Friday, October 28, 2016

Some thoughts on saints

Over the next few days, Christians have the opportunity to celebrate history as well as their commitment to furthering the future of our faith.  For Protestants, October 31st is more than a day for trick or treat.  It is a time to remember the famous moment of the Reformation when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the proverbial church door.  On November 1, the Roman Catholic tradition and increasingly more Protestants are remembering the great cloud of faithful witnesses on All Saints' Day.

Ironically, the Reformation led to a general Protestant malaise towards talk of the saints. The end result, though, was that in eschewing excess, the reformers left their theological descendants (including we Baptists) with little interest in taking stock of a wonderful word that goes back to the New Testament era church: “saint.”

Saints are those people who are known not for their ability to be great. They rarely want “greatness.” And often it is not the fabulous excess that the world considers "great".  These are the people that really aren’t aiming to be noticed. They just do good work. They are kind. They do major things, but prefer not to be upfront about it. (Most of us aren’t given to this sort of way of life. We have to keep learning and just hope to get this deep down good someday.)

The wonderful thing about saints, in the New Testament sense, is that we are indeed able to be saints, if we choose to be. In his writings, Paul presumed that saints were just as much part of the mix. It’s a good thing to aim for a congregation to be a place where people learn the ways of living faithfully to God and neighbor.

I recall the rich words of Mother Teresa, recently canonized as a saint, who said, “I am Albanian by birth. Now I am a citizen of India. I am also a Catholic nun. In my work, I belong to the whole world. But in my heart, I belong to Christ.”  Teresa’s life was one given to Christ in the deepest way. “Saint” is the best title one could call her. And as you think about those people who have enriched your life--indeed, who may be instrumental in why you yourself attend a congregation and keep the faith, should we not give thanks for the saints of God know in our own lives?

The book of Hebrews talks of “a cloud of witnesses” who cheer us on, who encourage us in running the race. In a time when many churches struggle with a sense of relevance or seem to allow themselves defined by what they do not have or lack, I consider the past history of Christianity and suggest that God has provided abundantly and continues to do so. 

And we are that abundance.

Friday, October 21, 2016

At the Center, Even As Things Change

One-time Baptist Church building
now fitness center
downtown Catskill, NY
Recently, I discovered I was at the center of the known Baptist universe.

Well, in 1817.  And among "Northern" (now "American") Baptists.

Late last month, I was in Catskill, New York, for a meeting with a fellow Baptist.  Arriving early, I had time to explore the downtown area, and I noticed this very beautiful church in the midst of the downtown district.  Alas, the church building itself was now repurposed for a completely different reason.  A fitness club now occupied the large space once filled by the sanctuary's pews, altar and other fittings.  It shared the facility with a center offering physical therapy.

It is not that uncommon these days to be in a historic town in upstate New York, southwestern Vermont or the Berkshires in western Massachusetts and discover a number of church buildings now closed, up for sale or completely repurposed for secular/commercial use.  I follow an entire Facebook group ("Congregational Seasons") dedicated to the challenges many churches face when facilities threaten to eat up increasingly high margin of offerings, if not endowed funds, for upkeep and maintenance, leaving very little for mission, ministry or even adequate clergy compensation.

What church used to worship here?, I wondered.  Given my spare time (and the fact I am increasingly a church history arm chair scholar/nerd/lost cause), I began to sort out what I could learn.  With no cornerstone or external signage/plaques, etc., and ironically a card access only to the building for work-out or therapy staff, I had no immediate way of gleaning basic information.

Instead, I found myself conducting two forms of "on the fly" research.  One version is increasingly familiar: using one's smartphone to look up online resources.  I find that strategic use of Google can often turn up some interesting facts or connection points. With my burgeoning know-how, I was able to learn that this building was built originally for the Second Baptist Church of Catskill, NY.  The congregation is still in existence, in another location elsewhere in town.   I was able to spot contact information for local historical societies, however, given the volunteer nature and available hours of said places, I was not able to call at that time of morning.

The second form of research is still my favorite: asking a local.  I happened across an older gentleman sitting on the bench.  Back home in Kansas, a lot of the retired farmers and ranchers would spend time sitting on benches, watching the slow paced world of small town life.  You could always count on them sitting there, until of course, the weekly paper brought word of their passing.  A few of them were Baptists, so I also remembered seeing them in the same pew, week after week.  They did not say much, but they loved to talk about what they remembered.  They also had opinions on politicians and voting, but their commentary now seems so tame and eloquent in these days.

