Congregation Stories

Tell me a story…

Stories

We all love a good story. It’s our belief that vocation is communal and is lived out on the local level. Today’s secular versions focus on the individual: what do I want to do with my life? But the Christian tradition also believes callings serve the common good.

Our 14 congregations nurture each other’s callings, individual and collective, as we support our communities in turn. We asked partner churches to:

  1. share one story that illustrates how they live out their mission or,
  2. describe the last time they took on something new.

To read their responses, click on the headings below. We hope you find these stories as inspiring as we did.

Catholic Community of Saint Francis of Assisi: Death Row Ministry

Share one story that illustrates your congregation living out your mission.

Catholic Community of Saint Francis of Assisi, Raleigh, North Carolina

Our mission statement describes us beautifully:

Inspired by our patron Francis of Assisi,
We seek to proclaim the reign of God by
growing in Holiness
through our experience of Christ
in word, sacrament, and one another,
offering Hope
to those who hunger for human dignity, and
extending Hospitality

Living out this mission finds particular resonance regarding a member of our family. In 1985, our parishioner, Jeff Meyer, was indicted for murder. Our community could have closed a door to this family but instead we began to pray for Jeff, his family and for all victims of violence.

Since that time our friars have continued to minister to Jeff over the years as well as to the many men who sit on North Carolina’s death row. We have fought for reform of the death penalty in multiple ways including theatrical productions like A Lesson Before Dying or Still Life, an exploration of a killing state, North Carolina (this piece was based on two years’ worth of ethnographic work that was laser focused on the many different perspectives of the death penalty and its repercussions on all of us). These productions included discussions and opportunities for growth regarding the consequences of using the death penalty as a part of state legislated punishment here in our state. Additionally, we have a Pen Pal Ministry for parishioners to correspond with prisoners.

Jeff, too, has become a minister within prison. With Jeff as their sponsor, many prisoners were baptized and confirmed on death row by Bishop Joe Gossman. Jeff continues to be a part of a bible study group, growing and sharing faith with those who live with him on North Carolina’s death row.

Colonial Church: Engaging and Funding Social Entrepreneurs

Share one story that illustrates your congregation living out your mission.

Colonial Church, Edina, Minnesota

We recently sold property and a large share in an assisted living facility. Our congregation prayerfully deliberated how best to steward the funds, and collective decided that instead of spending all the funds on capital needs, we would leverage $500,000 for outreach and mission. The vision and loose-handedness of the congregation with its resources was beautiful.

This led to a congregation-wide effort we called Innové to engage and fund local social entrepreneurs in a variety of projects to serve the community and the world for the sake of the gospel. With more than 200 volunteers serving as skills coaches and mentors and ongoing advisors, we funded 11 social entrepreneurial initiatives with $500K to do gospel-driven work in all parts of the world.

We chose these projects through a competition that required applicants to craft business plans, pitch ideas and receive detailed coaching and assistance. Church members used their day-to-day expertise and skills to help these initiatives launch or accelerate. Several of these projects went on to become mission partners of the church and office in our building. We’ve since spun off a stand-alone ministry that is helping other churches accomplish similar start-up accelerators.

You can read about the project here and here and see information on the new start up here.

Edgewood United Church: Environmental Justice Covenant

When did your church last take on something new?

Edgewood United Church, Lansing, Michigan

This February, Edgewood voted to adopt an Environmental Justice covenant. It was the culmination of almost a decade of work—integrating recycling and sustainable practices for our building, providing ongoing environmental education to members, and becoming the first congregation in mid-Michigan to install solar panels on our roof. Passionate lay leaders at Edgewood committed two years to work on the covenant: slowing teaching and listening, laying a Biblical foundation, and inspiring the rest of us to integrate these practices in our own lives.

We did not originally have the covenant as our end goal, but rather, it was an organic process that challenged us to go deeper in our environmental commitment while responding to the immediate needs of the congregation to speed up or slow down as needed. For example, when we first discussed solar panels there was pushback from some members of the congregation about expense and necessity. These members felt so heard and respected that by the time the congregation voted on installing them, the vote was unanimous and the fundraising campaign was quickly and generously funded.

