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Words of hope in a time of transition

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By Jacy Boldebuck and Sonjia Short

Jacy: We join a church not to be served but to serve. Joining a congregation is like joining a family, and like with any relationship you get out of it what you put into it….and MUCC happens to be a hard working family.

I know some of you are worried about what happens next when Phil retires in June…I understand….I get nervous about it too…I love predictable…I love comfortable.. …and some of you have only experienced memorial with Phil as our pastor so I imagine it is especially difficult for you.  I want you to know that it is normal to feel a bit of anxiety about upcoming change…but I also want to remind you that change is a part of life, and how we handle it, how we think and talk about it with each other is really important.

When I am faced with big change, I usually seek the counsel of other folks who have already been through it. I learn from them, and I find reassurance in their experience so, I wanted to briefly share mine and I wanted you to hear from Sonja…..she recently shared her perspective with our council and we thought it was well worth sharing with entire congregation. When she is done, I will also briefly share my own story and We hope to give you the dual gift of acknowledgement that there is some pain in telling Pastor Phil goodbye-we all know that a good spiritual leader is important and he has been outstanding… but we also want to give you the assurance that you, that he, that we all will be just fine.

Sonjia: Good Morning Memorial,

I need to begin with a disclaimer. This is what I remember about the transition between Pastor Jon Schultz and Pastor Bonnie. Some of you will remember it differently. Any errors and omissions are totally unintentional and I sincerely apologize.

But let me start at the beginning. I started coming to Memorial at the invitation of a co-worker, Marianne Hefty sometime in late 1991, after I moved to Madison. The first Sunday I visited, I was impressed with Pastor Jon’s sermon, the friendliness of the people, and that after the service, two people (John Hilliard and Sarah Brooks) asked me to come sing in the choir. I was hooked and joined Memorial shortly thereafter.

The church building was new – they had moved from downtown Madison just a couple years earlier. The people were friendly and seemed to genuinely care about each other. They were a family, and I needed that. The energy was good, but as the years passed, I could feel it flagging. It was like when you are on a diet where you steadily lose weight and then plateau and struggle for a bit before you can lose more. I think the church had hit a plateau and was struggling a bit. It needed a boost.

Pastor Jon initiated a retreat in Dodgeville for a group of active church members, and I was included. From that, we formed two committees. I believe Shirley Robbins and maybe Ruth Schoenwetter along with others created the mission statement that we still embrace today. Based on that mission statement, the the second committee created a vision and plan for going forward. I was involved in the vision thing, along with Carol Williams, Ron Henshue and I’m not sure who else.

Another result of that retreat and planning effort, unbeknownst to most, Pastor Jon did some prayerful soul searching and decided it was time to move on, that he didn’t have the energy to lead Memorial forward any more. So, at the February 1996 council meeting, during which I was elected President and Gary Johnson our Vice President, Pastor Jon handed us his resignation, giving us the standard 3 months’ notice.

Holy Crap! What were we going to do? Jon had served Memorial for 25 years. People were really connected to him and his family. We had this new plan, but hadn’t really started to implement it. How could we do it all?

First thing we did was, we prayed. I’m convinced the good Lord works in mysterious ways, and it so happened that when I was President of the council at my previous church, we went through a similar pastoral transition, so I had some experience and knew we would have tremendous support from the Association and Conference.

Step one: we needed to form a Search Committee and find an Interim Pastor. Putting the search committee together turned out to be easy. Finding an interim pastor, not so much. Now remember this was before we all used the Internet, so things didn’t move very fast. We knew the interim was going to take at least a year, or longer. There weren’t many pastors in the area to serve our interim. We interviewed one or maybe two, but they were not a good fit for us.   Time was getting short and we needed a pastor!

I think God had a plan. About a month earlier, Rev Diana Shaw had preached on a Sunday when Pastor Jon needed to be away. Everyone loved her sermon so I asked the Association if we could contact her. Apparently, Diana had worn herself out at her previous church and really wanted to take a break. Desperate, we called her. And, “thank you, God,” she agreed to come talk with us. Gary made coffee. We told Diana that all she needed to do was show up on Sundays to do the sermon and administer the sacraments. We promised her that we would take on the rest. And with those conditions, she agreed. To this day, she says Gary’s coffee convinced her 😊!

I believe we truly became “the church” during that interim time. We prayed a lot. Every meeting started and ended with prayer. People realized we couldn’t leave things for the Pastor to do. Everyone had to play a part.

