Covenant Ministry: Revitalizing Old First

What Is Covenant Ministry?

In August 2009, Old First entered into the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference’s Covenant Ministry program. The Rev. Michael W. Caine arrived as part of that commitment, to serve for 3 years as the Covenant Minister.

Covenant Ministry is a program wherein the congregation, the conference and a designated pastor enter into specific agreements to work together to revitalize a local church, its mission and ministries. There are specific goals set, depending on the history, current circumstances and needs of the local church. But, in general, our goal of the revitalization is to reach, welcome, engage and serve more people in the life and work of Old First.

Covenant Ministry asks the local church to make specific commitments: to free the pastor up for the work of revitalization, to be open to the change that revitalization inevitably means, to work through in honest and healthy ways any conflict that might be occasioned by such a period of rapid and intentional change.

The Conference provides support in three primary ways: 1) providing in the structure of the Covenant Ministry program the room for relationships, expectations and responsibilities to be more deliberately negotiated; 2) providing the Covenant Ministry with a coach; 3) providing a Revitalization Support Committee that meets with the local church’s leaders every quarter.

Another aspect of Covenant Ministry: after the 3-year covenant period, the pastor and the congregation are free to discern what God intends for their relationship next. It could mean either that the pastor or the congregation determine that they have already accomplished together what God has asked and now the congregation is ready for a new pastoral leader, or that the minister is to stay on and is called as a settled pastor.

What’s the goal of Old First’s Covenant Ministry?

In Covenant Ministry at Old First, we have found ourselves asking: what should our metric be, the measure by which we know we are being revitalized, having success in our Covenant Ministry? While there are a variety of different, intermediate goals involved in revitalizing our congregation (becoming more visible to neighbors around us; making our welcome effective for newcomers; helping Old Firsters share their faith comfortably and articulately; developing explanations and introductions to faith and practice that work for folks without much religious experience…) ultimately, our standard is simple, even uncompromising: that we grow to involve more people in the life of our church. More people in worship each week. More people serving in the service opportunities at the heart of Old First. More people involved in our fellowship and education events…

But more crucial, even than the specific steps we are taking, is to keep focused on the reason we want to be revitalized in the first place. Not because Old First needs or wants more people. Not to fill our budget gap or find more people to do the work around here.

But because God has called us to this ministry. Because we know too much blessing here not to share it further. Because we have confidence that participation in our church adds to people’s lives. Because we want to do our part in helping the UCC to preach and practice and share its progressive faith. Because we believe God is calling us to change the world. Because God’s love, paradoxically, is experienced to grow as it is shared with others.

Our Process:

Step 1: Self-assessment, Studying our Context

After an initial period of self-study– our congregation’s recent history, our neighborhoods, the city and the metropolitan area around us, the congregation began to identify its strengths, what it has to offer people. Michael kept chiding us that “these days churches, after such a long period of membership decline, suffer from low self-esteem. We need to appreciate this community, not arrogantly, but articulately, so that we know what we can invite others to add to their lives.” This sort of clarity or honesty are absolutely necessary, especially in our time when more and more our neighbors in a secular society have little familiarity with the Christian story and the church’s faith and practice. The people we hope to talk with have no idea how belonging and believing could make a difference. Don’t we need to make it easier for them to be able to see by being able to articulate it ourselves?

In light of our own gifts, we also began to sketch possible descriptions of the “additional people” we believe God means for our church to serve. Who is God calling us to serve? Old Firsters came up with a whole list of different ways of describing people– by age, neighborhood, background, social affiliation, interests, needs… It was interesting: some of those descriptions sounded very much like our current congregation, who we serve now. And some of these population descriptions were calling us to completely new people, and perhaps, different ways of being the church.

In this stage of our Covenant Ministry, we began to recognize a few things:

    1) everyone one new who walks in the door changes who we are;
    2) we can’t expect to grow just because we said we want growth to happen– as if a whole bunch of people pretty much exactly like us are just going to show up on our doorstep one day; and
    3) in order to serve more and new people, our church probably needs to change first.

In our revitalization process and the discussions around it, no one ever doubted that everyone is welcome at Old First. (Or, as we heard from another church, “everyone who welcomes everyone is welcome here!”).