I honestly cannot remember their names.  But their absence after years of seeing them on the benches outside the local hardware store made me realize that a town loses a lot the locals passed on.  Sometimes, print and online resources are just what happened to be written or recorded.  Other bits of history are kept in the oral tradition, no matter how many devices we develop and tote around.

Here, I surely found a similar person around downtown Catskill.  I asked if he knew much about the church across the street from the courthouse.  About twenty minutes later, I learned a great deal about the history of the building since Second Baptist relocated.  A Pentecostal church had been there once after the Baptists moved on.  Then a developer bought the building in hopes of converting it into a restaurant.  When plans were not able to move forward, the building remained "on the market" (or "dormant", depending on who was telling the story apparently) until the health club and therapy center moved in.

The great surprise, however, emerged when I was Googling my way through the various online resources.  In the "Google Books" search I did for "Baptist church" and "Catskill, NY", I discovered a real treat.  In the early 19th century, the Catskill Baptists ordained to ministry a very noteworthy Baptist:  John Mason Peck.   Peck was likely ordained by the First Baptist Church of Catskill, NY, as Second Baptist (where the building above used to host their worship and congregational life) was not yet formed.  I believe also First Baptist, Catskill, is also continuing as a worshipping group, however, neither congregation happens to be presently affiliated with ABCUSA, the successor name of the Northern Baptist Convention.

For a Midwesterner, the name of John Mason Peck carries a great deal of lore.  He made his mark on spreading Baptist churches across the developing country during that time period. While native to New England and ordained in the Catskills in New York, his story goes well beyond the immediate area.  His remarkable career included work as a church planter, preacher, anti-slavery advocate and progenitor of the American Baptist Home Mission Society (the first of two Societies formed among Northern Baptists for "home" mission that continue onwards today).  You can read the Wikipedia entry via:  His legacy is shared by many other Baptists, including Luther Rice, but Peck himself is quite noteworthy for his industry and sense of call to minister, kindled by early Baptist congregations in the Catskill Mountains.

One book digitized through Google Books provided the insight about John Mason Peck's work, observing that Catskill, NY, happened to be then the center of Northern Baptist churches in the 1810s.  How appropriate that the place where Peck was ordained in 1813 was at the center, for thanks to Peck's work alongside his contemporaries, the center kept shifting ever westward.  Indeed, Peck ensured the seeding of many churches throughout Missouri, beginning in St Louis and then moving westward.  That the "Northern Baptists" could rename themselves "American Baptists", having presence in many states in the North and even in the South, by the mid-20th century was surely also thanks to Peck's faithful work.

Standing in the one-time "center of the Baptist universe" (for at least when considering just my own denomination's reckoning of Baptist presence in the burgeoning United States), I stood before a church building now repurposed into something completely different than its builders intended.  Such adaptive use of church properties for sacred and yes even secular purposes is to be expected.  No one institution or movement or organization can stay upwards without change, variation, set backs, and the reality that things "morph" even when each generation thinks to itself that "it can't get better than it is now" (or more likely of late, "what happened to what was?"). 

I took a photo and noted some opportunities for further research when I got back home and had time to continue my armchair inquiries.  Then I went into a great little bookshop and browsed.  Then I went to my meeting and talked about how to keep Baptists in upstate New York encouraged, faithful and willing to risk. 

Hopefully the spirit of John Mason Peck is not just consigned to history and nostalgia.  At our meeting over Subway sandwiches, two Baptists hoped for the same call to go and share the good word in places near and far.


To read more about John Mason Peck, click this link to a Google Book scan of a 1917 retrospective on Peck and the 100 years (by then) of Home Mission written by Austen Kennedy De Blois:

To read a 1914 history thesis on Peck written by Matthew Lawrence, a student of the University of Illinois, click:

A special collection highlighting Peck's career and links to some writings:

Friday, October 14, 2016

Thinking Clearly on the Journey Ahead

Earlier tonight, my wife and I walked our beagle pup around Buckingham Lake in Albany.  One day, we happened across it not too far from our home, yet at the time of our first encounter, we were rushing by as we got turned around with directions.

Flash forward a couple of years later, we have added this lake to our places where the dog can happily run ahead on the long lead and sniff everything in sight.  (She is a beagle after all!)

