I am really excited to be here at Mulberry! After a year of being together, I remain excited to be here and excited about our future. It’s wonderful to have this opportunity to share with you about this past year and how God is calling us to write our next chapter.
All told, it’s been a great first year, beyond my expectations even! Let me begin by saying first thank you to you for a great first year.
Really, it’s been over a year at this point from when I started attending to tasks on behalf of the church. The bishop and SPRC authorized me to start hiring processes for our staff back in March of last year. While it was challenging serving two churches simultaneously, I’m grateful for the head start I received.
Not long after my first day, Creede found me and said, “it’s really like a dream come true, isn’t it?” He recounted how he felt like he was living in a dream back in 1995 when he was first appointed here. I absolutely agree. It is like a dream and part of me hopes I never get over it. When I first responded to the call to ministry, I hoped to one day serve a big, historic, downtown, urban, church. And here I stand.
I still find a thrill coming in to lead worship in our sanctuary every Sunday; encouragement for my soul. After worship, I find myself energized by the experience, which was not my usual experience prior to coming here. And that is testimony to you: your engagement, your commitment to our church, your love for Mulberry, and also your care and support for me and our staff.
That, in fact, is one of the greatest highlights of the past year for me. We have built a wonderful, highly-functional, driven team who are already doing great work. This is a big part of the foundation for us to build into the future and I’m grateful to our staff: Payton Stone, Hunter Godsey, Elisa Reece, Terre Johnson, Onna Pollard, Millie Johnson, Clifton Carswell, and Ed Wright.
Please join me in thanking and celebrating our great staff.
We have also established a basis for trust between ourselves as a staff and you, the membership of the church. That, as you heard me say a few weeks ago in a sermon, was and to an extent remains job number one. Stephen M.R. Covey says that trust is a function of character and competence, so I have sought to demonstrate personally and encouraged our staff to demonstrate as well that we have character that’s worth trusting and are competent to do our jobs. Whatever we do in the future, however we respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit among us, requires that we trust one another. In that area, I think we’re off to a great start.
Over this past year, I made a goal for myself to observe and learn about everything as far as I could, changing as little as I felt that I could, so I could get to know this church.
That’s part of the call to simplicity I issued in my first sermon: to focus on the mission, be authentic in doing so, and trust God with the rest. I needed to get to know what authenticity looks like lived out from this church. God has gifted different churches differently, to live out particular values of the Kingdom of God, benefitting their communities and leading people into relationship with Jesus Christ.
My leadership philosophy, when it comes to leading churches, is based in this idea of authenticity.
I lead churches to be the best expression of themselves, bringing their gifts to bear on the communities they serve. That means my role is to encourage, strengthen, challenge, and build this church based on who it already is. Nothing about my philosophy calls me to make the church in my image and I have no desire to do that. God has gifted you, and I bring my gifts to bear to help this church’s gifts become more fruitful.
Part of working together to be our authentic self as a church is building upon what we already are doing and responding to the needs we find around us. This is the best way for churches to move forward into the future. Rather than an, “if you build it, they will come,” mentality when it comes to programming or other things we do as a church, and rather than doing something just because another church is doing it, we instead respond to the needs around us in the communities we serve, we build upon what we’re already doing, and we respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit among us. In this way, not only are we living out who God has made us to be with authenticity, we’re also putting our resources to work in the right places, at the right times, by responding to the ways God is moving among us.
The way I think about that is like the intersection of two roads:we bring our gifts to bear where they intersect the needs of the community around us. That’s how God has designed the church: not for each church to be all things to all people, but for each church to share the gifts God has given it with the people around them, being the best they can be.
Meeting the needs of the community at the intersection of our gifts requires having an understanding of how God has particularly gifted us. So, let me share with you what I believe are the ways God has gifted Mulberry:
I see a gift of hospitality. This church is warm and welcoming.
Visitors tell me of this frequently. Meaghan Blight, who was here a few weeks ago, gushed praise about her warm reception. One of you just the other day told me this is “the best church on the planet” because of the people. My parents and other family members as well as friends who have visited have also commented to me about how particularly warm and welcoming we are. I have certainly felt that gift of hospitality and our staff have often recounted feeling that welcome as well. We have a gift of hospitality and I’ll have more to say on that in a few minutes.
I see a gift of history. We know who we are, we know where we come from, and we understand our role as a result.
We want to keep that history alive by continuing to play a role with our Annual Conference, recognizing that we exist for more than just ourselves; just as we understood when we founded the Georgia Conference, the South Georgia Conference, and planted all those churches, rightly becoming called the Mother Church of Georgia Methodism. We have a history of fostering and spreading the gospel message by multiplying ourselves. We understand that we support Methodism across South Georgia.
