by Bishop Bill Gohl
“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. – Luke 2:15b-16
Christmas, the celebration of God’s incarnate love for us in Jesus Christ, provides the Christian Church an incredible opportunity for evangelical outreach. Even in our secularized world, there is a thread of understanding that surrounds Christmas as a holy time when God comes near to us. Our music, scripture, and message are not-so-foreign and hearts, it would seem, are yearning for the Good News that we celebrate in Jesus Christ.
According to George Barna, America’s most reputable religious pollster, Christmas Eve is the night when unchurched friends, family, and neighbors are most likely to respond positively to an invitation to worship. In my time as a parish pastor, and in my work as Bishop’s Staff for Evangelism, I learned a great deal about how we can prepare to welcome guests at this holy time, and be our best, most hospitable selves. This post is the first of a two-part series in which I will share what I have learned so that you might use it in your congregation or ministry setting.
- It’s time to assemble two, three, 10 or 20 people to begin to PRAY for your Christmas outreach. Ask for volunteers to be in daily prayer during the season of Advent for God to lead new people to this congregation’s services this Easter (a fine ministry for shut-ins to be involved in, too!).
- With the help of your worship committee or council, think about the many activities your church shares during the holy days of Advent and Christmas. Are there events such as the Sunday School Christmas Program, a Choir Cantata, Christmas Bazaar, etc., where you would have a chance to make a brief but meaningful invitation to friends, family, and neighbors to attend Christmas services?
- With the help of your Evangelism Committee, PR Team, Communications people, staff – anyone – make a commitment to do a few things this year in advance of needs for next year…
- Archive appropriate pictures of Christmas events for publicity purposes. And please, not just beautiful, but empty, church altars! Think happy, smiling people; a child caught in the glow of a candle; people holding hands as they pray; kids at a children’s sermon, etc. You may want to consider collecting photo release forms from families who attend frequently and are featured in photos. You can read more about releases and download some samples that you can adapt here.
- Capture video of similar kinds of moments, if not entire events, for editing and examples.
- Debrief immediately. A former colleague and I would sit down the week after Christmas with the bulletins from each event and go over what went well and what didn’t – and then we would do it again with our worship committee. Make edits in bulletins immediately (don’t wait, we had the word “worm” instead of “womb” two years in a row in our Christmas Eve bulletins! Yikes!).
- Make business-card size invitations to Christmas worship. A good number would be eight times the number of people who currently worship on an average weekend. An invitation might include information like this:
The text reads:
You and those you love are invited!
CHRISTMAS EVE WORSHIP
at TRINITY CHURCH!
Special music, inspiring message
and a nursery ministry for young children
Tuesday, December 24, 2019
7:00pm Family Service with Candlelight
11:00pm Traditional “Midnight Mass”
with candlelight, brass, and choir
Trinity Lutheran Church
Main Street at First Avenue (Across from Giant)
(123) 456-7890 + www.MyChurch.org
You can access the template for the image above here and update it with your church’s information. You can have business cards printed through your preferred local printing business or online services like Vistaprint.
- On the four Sundays of Advent, distribute two cards to each worshipper (have the ushers pass them in a basket, have the kids help as part of the children’s sermon, have greeters give them out as people enter, etc.). PRAY PUBLICLY over those cards in worship, and ask folks to pray quietly who God would have them share that invitation with in the week ahead. Explain that the best invitations to church come from a friend or family member, and remind them that one in every two people do accept an initial invitation to church from a friend! Do not put these invitations in the bulletin! Hand them out! Make a big deal about them! And, DO give them to children! They are our boldest evangelists! Perhaps you might suggest a particular group of folks to pray for or invite each week of Advent (ie: coworkers, classmates, neighbors, family friends, etc.).
- Change the signs in front of the church (and the message on the answering machine!) to reflect a Christmas invitation two or three weeks before Christmas.
