A Way Forward

by Rev. Bill Kees

“Sunday morning worship is the most segregated morning of the week.” Many years ago, I heard a friend of mine say that. She was an ELCA pastor who was Black and who now rests from her labors alive in God. She said it with an edge, and that’s how I needed to hear her. Today, 30 years later, not much has changed. I am grateful for people of color who value our community and choose to be part of our church. However, we do not represent our Chico community, which is just under 70% white. Our faith community is about 94% white. So that is part of the landscape.

Another part of the landscape is that the ELCA has shrunk over the last 30 years. We began with over 5 million members in 1988. Now we are a little under 3.4 million. There are reasons for that. The churchwide membership size was exaggerated because of poor record keeping. Second, as a church we decided to welcome all people to the “table” in 2009, meaning LGBTQIA+ persons in committed relationships were welcome to be rostered (clergy and deacon) in our church. With that decision there was an exodus of about 8% of our congregations. Then came the pandemic over the past three years that changed everything we knew about life in general in the church. For two years we worshipped, studied, prayed and had youth meetings online. Along with all this we have experienced a political divide in our country that has impacted church, families and society. A last note—we are an older church. These factors all contribute to the landscape.

Beginning this way may seem negative. I think it has a positive tone because it speaks truth. It is important to know the whole picture.

This truth is not different from many of the biblical stories we hear from week to week. I think about the wilderness wandering in the Sinai. I think about the split up of the Kingdom of Israel. I think about the Babylonian exile and then a return to a land which had totally changed. In three generations people had begun to do things differently. I think about the coming of God in human form, Jesus, and how he was too much for the religious of the day to welcome. He was murdered.

We are not in new territory. We have been here before. Has anything changed? Maybe it is our inability to remember history—we act as though brokenness is new.

What may need changing in us is our defensiveness when someone wonders why our church is so white or when someone asks why there’s so much gray hair on Sunday morning or why the sanctuary is not packed anymore. In this endemic time, you may want to remember that now there are 40 to 80 to 100 people worshipping on livestream.

When I retired about 17 years ago, we moved to Chico, California. We came home. Chico is about 28 miles from the town where I was born, Corning, California, and 20 miles from the town where my faith was formed at First Lutheran Church, Orland, California. We chose to live in Chico because my folks lived here and needed our support. We also liked the only ELCA congregation in Chico (lucky?). Chico also has a university and great medical resources. But to get the whole picture, we are also a community that struggles with homelessness, drugs, racism, resistance to welcoming all people no matter their gender identity, the results of climate change and finding a way to a new footing as we move out of the pandemic.

This is the rugged landscape we are experiencing at Faith Lutheran in Chico. And yet it feels like we are moving in a direction that seems to have the capacity to face the headwinds with hope and clarity.

Here is one thing I notice in our community that may help those who work with children, youth and family to be open and ready to engage this time with confidence. 

We are a congregation that is adaptive. We have been through many ups and downs and continue to find a way forward. In 2014 we became a Reconciling in Christ congregation. In 2021 (in the middle of the pandemic) we called a full-time family life director who works with families, children, youth and young adults. And now, as we are coming out of the pandemic, we are still intact as far as participation and financial support. 

In fact, some areas our ministry show new life. We share Holy Communion differently. We began the practice of the whole gathered community sharing the words Jesus spoke at the first communion. Our pastor would speak a line, and we would repeat the words. We continue that today as we worship in person and online at the same time. I believe it has personalized this weekly practice. Second we now have an active young adult group. Part of the formation of this group occurred because these young adults stepped up and helped us livestream our worship which continues today. I believe these new ways of being have happened because Faith Lutheran has learned to adapt. 

