Pastor's Pen: State of the Church 2021
Does anyone else remember those long family road trips? In the days before cell phones and tablets, we would sit in the backseat staring out the window. As the number of miles increased, our level of frustration and anxiety would rise. Eventually, my poor father would hear the words for the umpteenth time, “Are we there yet?”
As the calendar shifted from 2020 to 2021, we have moved from a time of challenge and change to more challenge and more change. Variants of the original COVID-19 virus still plague our communities. Economic uncertainty remains our companion. Riots in the streets of major cities have given way to the storming of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. As our frustration and anxiety rise, I’d like to ask whoever is driving this car, “Are we there yet?”
The answer is of course, “no.” However, that doesn’t mean that our church must be carried along at the mercy of events. When the people of Israel faced crisis and exile, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Jeremiah. God told him that the Israelites needed to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7). Rather than complain or despair, they had a responsibility to be peacemakers.
In the current chaos of the culture, the First Presbyterian Church of Norwalk, Ohio has been a calming presence. This year, the session and the Mission Committee set aside over $50,000 specifically to assist those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, one of our deacons, Joyce Ditz, has brought together community officials and leaders for monthly discussions on how we can better “love our neighbor.” As part of her Doctor of Ministry project, Julie Murdock developed a series of small group meetings to talk about “peacemaking” and conflict. Bob Sands has organized an amazing ministry to the Hispanic community through “Inspiration Station.” The Outreach Committee provided intentional opportunities to connect with the youth from our Firelands Boulevard neighborhood. The deacons have developed a monthly ministry to our older members, our “Keenagers.” Over the course of the year, we became more engaged with other churches in our community by partnering in both mission and evangelism. In each of these examples and many more, FPC is building community both in the church and outside it.
One exciting way that FPC is “seeking the welfare of our city” has been our new partnership in youth ministry. After the resignation of our Youth Director, church leadership saw the need for a new direction. Not only were we committed to providing care and support for our youth, but we also wanted to reach out to the youth in our community. As a result, we are now working with Young Life, a parachurch organization committed to youth evangelism. The new Youth Director will divide his time between the youth of our congregation and starting a Young Life chapter here in Norwalk. Malcolm James began in June 2021. Already, he has brought a new level of excitement to our youth ministry which we hope will grow as the school year begins.
“Are we there yet?” Not quite. We still have a way to go, but as I approach my third anniversary, First Presbyterian Church is doing exciting ministry here in Norwalk. We are changing the tone for our community. Let us continue to be “rooted in grace, growing in Christ, and reaching out in love” for our city and beyond.
Grace & Peace,
ADDRESSING OUR CHALLENGES:
In 2017 as the search for a new pastor began, the congregation developed a Mission Study Report. This study outlined our past successes and the challenges ahead for the First Presbyterian Church. As we prayerfully chart our future, the report is invaluable. Since his arrival, Pastor James has used the report as a strategic plan.
Obviously, no one anticipated the pandemic that has dominated our ministry since that time, but the five areas of growth in the mission study remain challenges for us. Perhaps, we can see them in a new light. The pandemic revealed our society’s need for community and connection, friendships, and relationships. These deficiencies have spiritual consequences. Into this situation, FPC has some good news to share.
Educational and Spiritual Development
Ministry Associate. As Rev. Clair Brewer makes the transition to Pastor Emeritus, there are some wonderful opportunities ahead. Clair will continue to offer counsel and support as he is able, but we also have reimagined his position for a new generation. The Ministry Associate will provide needed support to the deacons and their ministry of care. The associate will develop a lay visitation team to ensure that no one is left behind. We also will be using new technologies to keep track of needs and to provide better communication within the congregation.
Congregational Care. As the pandemic concludes, we will be looking to reconnect with all the members of our congregation. There are many who we haven’t seen during this season. In the fall of 2021, the pastoral leadership will be reaching out to every family in the church. If you get a call requesting a visit, there is no subtext or ulterior motive. We are simply a family, and we care for one another.
Peacemaking. In 2021, Julie Murdock led multiple small group meetings to explore the role of peacemaking as disciples of Jesus Christ. This effort was part of her Doctor of Ministry program, and it couldn’t have been more timely. In the light of racial and political division in the wider society, Julie helped equip us to be different than the society at large.
Grief Care. Beginning this fall 2021, Steve Trimble will be leading a small group to explore how we deal with grief as Christians. Within our congregation, many have been touched by the death of families and friends, broken marriages and relationships, job losses, and other grief. We are looking forward to this witness to the resurrection.
Keenagers. The deacons saw a need and worked to fill it. In recent years, the ministry to our oldest members was limited to an annual Christmas party, an ice cream social, and a monthly pizza lunch. The Keenagers are adding many new opportunities for fellowship, education, and enrichment. It’s exciting to see where this ministry goes.
