Adaptive Change Conversations Begin at Emsworth U.P.

On Monday night, about half of our active members/friends gathered for a pot luck supper and conversation as we continue to move through the Unglued Church process at Emsworth U.P. Church.

Using the information gathered through the New Beginnings report and the results of the six-week “house meetings”process, the folks who gathered considered three “future stories” for the church, and participated in an activity called “Animal Farm” which will help the congregation uncover those issues in our past and present that may hinder our movement toward a faithful way forward as a church.

Below you will find the three “future stories” and the comments they generated.  Additionally, you will see what issues the “Animal Farm” activity uncovered.  

At the end, you’ll read about coming events in November in which we will meet with other churches in Pittsburgh Presbytery who are also going through the Unglued Church process.

As always, if you have questions or ideas, please get in touch with Pastor Susan, or with any member of the leadership team at Emsworth:  Jon Stellfox, Bez Stellfox, Tom Smart, Marti Smart and Donna Hunter.

Future Story 1 — Redefining The Mission
It is 2020, and so much has changed here at Emsworth U.P.

Back in 2014, we realized we really needed to step out and understand our community with fresh eyes.  We began to do prayer walks in our neighborhood.  We stopped and prayed for homes and businesses, and we would chat with other pedestrians that we encountered.  We spoke with political officials, leaders of non-profits, and others in the community who had a sense of the needs in our neighborhood.

Soon we began to transform the way we do thing to better reflect our community and our missional perspective.  Some of the things we changed included:

            ·We formed small groups to meet, pray, study scripture and have discussions in homes, coffee shops and other places in the community.
            ·We went out to festivals, sporting events and other places in our community – even laundromats! — to interact with others and talk about our mission and ministry.
            ·We renovated our worship space and experimented with different worship styles and times to make our church a place of meaningful, vital worship.
            ·We updated our building’s layout to make it completely accessible for all ages and abilities, including updated restroom facilities, sound and visual technology, and meeting areas.
            ·We made significant financial investments in pastoral leadership and leadership training for our laypeople.
            ·We completed the labyrinth and prayer garden with the cooperation of our neighbors, and got word out to the community about it being there.
            ·We put up signage around the church to let the community know who we are and what we are about.
            ·We undertook significant local mission activities including (Meals on Wheels, The Doorway, Shepherd’s Door, The Table, etc.) and not only provided financial support, but also significant leadership and volunteer support.

Change has come slowly, but with each new relationship we give thanks to God and look ahead to new and different ways to transform lives.
The future story suggested by “Redefining The Mission” is a long term strategy in which the congregation moves through a series of adaptive changes resulting in a whole new way of being church.  This option requires significant energy, ingenuity, creativity and spirituality because people will be leaving behind previous ministry and doing a very new focus in ministry.  According to the New Beginnings material, this type of future story requires the greatest amount of time, energy and resource.
The group on Monday night felt that this was a difficult scenario to envision because it requires a much more community-oriented way of thinking.  The amount of change required to realize an entirely new mission for the church nearly overwhelmed them, although they realized such a story would result over a long period of time.  There was a sense that the congregation would “do what it takes” to make it happen.  They understood that part of redefining the mission would mean abandoning the notion of “bringing people in” to church, but would require an adaptation of going out into the community.  There was also great enthusiasm for small group ministry.
Future Story 2  – Resurrection and Rebirth
Back in 2014, our church made the important and empowering decision to enter into the New Beginnings/Unglued Church process in order to make some clear decisions about our future.  We considered all the things it might require to turn around years of declining numbers, and we questioned whether those of us gathered had the energy, will and financial resources to undertake a major revitalization process.

We began conversations about shared ministry with our sister mainline churches in the area.  We didn’t want these discussions to be motivated by desperation or fear.  Any bold ministry decisions needed to be about a passionate shared hope and exciting common vision for living out the gospel among people in our community.

