Plymouth Church

Brooklyn, New York
Congregational Church

Guiding theological question: How does a socially and geographically distanced congregation live out its call to be the body of Christ in this time?

Guiding Scripture passage: Our guiding theme is the idea that God knows what’s essential for our faith—and it’s not what we think. Judges 7 fits: God surprises Gideon by reducing the size of their army before their enormous challenge. Acts 8 fits: God calls Phillip to leave his joyful, fruitful ministry in Samaria to head for the wilderness. Encountering the Ethiopian eunuch there changes the church forever. Whether it’s facing Goliath with five smooth stones or feeding a hungry multitude with a tiny lunch, God’s inclination to work through small and shaky means is a hopeful word right now.

Signs of change:

We dream of new possibilities for our congregation that we didn’t imagine before. We speak more fluently about faith’s influence in our lives. We expect church to be a place where we engage God’s questions for us. We’re trying to picture what church looks like when we awaken to the new gifts for ministry that God places among us.

Year 2 Activities

  • A church-wide conference on Living with Loss: Naming Our Grief and Our Healing will help us explore three areas of vocational grief that we’re currently experiencing in this time and tools for the healing process. Small groups will meet weekly to focus on healing from particular forms of loss.
  • A six-week Lenten workshop series on Writing That Transforms led by those for whom writing is a spiritual calling. Plymouth’s writing community will meet throughout the year to share their work around vocation-themed prompts. Youth and children will also have writing/storytelling opportunities to record experiences about this unprecedented year and reflect on those theologically.
  • A five-week class during Lent to introduce congregants to the Enneagram.

Year 1 Learnings

  • The work we do is always secondary to the work God does in us as we strive to fulfill our callings. This became clear as we listened to artists share their vocational stories. As they described what they were learning to create, we recognized how their lives were being reshaped and formed. God was at work re-creating their stories.
  • The way or form through which we experience God’s grace often becomes the way or form through which we are called to extend God’s grace in the world. Often finding our callings means reconnecting with an experience of God’s love that we had at an early age.
  • The church has a crucial role in helping us discern, nurture, and exercise our callings. Everyone who is part of the body of Christ has a gift to offer for the common good. When we recognize this truth and make room for it, our common life shines with vibrant joy that reflects God’s surprising Spirit.

Resources Developed by Plymouth

  • “Vocation Stories” interview series materials including: a sample lesson plan, handout, and interview question prompts
  • “Word of Life” series lesson planin this series we practiced lectio divina on the worship text and then moved into the narrative circle exercise from Diane Millis. We focused on a different word from the text each week and designed questions around them. 
  • Prayer of Confession — written by Rev. Erica Cooper of Plymouth Church, this prayer acknowledges how “we have turned away from the calling of your Spirit to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” with regards to racial justice. Cooper asks the Holy Spirit for forgiveness and to “ignite our hearts to pursue your vision for our world.”

Recommended Prayer & Study Resources

  • We opened and closed each session of “Vocation Stories” (our six-week Sunday morning Faith Ed series in which Plymouth members shared personal experiences of calling) with a prayer adapted from Howard Thurman’s, “Sing a New Song, The Mood of Christmas (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1973). Sometimes a leader prayed this aloud. Other times the group prayed it in unison. See the attached file for both the original form and the adaptation.  

  • We recommend two books by Diane M. Millis: Deepening Engagement: Essential Wisdom for Listening and Leading with Purpose, Meaning and Joy and Conversation—the Sacred Art. Conversation uses the principles of spiritual direction to teach us how to speak and listen more meaningfully. Millis guides us to become more aware of Christ’s presence in our conversations. As we discussed the book, we found ourselves both practicing the ideas in it and experiencing the transforming power of sacred conversations. Deepening Engagement speaks to churches in important ways using language that is inviting to those for whom religious terminology is unfamiliar or off-putting. In our setting, this book resonated with everyone who is asking hard questions about their purpose.

Congregation Story

When did your church last take on something new?

On MLK weekend in 2017, the Sunday worship service focused on God’s desire for racial justice. During the sermon, several members felt called to grow in their response to racial injustice. Because Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at Plymouth in 1963, the congregation listened to a portion of his recorded speech for the benediction. We realized anew that working for racial justice in our time means continuing the call that the earliest Plymouth members heard as they sat in the pews where we now worship.

A group began meeting regularly to increase their understanding of racial injustice through reading groups and seminars. The number of participants and activities in what was named the Racial Justice Ministry (RJM) has steadily grown. The RJM provided a workshop for parents about talking with children about race. They have worked on the issue of bail reform and mass incarceration with an interfaith coalition in Brooklyn. On Mother’s Day this year the group raised $1800 for a non-profit Bail Fund by selling roses, taking an offering, and having a workshop on how people of faith could respond. We have offered a series of Faith Ed classes to look at racial issues from a faith perspective. Because the RJM began by recognizing our need for education, we are constantly evaluating how to learn more, and respond more effectively to what we’re learning.

What we have learned is that the intersection between biblical faith and the church’s call to act justly appeals to young adults and gives them a compelling reason to be involved in the church’s work. We’ve recognized that worship guides and shapes the congregation’s calling and ministry. We’ve experienced the joy of doing work that is crucial for our world. And we have remembered that difficult ministries are not accomplished without leaps of faith, persistence, and prayer.