(Conversations with Bob! My wrap-up of my faith/life story--thus far!)
During the Fall of 2004, I had sent out feelers for a new position, even as I was still wrestling with whether or not to stay in Billings. I was in conversation with a number of congregations, mostly big steeple churches. Yet as I conversed with them it appeared to me that I would be jumping from one frying pan into another. All of the churches were struggling with the same things, and in many cases, it was the ministers who got the boot. I really didn't want to do the same thing again. I didn't want to fight about doing ministry. I wanted to do ministry. I wanted to be in a place where the congregation had values that were for the most part similar to mine.
One day, as I was perusing the web, I came across an announcement on the Witherspoon Society's web page about a congregation in East Tennessee. No big steeple, but they do have an attractive white spire. But this congregation as I reviewed their information was the kind of place I have always wanted to be. This was (and is) their mission statement:
With joyful hearts and open minds, we welcome all persons as diverse, unique, and individual expressions of the image of God as we...
- Affirm the unconditional love of God for all people as expressed in the life of Jesus Christ.
- Celebrate God’s grace and creative work through ritual, sacrament, music, art, movement, and play.
- Honor our Christian heritage while we explore the knowledge and wisdom of multiple religions, science, philosophy, humanities and psychology to deepen and enrich our spiritual journeys.
- Nurture one another through fellowship and compassion in acommunity that seeks to offer wholeness.
- Embody our faith through local ministries and in actions that promote environmental sustainability, peace, and justice for all people and Earth.
They respected the sciences, other faiths, inclusion for all people (including THE GAY), religious scholarship, and were really into the environment. I interviewed with them for quite some time. I wanted them to know me, all the articles I had written, and the things I had done. I encouraged them to Google my name to make sure. I wanted to see if they were for real as well. They were for real. In 2005 they made an offer.
After much soul-searching, LS and I decided to go for it. It was very sad to leave Montana. She had a great job teaching elementary music. We left kids in college at the University of Montana, as well as family and friends. Neither of us had ever been to Tennessee and never heard of Elizabethton. But we decided this was the best thing to do. I am so glad we made this decision.
We started in August of 2005. I interviewed with the COM and was approved. I affirmed my ordination vows again with the congregation and the presbytery. Have I made it pretty well clear by now that I fully affirm and uphold all of my ordination vows? The Pastor Nominating Committee worked very closely with the presbytery and was impressed with the presbytery and their concern and care for the congregation. Let it be known that the presbytery was also impressed with our congregation.
I have been here now for just over two years. It is a fun, exciting, open congregation. We are a congregation that is both Presbyterian and progressive. We are one of the oldest congregations in East Tennessee. We trace our roots to the Revolutionary War and Rev. Samuel Doak. After the War Between the States, we became a northern branch Presbyterian congregation. We are celebrating our 225th anniversary.
My predecessor had served this congregation for 33 years until his retirement in 2003. He and his spouse both were employed by the church, she as the Director of Christian Education. They live here and participate in worship and other activities as their time and interest allows. I meet with them regularly. They are awesome. They opened the congregation to depth psychology among so many other things. I am deeply honored to follow them.
This congregation is an oasis for free-thinkers and seekers. Yet it has been a well-kept secret. Part of my task has been to get the word out about us. I think I have succeeded on that score. On September 16th, we will welcome ten new members. People attend from Elizabethton of course. Others travel from Kingsport, Bristol, Telford, Johnson City, Erwin, Southwest VA, even on occasion, Western NC, passing up hundreds (literally) of churches to get to us.
We are to the left of center of most churches in Holston Presbytery. We certainly aren't the most progressive in the country, by any means. We are active in Holston Presbytery. We have members who serve on presbytery committees. We are supportive of Holston Camp. I served on the committee to envision the future for the camp. I also serve on the youth sub-committee and the ethical and human needs committee. We give generously to the work of the presbytery (although I know we could always give more). I really like my colleagues and they respect our congregation and my ministry as I respect theirs.
We are Presbyterian and Progressive. We think those words go together quite nicely.
The congregation is involved in local ministries. We support the Shepherd's Inn, a refuge for victims of domestic violence. We support the Community Daycare Center, which was housed in our church for over 20 years. It provides daycare for low-income families. We participate in Food for the Multitude which prepares 250-300 meals for people in Carter County each week. We participated in the building of Habitat for Humanity homes in Carter County. We support A.R.M. (I serve on the board) to provide assistance to low income families in Carter County.
We are involved in "three cents a meal" for hunger relief in East Tennessee. This is a ministry of Holston Presbytery. We sent fifteen folks to Pine Ridge, SD this summer for ministry with Native Americans there. It was a profound experience for those who attended. We send coats, supplies and so forth to them every year. We participate in the Ten Thousand Villages Craft Sale, in which we raise about 5,000 dollars per year for third world artisans. We also participate in the Heifer Project for third world farmers. We are also a Green Congregation. We are working on awareness and action regarding Earth's future.
There is more that I could say. The point is that I think ministry is about doing things. It is also about Being. We are a congregation that fosters a culture of gratitude, giving, and serving. That is far better and more Christ-like than fostering a culture of complaint. That is the challenge of the church today. Are we complainers or are we grateful? Gratitude, giving, and serving is the essence of what it means to be Reformed, if you ask me.
I personally support our denomination and its staff. I have never met, but I respect greatly, our stated clerk of the General Assembly, Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick. He does a fine job and represents our denomination well. I honor our Presbyterian process and the way we make decisions.
I have served on Committees on Ministry in both Utica and Yellowstone Presbytery. I pride myself in that I worked for all of our congregations and minsters in those presbyteries working across theological lines to help congregations find their vision and work out disagreements.
A little about my faith. I have changed a great deal over the past five or six years. There are things that are more important to me now than they have been in the past. I wrote on my resume a few years ago, in response to the most important theological question, this:
"I am 43. My great-nephew, Hunter is 2. What will the world be like when Hunter is 43?"
I am outspoken and have found my voice. This I owe to my congregation in Billings. GLBT folks are no longer theoretical. You are no longer in the third person for me. Justice for you has become a central thread of ministry. But that is not all. What is going to happen to our planet, our species? And in regards to that our dignity and our rights? I really don't care that much about how to grow a church and get new members and all of that, even though I am thrilled that others have joined us on the journey. What of our very survival? How can we participate in a renewed sense of consciousness for Earth? Those are the questions I ask now.
Now, for Bob. I wonder now, Bob, what to talk about next? I wrestle with what it means to be Reformed, especially in light of my last paragraph. There certainly is a lot of talk about "essentials." Some folks want a nice list of beliefs. I think of essentials more in terms of ways of being and thinking. Particularly, ways of being and thinking that will move us toward justice, peace, and sustainability.
I look forward to hearing your final (thus far) post on your faith/life journey!