Friday, June 27, 2014

A Mission Opportunity to Bring Health and Hope

When we moved to Albany a year ago, my wife and I worried about a lot of things.  Some of it had to do with arranging furniture.  Some of it had to do with orchestrating all of the real estate matters and bank matters.  One thing we did not even think about was access to water.
For many readers, the ability to turn on a tap and have plenty of drinkable water instantly is a given.  Yet for many people around the world, water sources are few, and even then, not necessarily safe for human consumption. 

The American Baptist Churches of New York State are working together with the AMOS Health Project ( to bring new sources of water filtration to rural communities in Nicaragua and other vital ministries meeting the basic human needs (healthcare access, economic support, etc.).  In April 2015, a mission trip opportunity is available to persons interested in traveling to Nicaragua and working with AMOS staff to bring water filtration systems for communities where very little useable water can be counted on.

To learn more about the ABCNYS mission trip, visit the special trip page via:   A brief video featuring Dr. Roberto Martinez explains the aims and objectives of bringing health and hope to Nicaraguan communities. 

NOTE:  A special call-in opportunity will be offered on Roberto will be hosting a conference call on July 1st @ 7:00pm. Call in, hear the amazing mission in Nicaragua & ask questions...all from the comforts of home! Contact Christy Siau, or 315.469.4236 x12 for call instructions.

Please note a trip deposit and a deadline factor into expressing your interest in participating.  Certainly, anyone is welcome on this trip, so you can invite others to join in this missional effort, regardless of their affiliation with an ABCNYS related church.  All skills and talents are welcome!

The ABCNYS Mission Trip is seeking donors to raise $6,000 to support the trip's expenses.  A tax deductible donation can be sent to ABCNYS' Region Office (  

For some perspective on the global water issues, access recent United Nations' special reports via:

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Of Endings and Beginnings: First Baptist Church of Cambridge NY (1843-2014)

On Sunday, June 8, 2014, Christians around the world celebrated Pentecost, the day of the Spirit coming to breathe life into the newly formed Church.  Early Christians experienced this day as a day when the Christian message began to accelerate, fueled by the Spirit and Christ's call to go to the ends of the earth.

On this particular Pentecost, the small town of Cambridge, NY, near the Vermont border, found Christians gathered for a bittersweet Pentecost celebration.  The First Baptist Church of Cambridge, NY, voted to close its doors on Pentecost Sunday.  While a difficult decision, the church was gladdened greatly by the support of their community.  Two sister congregations (United Presbyterian and the Coila Community Church) opted to join with them in the final worship service, and the other two churches provided the hospitality and some of the food to allow the seven remaining active members of First Baptist (and all those who returned for the last Sunday celebration) to focus on the day's festivities.  Out of such kindness and community effort came a beautiful day of reflection, grief, laughter, music and thanksgiving.   It was my privilege to share the sermon that morning.  Here are my remarks, referencing the Acts 2:1-8 passage as well as some wise words about dying and rising in Christ from the writings of Paul (1 Corinthians 15:53-58):

In rural England, you encounter a variety of old churches, built many years ago and part of the charm tourists find on vacations where they leave the hustle and bustle of London and the other great cities for the open fields and beauty of the English countryside. In the small village of East Coker in the southern part of Somerset, the village church is the final resting place of a noteworthy poet.

The ashes of T.S. Eliot, the celebrated 20th century poet, are interred there with a plaque that reads: “In my beginning is my end. Of your kindness, pray for the soul of Thomas Stearns Eliot, poet. In my end is my beginning.”

As I read these words, I became quite curious. Many gravestones and memorial plaques simply list a person’s name, dates of death and birth, and perhaps another brief note (i.e. the name of a spouse, the deceased’s affiliation with military rank and service or perhaps a fraternal symbol such as the Masonic Lodge or a symbol of faith such as a cross, a dove, or a Bible).

The words chosen by Eliot (or perhaps one of his family members) create a different sort of memorial, reminding the beholder to remember that a place of burial is a sacred site, not merely for the noting of the last resting place of a famous (or just ordinary) person. A sign saying “Here on this spot is buried” is a bit too unseemly for my liking, something for a tourist coming to gawk rather than a guide to the pilgrim, reminding us in a graceful way to recall a beloved child of God, buried with the most humble of notices that here is his resting place. 

Part of the plaque’s text is drawn from Eliot’s own poetry. We hear two lines: “In my beginning is my end.” and “In my end is my beginning.” The first line “In my beginning is my end” would be the most logical sounding of the two. We understand that life begins and it ends. Despite our best medical treatments and procedures, we cannot get out of death alive. Our beginning must have an ending, enough said.