We realized that we care deeply about things like mission and spiritual growth, and in many ways it felt like worrying about bills and our building distracted us from where our hearts really were.  We thought about what it would look like to continue on as intentional small group in another church community or in another missionally-focused location where we could worry less about resources and maintenance, and instead focus on our passions. 

Once we made the decision to let go of our building, we were open to all kinds of new possibilities in how we could engage each other and the outside world.   We did this in all sorts of ways:
            ·We began to worship in our homes, coffee shops, and in other churches.
            ·We looked for new and creative places for worship in the heart of our community, including outdoor worship.
            ·We considered leasing or sharing space in areas of the community where our mission, worship and other activities would be more accessible to the community.
            ·We sought out joint community and mission opportunities, and at these events we encountered others who wanted to know more about our ministry and calling.

Has it been easy?  Well, no.  Living out a gospel calling and life of discipleship rarely is.  But letting go of our material identity allowed us to fully embrace our spiritual identity.  We became re-energized for all of the passions that drew us to the church in the first place.  Looking back now, we are thankful for the Holy Spirit transforming and sustaining our witness to the world.
This future story is suggested by the “redevelopment” option of the New Beginnings material, and is just one of many hybrid options available to us.  The story presented included the provision of moving from our current location, and presented a number of possibilities for future locations to accommodate more missionally focused worship and ministry in our community. 
There was a strong resistance in the group to this future story – primarily focused upon the loss of the building.  Some group members said that this sort of change would lead to a significant loss of members.  Others feared that such a story would create an intolerable level of change and fear. 
On the more positive side, the group said that such a story would ensure the continuation of the congregation in some form, and would allow the community to spend more available funds on mission as opposed to building issues. 
Such a future story would require a very detailed plan, according to the group.  There would need to be a very clear sense of what such a story would be like before they’d want to move forward. 
Those who were most negative about this future story linked their opinion to their feelings about losing/selling the building.  They suggested exploring ways to get another church to share our current space.  They also felt that the church needed better “marketing” to attract visitors and new members.
Those who were most positive about this future story said they thought it sounded like an “adventure” and would help the congregation to stay together.  “We would do anything to stay together,” was a sentiment expressed by many in all the groups.
Future Story 3 – Grace-filled closure
After many months of conversation, prayer, and discernment with our congregation, pastor, apprentice and other Unglued Church colleagues, we realized that we did not have the energy or the resources to move forward as a congregation.  As people of The Resurrection, we realized that the death of our congregation, while difficult for us, did not have to be meaningless, but could plant seeds for future ministries. 

We talked and prayed and cried, but in time we realized that it came down to this choice —  we could continue on as we are and be able to maintain the status quo for a number of years, or we could use the financial and other resources we had remaining to us to ensure a continuation of ministry in the North Boroughs and beyond.

We took the proceeds of the sale of our building, as well as our remaining endowment, and set up a fund to support:

(some possibilities)

            ·A school/medical clinic in Malawi.
            ·A sustaining fund for Meals on Wheels in the North Boroughs.
            ·A gift to the Pittsburgh Presbytery to help fund new church development
            ·A gift to fund a particular new church development
            ·Shepherd’s Door/The Center/The Doorway or another area non-profit

During our last months as a congregation, we met and prayed together, and formed a plan for distribution of our assets, and as we talked, we also shared memories of our life together over more than a century.  Through the help of the presbytery, not only were we able to determine the way in which our assets were distributed, but also able to secure continuing pastoral care for our shut-ins and others unable to join another congregation.

On our last Sunday worship as Emsworth U.P. Church, we invited all of our former pastors and members to be with us one last time.  We invited the congregations of all of the Presbyterian churches in our area to worship with us that Sunday.  During the worship service, we introduced, commissioned and prayed over those who would continue the ministry for us – internationally, regionally, and locally.  Through our tears, we could see glimpses of resurrection and new life as a result of our decision to close with grace.

