Urban Ministry: Making the Switch

It seems that parish ministry is a challenging line of work these days, whether you are in a rural, suburban, or urban context. Parish ministry gets even more interesting if you are serving a church that is considered a new development, a redevelopment, or in transition of figuring out what their future is. At some point, you and/or the church has to make a switch.

Depending on how you define the word “switch,” it requires a movement, a shift of some sort. I have been a pastor in an urban city for the past eight years. I have been involved in my presbytery (a geographical grouping of Presbyterian churches) for a very long time. And I have seen many congregations and pastors go through many switches: switching of gears, focus, perspective, power, sense of call, buildings, and even congregations.

The act of “switching” can be a difficult one because more often than not it involves change. I don’t know many congregations that are willingly open to just changing for the heck of it. Usually it comes out of necessity or crisis. But no matter where it stems from, “switching” can be a good thing. It can be life-giving, energy-renewing, and most of all surprising.

In this blog, I will share my experience of how churches in San Francisco are making the switch in hopes that you will feel invited to reflect and share your own stories of ministry and “switches” that you have or are making. On Wednesday, Abby King Kaiser, pastor at Fruitvale Presbyterian Church in Oakland, CA and Erika Funk, Youth Minister at Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia, PA will share their own personal stories of “making the switch” in their own ministry and context.

I live in the city of San Francisco that has twenty-two Presbyterian congregations. And like many churches, these churches are not without struggle and challenges, whether it be finances, building, decline in membership, and changing neighborhoods. I have scene the act of “switching” take many forms. A church my husband pastors used to be a mostly white congregation back in its heyday when they had 500 youth in their youth program. However, with changes in the public school system, families fled the city and left this congregation to struggle as a viable ministry. This church had a nesting Taiwanese congregation and with their growing membership, the mostly white congregation decided to make the switch and handed over the building to the Taiwanese-speaking congregation. Now thirty years later and the decrease in numbers of those emigrating from Taiwan, the congregation is considering another kind of switch.

My own church made the switch too. When I first was hired, their outreach focus was on attracting the growing Chinese-American families in the neighborhood. This mostly white congregation thought it may help to hire an Asian-American pastor to live out that plan. As the congregation reflected more on what it would require a mostly white congregation to do in order to attract a culture different from themselves, we switched gears and focused on making the necessary changes to welcome any family to our church. By making our worship space more family-friendly, this 160 member church grew from having 10 kids in 2004 to 95 kids today.

Making any type of switch is good when there are positive results. But the truth many churches make many switches that don’t result in much, except depleted resources, energy, time, and passion. If you look at the twenty-two existing Presbyterian churches in San Francisco, it may be easy to judge that there aren’t many vibrant congregations among us. It was this initial judgment that brought a few of us pastors to address this situation. To be honest, at first, the discussion centered around “what do we do with all these dying churches?” Although it is a valid question, the problem is answering it. What constitutes a dying church? Is it merely decline in membership, lack of finances, lack of ministry? By whose value system does one measure the healthiness of these congregations?

The true answer lied in the fact that we were asking the wrong question. No matter if a congregation is viable or not, all churches should be considering what legacy they are living into and how they are living out that legacy. For the past year and a half, we have been hosting a gathering, where all 22 churches were invited to bring a pastor and/or elders to begin building relationships and discovering ways to partner and collaborate. At our first gathering, what was touching to hear was how parishioners referred to their church as family.

This moved us to switch our perspective from being 22 individual congregations to being one church with 22 missional outposts. How different would we be and do church if we viewed ourselves as missionaries in our particular neighborhoods? For one, we would consider 22 PCUSA churches in a 7 x 7 mile city not as too many but as not enough. We would imagine the many neighborhoods where ministry is possible. We would stop judging each other as who is viable and who is not and see each other for what we uniquely offer. We would no longer feel like we have to do it all, but how we could partner and share.

So, this is what we came up with as way to begin switching our focus, our perspective, our mission:

Missional Legacy

For congregations who are discerning their viability and want to process the legacy they wish to leave, have a discernment team to walk with them and access resources for them. Empower congregations to close on their own terms as much as possible and have a say in how they want their resources, building, and ministry to live on.

Missional Church Development

For congregations who don’t have the financial resources for a full-time pastor and still have the energy to do “something,” have them be a training post for seminarians or recent graduates.

Providing hands-on opportunities for seminarians and recent graduates to plan worship, preach regularly, and experience the joys and struggles of working in a parish is a gift that these churches can offer. In return, they will have some stability in having someone provide pastoral care and leading worship. Local veteran pastors can provide support, guidance, and whatever is needed to cover internship requirements for the seminarian or recent graduate.

Missional Initiatives

For congregations (especially racial ethnic or smaller congregations) who struggle to find the skilled leadership, have lay leaders trained and skilled to provide leadership in their particular context.

The Presbytery of San Francisco transformed a church building that is no longer in use into an Education Center for Commissioned Lay Leaders. They will provide classes in Korean, Mandarin, and Spanish.

Missional Collaboratives

For congregations who want to partner around different issues and ministries, provide opportunities for these churches to gather, plan, brainstorm, and collaborate.

Some of the ideas that came out of the gathering were forming a city-wide youth group, address housing and homelessness issues, how to welcome interfaith families, nursing home ministry, and how to reach the “unchurched.”

One of the next steps is gathering some of the pastors and elders at the last gathering to brainstorm ways that we can connect with each other. Some ideas are to have a Pulpit Switch day. What if someone from every church agreed to switch and preach at a different church? Another idea is to have a Sunday where all twenty-two churches worship in one place. I don’t know if any of these ideas are possible, but it is fun to dream of ways we can actually get to know each other and see each other’s church in action.

Making the switch can be difficult, but it can also help us see life where we only saw death. It can help us see possibilities where we only saw obstacles. It can help us see surprising ways where God is leading us.

How is your congregation making the switch? What is your story?

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