First Congregational Church

Boulder, Colorado
United Church of Christ

Guiding theological question: In this liminal season how is God calling us in the midst of the wilderness from chaos to creation and from death to new life?

Guiding Scripture passage: The wilderness journeys in Scripture — the Exodus, the Babylonian exile, and the journey of Jesus to the cross – resonate with our current experience as a congregation and provide rich narratives for us to explore as we listen and respond to God’s callings in this time.

As we are guided by this biblical narrative, we also continue to lean into an understanding of vocation that is in keeping with the motto of our United Church Christ: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” In other words, we believe that God is actively at work in our lives and in the world. God’s calling is a continual invitation to learn, to grow, to be transformed by God’s grace, and to be instruments of God’s transformation of the world. As we also say in the UCC, “God is still speaking.” In response, we endeavor to listen, to open our lives to the movement of the Holy Spirit stirring us up in the new creation God is forming in and among us.

Signs of change:

The vocabulary of vocation and calling is becoming part of our shared language. Folks ask fewer questions about what we mean when we talk about calling and more questions about what it means for their own lives.

A few have taken this matter so seriously that they have scheduled appointments with Chris for vocational discernment conversations.

In this time of cultural and political turmoil, our congregation is expressing great interest in exploring what it means to embrace collective callings to serve as witnesses of God’s love and justice in the world.

Year 2 Activities

  • Hold a weekend online Retreat and Sunday Worship with Karen Hering, on “Discerning Your Calling in Turbulent Times” on October 23-25.
  • Participate in One Book, One Boulder city wide reading of So You Want to Talk about Race? by Ijeoma Oluo and organize an ecumenical and interfaith three-part discussion series.
  • Hold three online Forums prior to the November election: “Our Faith, Our Vote” with staff from the UCC Washington Office of legislative affairs; “The Climate Crisis and the Election;” a Vocational Journey interview with David Skaggs, church member and former U.S. Congressman.
  • Host an event in November with Dr. Larry Rasmussen to explore “Climate Change and Church Renewal.”
  • During Advent, in worship explore singing as a sign of defiant hope, and for small groups, participate in a five-part Film Festival on the role of singing in movements for social change.
  • In February, host Rev. Traci Blackmon, a nationally known spokesperson on matters of racial justice for a weekend of events as our MacKenzie Lecturer.
  • Host an exhibit in our gallery space with local artists of color reflecting on events of 2020.
  • Create opportunities for “Pilgrimage Worship,” meditative walking journeys with prayer stations.
  • Create a monthly Vocational Journey Interview Forum with selected church members, interspersed opportunities for small group sharing on vocational journey questions, a series of online forums focused on faith pilgrimages (El Camino, Iona, Israel, Civil Rights Movement sites, Sand Creek), and plan a pilgrimage experience for post-pandemic.
  • Host the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado for a community wide training in legislative advocacy.
  • Engage in a discernment process to launch a new Ministry focused on racial justice.

Year 1 Learnings

The focus on vocation is bringing clarity to our purpose and identity as a congregation. In this time of global pandemic, racial reckoning, and social and political upheaval, the opportunity to reflect on and discuss our collective calling is centering, uniting, and energizing us.

New circumstances encourage and sometimes require new callings. The sudden closing of our building in March and the physical distancing required to keep us healthy and safe from the coronavirus is stretching our imaginations. We are continuing to learn new ways to worship, to meet, and to learn. Every ministry of our church is changing. Some are being strengthened. We expect that some of the changes we are making will become permanent. We miss seeing each other in person, but we also now imagine that some church meetings will continue to meet on Zoom post-pandemic, and even when we are able to gather in person for worship, we are making preparations to livestream our worship services simultaneously and in perpetuity.

We now believe it’s not an overstatement to say that everything we do in worship, study, and service is connected to vocational calling. Discerning and responding to God’s callings pervades all our reflection, our prayer, our conversation, and our activity.

Resources Developed by First Congregational

Recommended Prayer & Study Resources

  • Exercise:  “The River of Life” by Joyce Mercer from the book, Girltalk, Godtalk:  Why Faith Matters to Teenage Girls – and Their Parents.  This exercise, also part of the Called to Life curriculum from the Collegeville Institute, became the framework for this year’s Women and Friends Retreat. We split it into three parts and then included a fourth session with questions about wisdom and calling.  We  also added poetry at the beginning of each session. It was a rich weekend for the 52 women who participated.

Congregation Story

When did your church last take on something new?

Three summers ago, shortly after Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal came out, members of our congregation came together to read and discuss the issues it raises. The response was so strong that one small group became two, and the conversation became so rich that when we finished the book, we realized we weren’t finished with the topic.

We also recognized that among our membership are a number of professionals who have extensive experience in walking with others through dying and death – retired physicians, an elder care advocate, a public health professor, a hospital chaplain, a palliative care specialist, a hospice director and an estate attorney. Shortly after arriving at our church, Chris Braudaway-Bauman, our new Senior Minister, brought this group together to explore what we were being called to next. In that meeting, the Ministry of Last Things was born, a new ministry focused on equipping and encouraging church members and friends to plan for their dying and death.

By then, the summer was again upon us. Still, the group was eager to get started, so, the Ministry of Last Things created a four-part educational series we called “Death and Donuts.” Planned for 8:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings in July, when worship attendance is down, we assumed only a small group would gather. When thirty-five people showed up the first week and then another thirty-five as the weeks unfolded, we understood even more clearly how ripe the congregation was to be engaged in this conversation.

Since then, the Ministry of Last Things has held another book group, monthly Sunday morning small group conversations, a funeral hymn sing, and two more small group series, including one called “Movies and Mortality,” as folks gathered to watch film clips together on matters of grief and loss and then to talk about the questions they raise.
Two Saturday morning fairs have introduced church members to “Thoughtful Endings,” a planning document designed to help them think through and talk with loved ones about end of life wishes, a health care proxy, a power of attorney, and their own memorial service. After members complete the document, a copy is kept in the senior minister’s office. More recently, the Ministry of Last Things has started exploring the possibility of installing a columbarium for the care of cremated remains on the church grounds.

In related efforts, our worship last All Saints Sunday focused on the meaning of legacy and our Endowment Committee hosted an all-church luncheon afterwards to continue the conversation. The next week, they followed up with a forum on estate planning. Our Mental Health Ministry hosted a community-wide series focused on memory impairment, which included a session on how we as a church can do more to support those with dementia and their caregivers. That same group also recently hosted a conversation about suicide and prevention. Then, after a number of tragic deaths in our congregation, a grief support group also began meeting on a periodic basis.

The Ministry of Last Things continues to unfold as we solicit feedback from participants, stay tuned to the questions and issues that arise in our ongoing conversations, and draw on the expertise available in our church and in the wider community, so that we can take hold of every opportunity for learning. For instance, we know that Parker Palmer has a new book on aging well that has just come out. Preliminary plans for a book group are already under way.

Most of those who have participated in the Ministry so far are folks who are older, retired and in the last seasons of their lives. We continue to look for ways to engage younger generations in the conversations.

We have learned many things, including the power of engaging issues of dying and death in ways that are not always deadly serious. A sense of humor, a light touch, interesting conversation starters, food and song, poetry and prayer all help people show up more fully. Attentiveness to posing thoughtful questions and making ample room for conversation are essential. A variety of opportunities offered at different times mean there are many doorways into the conversation.

Though our first aim was to be of support and to offer resources regarding end of life matters, the great discovery has been the ways that the Ministry of Last Things is enabling all us to live our lives more fully, with greater intentionality, even as we face our deaths.