- Schedule a “neighborhood storm” for your immediate neighborhood, a local housing development or apartment complex, etc., the Saturday prior to Christmas. Invite a few hearty folks to join you in walking the neighborhood and distributing doorknob hangers or flyers announcing Christmas worship to homes in your area. Include a brief, accessible word about the real meaning of this time of year. Emphasize Christmas worship opportunities clearly, resisting the temptation that “more is better” and losing people who’ve never heard of Advent or (and yes, I’ve seen this on a sign) The Holy Innocents & Martyrs!
- BEGIN THE “STORM” WITH PRAYER! Ten people can easily distribute 1,500 doorknob hangers in 45 minutes or so depending on your context. This is a great way to involve youth and those who are off from work on Saturdays. Note: Doorknob hangers can be made at any quick-print center or in house in a variety of ways. You can also use this template to create a small door hanger on Vistaprint).
- Work that bulk mailing permit! Have nice postcards made – thousands of them. Buy, or create, a neighborhood mailing list. OR Use EDDM (Every Door Direct Mail) where you choose what streets in which zip codes receive your mailer! Use extras as invitations to hand out, “storm” community events, etc. Mail them early enough to get to the neighbors the week before Christmas. Mail extras (first class) to every guest you’ve had in the last five years, inactive members, friends, “alumni,” etc. You can find a template here.
- Invite your community to worship through the newspaper, radio, cable access TV, and community signboards. Perhaps you can share the announcement (and costs) with other churches in your neighborhood or conference.
- Have a colorful vinyl banner made to put out in front of your church. Use big letters to make a big, and noticeable invitation! Banners such as these are made in two or three days at a place like FastSigns or Office Depot and cost about $150. You can get them even more reasonably if you plan ahead – places like Vistaprint offer them for as low as $29. They can be stored (rolled, not folded) and used again next year! Signs should be perpendicular to the road, not parallel!
- Seize Christmas as an opportunity to contact every local visitor from the past year with a card or letter and a phone call! Invite them to join you again for worship on this special day.
- Make sure your worship is as “visitor-friendly” as possible on Christmas Eve.
- Prepare ushers and greeters on greeting guests (ie: “Welcome to Trinity! I’m Jane, I don’t think I know your name!” as opposed to “Hi! Are you a visitor?”).
- Perhaps you have a few hearty youth or families who would be willing to tend the parking area, directing folks to guest-area parking or open spots.
- And speaking of the parking lot – or the entrance area – perhaps there are a few folks who might be encouraged to dress festively and sing or play carols of the season prior to the services. Perhaps, if this is a bit over the top for your folks, how about some “piped-out” Christmas music from a CD player or bluetooth speaker hidden behind a poinsettia!
- Make sure, at least on this day, that the entrance to the church is clear to those coming from both the parking lot and the street! Don’t assume “everyone knows” that, to get in from the parking lot, you must walk through the Sunday School!
- Make sure bathrooms are clean – really clean – and there are places for changing diapers readily apparent and available in all restrooms. A little “baby emergency” box at these changing stations sends a strong message, too, even if the supplies are not needed.
- Prepare a small gift bag for guests that have information about your church to share with guests as they come into worship. Perhaps you might include a little package of candies or an inexpensive Christmas ornament (ie: from Oriental Trading or Autom).
- Prepare the congregation a few weeks in advance asking folks to “sit forward and sit toward the center” on Christmas so that guests can get the “best seats in the house” – on the aisles and in the rear half of the church!
- Make sure the bulletin presents the worship service in a “user friendly” way. Don’t use insider language like “ELW,” “LBW,” or “WOV” (Red Hymnal, Green Hymnal or Blue Hymnal would be better!). Perhaps today you could print the service in its entirety or at least the service and reference the hymns in the hymnals. This would be a night where, since the tunes are familiar, you could get away with printing simply the words of most hymns and carols.
- Sing “singable” hymns and songs that are festive, theologically sound (don’t violate the “truth in packaging” laws!) and that your “regular” congregation will sing with gusto! Resist the need to do a “best of Martin Luther’s Christmas Music” hymnfest. Introduce less familiar hymns, like “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” or “Once in Royal David’s City” with a soloist, choir or cantor alone on the first verse.
- Keep “insider” announcements to a minimum on this day – and do remember to highlight in the first printed announcements where restrooms are, as well as any nursery or children’s ministry information. Don’t forget to welcome guests specifically and tell them you are glad they came!
- Highlight your children’s ministries in appropriate ways. Perhaps the children’s choir might sing an anthem or a few from the Sunday School could act out a Christmas tableau as the Gospel is read.
- An easy children’s sermon idea: purchase a quantity of inexpensive Christmas ornaments that echo a theme of the Gospel. Have a crafty person print the name of the church and the year on the ornament. You will have a place on the family tree forever!
- Clearly print an invitation and instructions for communion within the bulletin (not buried in the announcements where no one will see it in a timely manner!).
- Prior to the last hymn, invite guests to help continue the celebration over coffee and treats. An easy fellowship time might be arranged with a large crockpot filled with plain old apple cider and a few plates of Christmas goodies pilfered from the pastor or deacon’s usual Christmas haul or recruited from the kitchens of your most diligent bakers. Invite them to another event, too, don’t miss the opportunity!
- Use “guest” as opposed to “visitor.”
- Use cards in each bulletin or a pad or clipboard in each pew and ask people (perhaps prior to the offering?) to “sign in” so that the church might better know and serve them in the days ahead. Do this as part of the service and invite folks to “note the names of those sitting around you so that you can greet each other by name following the service.” Do not simply depend on the guest register in the narthex to collect information! And yet … DO NOT ASK GUESTS TO STAND UP AND IDENTIFY THEMSELVES AT WORSHIP! This is very intimidating and can be very embarrassing.
- Collect as much information, in as many ways as possible – pew envelopes, attendance cards, sign-in boards, guest registers. And, respectfully, use this information!
- Ask a few of your most friendly folks to be ushers inside the nave, welcoming guests.
- You don’t need to “dumb down” for evangelism! Be yourselves in worship and invitation, but be your best selves! God is doing good things at your church! Tell them!
- FOLLOW UP! Within a day or so, respond to those who have shared information with you. A phone call and a card at least, a visit is better. Perhaps drop off a Poinsettia or a plate of cookies or a loaf of good bread with a brochure and an invitation to come back again next week!
- Make sure you follow up on the second and third visits, too. Barna’s research suggests that when such follow-up takes place: 21% of first-time, 28% of second-time and 57% of third-time guests join the church they visit. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the Church of the Resurrection (UMC), Leawood, Kansas, suggests a pattern (for congregations that have fewer than 350 in worship each week) that has worked well for me. First-time guests receive a five-minute “stop-by” visit on Sunday afternoon from the pastor or deacon with a mug and brochure as well as a phone call from a lay leader by Wednesday evening (I’ve used a shut-in who enjoys making calls). When someone visits a third time, they receive a call from the pastor or deacon asking if they can come for a visit. That 30-minute visit, which ends with prayer, is often an important moment that begins to give foundation to the relationship between a church leader and parishioner.
You know your context best, so use as many or as few of these ideas as you’d like – they are what I have found to be effective and achievable in my previous contexts. And keep an eye on the blog, because next month, I will share some of my suggestions for using social media as evangelism ahead of the Christmas season!
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. – Luke 2:8-20
by Bishop Bill Gohl
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. – Isaiah 43:1b
I have privilege, and I have a lot of it; not only in my personhood, but also in the office that I exercise in and on behalf of the church. That gives me privilege and power, whether I believe it, or not. It also provides cover, support, and network, so that when I make a mistake or misstep, however good-intentioned, there is often forgiveness and understanding that others with less privilege and power experience in this church and world.
This year, there has been another seismic shift in the ELCA Conference of Bishops. This Church, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, has elected a number of new bishops that have continued to expand the diversity of the Conference in age, life experience, ethnic diversity, gender, and sexual orientation.
Collegially, when bishops are installed to their new office, the bishops from their synod’s regional neighbors come to represent the whole church alongside our Presiding Bishop, who is the officiant at the Rite of Installation. That tradition is what will take me to College Park, Maryland for my dear friend, Bishop Leila Ortiz’s installation in the Metropolitan Washington, DC Synod on Saturday and to Greenville, Pennsylvania for Bishop Michael Lozano’s installation in the Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod on Sunday.
And yet, I was off to Atlanta for Bishop Kevin Strickland’s installation last week, and I’ll be in Chicago next week for Bishop Yehiel Curry’s installation. These are not requirements or expectations, they are a personal commitment to accompanying my siblings whom we celebrate for the gifts they bring to this work, but for whom there is some vulnerability in a church with good intentions that has, too often, failed to live into the fullness of our baptismal vocation to serve all people following the example of Jesus; and strive for justice and peace in all the earth. (N.B. – I’m also participating in Bishop Paul Eggensteiner’s Installation in the Metropolitan New York Synod, largely because its an invitation to return to the synod of my formation for ordained ministry, and to stand with a new bishop who is a friend and was the chair of that synod’s Candidacy Committee when I was in the discernment process for Word and Sacrament ministry!)
This commitment to accompaniment is how I reconcile my baptismal vocation with the call to ordained ministry and the privilege of serving this church as a bishop:
+ Listening to the people who are underrepresented in this church’s leadership. Asking if there is a way that they might appreciate or be open to accompaniment – and being ok if the answer is no. Actively listening to their experiences with oppression, marginalization – and sometimes both, without appropriating their stories as my own or misappropriating their experience as similar to my own. And believing the story they share, especially when it seems beyond my own experience or understanding. More than one of my colleagues in the Conference of Bishops has experienced the veiled – or, at least in one case, a not veiled threat – “to remember what happened to Bishop Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld.” I was flabbergasted, sad, angry and, I realized, no one has ever or might have the posture of making such an advance on my ministry or personhood. To say the least, that experience seems surreal to this relatively new bishop who has made mistakes – plenty – and many, many missteps in these first years of serving this call. I have largely known supportive and constructive feedback; I have rarely felt any visceral sense of disrespect.
+ Amplifying the voices of those in the margin, and leveraging my own relationships to get other people of privilege to listen. There is a bias to talking about people in the margins, rather than taking a posture of listening to people who, though marginalized, are not voiceless. At Bishop Strickland’s installation, Pastor Bradley Schmeling (Gloria Dei, St. Paul, Minnesota), preached a marvelous sermon that spoke passionately and boldly of our Easter faith. I was overwhelmed by his passion and challenge to Bishop Strickland, that synod and this church. What I was unprepared for was the raw emotion that it stirred in others, particularly those for whom this church had pushed further into the margins until more recent times. Pastor Schmeling preached Easter from having been driven to the tomb by this church and its rules and processes, and it made the challenge of believing Easter – and doing Easter – more possible than I had ever experienced before.
This, too is another privilege of this call as Bishop of the Delaware-Maryland Synod: representing this holy people at these holy moments of being church together; lifting up glimpses of when the church gets it right, and for a fleeting moment it is, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. – Isaiah 43:1-3a
Bishop Gohl preached this sermon at Christ (Inner Harbor) on the Festival of Michael and All Angels to mark the occasion of the Rev. Susan Tjornehoj’s retirement.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.” -Revelation 12:10
On this festival of Michael and All Angels, with our scripture readings speaking of or alluding to the heavenly order of angels, I might begin today with some reminders from the 600-plus references to angels in the Bible to help frame our time in the Word.
- Yes, the Bible says there are guardian angels.
- No, cherubs are not little baby angels. Cherubs have four feet and look like a sphinx with wings.
- No, people don’t become angels when they die. Angels are a whole different order of creation.
- And, no, angels do not have to earn their wings, like in the movies. In fact,
- Not all angels have wings – while some have as many as six.
Or, as Pastor Tjornehoj has taught us: angels lodge underneath us in the shelter, and do their work in this neighborhood around us, and come to visit among us – hospitality, friends – entertaining angels unaware.
The word angel actually means “messenger or ambassador.” When the angel Gabriel came to old Zechariah to tell him about the birth of John the Baptist, he said: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” That’s a pretty good description of what an angel does. I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.