Celebration was an important part of the process: we had an official “ribbon cutting” for our solar panels and a blessing of our Environmental Justice covenant. Local media attention at the celebration resulted in sending lay leaders to other congregations to share our experience and help equip them for their own journey.

We learned that listening to one another, open communication, and adapting our plans and hopes to respond to our community helps us be successful. Through this process Environmental Justice has moved from the passion of a few to a core foundation of our congregation.

First Congregational Church: The Ministry of Last Things

When did your church last take on something new?

First Congregational Church, Boulder, Colorado

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.

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church: Addressing Privilege and Race

When did your church last take on something new?

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota

While rooted in the Lutheran tradition, Holy Trinity is not afraid to try new things and adapt when things go in unexpected directions. A recent example of this was the 2016 “Journeying toward Justice: Privilege and Race in Our Church” conference.

The idea for this stemmed from discussions within the congregation around racial justice and a desire to learn more about how white privilege is at work within the church. These issues had been the topic of adult forums on Sunday mornings, preaching from the pulpit, focused conversation in Council meetings, small group book studies, and individual conversations, and there was a desire to take a deeper dive into the subject and hear from a variety of speakers. With support of the Council, Pastor Ingrid Rasmussen started plans for a small conference with a handful of attendees from Holy Trinity and a few neighboring congregations.

What began as an idea to host 25-50 people, soon grew as the word spread and more people and congregations expressed interest. In the end, the conference drew over 450 people. We did not predict the response we received.

In developing and implementing this conference, we were reminded that trying new things can help the congregation and our larger community grow and learn from one another and that we can do more than we think we can. We also grew in our awareness that, although we have worked hard to understand the many privileges that some in our congregation carry, we still have a long way to go in our quest to embody beloved community.

Lake Park Lutheran: Allowing Relationships with Immigrants to Change Us

Share one story that illustrates your congregation living out your mission.

Lake Park Lutheran, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

One story that embodies our mission and our priorities is the story of the Aparicio-Castillo family. We met the parents (Jenny and Carlos) and children (Fabricio, Johnson, and Karla) through our sister church partnership in El Salvador. Jenny and Carlos, like many Salvadorans, struggled daily with the violence in their country. We spent many hours on Facebook and in person talking about these struggles over the next few years.

As Fabricio grew, the gangs began to target him (then 13), threatening and at times assaulting him as he went to and from school. We discussed the situation with their local church, their local Pastor Julio, and their local community. We learned from them and offered any care and support we could. As the threats got worse, Jenny made the very difficult decision to leave El Salvador, traveling to the United States and asking for asylum, with her three children. All along the way we talked daily. Upon their arrival to our area, Lake Park joined with them supporting them spiritually and financially and advocating legal help through the asylum process. But all of this could have never prepared us for the powerful and difficult spiritual journey ahead.

Seven months after his arrival, after officially beginning the immigration process, Fabricio died. We lost him as he was on a youth trip with another congregation in a drowning accident in Wisconsin. The death deepened and changed us all and revealed a common grief, love, and a common calling in our midst.

Through his life and death we began, as a congregation, to be more and more involved in true partnership. One fruit of that love has been a deeper involvement in immigration reform. Another is a local scholarship program in our local Salvadoran community. Another is singing together joyous songs in memory of Fabricio but also in a celebration Sunday after asylum was granted for the family this past year. We have begun to see a new way of living in relationship with all of our partners. We hope to continue to grow in God’s mission for us.

Nativity of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Church: Blessing Small Parishes Through a Construction Ministry

When did your church last take on something new?

Nativity of the Holy Virgin, Charlotte, North Carolina

Nativity is a “hard working parish.” When someone drives into our parking lot, one will encounter many things that were physically done by members of our parish family. We have numerous people with construction skills.