And, our history teaches us that we can endure challenges. We endured a near split of the church in the 1890s over the dispute about moving to Coleman Hill, we endured the depression and the way it wreaked havoc on our finances, we endured the fire of 1965, and we have endured the last several years. Not only that, but in the 1890s, in the depression era, and after the fire, we emerged stronger and better equipped to do ministry. I believe that holds true for us in this moment, too.
I see a gift of service. When we ask for volunteers, we get them. When there are events, they’re staffed. When there’s a need, it’s met.
I see that in the responsiveness to the shoe and bag drive and in the service project we did with UMCOR, raising funds and building those hygiene kits. I see it whenever we have a funeral here. And certainly, we see it lived out for the last fifty-plus years through Macon Outreach.
I see a gift of learning. I see that in responsiveness to sermons.
Far beyond the “great sermon, preacher” type comments, I encounter you with good, deep, questions, with wrestling with content in ways that lead to positive changes, and with pastoral care concerns arising out of what you hear from the pulpit. I see it in the responsiveness to the offering of the Enneagram classes and desire to learn more. I see it lived out in our Children’s Center, which desires to form and nurture the lives of the children entrusted to us.
And related to that, there’s a gift here of a tenderness of heart. Responsiveness to sermons often is greatest when I’m talking about areas of healing: healing broken relationships and healing wounds in our lives for example. The Enneagram classes require that we deal with those hard places. It’s far harder to deal with our own wounds than with someone else’s; yet, there’s been a willingness and responsiveness to do so here.
Perhaps the greatest example of this was the response when we offered an anointing with oil as an act of healing. We offered that for the first time on the last Sunday of March. I knew it was risky but my sermon lent itself to it and I felt that God was calling on us to do so. On that day, two-thirds of those in worship came forward to be anointed. My sermon lent itself to that anointing on Easter Sunday as well so we offered it again. On that day, when we had 369 people in worship, 92 people, best I could count, came forward to be anointed. Payton and I both felt that about half the people who came through our lines we did not recognize. We touched a nerve, a deep place of need, among the people who gathered for worship.
We have gifts of hospitality, history, service, learning, and a tenderness of heart. This is our authentic self as a church; the way God has gifted us. And it’s by building upon our gifts that God will write our next chapter. It’s there that we understand the intersection of our giftedness and the needs of the community.
This is not to say there haven’t been challenges. There have been significant challenges, as we all know. The last several years have not been easy and there have been moments of real hardship. As I have listened to you and gotten to know this church, I have heard stories of wounds and of brokenness. While I can never know the full extent of this, for I was not here to experience it first-hand, I recognize that it’s part of our shared history, part of how we understand ourselves now. And that’s okay; part of authenticity is understanding where we are now and how we got to this point.
There were times I likened my work this past year to repairing a grand old house. Sometimes, we would peel away the wallpaper or floor and find something beautiful there, in need of only minor restoration. More often, we would peel back the wallpaper or floor and find a much more major problem. I’m grateful to our staff and our lay leadership for all the time and energy exerted to address those issues as we found them. I could call many names of people who have been up here for hours, late into the night and early in the morning, helping address those issues. This was especially true back in the fall. Your responsiveness and can-do spirit have made a huge difference.
Then, there are questions of what we should do in response to the declines we’ve known. Worship attendance is up, but it’s not where it once was. Giving is up, but it’s not where it once was and we’re still projecting a deficit budget for the year. What should we do next? How do we create further growth? How do we put our resources to use for growing the Kingdom of God; to live evermore into our mission to share the heart of God from the heart of downtown Macon?
Those questions are challenges, too. In all of them, I have encountered a can-do attitude on our staff and in our committees. There’s a willingness to face the issues head-on, a desire to find the right solution, a willingness to wrestle until we do. I’m grateful for that.
And so, I should add one more gift of this church: a gift of leadership.
There’s a strong history and tradition of solid lay leadership here, one that continues into this day.
And over the course of the year, we together have tackled many problems and are finding our way forward. The facility is in significantly better shape than a year ago. Some of that is hard to see because it’s been in the plumbing or the electrical or in the basement or on the roof. The Children’s Center has renewed footing and a new day is dawning there. I’m excited to see what the future holds for that vital ministry of our church. We’re finding new ways of integrating Macon Outreach and the church in general. What a testimony Macon Outreach is for this church! Committees are more functional and better staffed. And our children and youth ministries have robust, well-staffed, and diverse offerings such that there’s something there for everyone.
