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“Ministry Instead of Maintenance

June 16th, 2015 § 0 comments

We made it into the denominational magazine. This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Presbyterians Today and is reprinted here with permission. You can find the original article at http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/today/

ONE IN MISSION | Linda Valentine

Linda Valentine is executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

‘Ministry instead of maintenance’

By deciding to sell its church building, a congregation finds new freedom to do God’s work.
When Elizabeth Steele arrived at Whittier Presbyterian Church, the first thing that struck her—after the refreshing openness of its small but active membership—was the sheer size of the building. “We have a huge facility,” says the veteran interim-ministry specialist. “Without the building, this could be a healthy small congregation, but the facility is absorbing all of the church’s time, energy, and money.”

Elizabeth and the congregation set out on a journey to discern God’s call.

Whittier is a 64-member Anglo congregation in a majority Latino community near Los Angeles. Average worship attendance is between 20 and 25. Whittier shares its vast space with Nueva Vida Presbyterian Church, a Latino congregation, which also has fewer than 100 members. Together, they embarked on New Beginnings, a Presbyterian Mission Agency assessment process designed to help congregations understand where they are and then make faithful decisions about new directions for their future.

Now in her 10th interim position, Elizabeth was called to Whittier Church in May 2013 because of her experience with New Beginnings. She has been through the process as a presbytery representative and as an interim in a previous congregation. She is also a trained and experienced assessor for New Beginnings.

“I have seen a number of different assessment tools, and a lot of them basically look at the same information—like finances, building use, and demographic information,” she says. “The biggest difference is that the New Beginnings curriculum has a good way of putting it together for people and giving them a process. If they will read it and discuss it with the understanding that some of it applies to them—some doesn’t—then it has served its purpose.”

In October 2012, the church began six weeks of studying the report in small groups at different locations. “It was hard work to look in the mirror and see exactly who we are as a congregation,” says Donna Hanson, a ruling elder at Whittier. “Sometimes we were sad in our conversations, and sometimes we were energized and excited about possibilities. As we discussed possible ways to go forward, each group came to the conclusion that we were going to make a decision and not just continue exactly as we are until we are out of money.”

In the church’s conversations, the building was always a focal point—even a flash point. After much prayer, talk, and work, Whittier concluded not only that it is a vibrant congregation with a vital mission but also that its facility is too large for both congregations. They decided to sell.

“Once we were able to separate the question of what happens to the building and what happens to the congregation, that’s when the new options appeared,” says Elizabeth. “As long as people had stuck in their minds that closing the church meant closing the congregation, nothing much could happen. Then there came a point where they realized, ‘No, we can use the building as a resource for ministry in a different way.’ ”

Is the church joyful about selling the building? Elizabeth says the answer is yes and no. “Even those who are eager to move on are sorry to be leaving,” she says. “Most of them have spent 60 years here. But the idea that they can go somewhere else—use the financial resources to do ministry instead of maintenance—they are so excited about that.”

Donna says that the church today is “full of energy and looking for a new focus,” confident that God has a plan.

“It was the talking with each other each week and sharing our concerns about our shrinking congregation that helped bond us together stronger as a church,” she says. “There was a sense of unity when we finished with New Beginnings. We didn’t have a concrete direction, but we knew that God was calling us to stay together and that God had plans for us.”\


For more about New Beginnings and its discernment process: whatisourfuturestory.com

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