A few years ago several men approached Fr. Bill to start a new construction ministry. They wanted to use their skills and talents to help other small parishes. In the past we had done a lot of work for our own parish and we wanted to help other parishes in need. The model would be that we would donate our time and skills, and the host parish would purchase all of the building supplies and feed and house our construction team. The team averaged anywhere from five to seven men. The host parish also supplied volunteers.

Everything was pre-planned from the design of the renovation project to the details of the lodging and meals. The host parish designed the project and purchased all of the supplies. Good planning and organizational skills helped prevent major mishaps.

Over three years we completed three projects:

  1. St. Nicholas (OCA) parish, Kenosha, WI: we constructed a one hundred foot wooden handicap ramp for parishioners.
  2. St. Timothy (OCA) parish, Toccoa, GA: we built several domes encased with fiberglass and constructed a new porch for their existing entrance.
  3. Holy Apostles (OCA) parish, West Columbia, SC: Holy Apostles had purchased a large 2,100 sq. foot multi-purpose building adjacent to their sanctuary, but it was unfinished. We installed a drop ceiling, added duct-work for a new AC/Heating System, added fluorescent lighting fixtures, knocked out a portion of a wall and installed double doors, created a covered porch that connected the hall with the sanctuary area, and created a space for a bathroom and kitchen area.

Pax Christi Catholic Community: Justice, Lay Leadership, and Hospitality

Share one story that illustrates your congregation living out your mission.

Pax Christi Catholic Community, Eden Prairie, Minnesota

Pax Christi’s first offertory collection, presented in June of 1981, was given entirely to justice concerns, signifying that a cornerstone of the parish would be a mission toward justice efforts, particularly around the metro area. Since the parish’s founding, 4.5 million dollars have been shared with organizations after a thorough application and vetting process conducted by a Justice Grants Board made up of lay leaders of the parish.

Currently, our financial efforts support causes focused on ending homelessness and providing educational support to schools with a particular outreach to immigrant and poor communities. One key element of our outreach focus over the last 13 years is the importance of building relationships with the recipient organizations. This makes it possible for our mission of support to be lived out not only financially, but through one-with-one interactions. These interactions include tutoring, serving meals, conversations, etc. with those whom we wish to learn form and experience a mutual exchange.

From its founding, the core values of justice, lay leadership, and hospitality were and continue to remain central to our faith community. The parish has always been mission-driven, looking externally to grow in our discipleship. We haven’t done this perfectly, but we continue to be focused on staying true to our founding charismatic values while leaving room to expand in this time and space.

We know deeply what our identity is as a church founded after the Second Vatican Council, and we strive to live that faithfully. Some find this grounding hopeful and a place of refuge, while others find it political, and therefore frustrating. The sign on the corner of Homeward Hills Road and Pioneer Trail (real roads with figurative meanings) says “All are Welcome.” We strive to live this authentically, which means that our umbrella of thought, theology, and ideology is wide, embracing, and open.

Plymouth Church: Racial Justice

When did your church last take on something new?

Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, New York

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.

saint benedict’s table: Coming Alongside Others

Share one story that illustrates your congregation living out your mission.

saint benedict’s table, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Up until very recently, the church where we meet was also home to a soup kitchen, Agape Table. When we first moved to this location, our priest met with Agape Table’s Executive Director to see how we could best become involved with their work. Through mutual discernment we began collecting fresh fruit, and eventually warm socks and other items, in baskets at the back of our sanctuary that are carried up with the communion elements and placed by the altar each Sunday. Since the move of Agape Table to new quarters, we’ve continued in the practice as we see it as a simple yet symbolically important expression of our need to remember the hunger of the world.

While we know that these items alone don’t solve the problem of hunger or homelessness, they are a tangible reminder of the need to extend our experience at the Eucharistic table into our everyday lives and reflect our communities’ value of coming alongside, rather than duplicating services that are already in existence. This “coming alongside” ethos is further expressed through our Mission Fund (10% of our offering income) and our commitment to supporting congregational members in their own ministries and vocations.