Our trip this time came in the midst of what will be the heaviest travel week I have for my Regional ministry work (five out of seven days does not happen that often).  At the mid-point of this week of travel, I looked ahead up the path and saw this rather inviting image of the pathway in the midst of the trees.

Sometimes, we struggle to see much of anything when we are trudging down the road (or in my case, moving along various parts of the New York ThruWay and parts of upstate New York from nearly NYC to nearly Canada this week).  It can be hard to "lift up thine eyes" when thine eyelids are craving a longer time to sleep in and one's body feels the miles.

Like everyone else, clergy have to choose when to say "enough" and when to keep on keeping on.  I know I have been remiss in taking my full vacation days in a given year.  I sometimes work ahead like my forebearers did the Kansas sod:  just keep on going, as it won't get done otherwise.

Deprogramming me is my growing awareness of the idea that boundaries, rest and common sense are ministry tools that help church leaders (ordained and lay alike) meet their goal of serving God and neighbor rather than collapsing and meeting God and getting one's harp and halo a bit earlier than really one should.

Consider my reflection this evening in your own life and work.  When is it okay to lift up your head, heart and mind to the reality that God offers us a life that includes Sabbath by design.  Even God took the seventh day.

Ensure you see the pathway ahead.  It may give you pause....for good reason!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Pastoral Excellence in the Adirondacks: An Interview with Pastor Sandra Spaulding

For her ministry in rural communities,
Pastor Sandra Spaulding (second from left)
received the Rosa O Hall Award in June 2015.
In my work around upstate New York, many churches are blessed by pastors who came into ministry through what are sometimes called "non-traditional" training.  Such language is becoming dated.  Certainly, one can seek their theological education and training through an accredited seminary.  I am one of those persons.  However, other pastors come through a variety of educational routes, and certainly, such pastors have been part of the story of Christianity since its beginning.  What some call a ministry training that is "non-traditional" has been traditional, except when we forget our history and refer to it as such.  Like many Protestants, American Baptists are blessed by persons who are called and seek learning in a variety of ways to serve Christ and the Church.  

I am pleased to introduce you to one of the finest pastors I work with.  Pastor Sandra Spaulding brings a great deal of wisdom, joy and compassion to her ministry work in the southern part of the Adirondacks in upstate New York. it was my pleasure to join the effort to nominate her for the Rosa O. Hall Award given by the American Baptist Home Mission Societies to recognize persons who make significant contributions to rural and small town ministry.  Pastor Spaulding was awarded this honor in June 2015 as part of the American Baptist Mission Summit and Biennial in Overland Park, Kansas.   

What follows is an interview about her ministry and how she came to hear the call to serve.  Pastor Sandra responded to my questions via email correspondence:

1)        You are a pastor of two rural churches in the Adirondacks in upstate New York.  How did you and the two congregations come to the decision to share a pastor?   What were early challenges in starting this up?  (Or, had the churches had any previous history of sharing clergy, and if so, how far back did this model start?)

I have been the pastor of Lakeville Baptist Church in Cossayuna since August of 1998.  This small church located in a hamlet of Greenwich, New York has employed part time, bi vocational, pastoral leadership for many years.  During the first ten years I served as pastor of this church I also held a full time position as an corporate manager for the Travelers and later as an Education Director of a local museum.  In 2006, the search committee of the Bottskill Baptist Church, located in the Village of Greenwich, approached me about serving as their ¾ time pastor in a shared relationship with Lakeville.  They had not previously shared pastoral leadership with another congregation but were ready to consider this idea.  After careful consideration and prayer I met with both churches to  explore this idea. The Lakeville congregation was very supportive of this idea after the initial worry about whether or not I would continue to serve as their pastor in the long term.     
The transition for these two churches went quite well from the start and after eight years together they are pretty much like family.  The challenges are as expected.  Scheduling special service times for both churches, deciding when and where to met together for some occasions and vacation coverage for my vacation times are the main challenges.  The churches are located 11.4 miles apart hold separate services each week.  Sometimes the churches hold separate special services and at other times they will meet together.   In the past two years, I have noticed many occasions where members of one church will attend service or bible study at the other church when it better fits their personal schedule.  This has been an exciting change for both churches.      

2) What does the average week in your ministry work look like?