And today, we find ourselves dealing with the complex grief of saying good-bye to a church. Established in 1843, the First Baptist Church of Cambridge, NY, came together when Baptists around the locality decided it was time to have a place they could gather to worship together (and have countless potluck dinners!). The church knew adversity like any other church: pastors arrived and later departed (hopefully never in the middle of the night, destination unknown). Children were entered onto cradle rolls by beaming parents, learned the gospel’s stories and followed Christ obediently into the waters of baptism (the cold water of local streams and ponds likely reinforced their sense of joy when brought back up out of them!). People were born, baptized and married in the midst of the fellowship, first in the original building down the street and in later decades here in this place. And in the end, those who were faithful to Christ were buried, interred in other places, yet mourned most keenly by their “other” family: their brothers and sisters in Christ. 

  An abundance of ministry happened in the 9000 Sundays (and the days in between) for the gathered people called “First Baptist, Cambridge”. Yet, we acknowledge humbly with the poet, “In my beginning is my end”. We know that no one congregation keeps going forever and ever. Every church has a life span, a finite amount of time. 

 When I served in Vermont, I read the History of Baptists in Vermont, published in 1913 on the “centennial” of Baptist churches forming in our neighboring state. Even then in 1913, the historian noted a number of churches that formed and were no longer worshipping within the span of 100 years (a short time considering some churches can number their years in centuries, let alone decades). Nonetheless, the truth remains: no one congregation is infinite. 

Like the humans worshipping within its four walls, even churches come to an end. Yet as we mourn the closing of First Baptist, Cambridge, we also realize that there’s no “final word” on this day’s events until God has given it. For even as the doors will close, the building will cease to be the gathering place of a congregation that will disperse, a good number of things will come to pass well beyond this moment.

Christians realize that Eliot spoke the truth twice over. “In my beginning is my end” we must say with due awareness of the limits of life. Yet with our faithful witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can join Eliot in saying (perhaps even shouting aloud), “In my end is my beginning”.

If preaching is about speaking the truth in love, so must this day not end with mourning. Grief is certainly part of the subtext of a church’s final act of public worship, yet the text of church worship is not “death” but affirming the promised end that not only surpasses death, it destroys it fully. In our hope of the Resurrection, we see that the closing of one congregation’s doors is a time to remember with thanksgiving, tears and tremendous joy the 171 years of worship, witness and welcome that the generations of this church has provided here in this community. We realize that today is a day to cry yet it is also a day to celebrate, for we worship the Lord who turns our mourning into dancing.

“In my end is my beginning”, boldly states the poet’s epitaph. So the church members will disband yet join up with other area congregations. 

“In the end is my beginning”, so shall the church building and grounds become something new and hopefully continuing in its service to the community. 

“In the end is my beginning”, so shall the church’s physical and financial assets live on in service through the congregation’s legacy building investments in the future of this community and the Gospel.

As this day neared, I would mention to colleagues that I was preaching a church’s “last sermon” on Pentecost Sunday. In addition to the sadness the news brought to them, there were also some confessional moments of befuddlement. How can you close a church on Pentecost? After all, it’s the day of celebrating the beginnings of the church, when the Spirit of God moved in the midst of the disciples, igniting the gifts of the many for the glory of God and the sending forth of a movement that would fulfill its mandate to go to the ends of the earth. On such a day of high celebration and birth, why would we bring up the sorrowful note of sorrow and closure?

We celebrate this day that Pentecost is not a day’s events from long ago. We celebrate the tremendous winds of the Spirit of God always moving in the midst of the people of God. The places of worship may ebb and flow, open and close, yet the worship of God never ceases. The membership may rise and fall with one parish roll, yet the Body of Christ is always growing with abundance.

May we remember this day fondly and prayerfully and honor the tears as they flow.  May we walk from this place, knowing that the band of believers goes onward to join up with others around town and in the nearby communities. May we remember that this day celebrates as all the other days before it and yet to come, that the story of First Baptist, Cambridge, is not finished, for it is part of the greatest story still unfolding: the gospel made known through the witness of Christ and his saints.

May we remember as pilgrims each time we think of this church’s ministry in the community, of its 171 years of faithful witness, just as those who pass another country parish church elsewhere in the world and behold the good word of a beloved poet, whose words we gladly revise this day to read:

In my beginning is my end.
Of your kindness, pray for the legacy of witness of the First Baptist Church of Cambridge, NY. 
In my end is my beginning.


Friday, June 13, 2014

First impressions: Skype and search committees

Remember:  Blinking is a bad idea.
A search committee asks a difficult question during an interview with a candidate.  What is the question?  It may be a "hot potato" social issue or a question pertaining to the candidate's proficiency in an area the candidate really considers "not their area" of ministry expertise.  The committee members lean forward, ready to hear the answer.

So what happens next?  In the space of the following five seconds, the candidate fidgets, trying to prepare a response on the fly.  Feeling a bit nervous, the candidate squirms in the chair, coughs (for time) and then addresses the question trying to project as much calm in vocal tone as possible (all while the brow is furrowed in tense concentration). 

If this moment happened over the phone, most of what the candidate did to prepare for answering the question would not be seen.  For many clergy, search committees are asking for first interviews by Skype or similar platforms, beginning to adopt to available technologies yet changing how a candidate is perceived by adding "face" as well as "voice" to their formation of a first impression of a candidate.  The nerves, the fidgeting, the furrowed brow: all are literally on display in that brief moment!