Saint Mark’s Lutheran Church: Spokane River Clean-up

Share one story that illustrates your congregation living out your mission.

Saint Mark’s Lutheran Church, Spokane, Washington

Saint Mark’s mission is “to share the gospel through worship and service; and to be an inclusive community for justice and peace among diverse peoples.” Beyond our feeding and clothing ministries, the second foci of our “work” has been to join our national church in the emphasis: “God’s Work, Our Hands.”

For the last two autumns, in partnership with Spokane Riverkeepers (a member of the International Waterkeeper Alliance), 40 members participated in a cleanup along the Spokane River. As a group, we focused on what it meant to be cleaning up areas that were overnight sites for the homeless. As a follow-up, a member of our congregation wrote a reflection piece for our newsletter on the experience of working alongside her children. When this family encountered one of the camps, the family decided to leave it undisturbed because it held the treasures of another person, another child of God. These kinds of events and reflection together have added depth, compassion, and wisdom to our serving.

Saint Mark’s always responds quickly to specific needs in our community and abroad, from social justice concerns to disaster response. We understand this to mean our members are eager to “take Sunday into Monday,” and they are ready for this vocation challenge.

Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church: Building a Toy Lending Library

When did your church last take on something new?

Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Louisville, Kentucky

In spring 2017, following the departure of the parish’s preschool, the church began a process to discern how to use the lower level which is our education space. The rector called together a small group of highly gifted parish leaders to examine how the congregation might start-up a ministry that would serve the local neighborhood and greater community while helping the parish to live into its mission.

In May 2017, the vestry approved pitching the ideas developed by the small group to the parish to gauge enthusiasm. Through a series of forums, the parish learned about the possibility of beginning a toy lending library; a makerspace; a houseplant hospital and orphanage; a medical supply closet; or a tool lending library. Each of these ideas contained the hope that we could convey a theology of ecological responsibility through sharing resources and providing open access to items.

Anticipating the toy library presentation, an adult member said to one of the parish children that the ministry ought to be run by kids. The idea took off. The parish announced that the Toy Library would become a start-up ministry for children, led by children. A handful of Sunday school students volunteered to be on the steering committee, which was supported by the adult leader. (A second adult is always present in order to meet the Safe Church requirements). The kids made all of the organizational decisions from how to run the circulation desk, to donation criteria, and rules about what to do with broken or missing toys.

Once receiving vestry approval for the project, there was a short presentation at the annual meeting soliciting donations from parishioners. After checking to make sure that every toy had all of its parts; cataloging, cleaning, and displaying the toys; The Toy Library opened in February 2018 with just over three hundred donated toys in the collection. Initially, the hours of operation were once a month after Sunday School and once a month before church. However, this was just the first phase of the ministry.

The kids were able to practice using the system they designed in February on parishioners, and it worked well. So, they prepared for expansion in March to include the hours that the Food Pantry is operated. Children from the Committee explained the project to Pantry neighbors and held an open house in March, and then began serving in April. Twelve families checked out toys at the April Food Pantry.

At the same time that the Toy Library began, the vestry also decided to begin a Tool Library. The leaders of this ministry are a small group of adults who approached the second project with a request for $2,000 in start-up funds. The Tool Library opened at the food pantry on May 19. Software for the Tool Library can eventually also be used for the Toy Library. The plan is to list the contents of the collections on the parish website in the near future and to advertise to neighbors living in the neighborhood around the church that they are invited to utilize these libraries, and even to help out as volunteers.

Lessons Learned

1. Allowing a small group of kids live out their faith in community and to shape the parish in the process brings new life and energy to the entire congregation. Could there be other non-traditional parish leaders who ought to be asked to shape the congregation by leading a new ministry? How could St. Matthew’s invite our senior citizens into a new and life-giving ministry that allows them to live into their Christian vocation?