Many of us have moved to other Presbyterian churches in the area where we continue to work and worship with one another, as well as our new brothers and sisters in Christ. We’ve been surprised at the new energy we’ve found in that experience!  Many of us also work with those agencies and groups to whom we supported with our investments of our remaining assets.  Though we continue to miss our church, we are grateful that we made  the choice to make our final decisions together and plant seeds for continuing ministry.

One of the future stories offered by the New Beginnings report was “do nothing” and face a fairly dismal future of closing suddenly without planning for a legacy or a future.  Instead of presenting that story as a possibility, we looked at a future story of selling the building and using the proceeds to plant future mission and ministry in our community and beyond.
As you can imagine, this option is one that summons up difficult emotions.  Yet, it is an story that bears some consideration given the place in which we are standing now.
The group did report some positive aspects to such a story.  It would allow significant mission support to continuing ministries, and allow the church to leave a legacy.  Some expressed the belief that new energy for our people might emerge from our getting out of the continuing cycle of building maintenance and repairs.
The group was also very clear on the negatives of closure – loss of traditions and identity.  There was also a sense that closing means “defeat” and “giving up.”  Some said that closure could only be considered after the congregation “tries something” even if the things that are attempted fail.  Many said the prospect of closing is “depressing” and would want to wait a significant amount of time before considering such a story – maybe as many as 20 years from now. 
After the small group sessions and conversations, we moved to an activity called, “Animal Farm.”  The purpose of this activity is to begin to uncover what unresolved, unspoken, and unexamined issues might be holding the congregation back from making the adaptive changes we need to make to become a vital, outwardly-focused ministry in our community.
Participants were given post-it notes and asked to jot down responses to these questions.  We did not talk in depth about their answers.  The posters used in the activity will be posted in the sanctuary for the next several weeks to allow other members/friends to post their responses.  Below, you’ll find a summary of responses from Monday night’s group:
Sacred Cow — What do we treat as that which cannot be “messed with” in our church?  

Worship times/day

Building (5 notes)
The “look” of the sanctuary
Session meetings
Big sanctuary

Elephant in the Room — What issues need to be acknowledged and discussed that we are afraid to tackle?

Change that takes us out of our comfort zone
Loss of building
Why have members left?
Too few people
Lack of manpower/energy
Not in touch with our community
Hollow enthusiasm/lack of commitment
Too few people left to get things done
We will lose people before this is over
If building is sold and empty, we will be over as a congregation
No time for children in worship
Can we financially maintain the building?
Can we move forward with the people we have?
Dinosaur — What is extinct or needs to die in order for us to move forward?

Closed minds
# of elders and deacons
Midweeks – need to revive them
The idea that we need to bring people to church rather than take church to the community
Ties to 11 a.m. Sunday worship
The idea that the church = the building
Rituals that are not relevant
Squirrel(!) — What distractions are keeping us from moving forward?

Prayer garden
“Just one more chance”
Fear of doing something “different”
Focus on numbers
Doing the “work” of the church vs. outreach
Church = building
Road Kill — Are we willing to name and embrace our epic failures in the past?

Free meals
Leadership training
Community dinners
Sunny Jim’s ministry
Attracting new people to church
Attracting new members
Masonic Village ministry
Good Friday service
Door to door evangelism
Solicitation to community for dinners, prayer groups, children’s programs
Next Steps
1. Meeting of Session and Deacons with Rev. Sarah Robbins to review the report from October 13 – Sunday, November 2 at 12 noon (after worship)
2. Meeting of all churches in Unglued Church program with our consultants/apprentices – Thursday, November 13 at 7 p.m. (location TBD)
3. “Fresh Expressions Vision Day” – Friday, November 14th, 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
4. Meeting of Emsworth U.P. with our consultant, Rev. Deborah Wright and Rev. Sarah Robbins – Saturday, November 14 at Emsworth U.P. at 10 a.m.

1 thought on “Adaptive Change Conversations Begin at Emsworth U.P.”

  1. Well done! Good, hard work! Thanks for being willing to do what it takes for Emsworth UP to survive in some form. Teresa Stricklen Eisenlohr

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