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Who’s “We”?

By Dr. Paul Raybon

One of my favorite boyhood jokes goes like this:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto were surrounded by an Indian war party; they sent their horses Silver and Scout away to safety, and now were down to their last bullets. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says “I don’t think we’re going to make it out of here, Tonto!” Tonto replies: “Who’s ‘we,’ Paleface?”

Though the language is out of touch with modern sensibilities, like any good joke, it begins with our expectations for how things should be, and then reminds us that may not be the case. Two people in the exact same situation can experience it very differently, and that difference hinges on identity.

2020 will go down in history as a “plague year” in so many ways. 2021 is already off to a shaky start, but we have expectations that things are really going to turn around when the pandemic ends. Our patterns of life will return to some sense of normalcy; we will get to spend time with friends and family; folks will return to church and we’ll “sing and shout the victory!”

But I’m wondering. When we all get back in the same rooms together, some for the first time since last March, what will it be like? As we begin to share our stories, I think we will find that many folks in our churches experienced 2020 very differently from each other. Some were isolated at home while some went about their lives with little change. Some were without work, some prospered. Some doubted the validity of COVID, some suffered mightily. Some found their political perspectives validated by victory, some see their views reinforced by defeat. Common ground may be hard to find. Congregational identity and fellowship could be at risk. Will “we” fall victim to the social discord that has divided our nation? Who’s “we?”

We don’t yet know the answer to those questions. But if we are not prepared to address them, we may be setting up our congregations for a period of discord or spiritual impotence.
So, what can we do to prepare for that wonderful day when we will gather in Sunday School rooms and fellowship halls? Here are a few ideas that I’m pondering:

Model and teach healthy communication

Even before you gather, your communication should exemplify best practices and good theology “only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Most people have never talked about how they talk to one another. Invite someone to come and lead a session or two on healthy communication.

Create conversational experiences

Not just for visioning processes! This can happen in special gatherings or ongoing small groups. There are several models to consult, and having people gather for focused conversation with clear guidelines and trained facilitators is a healthy way to encourage listening to and learning from each other’s stories.

Do ministry together

You already know this, but don’t forget that working side by side in worthwhile work can create new bonds and restore damaged ones. Even when very large groups are not able to gather, small work parties will be able to work in open spaces. This can also be an effective means of integrating folks who have come into the fellowship during the pandemic.

Focus on common faith and worship

Gear worship and teaching to remind the Body of what makes us a body. What connected us before 2020 has not changed.  “Is Christ divided?”  Celebrating the Lord’s Supper/Communion and baptism together will be especially sweet, savor it. Hearing each other’s voices joined in song will be powerful. Take time to honor that experience.

Create new traditions

We will all be glad to experience the traditions of worship and fellowship that we had to forgo in the time of pandemic. We do well to remember that every tradition was once done for the first time. What can you do that will mark this moment in the life of your church and create a reminder of the faithfulness of God and unity of God’s people?

Revisit mission and vision

Even if you completed a visioning process in 2019, the world really has changed in the last 12 months. Congregations have learned lessons about new competencies and old shortcomings that we did not know a year ago. We have made and lost connections with people in our communities. How will these changes affect how we fulfill God’s purposes?

Who’s “we?” Who are we now? Still the same, now and forever, the redeemed children of God called together to bring God’s grace to the world!

Dr. Paul Raybon, our partner in ministry in the Western Carolinas, can help you and your ministry navigate congregational unity and effectiveness. He is Associate Pastor at Hominy Baptist Church near Asheville, NC and works with churches and leaders as a coach and consultant in communication, visioning, administration, and spiritual formation. For more information about how he can help you, contact him at paul@barnabaspartnership.com


Avoiding Space Disasters

I tell folks the angriest and most perilous moment in my career revolved around shared space. And it had nothing to do with childcare or outside groups, it was all about the parlor.  A Sunday School class had redecorated an unused room for use as a parlor for weddings and funerals. It shared a door with the ladies room closest to the sanctuary and was nicely furnished with armchairs, couches, end tables and lamps. A very nice space.

One day, it became apparent that the oldest men’s class needed a smaller classroom on the ground floor closer to restrooms and the sanctuary. The parlor was a perfect fit. I set it all up with the teacher and class, made new signage, and updated our Sunday morning visitor’s information. Then I heard that the class who had donated the furnishings was upset that they had not been consulted. I went by to smooth things over the next Sunday, and a few members lit into me. How dare I do such a thing after they had spent time and money making that room special? Uncharacteristically, I lit back, and “explained” that once you donate something to the church you no longer have ownership, and did they really think that the oldest men of the church were going to color on the walls and put gum on the chairs? We found another solution, but despite apologies and offers of support, relationships were irreparably damaged. Not my best day.