2. The small group of gifted leaders who developed the ministry did not need to have an ongoing role in the ministry. Their work was deep missional discernment, and the commitment to help out once in a while when there are bumps in the road. Other people were called to carry out the ministry project. This taught us that vocation is both individual and communal. For a ministry to succeed in our parish particular individuals need to feel called to it but the entire community must sense a call to this ministry even if they are not directly involved in it.

Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church: Loving and Serving in Community

Share one story that illustrates your congregation living out your mission.

Saint Paul Lutheran Church, Cole Camp, Missouri

Picture church members of varying ages and backgrounds sitting together twice a week throughout the summer. They’re each doing their part—cutting paper, pleating paper, and fluffing paper—to make fluffed flowers for the upcoming parade float. As they gather around the table, they talk about their families and work. They share their joys and struggles. They engage in faithful conversation. This work happens each year in preparation for the town fair.

For three days in September, everyone comes together to celebrate life in the country. From livestock presentations to collections and produce judging, the community members share their lives with one another. During the parades each night, the grand fluffed-flower floats tell the story of the churches and people of the town. In addition to creating a float for the parade, Saint Paul’s sets up a fair stand and sells burgers and pie for three days. Members of all ages work shifts in the fair stand. People come from all over the surrounding areas and grab a bite to eat, discussing how their year is not complete without a meal at the Fair.

It may seem like the fair is just a fair, that the fluffing of flowers is no more than putting a float together and that the burgers are just burgers. If you ask anyone around here about their town and their church, they’ll tell you about the Cole Camp Fair and they will tell you about community. They will speak of how beautiful it is to gather with friends made over the years in this community and how meaningful it is to work together building a float, cooking burgers, and serving. Even in the middle of a community fair, God’s message is present through the design of the floats, messages during the parade, and the love and service of the congregation.

Saint Paul’s mission statement is: “Being transformed by God’s grace to love and serve.” We live out this mission each fall at the fair by loving and serving one another in the community, and by being present. We live out our mission by doing the work of lifting up one another and their gifts. We live out our mission by doing the work of God, by the grace of God in our town, not just for the three days of the fair but in all that we say and do.

West Morris Street Church: Recommitting to Serve our Urban Neighborhood

Share one story that illustrates your congregation living out your mission.

West Morris Street Church, Indianapolis, Indiana

The clock displayed 2:55 PM and our Communities of Calling discernment meeting was set to start in five minutes. Already lay people gathered in the library, eager to join in the discussion. I assumed the ringing doorbell simply signaled the arrival of another participant. But it was Ann.

Ann had become a familiar face at the church door over the past several months. She stopped by for counseling when her marriage fell on hard times. She came to ask hard questions of faith. She sought us out when her cabinets were bare and her gas tank empty. She joined us for our regular free community dinners.

But this day Ann didn’t carry herself quite the same; she walked a little taller and her smile was unmistakable. Immediately she shared her success. “I got a job at Dollar Tree!” I celebrated with her, knowing a steady paycheck would go a long way in helping stabilize her situation.

But she hadn’t come just to share her good news. “Do you have a green shirt? I need a green shirt to work there but can’t buy one until I get my first paycheck. But I can’t get a paycheck until I get a green shirt!” After a quick trip downstairs to our clothing ministry, Ann walked away with not one, but two, green shirts for her first week of work. We hugged, I prayed for her, and she left, vowing to return on Sunday morning if she wasn’t scheduled to work.

Our discernment meeting started a few minutes late, but Ann’s green shirt emerged as a guiding metaphor for our discussions. Eighteen months ago our congregation committed to remaining in this community, despite the many challenges of ministering in an urban, decaying neighborhood with an oversized, outdated building. With this recommitment, a new passion for engaging our neighborhood was slowly birthed. Through our Community Dinners, Little Free Pantry, Clothing Ministry, neighborhood activities, and outward focus, we’ve increasingly begun living into our mission of “Loving God – Serving Neighbors” by walking alongside those who are hurting, focusing on individuals’ assets, and making a difference one person at a time—a mission beautifully demonstrated by Ann’s green shirt.