Stay the Course. In 2019 and 2020, many of our plans were put on hold because of COVID-19. However, those plans are not forgotten. We are looking to expand our number of small groups, which now includes for a virtual small group. We are returning to two Sunday School classes. We will be providing once again annual classes on understanding the themes and narratives of the Scriptures.
Focus on Youth and Children
New Direction in Youth Ministry. In 2020, we saw the resignation of Don Renninger as our Youth Director. We are grateful for his service here, but with his departure, church leadership saw the possibility of a new direction in our youth ministry. The church leadership was not only committed to providing care and support for our youth, but we also wanted our youth ministry to be a mission. We are seeking to do evangelism and outreach to the youth of Norwalk. As a result, our congregation is partnering with Young Life, a parachurch organization with a long successful ministry helping young people connect with Christ. The new Youth Director will divide his time between the youth of our congregation and starting a Young Life chapter here in Norwalk. Malcolm James began in June 2021. Already, he has brought a new level of excitement to our youth ministry which we hope will grow as the school year begins.
Innovate, Innovate, Innovate. In these last few years, God has given us the imagination and the talents to make a difference for our youth and children. We hosted virtual Sunday School, created a series of YouTube videos for parents and children (“Just Give Me Jesus”), hosted a hybrid Vacation Bible School, and so much more. Rather than see obstacles, our staff and volunteers saw possibilities.
Children's Ministry Reboot. In 2019, the Christian Education Committee underwent a huge effort to reimagine our children’s ministry. This involved everything from a new Sunday School curriculum to new milestones to celebrate our children’s growth in Christ. We planned retreats and workshops for families to provide support for parents at key moments in their child's development. We remodeled the Kingdom Kids room and created a Family Room. The committee and staff worked hard to make it all happen. As we emerge from the pandemic, we are prepared to bring all these great ideas to life
Become More Generationally Diverse
Socially Distant No More. One thing we learned over the course of the pandemic was that even if we must be physically distant, we should never be socially distant. We have much to discover in connecting the generations, but even in the pandemic, we had some accomplishments. We began to incorporate youth and even children as liturgists on Sunday morning. We held joint Sunday School classes between youth and adults. We even included our youth in the search process for our new Youth Director. Finally, that new Youth Director, Malcolm James taught us that being intergenerational can be a lot of fun. Over the course of the summer, we had two intergenerational basketball games. As adults and youth played, older congregants and our children cheered on the teams.
Strengthen Worship and Music
Glorify and Enjoy God. The leadership of the First Presbyterian Church has done more worship innovation in these past two years than in the past ten. The pandemic forced us to discover new ways of worshipping together while providing safety and connection. We wrestled with cleaning protocols, social distancing, and lots of restrictions. We discovered live streaming and a radio ministry. We discovered how to serve home communion for the whole congregation. We brought an immunocompromised Clair Brewer and remote children’s moments into the weekly worship. We learned some lessons which will allow us to continue to do great things in the future.
Focus on Evangelism
Fourth Fusion. In the summer of 2019, members of the Outreach Committee noticed the large number of children riding their bikes in our parking lot. They realized that we had a mission opportunity literally in our backyard. Working closely with the Christian Education Committee, they planned fun and exciting events on the fourth Fusion of the month. They canvased the neighborhood with postcards and personal invitations. We are demonstrating that the church can be a safe and fun place for our neighborhood kids on the fourth Sunday of the month and beyond.
Inspiration Station. Bob Sands turned a machine shop adjacent to a trailer park into a neighborhood center for tutoring and music lessons. Inspiration Station has been acknowledged even by our local schools as transformative. With these tutors’ help, students move from the bottom to the top of the class. In this last year, FPC has increased our connection to the Hispanic neighborhood there. We held a remote Vacation Bible School there this year. Their youth have attended our church events. We even partnered with Pleasant Hill Outdoor Center to provide a Christian camp experience.
Love Our Neighbor. In a year of racial tensions, Joyce Ditz, has brought together community officials and leaders for monthly discussions on how we can better “love our neighbor.” Together we celebrated some of the good work in law enforcement and in our schools. At the same time, we have brought to life some needs and concerns within the community.
Ecumenical Partnerships. First Presbyterian Church has maintained a vibrant relationship with other churches in our community. Whether participating in Love Norwalk or walking neighborhoods to share evangelism resources, our congregation is showing that the church is one in Jesus Christ. The Norwalk Ministerial Association remains a source of strength in this community, and we are grateful to be a part of it. We have also begun to build relationships across the cultural divide with a Korean church in Toledo, Hanmi Presbyterian Church, and a Hispanic congregation here in Norwalk, Iglesia Genesaret (formerly Mount Sinai Presbyterian Church).