A group of pastors, teaching elders, and former young adult volunteers spent three days in Stony Point, New York, recently to find ways to connect congregations with the work of the church. The Special Offering Leader Support Network (SOLSN) educates churches about the impact of their gifts through the four PC(USA) Special Offerings: One Great Hour of Sharing, Pentecost, Peace & Global Witness, and Christmas Joy.
The challenge is to go to churches within their region and share the stories of generosity and inspiration. During the three-day gathering, the special offering ambassadors heard from staff as well as agencies and programs that have been supported by these gifts, including the Damayan Migrant Workers Association and several Young Adult Volunteers who are currently serving in New York City.
“We are a people yearning for connection, yearning to feel that the church we attend is a part of a bigger, broader, transformed world,” said Bryce Wiebe, manager of special offerings for the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “When you go out and talk to congregations, you won’t hear those words. People are tired and not able to add another thing on their plate. The symptoms of disconnection look like overwork and frustration.”
Wiebe told the group in its final session that isolation can hurt the church.
“Listen to the stories you hear from the church or the special offering stories from the person you talk to. Everyone has one even if they don’t know it,” he said. “It could be a community garden down the street, an international peacemaker who changed the way a church looked at the world. It could be that SDOP project that brought to light a community that has been overlooked or a pastor who is struggling with an illness. We send you out hoping we can give you a few of those stories, but we hope you’ll find a whole lot more.”
The three-day gathering ended with a tour of the Stony Point Farm which received a grant from the Presbyterian Hunger Program. Will Summers began working the farm in 2013. What started as a few small gardens has grown into a larger operation with greenhouses, chickens, and healthy produce to serve to those coming to Stony Point.
“Our kitchen goes through most of what we grow. We donate the extra produce to the local foodbanks,” said Summers. “We’ve sold some produce at a local farmers’ market. The amount we sell can cover our year-to-year operating costs, and people seem to want to support local initiatives.”
Summers has also developed an education program where youth and other community groups come together to participate in the planting and harvesting.
“Some times groups visit that are interested in helping out, so we let them help us plant the gardens, and people from the local community come, giving us a chance to connect with them,” he said. “We host farm-to-table fundraisers each year and conduct multi-faith gatherings. We found that working the garden is a great way to meet and learn from each other. We offer food justice retreats and invite groups to spend the night with us, work the fields, and discuss food justice issues.”
For the ambassadors in attendance, the session was an eye-opener. Dianne Kareha is a chaplain for a continuing care retirement community and a Presbyterian for more than 35 years. She says she still learns new things the church is doing.
“It’s not just telling people what they need to do, it’s giving them an opportunity to use their skills to make a difference in their lives and work with people mired in poverty, recovering from disaster, or dealing with hunger,” she said. “We’re not in there telling people what needs to be done but giving them ideas and tools to help them.”
Helen Bessent Byrd is a member of Eastern Virginia Presbytery. A lifelong believer in giving back, she wants to reach a new generation of Presbyterians.
“Younger generations are more prone to be concerned about having choices. They want to make decisions about where funds go to support mission,” she said. “There need to be interpreters for people to be fully aware of the different mission programs supported by these offerings.”
Rev. Jeromey Howard, pastor of the United Christian Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Missouri, is a first-year ambassador. He finds the new role empowering.
“A gathering like this builds relationships with people who are enduring the same things I am enduring. It gives me a point of contact. If I run into a problem, there’s someone who can help me,” he said. “I can walk away from this with a much more robust toolkit for ministry.”
Rev. Sally Wright, associate for the Special Offerings Ambassador Program, planned the three-day training event. She says the ambassadors play an important role in helping the church promote its programs.
“Ambassadors spend two hours a week reaching out to churches and sharing stories about the ways in which the four PC(USA) special offerings are examples of God’s movement in the world,” she said. “They ensure the churches have the materials needed and talk with pastors and mission committees to emphasize the continued importance of the special offerings.”