 As the pastor of  the two churches my duties fall into three categories as detailed below.
  • Direct Ministry to the Churches 
  • Community Ministry and Outreach
  • American Baptist Ministry
Volunteers from both churches are also involved in various ministry projects.  At this time, all of the boards and committees of each church are separate and for most ministry projects within the scope of direct ministry they act independently.  Both churches are very active in Greenwich Interfaith projects and supportive of many other community ministry projects as well.  Representatives of both churches serve on the executive board of the Interfaith Fellowship.  (see projects below)   Both churches support ABC NYS projects as well.     
My 2016 Pastoral Focus:  
Direct Ministry to the Church
  • Planning and leading worship and special services at Bottskill and Lakeville Baptist Churches.  I also work with music leaders to prepare music selections.
  • Prayerful Research of scriptures and other sources to compose a weekly message and lead/plan study opportunities.
  • Leading, coordinating and/or participating in Bible Study at the churches to include regular studies, new member sessions, baptism classes, and special study opportunities.   
  • Participating in meetings as a non voting member of all boards and committees 
  • Serve as the Moderator of Lakeville Baptist Church 
  • Visitation to those unable to attend regular services to include hospital, nursing facility and home visits upon invitation.  
  • Serve as “on call” responder to congregational families and community members in crisis as requested. 
  • Plan and officiate Weddings, Funerals, Baby Dedications and Blessings, Home Blessings and other special services as invited.    
Community Ministry and Outreach   2016 Ministry Involvement   
  • Volunteer Coordinator ~ Greenwich/ Cosayuna, Comfort Food Community Pantry
  • Washington County Team Lead for the Suicide Postvention Team of the Coalition for the Prevention of Suicide to be launched in October 2016.  I will act as the point of contact for activation of the team. This team is designed to intervene and support families and communities in the event of a traumatic event such as suicide.  Training Completed:  Youth Mental Health First Aid, Adult Mental Health First Aid and Suicide Postvention Team training 
  • Member of the Executive Board of the Greenwich Interfaith Fellowship Inc. This group is the lead organization for Van Go, The Jim Patrick Ministry Fund ( to help those in emergency need) Food For Kids, School Supply  Giveaway, CROP WALK,  Eccumenical events and Special Services such as Baccalaureate, Thanksgiving and Good Friday Services, Jumpstart Jesus and much more.  I serve on the planning committees for Jesus Jumpstart and Food For Kids.    
  • Member of the of the core team in Washington County working on the Bridges Out of Poverty project.  We are working to establish ways to aid and education  families and individuals affected by generational poverty in our county. Attended Bridges Out of Poverty Training 
  • Member of volunteer clergy team at Washington Center in Argyle  I lead worship services at the center assisted by several volunteers from the Lakeville Baptist congregation six times each year.  
  • Volunteer for aftercare for Upstate Jail Ministries as needed.   Assist Women leaving Jail/prison with getting settled back into their community after incarceration.
  • Member of the Town of Greenwich Ethics Committee  
American Baptist Ministry 
  • Secretary of the Adirondack Association of American Baptist Churches NYS. 
  • Member of the Regional Enhancement Team of the Adirondack Association of ABC  NYS.  This team aids churches in our association with the pastoral search process during transition.
  • Member of ABC-NYS Board of Mission as a representative of the Adirondack Association of American Baptist Church NYS.  This is the governing body of the denominational region ABC NYS.
  • Member of the Biennial Planning Committee for the ABC NYS  November 2016 event to be held Liverpool, NY   
  • Member of  Nehemiah leadership Network This fellowship is committed to equipping pastors to be more effective change leaders.  Components to the 3-year NLN experience: Individualized learning plan, mentored colleague group's, annual conference learning event.  Each participant commits to a covenantal partnership between pastors, congregations, regions, the American Baptist Home Mission Societies and MMBB. NN graduates earn continuing education credits, and are certified by the Office of the General Secretary ABCUSA as having achieved a mark of pastoral excellence.  I will graduate in February 2017. 

