This post is part 5 of a series of responses to questions posed to candidates for moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA). I am standing for moderator of this assembly.
How does your church community make room for people to share their stories of faith? How can we listen to the stories of people who are not in the church?
When I think about how community is built and faith strengthened, I think primarily of personal and often vulnerable conversations in which people reveal their deepest questions and most profound experiences of God. Where do these occur at University Church, San Antonio? Here are a few places…
* The Board of Deacons: Our current Deacon moderator decided to ask one deacon at each monthly meeting to share his/her personal faith story. This idea irritated the “business as usual” crowd, yet this practice has enriched each meeting and strengthened the whole faith community.
* Newcomer retreats: Newcomers share time with current church officers and other members. At a point during the retreat we gather in groups of 3 to share conversations about the faith journey “maps” prepared during a time of silence. Stories of addiction and abuse emerge as do testimonies of God’s healing grace.
* Officer training: each church officer is asked to prepare and present a statement of faith, which are shared in small group settings. Many are written in a form of deeply personal testimony to the presence of God in a person’s life. Several have been asked to share these statements in worship.
* Financial Stewardship season: each fall, when UPC engages in our campaign to encourage members and others to make financial pledges to the ministry of the congregation, we invite individuals to present a testimony to the congregation. Surprisingly, a presentation on “Why I give to UPC” turns out, almost always, to be a story of faith, touching on the blessings and wounds of a person’s life.
* The Way of the Child: this contemplative Sunday School curriculum, which we use at UPC for preschool and elementary school children, invites the kind of interaction between children and the scriptural texts that results in the children sharing extraordinary stories of connection with their own lives.
Listening to stories outside the church…
A grieving parent with no church home calls to ask if we would consider having a funeral for their child, who has just died. Two other churches have said no because they are not members. What a sad commentary, that we do not have the time or inclination to respond to a family in their deepest time of need. What more significant outreach could there be?
Offering to hold memorial services for families in the community with no church connection has become a strong ministry at UPC. The church staff and the deacons willingly offer support to nonmembers who turn to the church at this time. When these families gather in my study to tell me about the person who has died, faith stories emerge. Faith questions bubble up, and estrangements from faith communities are shared. There is often a beginning to some crucial healing in these holy moments.