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Fall wind brings new beginnings

New beginnings for a cedar tree

The Michigan Conference Lay Leader reflects on the life of trees and the life of churches. She encourages congregations in transition to consider The New Beginnings program. 

Lay Leader, Michigan Conference

We lost most of a big cedar this week. On the west side, missing the house power feed, it ripped apart and went down unnoticed while we went off to a granddaughter’s last marching band concert. The seniors left their shoes on stage and walked off, probably about the time wind and rain squalls were coming in off the lake. Big changes.

The next morning, I was talking with the Rev. Jan Brown about New Beginnings. New Beginnings is a transition support program for new pastoral assignments and local church staff parish teams sponsored by the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. Halfway through the conversation, I noticed some cedar branches that seemed to be connected to a big double white pine. Odd.

Several conversations and a few photographs later, I am talking about more change. The split cedar came down; the lone jack pine went to get the boom truck in. We saved the young walnut and took a limb from a giant white oak (firewood, that). Change. Some cost and a little saving. The cedar tree is left and scattered berries and branches all over the stage.

And some new beginnings. We are planning some house remodeling and never considered taking out the cedar that screened a patio and entry door. This affects that calculation. More sunshine and thoughts of the vulnerability of the 125-year-old white oak, too.   

As I printed out the curriculum from the New Beginnings program, the parallels struck me. Churches planted in a community stand like trees. The forces of change blow around us. We have been buffeted in the last few years.

Congregations, like trees, are trying to grow where planted. Sending out branches, shoots, and seeds. Living in the place. Congregations can’t do much about some external factors — the price of cherries, a plant shut-down, hospital closings and the like. Congregations can plant new programs, grow a branch into the sunshine.  Successful congregations search for and make use of love and light.

When a pastor moves in, the unique qualities of a new congregation can be overwhelming. Moves from an urban church to rural church or from the Upper Peninsula to Down River Detroit, the New Beginnings program recognizes the need for education and support. Yet a white pine is a white pine. A rural church, a resort church, a suburban church is different from the others yet true to a type. This knowledge can be shared in a setting like New Beginnings.

Pastors can be prepared for the transition. They may not want to move. Their family may not be ready for a new school, job, friends. Itineration is a powerful commitment.  To go and to serve. Congregations can be prepared,

A suburban church, a rural church, an ethnic church, a mission church—all churches need to know who they are and what their mission is. Together, a change in pastor working with a congregation can ease the pruning, supporting, growing for God’s work in this place.  The lay congregation grows, plants, supports, strengthens. This is a partnership.

Lay leadership has an essential role in pastoral transitions. Clergy Excellence programs, District Committees on Ministry, and Conference Board of Ordained Ministries prepare pastors for all circumstances of service. Then New Beginnings and lay leadership, District Superintendents and Staff Parish members work on the particular circumstances where each congregation is planted.

There are differences in types of churches and the uniqueness of churches. Add to that the differences in skills and training, passions and interests, and weak spots and frailties. Then the big question becomes:  How can clergy systems and lay organizations work together?

All these winds of change demand our joint response. The changes proposed in General Conference 2020 grab our immediate attention. But looming larger are the declines of all denominations which include church scandals in the news, isolation of social media, the fracturing of community, even climate change. 

Yet the challenges around us are the very reason Christ’s message is vital now. A vital church, effectively and lovingly serving the place where it is planted, and the persons sheltered beneath these “trees” is the whole deal.

New Beginnings goes on stage, so to speak, picking up the shoes the seniors have left and fitting them to the next marching feet. I’m stretching my metaphor, but you know what that means.

So why did my cedar tree go down?

The chainsaw crew did a “postmortem.” A hollow spot where a hole in the crouch let water in. Brunt of the wind with the loss of other trees.  The tree survived the 13 inches of rain in the 1986 floods, several notable winter storms, and the sheer winds that took out four white pines.  But nothing lasts forever.

Most telling, however, was what we found about six feet up just below the hole.  The tree was growing roots, six feet from the ground, using the water this best way it could.  The tree, that silly old tree—about 75 years by the rings—had hope. And I hope that you too, despite the storms of November and the news on CNN and whatever other forces and squalls are coming in, have hope. And some love and sunshine to grow.

Time for some New Beginnings.