Monthly Archives: October 2013


Garth-garden-careWhen laid of from my job as a minister (about two years ago) I did a stint in landscaping.  One of the foreman would say something like, “you’re coming with me on an install” and from my confused expression he figured I’d be of little help.  An “install” refers to installing a landscape that involves new plantings, potentially creating beds, and therefore removing or altering existing aspects of the landscape.   While an install usually refers to a larger planting I think it’d be appropriate to say that I’m installing a tree in the above picture.

So plants can be installed, trees can be installed, tile floors can be installed (another experience in which I was confused) and pastors can be installed.  Again, a different industry with a different set of terms.

This Sunday I was installed as an “Assistant Pastor for Church Planting” at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Providence, RI.  This is somewhat of an odd occurrence in that:
-We just moved from the Providence area to Worcester
-I’m the assistant pastor starting a church at which I’ll be the lead minister
-I’ve been working at Trinity for over ten months.

The answer to all of these questions lie in the fact that Trinity, in particular, and churches in general are institutions.  We have established, codified ways of doing things.  Part of this is pragmatic because no one wants to think through a new procedures or processes for regularly repeated events (whether it is the formalization of a relationship between a pastor and a church or the installation of a landscape).  Thus practices develop and are systematized over time and institutions (of religion, business, education etc) take on certain shapes and dynamics.

Beyond the pragmatic side, institutions also exist because certain ideals have been held together by people, over time, through the commitment of a variety of resources, until they take on a life of their own.  I think of the some of the schools in this area (be it Harvard or The Bancroft School in Worcester), organizations like the MacArthur foundation, and most of all the church.   I’ve been thinking about institutions due to some recent reading and then the webs of connection that spiral outwards when something is stuck on my mind.  Here are some of the connections:

-The word “institution” generates a negative reflex of distrust and pushback in my mind.  I think this is probably generation and sees institutions as organizations looking for power and control to best serve their own ends.  On the other hand, institutions have a unique ability to serve and contribute over time.  Both of these realities are likely mixed together in most organizations and it is unfair to think of only half of the equation.  What would my life be, what would our society be like without institutions?  I think of war torn areas like Somalia, regions within Africa, parts of Syria where so many institutions have broken down and the tragedy that follows.

-The church specifically exists as an institution.  It not just an organism.  It is not merely a collection of individual believers but has a shape given by God.  There are means of entry and exit, norms of leadership, founding documents, and the major features of this institution have remained over the past two millennia.  Despite all the change of peoples, time, and culture there is remarkable similarity between then and now.  The church is thus an incredibly unique institution to which I belong as a member and now more than ever, as leader.  When I think about my participation in this institution I continue to have mixed feelings and need to grapple with the inevitability of institutions and God’s purposes through this particular institution.

-One of the unique aspects of being Presbyterian is the larger network of connections.  Beyond the local church there is a regional set of churches and leaders as well as a national body.  If institutions have a unique capacity for longevity and influence it is neat to belong to this broader network.  This is seen even more in Roman Catholicism, which despite significant diversity in theology and practice is united institutionally.  With a larger institution the temptation towards grasping for power and control probably grows, but so does the ability to serve and contribute through the years.  I need to think more about belonging to something larger than my specific church or even regional network.  How do I serve the church at these various layers, looking to it’s well being and benefitting from its institutional presence?



Finding traction and slipping

Of our six weeks in Worcester, each one has been significantly different.  Yet each week I feel a mixture of effectiveness and futility.

This past Wendesday I wanted to ride the bus (Worcester Regional Transit Authority) to the library and work there for a few hours.   My intended bus ride was not simply about avoiding parking meters at the library (a bad idea if you ask me).  Sometime earlier this year I came across a critique of Presbyterian church planters not engaging the poor and failing to include the poor in the churches they begin.  The author speculated that part of the problem is that the places where these pastors spend their time (Starbucks for example) are not a places where you will encounter the poor.  So he encouraged riding the bus, doing your laundry at the laundromat, and urged us to spend time in places frequented by all sorts of people.  So in my inaugural bus trip, I was looking not only for a ride but also an opportunity be in a different kind of place.  I stood at the bus stop at the end of the street, watching the minutes pass, and wondered if I had read the schedule wrong.  I had the right time but ended up being on the wrong side of the street and at an “unscheduled” stop which the inbound bus does not service.  I watched the bus drive by and walked home in disappointment.  It was one of those mornings where I felt like I was spinning my wheels and getting nowhere.

The next night though, I was able to participate in a rock climbing competition at the local rock gym.  Rock climbing and reading vie for the spot of #1 hobby and I had just joined the gym the previous week.  Climbing is a great work out, provides a mental break, and is also an avenue for building friendships.  So, the climbing competition was a blast on many levels.  The highlight though was an email a day or two later from a guy at the gym inviting me to a group that regularly climbs together.  This is the sort of thing for which I have been praying.  These smaller moments of progress continue to remind me of all the things that God is doing that I don’t know about yet.

