upsetting when there was no real threat to the officer’s safety. Yes, Ms. Bland could have made different choices, too, but then I wonder why so much of the burden of this interaction is placed on the citizen and not the professional, the police officer. Black people should not have to strategize to not be brutalized by law enforcement.

Sandra Bland's Mugshot
The inward decision to control and dominate, conscious or not, is the first act of violence. The just complaint of communities of color (backed up by story, history, and study data) is that this kind of situation of domination happens way out of proportion for people of color. The social systemic racism programming of white supremacy makes people of color more frequent targets for domination and control based on exaggerated fears and stereotypes.

The Good News of God in Jesus Christ offers us a Divine Incarnation, a view of what God might look like in human form. That witness shows us power, but not domination. That witness shows us compassion, not control. That witness shows us a fullness to be found in humility and nonviolence, and a unity to be found in diversity. That witness shows us a vision of heaven come down to earth where all may sit under their own fig tree and not be afraid.

So let us resolve to be a community learning to live powerfully, prophetically, and passionately with our intentions, words, and deeds fostering ‘power with’ others, especially those of us who have been “Other-ed” by the dominant society.