3)        Who were the mentors who encouraged your call and helped you get into ministry?
Rev. Dr. Sheldon Hurst served as my pastor at Village Baptist Church in Fort Edward, New York.  He has been an incredible source of support and learning in my life and ministry.  He served as my mentor during my the entire certification process for the Lay Study program and as watch care during my first years in pastoral ministry at Lakeville Baptist. 
Rev. Kathleen Davie has been my friend, colleague and a mentor in ministry for me throughout the past 20 years.   We both took part in a collegue group funded by the Lilly foundation called “Women in Ministry Together” for many years.  Pastor Ila Smith, Rev. Regina Haag, Rev. Brooke Newell and Rev. Marcia Spain Bell were also part of this group and very important to my development in ministry. 

Rev. Dr, Hazel Roper was the driving factor in my leadership at Lakeville Baptist Church.  She is one great woman. 

Rev. Howard Washburn and his wife Amy have been incredible friends in ministry for me and Guy over these past 20 years.      

4)        What ministries are your churches engaged in and how has the community responded to your outreach and presence?

As you can see in the section above on Community Ministry, the churches are involved in a number of projects and lots of outreach programs.  Both churches are well know in the community as places where help can be found in need.  The Bottskill Church building also acts as a community center in many ways.  Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4 H, Dairy Bowl, a quilting club and some Greenwich School programs are among the groups that met in the building at no cost.  The Lakeville Baptist church has served as the only church in the hamlet since 1834 and is considered the community church.  

In 2017, the Bottskill Baptist Church will celebrate 250 years as a congregation as the church was established in 1767. We are going to open our church quarterly for unique activities and worship open to the public during a year of celebration.  We are in hope that these occasions will be a new way to get the community excited about our church as a worship center in new ways. 

5)        Any concluding thoughts to share?  

In the 21st century church I believe there is no one model of ministry and mission.  We are called to reflect love of Jesus to our unique community in ways that are needed in each specific situation. Working with two different churches IS DIFFERENT!  Each church and each community has unique people, problems, resources and skills.  I urge all of our ABC  NYS churches explore their unique gifts and ways to to find their God Blessed place in the larger community of faith.     

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Getting Our Bearings: Books about Living in Unfamiliar Territory

Years ago, an Episcopal priest friend was called to move from a highly urbanized area to a rural small town with declining population and many socio-economic challenges.  He admitted that his way into the "different world" was by way of reading Kathleen Norris' Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Ticknor & Fields, 1993).   In this book, Norris talks about moving to Lemmon, North Dakota, a place where her family has roots yet quite different from her upbringing in Hawaii and later her years living in New York City.  My friend found Norris' reflections helpful in navigating the differences he was experiencing, framed as Norris did through the lens of gentle observations about the beauty of the unexpected pace, scenery and ways of people who were quite content (and perhaps felt blessed) to know little else but the terrain around them.  They were content in the best sense of the word.

Working around a large state, I keep an eye, an ear and my heart open to the differences of a congregation and wherever in the state it gathers for worship and lives out the gospel through its ministry and mission.  Certainly, New York has its unique ways of understanding itself:  upstate vs. the City, Hudson Valley defining additionally as "upper", "lower" and "mid", western New York's more Midwestern feel vs. the more "New England" feel of the eastern side (especially in the Capital District and Adirondacks).  

A recent book on New York history writes with similar concern with its historian author Bruce W. Dearstyne commenting on a few seminal moments from the long history and large terrain of New York.  Such work he observes requires a provisional approach to any claim that you have spoken definitively about New York as a whole (Cf. The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State History,  Excelsior Books/SUNY Press, 2015).    He highlights sixteen key dates in New York State history that illumine the many ways the State has developed, yet sometimes in his thinking, been quiet about its contributions to innovation. 

At a book reading a few days ago at the State Library in Albany, Dearstyne joked that New York tends to be more low-key or overly modest about its contributions.  Many may argue that, given the pluck and vigor associated with New York City in the media and popular culture, but then again, that's also one of the challenges New York history faces: sorting out the State from the City in discerning how to tell of the contributions of a very large and divergent terrain of urban and rural, small town and borough, remote and overpopulated places.

Three years thus far with New York license plates, I find Dearstyne's book a helpful touchstone.  I recommend it to clergy who are newer to the State and feeling likewise a bit puzzled how their part of New York State fits into the rest.  I should also recommend Kathleen Norris' Dakota, as she reminds us that wherever we are, the challenge of unfamiliar territory may lead you to learn that the place where you find the ground beneath your feet is indeed the place for which you've been yearning.  Further, in plumbing its history with the eyes of the outsider looking in, even the remotest of places can be laden with a history far more textured than you would first guess.