As we begin this church in Worcester it is easy to ride the highs and lows of each day, or even email.  I need to continue in the paths God has ahead of us and trust his faithfulness.  Maybe I’ll catch the bus on Thursday and enter a new sphere of relationships in Worcester.  Maybe I won’t really fit with the climbing group and be back to working out alone.  All of these are possible and I need to continue through excitement and disappointment.  This is just the beginning of both…

The numbers and a portrait

As I learn about Worcester there are the hard figures .  Then the stories make the facts breathe and dance.  Here’s another point where they intersect:

A former history teacher loaned me this book on the cultural history of the US and said the section on New England would help me.  Part of the author’s thesis is that the regional culture of New England has specific roots in initial wave of immigrants that originated primarily in East Anglia (a certain portion of England) around the 1630’s.   Here are two pieces that stood out to me:

“The emigrants who came to Massachusetts in the great migration became the breeding stock for America’s Yankee population.  They multiplied at a rapid rate, doubling every generation for two centuries.  Their numbers increased to 100,000 by 1700, to at least one million by 1800, six million by 1900, and more than sixteen million by 1988 – all descended from 21,000 English emigrants who came to Massachusetts in the period  from 1629-1640.”

On depravity, one of the central Puritan ideas vitally important to the culture of New England:

“The Puritans believed that evil was a palpable presence in the world, and that the universe  was a scene of cosmic struggle between darkness and light.  They lived in an age of atrocities without equal until the twentieth century.  But no evil ever surprised them or threatened to undermine their faith.  One historian remarks that ‘it is impossible to conceive of a disillusioned Puritan.’ They believed as an article of faith that there was no horror which mortal man was incapable of committing.  The dark thread of this doctrine ran through the fabric of New England’s culture for many generations.”

Today I visited the boyhood home of Stanley Kunitz who was born in Worcester (1905) and became one of the leading poets of his time.  I’m just learning about his life and interacting with his work.  I was running a few minutes late for the tour of the home and entered hearing of the hours he spent alone reading, walking through the woods, playing with words.  In his reading he came across Dante and the images of hell haunted him.  He feared that he would die in his sleep and was afraid of the night.
As we transitioned from one part of the house to the attic stairs, picking up memories along the way, the following poem was read…


My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.

The immediacy of the pain was startling as we stood at the bottom of those stairs.  I think about the Puritans belief in human depravity, “a palpable evil in this world.”
A man drinks carbonic acid in Elm Park, taking his life.  A wife is filled with sorrow and anger.  A son grows up with longing, questions, and his own fears.

So the 21,000 English settlers and their deeply held beliefs about the nature of humanity roll through my mind as the dark thread is woven through another life.

Three ingredients

1817882362_cb98788cb3The question continues to arise, “What will your church be like?”  There are different answers that I provide, some of which I’ve already addressed in the posts on the church to be.  What follows is an answer from the kitchen.

There are three main ingredients when you begin a church, the leadership, the place, and the people.  This sounds pretty straightforward, so let’s unpack it a little bit.

Leadership:  Right now this is primarily me but is significantly influenced by Hillary and, to a lesser extent, swayed by the leadership of Trinity (our mother church in Providence).  If you then ask who Hillary and I are you get:

Our beliefs:  We belong to the rich stream of historic Christian orthodoxy who’s origin is the self-revelation of God in the bible.  The true and living God speaks through the holy scriptures and we humbly stand on this firm foundations summarized in ancient creeds such as the Nicene and Apostolic, and outlined more specifically Westminster Confession of Faith which comes out of the protestant reformation.  From, here we could get increasingly specific as we talk about being Presbyterian (our form or church government) or our particular theological emphases as a church.

Temperament:  Rather than going into the specifics of our myers-briggs and how this will affect the people we draw and the church we lead, here are some generics:  I’m pretty laid back while Hillary is more structured;  we are both energized by being around people; we tend to think differently (concretely vs. imaginatively) about planning and solutions.  The ways we approach decision making, planning, problem solving, use of time, and the dynamic balance of task driven vs. relationship driven, will each shape the church.

Stage of life:  At the play ground and preschool we run into young families that would like to be part of a church with other young families.  It may be easier for a college student to identify with a pastor who looks like he’s in his twenties and it may be harder for a retiree in his 70’s to receive the ministry of someone with significantly less life experience.

In God’s providence each of us is this odd mixture of our choices and circumstances, and the church will reflect us for better and worse.  If I were to try and identify the integral pieces of us as leaders I would point to our theology intertwined with our experience of God, a few turning points in our lives, temperament, and our current status as parents of young children.