Angels are workers, with us, in advancing the Kingdom:
The scriptures say the angels convey God’s commands to us, such as when the angel stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac and told Abraham that God blessed him for his faithfulness. In the same way, God sent the angel to lead Israel, saying, “Be attentive to him and listen to his voice … for my name is in him.”
The witness of scripture also says that angels announce the coming of special events in the story of our salvation. Luke records both Gabriel’s announcements of John the Baptist’s birth and Jesus’ birth. Another angel announced Isaac’s birth and Samson’s birth. And an angel brought visions of the end times to Daniel and to St. John in the Revelation.
And, angels interpret events in which God’s hand is involved. An angel has to interpret those visions given to Daniel, like our first reading, and to John about the end times. An angel has to explain Mary’s pregnancy to Joseph. Even at the empty tomb, the angel proclaims Jesus’ resurrection.
Finally, angels protect and assist us. An angel told Joseph to take Mary and the child to Egypt when danger arose for them. An angel came and fed Elijah in the desert after someone tried to kill him. An angel has to release Peter from prison on two separate occasions because of the ruckus caused by his preaching.
Martin Luther said it this way: “We Christians should have the sure knowledge that the angels of heaven are with us, [and] not only one or two, but a large number of them as Luke records that a multitude of heavenly host was with the shepherds. And if we were without this custody, and God did not in this way check the fury of Satan, we could not live for one moment.”
So you see, angels come to people at many different times and for many different reasons. They come in dreams, as they did to Joseph and Jacob. They come during prayer, as they did to Zechariah, Daniel and Isaiah. And they come at unexpected times, as they did when Abraham and Sarah were just going about their daily business. They even come at death, as they did to carry Lazarus to Abraham’s bosom. Luther says again, “At death, I know not where I am to go; but my guides, the holy angels, know the way well.”
And when they come, they may appear “like a god,” looking “like lightning with clothing as white as snow.” Or they may look just like an ordinary human being. Three angels appeared in human form to Abraham. Two angels appeared as human to Lot. Gabriel appeared to Daniel “as a man.”
While we are not angels, we are co-workers with the angels by virtue of our baptismal call as the people of God, the body of Christ – alive! – in the world. And by devious means, we arrive at how this festival day might shape our celebration of Pastor Sue Tjornehoj’s ministry among us here in Baltimore and for the sake of the whole church, a ministry that has been on both the Pacific Ocean and now the Atlantic by way of the Chesapeake Bay, with a fairly substantial stint serving in the heart of the Lutheran Church mecca of the twin-cities, specifically Minneapolis, service that has been deeply rooted in the local church and for the strengthening of the wider church, with an openness to the call of the church that has been both often exhilarating and sometimes devastating.
Now, our first reading speaks of the end times, but these are not necessarily those for this weary world, and these are certainly not end times those for Pastor Tjornehoj and her ministry – there’s too much creativity, energy and passion for this to be the end of her ministry, but a prelude to the next season. Indeed, we witness by our presence and prayers with her and for her that the best is still to come.
Pastor Tjornehoj has done important work here at Christ Lutheran, I might even suggest that she has done the work of the angels. She has called us to deeper hospitality, she has connected us to the wider life of the Church – global, national local, and in her preaching – and weekly eLetters – connects us more deeply to the metroplex, this city we both love and this neighborhood where she has called us to replant our hearts for the sake of this place and people that God so loves.
There will come a day, when Christ will come in the clouds, accompanied by the holy angels. And they will defeat that old evil foe once and for all. In fact, Christ, who commands the “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” of angel hosts, promises to send them to watch over you and protect you and guide you – until that day when they will guide you into his kingdom in heaven. On this festival of Michael and All Angels, I am grateful for one who has, in fact, done the work of angels, teaching us how to set a broader, wider more hospitable table; to see, know and hear those who are largely invisible within community and society, who has accompanied us in ways that have not always been easy and comfortable, reminding us to “not be afraid;” our dear pastor and friend, Sue Tjornehoj, who has faithfully spoken the Word of the Lord and pointed us to see the hand of God that has faithfully guided this church to be changed and renewed in every generation. Pastor, you have taught us well, you’ve shown the way and we’ll not forget you – or the important ways you have called us to be more faithful in our relationship to Christ, more credible witnesses in the world.