But we also recognize that every congregation has certain gifts and graces, “charisms” to use the ‘churchy’ word. And that church life is always culturally defined. How we worship and communicate, how we relate to one another, how we understand ourselves and our world, how we serve– all these are tuned for specific people, contexts, time and place and theological understandings. Is our way of doing and being church narrowly or broadly defined? Are there ways we can tweak or transform our cultural settings so we might broaden the spectrum of people we can serve?

No matter what, as a congregation, if we are honest with ourselves and with God, we can serve some people better than others. If a congregation– unless it consists of thousands of members– truly tries to be all things for all people, that often means its not doing anything very well. Congregations the size of local churches in the UCC often do well to find their niche– the population they are called to and can serve well. For example, Old First is a better church home for people searching for:

    ~ a Protestant expression of a progressive interpretation of the Christian faith;
    ~ a diverse, open, informal community, and
    ~ a faith at whose heart there is service to neighbors in need.

There are other, different legitimate Christian understandings, interpretations, longings and needs. But Old First may not be the best place to expect them to be met. For instance, if someone longs for a very high church worship or for a church that teaches a literal, strict or single-minded interpretation of the Bible, we cannot be expected to meet that need. We can, in good Christian faith, help people whose needs we cannot serve well find a church community that better serves them.

Step 2: First Intermediate Goal, aka Target Populations

In our revitalization process, after everyone had a chance to contribute their description who they felt God was calling Old First to serve, the Revitalization Task Force (RTF) worked over the various articulations and definitions. They crafted 12 possible descriptions of population groups. Starting at Easter in 2010, members of Old First voted to decide which of those groups we felt most called to stretch for. Four populations were identified:

    Young, post-college professionals up to about 35 years old;
    Families with young children living in our city;
    Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered folk;
    People who had been turned off by church, either by experience or perception.

Step 3: The Second Intermediary Goal, aka Innovations

Having determined our population groups, we next asked ourselves about the needs of these people and how can Old First develop its traditions in light of the people we are yet to serve. What can we do to make participation in this church community more visible, accessible, welcoming, meaningful and engaging for people in these population groups? Can we evolve intentionally, so our church might better serve these people (and others).

The congregation met in a day-long retreat in May 2010 and dreamed about ways we might reach, welcome and serve those populations. The aim is to change ourselves and our church first so that getting involved in our congregation might become a more realistic option for more people. The concrete example we kept using was: when we discerned that we were called to serve people with disabilities, we made our buildings accessible and added sound amplification for the hearing impaired. We are now asking ourselves, how can our church become more relevant to other people and their lives?

Those brainstorming ideas from the retreat were passed along to our Standing Leadership Groups and Ministry Teams. These were just suggestions from the congregation. The RTF is clear: our revitalization process doesn’t override our other structures or usurp the portfolios of other governing bodies. Instead, the Standing Leadership Groups and Ministry Teams were encouraged to develop and implement to two innovations by the end of 2010 that would move us closer toward our target populations. Interestingly, the brainstorming from the congregation identified more radical innovations than the actual ones effected by the Standing Leadership Groups and Ministry Teams. Perhaps, this was the natural vetting process as we moved from “dreaming big” to realistic, incremental steps we could implement.

Results: the first generation of Innovations

Here are some examples of the innovations that were implemented during 2010:

    Hospitality Ministry—We improved our ability to greet visitors and newcomers on Sunday mornings by getting the whole church involved; in so doing we made it an expectation that people recognize our dependence on their welcoming newcomers; we also created a low pressure, reasonable commitment, easy, fun avenue for newcomers to get involved in service in the church.
    New Web Site—We’ve redeveloped the website, recognizing that our primary target audience is people who are not yet involved. We are using the voices of real Old Firsters to send Christ’s message of love, forgiveness and welcome into the world. We have coupled our communications strategies with social networking/Facebook as a low cost way to begin to get some broader exposure.
    Young Adults Group—As more young adults have joined our community, they have organically developed into their own fellowship group that meets regularly for social activities. They are also taking responsibility for reaching out to a welcoming their peers who are showing up in church.
    Parents’ Night Out—The young adults group provides free child care for parents of young children so they can enjoy an evening to themselves.
    Visibility in the Neighborhood—We have recognized that our building facade may not be the most expressive face of the community. We’ve begun getting our message out in our busy neighborhood through thought-provoking posters hanging on our perimeter fence, an new outside bulletin board, an outdoor Blessing of the Animals, the Farm to City Program, and improved outdoor plantings.
    Leadership for Sunday School—New leadership for Sunday school is providing support for teachers so that our church school will be more attractive to families with young children. New leadership for Adult Forum is helping to engage and inspire the adults in our community.
    New Programs for Children—The Sunday School offered a Christmas Pageant and Children’s Sabbath.
    Youth Group—Monthly First Saturday events for the youth led by Michael and several young adults that supplement occasional outings led by parents.
    Music in Worship—We have diversified the musical canon to include musical offerings during worship to attract our target groups.
    Stewardship and Financial Management—We are working on a thorough stewardship campaign to support these revitalization efforts. And despite a rough economy and difficult financial times, we hung together as a community and ended the year with a balanced budget (for the second year in a row, after a 10 run in the red!).
    Connecting with Old First’s Dispersed “Relatives”—A email list is in progress to stay in touch with the broad network of Wellspring volunteers who can help us get our message out further.
    Connecting Wellspring to all of Old First—New leadership and staff in Wellspring keep our social service efforts front and center to Old First members through regular online updates and more focus in worship.

None of these innovations is in and of itself all that radical or earth-shaking. That is important. It means they have not been experiences as too off-putting to our current membership. Rather than feeling painfully that “the need to change in order to serve new people necessarily involves losing the church that is dear to me,” folks from Old First now feel some excitement: we can tweak our traditions so they work for more people, and still hold on to and honor what makes Old First a sacred space for so many.

We are increasingly confident that we have effectively increased the rate of change or evolution in this last year. That said, there is also some feeling that Old First might now be ready to ask the whole congregation to take a bigger step forward, some more demanding commitment to the church we are becoming.

Watching the Initiative Bear Fruit and Looking Ahead

It’s still too early to evaluate the ultimate results from these innovations. But we have learned much about ourselves in watching what got accomplished and what did not, what we could easily change and what was more difficult, and why? Covenant Ministry has thrown into high relief three commitments that are very important for greater church effectiveness, but that often get lost in church life:

    1) being intentional– setting some goals that take us beyond the needs of those people we already include; remembering to include the needs of those we feel called to served; and then determining concrete steps for reaching them;
    2) enculturating honest, healthy, broad-based and reflexive or habitual evaluation so we can determine what works and what doesn’t, and why; and
    3) an openness to being surprised– serendipity often offers opportunities one could never invent for oneself, but one has to be open to seeing them.

There’s anecdotal evidence that our efforts are bearing fruit. We are seeing increasing numbers of visitors on Sunday morning. And we have a healthy return rate of people who keep coming back. Most of our visitors are young adults, from colleage age to under 35 years of age—those “young professionals” who make up one of our population groups.

The second noticeable group are folk from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community. Several of these newcomers have told us that they saw a poster on the fence or viewed our Web site before visiting—and that these messages helped them take a second look at church… and begin to wonder if church might not offer more than they expected it could.

We are also beginning to see more people from the communities we serve– who have come to us though our service programs– clients of our cupboard or residents of our shelter, show up in worship and join the church.

Or looking at it another way, we are also seeing new ministry initiatives, for example the Urban Farming, getting started. New bridges being formed with people outside of our immediate faith community. New people getting involved in our programs.

Worship attendance is running over 20% ahead of last year.

Having assessed our progress to date, we are experiencing growing confidence that we are accomplishing our intermediate goals and getting closer to our prayer that this faith community might engage and serve more people in transforming ministry.

In summary, one might say that we’ve stopped waiting for God to send back a crowd. We’ve come to see that God’s waiting on us to get beyond the four walls of this church, to carry the Gospel out into the world, to re-present Jesus for our own time and place, and re-build the church for the next generations.

March 20, 2011