In one of my earlier sermons, I mentioned how much I enjoyed watching Columbo because this unlikely detective had a remarkable way of looking at new situations and asking questions that revealed a lot. In that sermon I compared Columbo’s approach to that of an interim minister. It’s not a complete fit for the role of every interim minister. I don’t really like the rumpled raincoat look, but I do enjoy asking questions.
So, I have spent my first six weeks among you at First Congregational Church asking a lot of questions about how you do things and then why you do them this way. All this has led me to make some observations that I would like to share.
When I first arrived here, I heard from several people that you were concerned that First Congregational was not as vital as you remembered and that the church building was under-utilized. Some people worried or wondered aloud about the possibility that the church was even in some decline. So, from the very first conversation that I had with Pastor Nick we talked about the health of the church, and its prospects. We both decided that this year would be a time to assess those things and keep asking ourselves these questions.
Now, we also recognized that this is a hard time to understand the true health of any congregation because all churches have been so adversely affected by COVID 19. Perhaps more than most institutions, our churches have suffered real setbacks because they had to switch to online worship, curtail children’s programming, youth activities, small groups, hospital visits and so many things that were routine in normal times. So many of the things we treasure about our churches involve human touch, sharing the sacraments, crowding into pews, singing together. Everything we love about church was curtailed, suspended or changed for more than two years. So, we realize that it is especially important to take the pulse of the congregation as we emerge from this public health crisis.
Pastor Nick and I realized the importance of this fall and how crucial these months would be to our efforts to re-build our congregation after 2.5 years of pandemic. I envisioned a Rally Sunday and then a World Communion Sunday that would remind us of the importance of worship. Pastor Nick and Sarah Wilterdink worked tirelessly toto reach out to families to encourage them to return this fall or to try joining us. They have been committed to re-building our youth group experiences and re-vitalizing our Church School. While we are not back to former levels of attendance, we are well on our way.
I know that we are accustomed to having two Sunday worship services, but we are hoping to build our attendance through the fall and winter. We have been averaging 223 people in worship with 65 people on average online. We are hoping to run out of bulletins one week because that would be a delightful problem to have.
Working with Pastor Nick, John Albrecht and Sarah Wilterdink, we have coordinated programing on Wednesday nights so families can participate choir, to take a class, attend Middle School or High School Youth Groups. So far, we have been delighted with your response and this week we added a supper and another adult class. Wednesday nights have consistently enjoyed good attendance with about 100 people attending one of these activities. We are hoping this grows because the church has a nice feel as youth and adults find their groups.
On any given week this fall I can look at the calendar and find our church is busy with people rehearsing, attending a small group, going to a class, or coming to a community meeting. We estimate conservatively that the church is busy with programs about 60-62 hours a week, at a minimum. Some weeks the church has been used more.
It is still early but based on these signs we are planning to hold four services on Christmas Eve. No church has been unscathed by this pandemic, but the fact that we have seen such a positive response to the programing this fall is a very good sign. You can learn more from some of the numbers below.
As a pastor I know that there is only so much that numbers can tell you about a congregation. I have noticed lots of other indications of the abundant spirit and vibrancy of First Congregational. It is not just your energy and commitment that makes me think this is an energetic church which is still living into its potential after the pandemic, but I have met so many people who are curious about faith and committed to put their faith into action.
In our New Member Class last weekend, I discovered that a number of new people are driving from other communities, some 30 minutes away because they are seeking a progressive church like ours. That is also very encouraging because they are making a big commitment to be here in person. We often say in the United Church of Christ that God is still speaking. This is one of those times where that slogan makes a lot of sense.
So, I hope you and I can stay curious about our future. I hope we can all keep listening and looking to God for new direction.
I hope you know but I will continue to tell you that has been a great blessing for me to serve you here and I continue to be very grateful.
Interim Senior Minister
Sanctuary Choir: 48 active members, including Scholars (additional inactive singers are waiting on a better Covid-19 situation).
LU Music Scholars: 9
Youth Handbells: 9
Children’s Choir: 12
Church Family Handbells (registrations ongoing)
Confirmation and Youth Groups:
Over 30 participants
Bible Study: 22 enrolled
Economic Justice: 25 enrolled