We started on the path to implement the vision of becoming a Fitchburg church, rather than just another church in Fitchburg. We decided what was really important to us and began moving in that direction.

During the interim we tackled both large and small things. For example,

  • We rewrote the very prescriptive constitution, making it much more flexible and a helpful guide for how to operate going forward.
  • We cleaned up the church membership roll, created a process to drop folks who no longer came nor supported the church financially.
  • We assigned everyone to serve as Sunday fellowship hosts, with teams of 2 families per Sunday, (we wanted everyone to be involved.)
  • We didn’t know what a Parish Nurse was back then, let alone have one. Various folks volunteered to visit shut-ins, others to make hospital visits, and honestly, developed close ties with people they would not have even known otherwise.
  • We got our financial house in order. We still had a substantial debt from building the church and moving to Fitchburg. So, we sold the parsonage and refinanced the mortgage, finding a much more favorable interest rate. And we committed to providing the new pastor a reasonable housing allowance.
  • We completely restructured the committees, eliminating several and suggested term limits so people didn’t feel like they had to serve indefinitely.
  • We paved the parking lot. Previously gravel, it was very difficult for our older members to negotiate with canes and walkers, and for us to maintain.

Lots of prayer, lots of communication. It wasn’t an especially easy time, but it was a time of really good energy.

What did we learn from it? Others may answer differently, but I think:

  • We learned that God answers prayer, prayer is powerful and it works.
  • We learned that you can’t always see the way ahead clearly, but if you are open to listening for God’s plan, the next step will become apparent.
  • We learned to trust in God to find a way. We knew we needed to pave that parking lot, but we didn’t have the funds to do it. When we put out an appeal, one of the elderly members who struggled to walk on that gravel provided the money we needed to get the job done.
  • “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, we learned that it takes a community to make a church, that each of us matter and are important to this church. The pastor may be the spiritual leader, but the rest of us determine what kind of church we are in this place.

Jacy: In 1996, Jon and I were looking for a church and we happened upon Memorial one Sunday morning.  I was not sure it was actually a church. I did not get the circle thing….We knew very little about UCC, but my dad thought it might be a good match for us. We were a young working couple with a 4 year old son…exploring our faith, and motivated mostly by wanting to provide our son with some solid positive experience with church.

We were impressed with the warmth of this congregation, we were greeted at the door, people asked our names, held our son, walked us to fellowship after the service and followed up with us with a phone call later that week.

I am told that Diana Shaw was the interim pastor at that time and I really like Diana and her preaching, but that was not what I remembered about those first visits. I remembered the music-the choir really seemed above average, and the windows, I had never been in a church where I could watch the birds and squirrels and an occasional fox during worship.  I remember hearing you all talk about what you were doing during the announcement time, I realized how involved the congregation was in all sorts of community projects and events…..it seemed like this congregation practiced what it preached…then I remember the time of prayer…even back then…you had that practice of lifting up your prayers for yourselves and each other and I remember feeling like maybe this place was the real deal….we kept coming back to visit…..

Then the congregation called Bonnie Van Overbeke and a part of her strength was making sure people got involved and got quickly….and I believe it was Sonja who first approached me asking me to join a committee…and before we knew it we were taking a turn at ushering and helping out with Sunday school, I joined the outreach committee, and then we just gave up and joined the congregation. But things were always changing…..we built a music wing, we built a youth wing, we welcomed a new choir director, we became open and affirming…..

And the years went by and it was all so good  and we continued to be impressed with the integrity of the congregation,  with our pastor’s love and leadership, the liberal and authentic theology that was taught and practiced ,the wildlife, the music, the friendship and sense of community.

Then Bonnie retired and we called Phil to be our pastor and some things changed and some things didn’t and we continued to be impressed with the integrity of the congregation,  our pastor’s love and leadership, the liberal and authentic theology the wildlife, the music, the friendship and sense of community…and the years went by and it was all so good , and now it is time for Phil to retire…and we are in the process of calling a new pastor and some things will change and some things won’t….and the years will go by and it will be all so good……

And now some words of assurance: We have a plan in place, we have an excellent search committee working hard on this for us, we have good communication going with that committee and our council and we are communicating with our SW Assoc. pastor and seeking her guidance when needed, we have an interview committee in place that is scheduled begin interviewing interim pastors next week. Things are on track and going as expected so far…

All is well………Amen