Indeed, mortal or angel, it makes no difference. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the king of the angels, has made us like the angels with the incredible words of hope we bring to all the world: fear not, for the Lord is with you, and, with Pastor Tjornehoj, we too are Messengers! Ambassadors! – of the good news of God’s love, for all. Amen.
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birthpangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born.And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days. And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 1Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.” -Revelation 11:19-12:10
by Bishop Bill Gohl
“Live in love” – Ephesians 5:2a
No fewer than thirty people have told me that I “failed” my sabbatical this summer. I was in too many places, attending to too much church stuff. While I don’t think I necessarily failed in appreciating the gift of Sabbath, I am keenly aware that I did not “go off the grid” or “disappear” especially well. To be candid, I probably worked about a third of my sabbatical time, but, that also means I did take about two-thirds of the time for more Sabbatarian pursuits. From the time Synod Assembly ended until September 10, I only entered the synod office on three occasions – mostly in the dark of night – to sign corporate documents that couldn’t wait until my return (and, on all three occasions, I was locked out of the restroom, which was being renovated, and for whose passcodes were changed multiple times. I assure you, those trips to the office were brief!).
I enjoyed not going to work, committee meetings, council meetings, call committee meetings and meetings about how to reduce the number of meetings! I kept to my pericope study for the sheer joy of Bible study. I walked at least a mile most days and cleared a goal of an extra 100 miles for the time away. I did some much-needed home improvements (though not the siding, it was too close to the electrical lines feeding our home). I swam. We went camping. I spent quality time with Arwyn and our kids. I road-tripped, visiting friends in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Ohio, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.
I did preach for two friends’ anniversaries. I baptized three children, including a set of twins born on my birthday. I conferred the Church’s gift of Ordination for two outstanding pastors of the church. I took Spanish language lessons. I attended the African Descent Lutheran Association Assembly. I went to Churchwide Assembly, kept a commitment to present to the Assembly, and then left early! I played the piano and the organ enough to brush up some skills that were fading fast. I sat in many others’ pews, including historic African descent congregations throughout our synod. And, when I was approached about anything I didn’t want to do, I shrugged my shoulders and suggested that the person might best talk to Bishop Burkat or Pastor Geleta. If I am being especially truthful, that may have been my favorite part of this holy time away!
The activity that I was most roundly criticized for tending to during this sabbatical time was the month that I spent as Acting Pastor of St. Paul’s (Newark) while their pastor was on a teaching/learning trip to Italy. That time was arranged well in advance and was, by design, part of the “renewal” piece of the sabbatical purpose. After three years of tending the work of this call as Bishop of the Delaware-Maryland Synod, I was intentional about wanting to return to a community in a congregation-based pastoral role. For three years, my preaching has been that of a “one-shot wonder;” at St. Paul’s I had the privilege of preaching for the same community four weeks in a row. Most of you know that, as Bishop, I have one children’s sermon that I repeat nearly everywhere I go; at St. Paul’s I had to come up with new material three times (the last week, I did my “bishop children’s sermon” in reverse!). I visited the hospital, brought communion to the homebound, assisted with the midweek children’s program, went to the Wilmington pericope Bible study. I was wined and dined by parishioners. I received cards and drawings from children. I witnessed the return of the University of Delaware community for the new semester. I cleaned a few bathrooms and even patched a pothole in the church parking lot. I laid hands and offered prayers for healing. I baptized a new member of the congregation and disciple of Jesus. I attended marvelous staff meetings with, frankly, a marvelous staff. Perhaps, best of all, I got to lead a weekly Bible study – quite possibly the thing I miss most about parish ministry. That time was a holy gift, and even Arwyn and my kids recognized the good things it did in me and for me as part of this sabbatical journey.
There are three key things that I learned from my sabbatical time:
+ Pastors and deacons, when they are able, should take as much of their annual vacation in one large chunk, as they are able to manage. There is a considerable lag on coming down off of one’s work, and an extended vacation gives some space for that downtime to be quality time. The pastors of my own childhood, and perhaps some of yours, modeled this by taking either the whole of July or August off each year. My intent is to reclaim this practice for the next years, as well.