The advent of free video conferencing programs and apps has created a challenge for clergy to learn new interviewing skill sets not necessarily fathomed that long ago.  In the older way, churches would have the first interview with several candidates, selecting a smaller number to come and visit "face to face".   Church consultant Bill Wilson notes that the economic savings to church search committees is tremendous.  "The old days of loading up the mini-van and driving around the country to hear preachers doesn't happen, unless you choose to ignore the obvious sort of resources available to you."  (SOURCE:  Recent Skype interview with, available via:

With new tech tools at their disposal, churches are now moving toward a hybrid "first interview" where the first impression is via Skype or similar platforms.  It's up to the candidate to think through more than just the way we sound.  Being at ease "on camera" makes a lasting impression.  Ill prepared candidates may find the first search committee interview is the last interview!

Some resources to help you understand the planning needs for Skype interviews:

A video with specifics discussed on creating a “backdrop”:,32068,46937715001_1933401,00.html

The full interview with Bill Wilson on search committees:

For the resources available to ABCNYS churches for Regional Enhancement (aka "pastoral search and call support), contact Rev. Jerrod Hugenot, Associate Executive Minister at 518/380-4510.  More information is online via:

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Retooling Your Ministry: A Necessary Joy

Around this time of year, we celebrate graduations.  From kindergarten to grad school, family members gather round the graduate to affirm an achievement.  Whether it is the high school graduation or the hooding of a newly minted Ph.D or D.Min, the euphoria is certainly palpable for quite awhile leading up to the ceremony and for sometime thereafter.

After awhile, time passes.  We find ourselves looking back and calling up lessons learned and deciding how our years of study apply in the midst of real world situations.  Oft heard is the lament among pastors, "They didn't cover that in seminary!"  Taking a church administration course and getting an "A" is one thing.  Dealing with the deeply anxious treasurer who also signs your paycheck (on time, if you're so blessed) is quite another. 

Retooling is part of life.  You cannot escape the "shelf life" of the wisdom you've received in your studies and previous experiences.  You have to equip yourself anew with knowledge and skill sets so you can learn how to keep apace (or at least a few paces behind at the most) of change.

A recent article by church consultant Sarai Schnucker Rice brought these issues to mind.  Rice serves with the consultancy practice arising out of the now departed Alban Institute.  (To learn more about her work, visit  In her blog post "What Should a Minister Be Good At?", Rice explores a number of ministry competencies helpful to pastors to review and consider where your current skill sets in relationship to the health of your church and your own organizational skill. 

Her essay is available via:   (Don't worry.  I'll wait until you read it and come back.......There you are again!  Wasn't that an interesting article?)

Rice highlights five areas of organizational leadership skills clergy need.  Certainly, she is not saying it's all about "business" or running the church similar to a non-profit, yet we can improve our ministry as we call upon the skill sets and best practices from the for-profit and the "secular" non-profit (FYI: Churches and other religious organizations are 501c3 corporations in the eyes of the IRS).

Personally, when I read this article, I noted areas of competence where I have grown and developed a sense of affinity and skill.  In other areas, I found myself thinking about the gaps in my knowledge base and current skill levels.  Then in turn, I considered prioritizing which areas of growth are most important to my particular ministry work. Now it's time to start working on building up the areas of growth with strategic opportunities for self-learning as well as seeking out books, blogs and continuing education!

Given the "jack of all trades" of local church ministry, you learn on the fly, yet sometimes, the effect is diffusive, spreading ourselves so thin that we let go some opportunities to learn.  I urge and challenge my colleagues in ministry to consider how well we are scheduling any continuing education opportunities.  I realize not every church will grant "CEU time" as part of the mix, however, it's certainly a talking point to say that just as you receive vacation (I hope!), time away for professional development is just as important for a pastor as it is any other professional, especially in the practice of ministry.

I graduated from seminary twelve years ago.  This summer, I will be ordained ten years. I cannot imagine what those years would have been like if I assumed I had everything I needed up front.  Keeping up with change, living in a ministry context that is shaped more than we admit by the post-2008 recession and a country still figuring out what it means to be religious diverse and religiously disinclined, how could any M.Div or ministry course of study be sufficient without additional study, skill set development, clergy collegiality groups, retooling and other learning opportunities?

For ABCNYS pastors, the Lynette Martin Fund is available for continuing education opportunities.  To learn more, follow this link:  (NOTE: This grant program is only for those involved with ABCNYS ministries.)

For many American Baptist pastors, you can explore grant opportunities for further study via the American Baptist Home Mission Societies:  (NOTE:  ABHMS is responsible for the parameters of this program for ABCUSA pastors.)

A Lilly Foundation funded project on "Sustaining Pastoral Excellence" offers an interesting report on the benefits of efforts to improve clergy skills and vitality: