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What if ministry isn’t about what we think it’s about?

When the congregation at Arlington Presbyterian Church decided to be the church, Sharon Core reflects, profound shifts followed.

I am part of a dying breed: a cradle Presbyterian.

I was baptized at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and confirmed at Southside Estates Presbyterian (now Peace Presbyterian) in Jacksonville, Florida.

It seems that whenever the doors of the church were open, I was there. I sang in the Children’s Choir and then the Chancel Choir. My sister and I spent countless hours in the church library. I loved Sunday school and especially my teacher Ms. Enid Bankhead.

When my family moved to Summerville, South Carolina, the summer before my junior year in high school, it was the good people at Dorchester Presbyterian who welcomed me.

I sang in the choir, was an active member of the youth group, signed up to be a liturgist and worked in the nursery.

I served on the Presbytery’s Youth Council and was the Youth Advisory Delegate from Charleston Presbytery to the 1982 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). The highlight of that GA was the vote on reunion.

I attended a Presbyterian-related college — Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. My decision to go to seminary met few with surprise as captured by my mother’s comment,  ”we wondered when you would figure that out.”

Sharon Core at the Communion table on the last day of worship in Arlington Presbyterian Church.

Upon graduating from Columbia Theological Seminary, I was called to be the associate pastor at Brevard-Davidson River Presbyterian Church in Brevard, North Carolina. My responsibilities were of the standard variety — preaching, worship leadership, pastoral care, Christian education, youth group, sharing in leadership for new member classes, working with confirmation.

Living in Brevard meant living near Montreat, and living near Montreat meant lots of time spent within Montreat Conference Center’s stone gates. I served on youth conference planning teams as both member and director. It seemed like Montreat was the place where many friends showed up. I clocked many miles between Brevard and Montreat.

After 7 ½ years in Brevard, I was called to be pastor at Arlington Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia. It was a switch from associate to solo, small town to urban center, large church to small church.

Be it Jacksonville, Summerville, Decatur, Brevard or Arlington, my religious world was viewed through the lens of the now Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

And in professional ministry, my time in Brevard and the first six years in Arlington were focused on making good church members, instilling in people what it meant to be a “good” Presbyterian and encouraging people to care about and defend the denomination.

And it was going so well, until it wasn’t. There was a gradual awareness, a sense that something wasn’t quite right: energy amongst church members seemed lower, the sense of imagination and awe was waning, ministry activities that had been foundational to the life of the church started to be a bit dull. I was feeling restless, unsettled. More of the same only with more energy? That did not work.

Around this time, several things were converging. I was introduced to two books: The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle and The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church by Reggie McNeal. Both had the effect of challenging my “making good church members” way of doing ministry. According to Tickle, we were in the midst of the “rummage sale,” a time of changes and shifts that occur in the church approximately every 500 years. McNeal described a new world emerging that is profoundly different from the one that existed in the 1950s. Everyone knows it, he said, but church people are living in denial and are waiting for people to come back to church.

If things are shifting, if things are drastically changing, then what am I supposed to be doing?  I know how to make good church members. And if that’s not working – at least not to the degree that it was – then what?

I was blessed with wise colleagues who were asking the same thing. We would gather and talk and discuss and wonder and pray and study Scripture. The mutual support and encouragement enabled us to explore and wonder “What if?” In all honesty, I wasn’t ready to unveil anything new to the Arlington congregation because I didn’t know what the “new thing” would be. But I knew something needed to be different.

In all honesty, I wasn’t ready to unveil anything new to the Arlington congregation because I didn’t know what the “new thing” would be. But I knew something needed to be different.

I also had the gift of a sabbatical. We applied for and received a Lilly Grant, and in that application, I wrote, “The leadership I long to give requires more than fulfilling pastoral duties. I must rely on my relationship with God, and through it, strengthen my spiritual center to be a faithful pastor.” On sabbatical, I paid serious attention to my spiritual life by reading Scripture, spiritual memories and reflecting upon them. At Iona, Scotland, worship, reflection and solitude bolstered my sense of what was missing. It wasn’t God who was absent. I had neglected to nurture our relationship. Wearing the stole does not automatically guarantee a deep relationship with God.

Readings, conversations, reflection — all offering different pieces to that gradual awareness. What if ministry wasn’t about making good church members? What if ministry wasn’t primarily making good Presbyterians? What if it was something deeper than that? What if ministry was about making disciples of Jesus Christ?

A world outside these doors

Much has been written about the bold decision of Arlington Presbyterian Church to sell its property to an affordable housing developer. The action by this congregation has paved the way for many other faith communities to wonder and act on similar calls. Being the pastor of this congregation during this time is one of my proudest moments in ministry. And what has been written about this project focuses on the end result and not what was happening within the community, what was changing that enabled such a decision to be explored, take root and finally be realized.

Sharon on sabbatical in Iona, Scotland.