We have tackled many problems and are finding our way forward. So lately, I get more questions about what’s next. And more ideas of things we could do. Let me say first that this is a great sign! There’s energy and vitality here and I feel it growing, giving rise to these ideas and questions about what’s next. We should also note that we wouldn’t be asking that question if we didn’t believe we were ready to take the next step, which says that, generally as a church, we believe we’ve stabilized and have the foundation solid enough to begin to write the next chapter.
In response to that, the question then becomes, which of these are the right things to do? How is God calling us now?
I think that’s the question before us today. In what I hear from you with ideas, enthusiasm, and questions about what our next step is, I hear us asking that question: asking God collectively how God is calling us now? Which has been a wonderful God moment for me, for at the same time you started to ask me about what’s next, I felt the Holy Spirit prompting me to ask the same question.
When I began to feel that prompting, I did what I typically do when that happens: I talked to mentors and leaders here, did a bunch of reading, engaged the staff in tons of conversations, and most of all prayed. My prayer journal for the past months is full of prayers about the future of the church, even diagramming in the midst of prayer, seeking to think through ideas.
And though that process, through conversations with you and through your feedback, through prayer, here’s where I have arrived:
I believe that the next chapter must be grounded in our history, based on who we are authentically
utilizing the gifts God has given the church: gifts of hospitality, history, service, learning, tenderheartedness, and lay leadership.
Our next chapter should be simple as we’ve been defining it
trusting that God will give us what we need to do the mission God has called us to do as we live out our authentic selves, and that God will grow our ministry as God would see fit. And of course, our next chapter must be grounded in our mission
To share the heart of God from the heart of downtown Macon; a call to bring our gifts to the intersection of the needs of the communities we serve.
God has already designed us to meet the community at the intersection of our gifts and their needs. We need not reinvent ourselves, nor try something just because, nor become someone we are not, in order to write our next chapter. God has made us unique, with an authentic sense of self to live out into the communities we serve; a gift God has given to Macon and to South Georgia Methodism.
That’s why the title of this presentation is, “From our past will come our future.” That’s a line from the Hymn of Promise, which speaks to how God moves in ways that are beyond our imagination, bringing life out of our past, building upon the work God has already done to grow the Kingdom through our ministry here at the corner of First and Mulberry; a ministry spanning the last 197 years.
This is what God is doing among us now; bringing new life out of our past that’s authentic to who are are, simple, and grounded in our mission. That’s how God is answering the question we’ve been asking. How is God calling us now? Based on all this, God is calling us to
Foster healing for the broken places of life within the communities we serve.
Here’s what I mean: the Holy Spirit is already moving among us, offering healing to the broken places of life. I see it in the ways I’ve described our giftedness. Hospitality is a form of healing ministry, offering acceptance and love to everyone who walks through the doors, regardless of who they are and what they bring with them. Tenderness of heart sets us apart by creating space for the Holy Spirit to do that work of healing. The desire to learn and grow around areas of brokenness, seen in response to things like sermons and the Enneagram classes, show a willingness to engage with the broken areas of life. And this was especially seen in the responsiveness of the worshipping congregation to the offering of anointing with oil. What a powerful witness of how the Holy Spirit is moving in our midst to foster healing for the broken places of life.
God does some of God’s best work through times of challenge. And we have been through such a time of challenge and are emerging onto the other side. I see the work of the Holy Spirit all over our congregation healing us, calling us forward, birthing a new day.
As God is healing Mulberry, so we are able to offer healing to others. As we are blessed by that healing, we are able to bless others.
This is one of the oldest motifs in scripture: that we are blessed to be a blessing. And this is what’s happening here. We have known our own brokenness as a church. The challenges of especially the last few years have demonstrated that. But what God has done as a result is prepared us to offer healing to others in a way that, perhaps, no other church in town can. What God has done, as a result of the brokenness we’ve known and the healing we’re currently experiencing, is equip and empower us to foster healing for the broken places of life within the communities we serve.
Our gifts as a church, who we are authentically at this moment in our history, tells us that we are positioned to foster healing for those broken places: the broken relationships in families, the broken relationships with God, the wounds we all carry around from our pasts, the broken places in our community like hunger and homelessness. We are already engaged in healing ministry.
So in suggesting that our next chapter be written by fostering healing for the broken places of life, I am proposing that we simply focus our work on something that’s already true of us; that we define how we share the heart of God from the heart of downtown Macon as fostering healing for the broken places of life within the communities we serve; that we build upon what is already a strength and gift of this church; who we are authentically.
This is what it means to have a missional focus: to have a specific way we plan to live out our mission, grounded in who God has made us to be, putting our gifts to work for the benefit of the communities we serve.