Place:  Every place has it’s own unique environment, people, and stories.  Being in Worcester will shape the church in a variety of ways.  Here are three of the big ones:

Secular:  Like the rest of New England and much of the North East, a secular view of life dominates.  “Religion” in general and Christianity in particular is part of a private sphere of beliefs and does not form a common ground for viewing or living public life.  As a church we must engage this alternate perspective on reality, proclaiming the unique claims of Jesus which are both abnormal yet have points or resonance.  This is not a simple program but is part of the church’s ethos as a minority population living as a distinct counter culture.

Diverse:  Worcester as a city is made of a variety of smaller sub-communities each with it’s own distinctives.  We see it in the many architectural styles that fill the neighborhoods around us.  A long time resident spoke of growing up in the Irish neighborhood and the days of Irish vs. Sweede politics.  For a while there as an incredible influx of Brazilians and now it seems to be more Ghanians.  If we are shaped by this diversity it will make our ministry broader as we understand and apply the unique claims of Christ in different contexts.  Whether it is in marriage counseling, dealing with addiction, providing aid in financial difficulty, or simply gathering for a bible study there will be different norms and expectations to take into account and challenge.  With this multi-facted application of God’s truth we’ll also need to find a few things on which we major.  Serving a variety of people it would be easy to be pulled in too many directions.

Cordial but reserved:  Through most of our time in New England we’ve found people to be kind, but hard to befriend.  It seems to take a while for people to open up and you can’t rush.  As a church we will need to be warm and hospitable without being overbearing.  There needs to be space for those on the “outside” to check things out without being overwhelmed or pressured.  On the other hand, Christians need to be challenged to grow beyond the rugged individualism that is so common here.

People:  Who will be there from the beginning?  What sorts of theology, temperaments, gifts, and passions will they bring?  What I think we’ll see is some of the characteristics of the leadership will be accentuated while others will be balanced out.  Here are two  examples…

Stage of life:  If God brings a whole bunch of people with young children (like us) the church will have an even greater ability to attract young families but an even greater challenge in caring for them.  On the other hand if God brings along a few older mature Christians, maybe in their 60’s or 70’s, we’ll be more likely to reach a wider cross-section of people because we won’t be perceived as “a church for young families.”

Sound:  I am not a musician and regardless of my ideals for “worship music,” much will depend on the musicians God brings.  The sound of a church’s music will further shape who fits and who feels uncomfortable.

When you bring together these three ingredients of leadership, place, and people the final pieces to the kitchen metaphor are proportion, temperature, and time.  How much of each ingredient will we mix?  I don’t know.  That is probably another blog post.

When it comes to thinking of of temperature and time I see these as the energy which catalyzes the reactions between our main ingredients.  Maybe the heat and cook time correlate to the work of God’s spirit and our response to his leading.  I’m not sure.  I know there is a good bit of mystery here and it is the difference between cookies coming out raw in the middle, burnt, or just right.

What will the church be like?  We’re continuing to learn more about ourselves (the leadership), Worcester as a place, and have greater clarity as to the people he is bringing.  It is quite an experiment.

photo credit

Five Days of Prayer

Five days of Prayer*  

We want to be a church rooted in prayer.  If you’d like to be part of making this happen below are five categories for prayer of what we hope to see God do and who we want to be.

The Inspiration:
“Apart from me you can do nothing” – Jesus,  The Gospel according to John 15

“If then you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
-Jesus, The Gospel according to Matthew 7

Day 1 Allebach Family  2 Corinthians 4:6-18; Acts 1:8
-Wholeness in Christ: Spiritual, relational, emotional, and physical health
-Power and Competency in Ministry

Day 2  The Team  Ephesians 4:1-16; Philippians 4:14-20
-Unity, commitment, sacrifice, love, and power
-Diverse mix of people to reflect and serve Worcester
-Financial & prayer support

Day 3  Direction  James 1:5-8; Luke 9:18-25;
-Who to serve and how to do so
-Our efforts in reaching out and pursuing maturity within
-Connecting to specific populations: marginalized, academic, different “collars,” ethnic groups, medical community, etc

Day 4 Worcester  Acts 2:37-47; Jeremiah 29:4-7
-A movement of the Holy Spirit leading to salvation and transformation
-Flourishing of the city (spiritual, social, cultural, economic etc)

Day 5  The Church to be  Psalm 126
-Worship: we delight in God’s presence and reflect his worth
-Depth: Christian faith reorients the whole person
-Friendship: the grace of God creates a new relational world
-Outward: we love our neighbors in word and deed
-Multiplication: leaders, ministries, and churches multiply

*These outline the major areas for which we are praying in this phase of beginning the church.  The associated scriptures relate to the theme of the day and give shape to these prayers.

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