+ There was tremendous value for me and for our synod in spending a month with a congregation to gift another pastor with a significant break at no cost to the congregation. I intend to confer with our Mutual Ministry team and our Synod Council about offering to do this again in the future. It builds goodwill and more closely connects me and our synod office to a particular part of our synod’s territory.
+ Finally, though I often describe myself as a “temporarily misassigned parish pastor,” I came away from both the sabbatical and St. Paul’s with tremendous new energy for the work you have called me to and this partnership we share. I recognized in the joy of parish work the reflected joy of this work that we do together as bishop and synod, pastor and people. I came away from this sabbatical time with a renewed sense of call to this ministry as pastor to our synod.
Perhaps I did, in fact, “fail sabbatical” and I certainly wouldn’t lift up my sabbatical method as being the model for pastors and deacons under call to our congregations and agencies. Still, sabbatical did not fail me, and for that and this gift you gave me, I am grateful.
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” -Ephesians 5.1-2
The following is a reflection from Meg Blodgett, a young adult from Baltimore (Maryland), another one of the volunteers working in Puerto Rico this week to aid in recovery from Hurricane Maria. From last week through the end of this week, volunteers will serve and support as a part of the Building Puentes initiative with the Caribbean Synod, the Metro D.C. Synod, and our Delaware-Maryland Synod. A few of them will be reflecting on their experiences, and we will share them here on our blog.
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” -Gandhi
I stared at this quote found in a chapter of the book I was reading after taking my seat on the crowded plane heading towards San Juan, Puerto Rico on Sunday, July 21st. I had been up since 5 a.m. and was excited to start my trip. For the next two weeks, I would be living at a Lutheran camp in Dorado where I would be serving the people of Puerto Rico, working beside them to help rebuild their communities after the damage caused by Hurricane Irma & Maria in the fall of 2017. I would be joined by as many as 60 other volunteers in our mission to provide support and explore this beautiful island together.
As the boarding process completed and the airplane began our ascent towards our destination, I continued to ponder the experiences that I was bound to have during this trip; my first extended mission trip. Gandhi said that we figure out who we are and what we want best when we help others. I desperately wanted to figure out who I was and what I wanted in my life and was hoping that this trip would provide me with the clarity that I needed to get some answers to my questions. How do I know who I am and what I’m meant to do? I’ve been waiting for this trip for nine months and, selfishly, am glad that it came at an important time in my life … a time of transition.
As a young adult, change is inevitable and constant. For the last few months, I have felt that I have been going through this change and am unsure where my life is leading me. Do I go back to school to get my Master’s Degree? Do I move to that one city I’ve been thinking about for months? Do I change careers? Am I happy with how my life is now? What do I need to do to be ready to make that big, life-changing decision?
With these questions and Gandhi’s famous quote in mind, I began my first service week in Puerto Rico. It was more than I could have ever hoped for. I was able to meet so many amazing people at the Lutheran camp, through my work team to my bunk-mates (shout-out to you ladies for always making me laugh and putting up with my constant food puns) to the people of Puerto Rico that I helped with our service work.
As I continue through my second week of service, my experiences of this beautiful place have multiplied. I went surfing for the first time, overcame my fear of heights as I fixed roofs all week, became an expert on using power tools, learned how to find supplies and navigate independently through a Home Depot, went scuba-diving, and learned how to salsa dance.
The diverse culture and experiences that I have encountered in Puerto Rico have caused me to want to leave my comfort zone and try new experiences, meet new people, and take risks. As my time in Puerto Rico comes to an end, I have realized how important going on mission trips and serving others is to me. With Gandhi’s quote still in mind as I write this blog post, I can only imagine a future that involves my participation in mission trips and serving others. God has a plan for each and every one of us. Through prayer and participating in this trip, I believe I’ve found mine. I hope you have the courage and determination to find yours as well.
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” -Gandalf, Lord of the Rings