What does it mean to be adaptive? It means that you can change, make adjustments, find options, seek a different path. This capacity to be adaptive doesn’t just happen. Maybe in the past you have tried to change, make adjustments, find options and new paths, and it did not go so well. Why was that? Perhaps it was not the time. Or it could reflect that you were using an approach that was all about you. I like to use two words that sound the same and are very different: willfulness and willingness. The first one is dependent on you. The second one is dependent on the God who gives you life each day. Sometimes we do remember that God is the very soil of our soul (as John Philip Newell says), and other times we do not. When we try to make change by our own grit, it might work for a while, and then you wear out. You know when it’s willingness when you do not wear out. You may be tired at the end of the day, but when you wake in the morning your soul seems to be connected to all of who you are. Remember you will go back and forth between willingness and willfulness.

I encourage to step into some practices that can help you lean into God’s presence, the soil of your soul. First I recommend that you keep your eyes turned toward Jesus. Over 50 years ago my internship supervisor shared words from Psalm 25: “My eyes are ever toward the Lord for he will pluck my feet out of the net.” When I use the word “Jesus” I also mean taking what Martin Luther said about him. When we are baptized in the name of the Trinity we have become Christ’s presence in the world. So wherever you are in ministry, if it is a youth and family volunteer in a small congregation or a youth and family full-time worker in a small, mid-sized or large congregation, keep your eyes on the people who love you unconditionally, for they are the very presence of Jesus.

Second, find ways to listen that hear. When you truly listen, you do not try to find a way to defend but rather to hear what the other person is saying. This is not always easy because the other person may speak words that come from a place of hurt or pain or sadness. Our tendency is to become defensive and react with words like these: “I didn’t mean that” or “you misunderstood me” or “you’re wrong” or maybe even “get over it.” None of these words are helpful. Recently I had a conversation with a man whose wife died, and he was angry and blaming. I wanted to say, “You can’t mean that.” It was hard to be silent, but I chose that response. After a while the energy in his words lessened. It had been a long monologue, and I said I needed to end the call and asked if we could pray. I was surprised that he said yes. When I prayed, I asked that our God of love surround him and love him in this difficult time he was going through. And that seemed to be enough. 

As you are reflecting about these practices there are two stories for those who have been doing this ministry for a short time and for those of you who have been in it for the long haul.

Through the years, I have noticed that for whatever reasons, there can be a lot of turnover among people who are doing youth ministry. For those of you who are just learning the ropes, here’s a recommendation. When I was five years into ministry, I was called to be an associate pastor (with a large portion of my work in youth and family) in a mid-sized congregation. When I interviewed, I shared that I came with priorities about how I would do my work. The first priority was to love God and then my family and then the church. There were some people who were surprised that the ministry wasn’t first. I said if I am not spending time with God or my family, I would not be much good for anyone else. And so, for you who are learning the ropes, you need to find a way to support yourself. And you need to find people who will support you in your work, people who will stand with you and pray for you.

And for those of you who have made it through many years. Blessings on you. How have you done it? I suspect that you have found ways for renewal. In some ways, I suspect you found the people who supported your work, and you have also remembered that your work was God’s work, to love all your siblings day in and day out. If I could suggest one thing, it is to remember where you find joy. I share from my own life that I was not good at finding joy. It became apparent in my ministry when I metaphorically “hit the wall.” I looked for ways forward and found that therapy and spiritual direction were lifesaving. One discovery in spiritual direction was to find God in creation. I started walking regularly. In retirement I walk every day. My average over the last years is about 900 miles a year. Something that I began adding to my walks in 2010 was taking pictures of birds. I have thousands of pictures of birds and have written some poetry. Here’s one about a Lark Sparrow:

Migration is in your genes,
As far north as Canada,
And as far south as Mexico
Yet you might hang here year round.

I see your beauty as you perch.
Your Striking tail and face,
With brown, white and tan demarcations.

Your song, a melodious jumble
Of clear notes and trills,
Interspersed with harsh buzzes and chirrs.

You invite us to pay attention to God’s presence.

Bill lives in Chico, California, with his wife, Carolyn. They have two children, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren (soon three more). He is a follower of Jesus, having been baptized in Chico 78 years ago. Bill is a retired ELCA pastor. He attended Pacific Lutheran University and then Luther Seminary. He served congregations for 25 years and in youth ministry in Chicago for 11 years. He became a spiritual director in 2003 and continues that ministry today, using Zoom.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s