I have found healing to be a gift of this church and simply propose this evening that we make that our missional focus, the lens through which we see how we do ministry, how we can best be the church God has called and designed us to be.
We foster healing for the broken places of life within the communities we serve.
What does it mean, then, to have fostering healing for the broken places of life as our missional focus?
First, it means that we give additional attention to those ministries we’re already doing that are fostering that healing.
The way our Sunday School classes, Small Groups, and choir foster care and concern for each other is a great example: those are healing ministries. Our flower ministry is another great example: that’s a healing ministry. The beautiful and exemplary music we bring to worship fosters healing through the therapeutic power of well-performed music. Our worship in general facilitates that healing, including through the sermons. Macon Outreach does a tremendous job of fostering healing for the brokenness of hunger and homelessness!
So, we build upon these existing healing ministries. We found more small groups, we find additional ways to support Macon Outreach, and we assess the needs of the families who are entrusting their children to us through the Children’s Center, as just three examples. We ask the right questions: what’s the next step for our music ministry to further foster healing for the broken places of life? What do our families need? Where are they experiencing brokenness? Where are there gaps in services for those who are facing homeless or joblessness? Asking these kinds of questions will help us take the next faithful step as a church, building upon who we already are authentically, facilitating that fostering of healing for the broken places of life within the communities we serve.
Second, it means we assess other ministries we have for new opportunity to foster healing for the broken places of life.
For example, the response of this congregation to how we changed the egg hunt, from a kid’s event to sending eggs to Daybreak and sending eggs home with kids through worship and the Children’s Center, was hugely positive. We seized opportunity and did something that was healing through it. How can we do that again and still have the egg hunt on Coleman Hill next year? That’s the kind of question I’m suggesting we ask. In the office, we’re already considering this kind of question in light of Vacation Bible School. How do we more intentionally foster healing for the broken places of life through our VBS programming, for example? This is yet another way of asking the right questions, seeking to find new ways we can live out who God has made us to be: healers for the communities we serve.
Third, it means we allow this missional focus to help chart our course and filter new ideas.
There are many things we could do as a church, but going back to the earlier question, are they the right things? The way we know if they’re the right things is through asking ourselves if those ideas will foster healing for the broken places of life within the communities we serve. This could be the guide for, say, a master plan for the property we own downtown, asking ourselves what is the highest and best use of this space to build additional goodwill and connection to downtown Macon, so that we have more opportunity to lend healing to the broken places of life? It can be the guide as well to help us sort through next steps in various ministries: worship, music, children and youth, small groups, and the like.
And it can be a way of generating new ideas. For example, we can use this focus on healing as the starting point for the strategic planning we’ll do in September. As we converse and discuss how we can offer healing to the broken places of life in committee rooms, Sunday school classrooms, small group living rooms, choir rooms, and the like, we will find our hearts and minds moved toward the things God would have us do.
Fourth, it means that we review where there are needs in our community that are not being met where we can bring our gifts to bear to create healing for those broken places; bringing our gifts to the intersection of the community’s need for healing.
Housing is one of those areas in downtown Macon, both housing for the unhoused but also affordable housing for all those who are determining to make Macon their home. We can provide safe harbor for those who have a history of hurt with the church in general. There are many among us who have given up on church and are on the fence about whether they still believe in God. We can be a safe space for them to explore faith again and find healing and reconciliation with their Creator. Reconciliation in general is another area. The Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, the one we expanded this year to ten congregations and which drew in a large, diverse crowd, launched reconciliation among downtown congregations. A group of us have continued to meet and plan together, now calling ourselves the Downtown Interfaith Alliance. We build upon that and find new opportunities to collaborate with community partners, finding new, exciting, and innovative ways to be the church.
Above all, it means we keep an open eye for where there are needs to be met and move in that direction when we find them, trusting God to provide for us to meet that need. It means we dream big, think outside of the box, try new things, take risks, and be bold, as we live out how God is calling us to foster healing for the broken places of life. God is faithful to provide when we move as God is calling us.
God is calling us to foster healing for the broken places of life within the communities we serve.
Should we choose to live into this, I see some distinct advantages for us.
First, this differentiates us in the marketplace of churches in Macon.
By putting ourselves out there as a place to be healed of brokenness through the warmth of our hospitality and our intentionality in building meaningful relationships, we will set ourselves apart. If you’re new to the community and looking for a church home, we’ll be offering something different and I think that’s a good thing.
Second, and related to the first point, this is evangelistic.
