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Into the great wide open

Church transformation involves adventuring out of comfort zones, ‘ECG 2012’ told

August 1, 2012

ST. PETE BEACH, Fla.

The opening plenary of the Church Transformation Conference here began with a video of several people on an escalator that suddenly stops. They don’t know what to do. One panics. One shouts for help. One dials 911.

Amid the laughter, conference participants knew the obvious solution to the riders’ dilemma ― just walk to the top or bottom of the stalled escalator. “But too many of us in the church are stuck in too many ways,” said the Rev. Ann Philbrick, associate for church transformation in the Evangelism and Church Growth ministry unit of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “We expect the stairs to start moving again and don’t know quite what to do when they don’t, even if the solution seems obvious to those watching.”

Transforming existing congregations seems much like the story of Abraham and Sarah, said the Rev. Shawn Barkley, pastor of Louisville’s Trinity Presbyterian Church. “God tells them to leave their place of comfort and familiarity and go to a place completely different and unknown,’ he said.

“When I was in seminary, I thought pastoral ministry was just learning how to preach, teach, provide pastoral care and moderate session,” Barkley continued. “After about five years the story of Abraham and Sarah became very important to me because my ministry was not going the way I thought it should.”

An elder in his church set him straight, Barkley said. “She told me, ‘Shawn, you’re a great preacher and teacher, but you’re a lousy leader.’ It was right then I learned that effective ministry means attracting, motivating, equipping and deploying the people of God for ministry ― completely different from what I thought I’d learned.

“So the question for transformational leaders is, Barkley said, “Who do we need to be as leaders in order for our people to become leaders in the church?”

There’s no formula for transformational leadership, said the Rev. Bill Lawser, who said he has “served pastorates from coast to coast and back again.” There’s “no code to think about or puzzle to solve,” he said. “The best thing to do when we’re stuck is to go on a trip to learn a new way of walking. We must seek adventure because in the midst of adventure new and exciting things happen.”

Trying to be a transformational leader can be scary, said the Rev. Joy Douglas Strom, pastor of Lake View Presbyterian Church in Chicago. “At my first conference like this I was so afraid,” she said. “I felt in over my head, like a loser pastor trying to pile into the same lifeboat with all the other loser pastors.”

Her experience at Lake View has been transformational, Strom said. One new member is a man who told her he walked by the church every Sunday morning for 15 years “wondering if they’d welcome me there,” she said. “There are so many who hunger for something and sometimes they don’t even know what ― our role is so heavy but so exciting.”

Lake View, which at one time had less than 20 in worship, now has two services and more than 300 on a typical Sunday. “Almost every Sunday we have new visitors and that’s what really excites us,” Strom said. More than 60 percent of Lake View’s members are young adults.

“Every Sunday we only have one chance with a tentative newcomer and if we blow it they never come back,” she said. “We squander that chance at the expense of those hungry young people, It is such a privilege and a gift.”

At the end of the day, church transformation is about “walking and talking,” said the Rev. Amy Williams Fowler, executive for Genesee Valley Presbytery. Her’s was a “perfect Presbyterian family,” Fowler said, “until my father committed suicide. Suddenly, everything I had counted on came into question.”

Transformation came in form of  “our imperfect Presbyterian church that embraced us and let us cry,” she said. Because of that experience, Fowler said, she’s always been drawn to the story of the disciples trudging back home after witnessing Jesus’ crucifixion. “When Jesus comes and walks alongside the two, they say ‘we thought he was the one and he’s dead.’”

Every believer has moments of doubt and discouragement like that, Fowler said. “And then Jesus comes along and walks and talks with us and suddenly life opens up in a new way and we are transformed.”

Such experiences “are deeply personal but never private,” Fowler insisted. It is individuals and congregations “who run and tell others that Jesus is alive because it is just too good news not to not be shared who are the real transformational leaders.”

The Church Transformation Conference is one of five conferences comprising the Evangelism and Church Growth 2012  (ECG 2012) here July 30-Aug. 3. The other constituent conferences are Evangelism, New Church Development, Collegiate Ministries and Youth Workers.  

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