I had been pastor at Arlington Presbyterian Church a little over six years when I realized the shape and purpose of my ministry was changing. It was like a bolt of lightning. As I considered my day-to-day responsibilities as pastor it became clear to me that the primary communication of this new direction needed to begin with the session. And I was careful about how that happened — in part because there were longtime expectations of how they behaved as session and what their responsibilities were. Many agendas were filled with committee reports and discussing committee reports. There was not much future wondering or in-depth Scripture study. I began quietly and slowly. Tweeks that put prayer and Scripture more in the forefront, asking questions — What resonates with you? What do you hear God saying? What are we hearing in Scripture? What does this say to our current reality? This focus laid the groundwork for a “spiritual awakening” of session members and enabled them to take up their rightful role as spiritual leaders of the congregation. As time progressed, I sensed they were ready to seriously explore their call as a faith community. The conversation was deep and intentional. Gradually they began asking, “What does it mean to be the body of Christ in the world?”

As time progressed, I sensed [session members] were ready to seriously explore their call as a faith community.

At one meeting an elder said, “There is a world outside these doors. How do we connect with it?” This one question reflected a profound shift in how they saw themselves; they were no longer just administrators, they were becoming spiritual leaders. We had been exploring the theological underpinnings, meaning and purpose of what they were doing. This led to new awareness and a couple of epiphanies. As the elders were making this shift, they realized the status quo was no longer acceptable. They continually asked and struggled with the question “How is it we are so good at taking care of ourselves, but we don’t know who lives outside the doors of the church building?” So, when the question about those outside the doors was asked, they were ready to answer. They planned a Sunday for the congregation to go out and serve the community and then return for worship with community representatives. To prepare, they used a program whose tagline is “Don’t go to church; be the church.” The church was excited about the whole process from planning to execution. By the time of the benediction in the parking lot, members were ready to move. The day planted the seed of being present in and caring for our community. Now, what do we do next?

Perhaps the theme is convergence because as the congregation embraced this day in the community, we were also engaged in other opportunities that allowed us to look at ourselves.  Who were we? What was important to us? To what forms of ministry was God calling us? When telling the story of the congregation’s journey, we jokingly, sort of, said we took advantage of every opportunity given to us — Transforming Congregations, a presbytery-sponsored workshop, working with consultants from both Alban and Center for Parish Development, visioning retreats led by presbytery staff, and New Beginnings, a program through the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

What do we do next?

Amid these opportunities to examine ourselves, the session began wondering about the building and what we could do with it. As is the case with many congregations, the upkeep of a building can be a strain on the yearly budget. At one meeting, an elder said we should sell the building to an affordable housing developer. That comment sparked much interest and we began wandering down that road. And that wandering led us into controversy and firestorm. When presented to the congregation there was outrage leveled at the session and the pastor. The plan failed miserably, and it should have because we didn’t know the “why.” We shelved the plan and started over. We returned to that which had been grounding us — prayer and Scripture study.

In the aftermath of failure – and it really wasn’t failure because we learned a lot – we engaged the New Beginnings program. This opportunity helped the entire congregation realize that change was needed. What kind of change varied. Some believed the church needed a new pastor. Others grabbed on to community involvement. Still others wondered about our worship style. Conversations were lively, at times uncomfortable, and – for the most part – extremely clarifying. The status quo was no longer acceptable.

When you are in the midst of something it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. As pastor, I knew I needed to do everything possible to support, encourage, and nurture the session as they led the congregation. I fostered an atmosphere where they could wonder and dream and vision. I asked them questions and pushed them to explore their answers.

As pastor, I knew I needed to do everything possible to support, encourage, and nurture the session as they led the congregation.

Looking back, I realize my days of making good church members was far gone. These faithful people were putting on the mantle of discipleship. And in putting on that mantle, they were searching for purpose. Who are we? What does God want us to do? They were paying attention and listening for where God was guiding them. Their hearts were open and they began to let go of historical expectations of church and church membership.

Buoyed by prayer and Scripture, they made their way into the community, wondering about the people who lived and worked outside the church doors. In conversation, they were keen to notice where their hearts were breaking and why.

These conversations led them to an understanding of what God wanted from them, and with whom God was calling them to be in relationship. I believe God knew the future of this congregation and revealed it when we opened our hearts to listen and prayed for revelation.

After several years of searching, trusting, talking and praying, the congregation realized God was calling them to three things: nurture discipleship, offer opportunities for the diverse populations in the neighborhood to interact and redevelop the property for affordable housing. This last one has garnered the most attention and yet, for me, without the first two, property redevelopment would not have been possible. Understanding who we are as God’s people and connecting with those around us leads to an awareness of the needs in the community.

It is my firm belief that faith communities will flourish when leadership is willing to be daring, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.

It was a contextual decision born of a people with the courage to reimagine themselves. As their pastor, I had both the responsibility and the honor to give them tools and the permission to explore God’s vision for them. It is my firm belief that faith communities will flourish when leadership is willing to be daring, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.