Most people moving to a community aren’t looking for a church home. Those same people probably have a history with a church previously in their life, and one that may have left some scars or wounds. Then, there are plenty of people who already live in Macon who have been wounded by a church or are distrustful of God, as I once was, and are not attending church anywhere. We have the opportunity to reach out to these folks, attracting in new people rather than doing what most churches with good energy do, which is rob other churches of their members. Jesus calls us to reach those who are outside of the church and outside of the faith. This gives us new and focused ways to do so.
Third, it helps us with fundraising.
It’s easier to ask people to give to support how we are healing the broken places of life within the communities we serve rather than to simply ask that they give to support the church. Having this as our focus is more specific. It’s relatable. It’s understandable. People give to what they believe in, especially as we demonstrate that we are fully engaged in this ministry of offering healing.
Fostering healing for the broken places of life within the communities we serve creates advantages of differentiation, evangelism, and fundraising.
So, considering all that I’ve said so far, what does this mean from here?
I suggest this evening that we embark on this journey together, first by having fostering healing for the broken places of life within the communities we serve becomethe focal point of conversations.
How can we live that out in the Sunday School classroom, the small group living room, the committee room, and so on? We spend the next few months asking ourselves that question, putting it first and foremost whenever we meet together. For example, when a committee meets, I suggest it ask itself reflectively how that committee is currently fostering healing for the broken places of life and how it envisions it can take additional steps to do so, setting the tone and focus for their work.
Then, in September when this council meets to do strategic planning, we allow our strategic plans, the goals we set, to be derived from our conversations around healing as a focus. After having lived with this as a focus for a few months, what do we want to do as a result? How do we envision we will live out the mission of the church with healing as a missional focus? We dream big, bold, dreams together and then pursue them, trusting that the God who called us to our mission, and gifted us in authentic ways, will give us what we need.
This is, of course, related to my church leadership philosophy: we work together to write that next chapter. We build upon the gifts God has already given us, working together, dreaming together, being the church together.
God has already given us all we need and we’re already living out healing ministries. Together, with this as our focus, we take the next step, write the next chapter. It is my desire to move forward together as a church, working hand in hand, on the same page, becoming evermore the church God has called us to be. We have tremendous potential as a church and I believe God has shown us how to live that out. I believe in us and I believe in this call to foster healing for the broken places of life because I believe in you.
As it says in the Hymn of Promise, “from our past will come our future…” God is writing our future out of our past, even our recent past, through fostering healing among us so we might bless others with that same healing. The call of God to foster healing for the broken places of life within the communities we serve comes directly from our past, even our recent past. As we are experiencing healing, so we are equipped by the Holy Spirit to offer healing to others. That is how God is calling us now, and I believe we can live that out because I believe in us.
Sometimes when I run, I listen to a worship playlist. That was true during appointment seasons over the last few years when I knew it was possible I might be appointed here. The old Shaker tune Simple Gifts would come on my headset and somewhere deep in my soul, I knew that, if I ended up appointed here, there was a message for us in it. Once I knew I was appointed here, I began to explore what’s meant by Christian simplicity and became convinced that, for all the complex challenges we have faced and still face, for all the complexities of the challenges of old, for all the complexities that come from brokenness and hurt, that God had a simple answer for our future, for our next chapter.
And so, on my first Sunday, as a way of introducing the idea of simplicity as focus on the mission, be authentic in doing so, and trust God with the rest, Terre arranged to have Simple Gifts sung. It was a beautiful rendition and included all the traditional lyrics:
’Tis a gift to be simple
’Tis a gift to be free
’Tis a gift to come down where you ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
’Twill be in the valley of love and delight
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed
To turn, turn, will be our delight
‘Till by turning, turning, we come ‘round right
As I noted in my very first sermon, we’ve been turning, turning, as a church. We’ve been bowing and bending. We’ve known what it is to come through a time of brokenness. But I believe now, right now, we are coming ‘round right. God has called us to foster healing for the broken places of life within the communities we serve; the place that is just right. Should we follow, I believe we will find ourselves dwelling in the valley of love and delight.
That’s God’s simple answer for us: out of the way God has and is healing us, go and offer that healing to others. In the ways we’ve known healing in our brokenness, go and offer that healing to the brokenness we find. And all we have to do to offer that healing is be ourselves, living out the gifts God has given us, by keeping our attention on our missional focus to
Foster healing for the broken places of life within the communities we serve.
Let’s move forward together, believing fully that God has called us here. Out of our brokenness, out of the healing we know, we have a tremendous opportunity to be a blessing to others.
God has given us the gift to be simple, and it will set us free to be the church God has called us to be. The time to write the next chapter is now. Let us move forward by fostering healing for the broken places of life.