Fast forward a few years to another church. This time we needed to move a class or two to accommodate the mobility needs of older adults and space requirements of growing younger classes.

I made a tabletop size map of our classroom building. Each room was marked with its square footage and recommended maximum occupancy. Then I made paper markers for every class imprinted with average and maximum attendance figures. I invited all our teachers to come and help plan a new use of our space. After explaining the space needs we were facing and the information that was available. I let them ‘go to it’ in developing a plan. They tried various configurations, looking at best fits and walking distances to entrances, restrooms, nursery and sanctuary. In less than an hour they had come up with a plan that everyone could endorse. Teachers agreed to go back to their classes and advocate for the plan that we would try for six weeks to see if it needed adjustment. We did make one adjustment and have continued to adjust as needed for ten years. Those that will murmur at the gates of heaven still did, but got no traction because their trusted teachers had come up with the plan. We shared ownership of the space and the solution.

You may not need to go to such lengths at your church, and after over ten years in one place, I don’t either. But collaboration built good relationships and effectively met real needs. Co-laboring is harder, but it beats tongue-lashing any day.

Community Space

I’m blessed to serve in a church where the congregation sees its facilities as an opportunity for ministry. This outlook was expressed in the summary of our first Dawnings Process in 2015:

God calls us to be the Center of our Community; relating, loving, and engaging with our neighbors as followers of Christ who makes all things new.

Our community lacks a center, both in physical terms of a space for the community to gather for enrichment, and in spiritual terms of a focal point for connecting with God and God’s people.  By being intentional in making God’s love visible to our diverse neighbors, and promoting and sharing the resources that we have been given, we make room for God to transform our congregation and community.

One of the Sunday classes is often called the “Community Room” but community use is not limited to that one space. Every building on campus has been opened at one time or another to Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, veterans, cheerleaders, sports teams, school tutoring and testing, speech therapy, community meetings and fundraisers, and huge weddings for the local Ukrainian population. Those are in addition to Childcare, Afterschool, and DayStay Adult Day Care.

Have there been hiccups along the way? Sure, but we have seen them as learning experiences rather than deal breakers.

We have learned to be very specific in communicating expectations, (see my E-ncourager article of August 15) and include those in our building use request form signed by the responsible person.

We have learned to leave space on the calendar, and in the parking lot, between major events so participants and staff can have time to clean and evaluate before another group or event sets up.

We have learned that having a single person to unlock and lock up, rather than widely distributing keys, makes everyone more secure. We are moving to programmable electronic locks for all our main doors.

We have learned that someone has to clean up when the cleaning up isn’t done, and worry about new “lessons learned” later.

We have learned to look for ways to say “yes” rather than starting with “no.”

I think that last lesson is the best when thinking about how we share the space we have been given, with a community that needs to feel loved and welcomed by God’s people.

These thoughts above are from Dr. Paul Raybon, our partner in ministry for Western North Carolina. He is an associate pastor at Hominy Baptist Church near Asheville, NC and works with churches and leaders in the Western Carolinas as a coach and consultant.

Energy and the Spiritual Ecosystem

I’m thinking this week about the issue of energy in a spiritual ecosystem.  Every ecosystem is dependent on energy. In nature the ultimate source is the Sun. That energy is converted by plants into food which some animals consume directly and others consume by consuming plant-eating plant animals. Animals die and decay; energy returns to the plants as soil. It’s the whole circle of life thing.

But what about energy in a congregation? (There will be no consuming of other members of your congregation in this metaphor!) Our ultimate source of energy is the Holy Spirit, but how does that energy get shared in the community of faith?

I think of at least three ways:

  • Worship: As we gather to sing, pray, listen to Scripture, and proclaim our stories and The Story together, there can be palpable energy in the room. The Spirit prompts us to see our lives, our neighbors (also members of the ecosystem) and ministry in a different way and to respond in faith.
  • Ministry: Although ministry takes energy, it also produces energy. When we are engaged in effective ministry we are energized by seeing God at work in others and ourselves.
  • People: Sometimes it only takes one person “on fire” to set the whole community ablaze with energy. We have to discern between “flash in the pan” excitement and the indwelling of the Spirit, without quenching the Spirit in others.

So what are the specific sources of energy in your congregation, in worship, ministry and people? Is there room in worship for the Spirit to move and people to respond? Are opportunities for effective ministry provided or promoted? Are people with passion being allowed to explore possibilities? Is energy being converted to good spiritual food? What needs to die in order to nurture something new? Exploring these questions can energize your ministry!

If you want to continue the conversation, contact Dr. Paul Raybon, paul@barnabaspartnership.com or info@barnabaspartnership.com