Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Build Strong Families: Part 3--Jaimie Fales-Brown

I made some new friends a few weeks ago.

I was working late two Thursdays ago. Pastor Tom Ryberg was in the Welcome Center having just finished up practice for Koinonia’s Sunday morning worship. I came out of my office to speak with him and behind him, down the hall by the Choir Room, a boy walked in. He looked to be about 11 years old.

Even though it was dark, he had walked over to the church to find out if we were having anything special happening. Tom and I talked told him about the Halloween Spooktacular happening the next night and I gave him a flyer. My interaction with him struck me oddly. He seemed...lonely.

The next night, he and his little brother turned up at the Spooktacular. They talked with Emily Barda and I each with a sucker in their mouth, showing us the candy in their bags. I quickly realized two things: these kids have a great sense of humor and these kids were both hungry. Not only were they wanting food for their bodies, they were hungry for social connection for their hearts. They wanted someone to talk to them and laugh with them.

Even though it’s only been a week since I met them, the boys have come around the church quite a few times. Saturday morning, the older one helped the property clean up group rake leaves in exchange for donuts and “the best apple cider” he ever had.

I’ve answered questions from them about baptism and about “what that big, funny X is” (the cross on the wall in the Courtyard.) These kids aren’t coming to church to experience G-d in a church service. But they are experiencing G-d in the lives of Patrice Ott, Emily Barda, the Pastors, Lucy Lower, myself and others who have greeted them warmly and gotten to know them. They experienced G-d through Bev and John Goddard who served macaroni and cheese and cookies at Wednesday night dinner (admittedly, the kids ate more cookies than mac ‘n cheese.)
The Church is a place for finding social connection. We all need to experience G-d incarnated in the lives of people around us. We were not created to be alone. We were created to be hungry for social connection. Event like the Halloween Spooktacular give us the opportunity to reach beyond the four walls of the church to find new connections.

Every family is different. Every family has different needs. But all families need social connections to the larger community to be strong and resilient. As a community of faith, we know that this strength comes from G-d experienced in relationship with one another.

Pastor Tom Ryberg--November/December Congregationalist

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exhile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)
When was the last time you took a walk just for the sake of looking around? Until this past week, I can’t remember that last time I did. 

Whenever I walk, I’m going somewhere in particular. From home to church is about fifteen minutes. From church to Brownstone Coffee is about five. Or if I’m walking to the hospital from church, it’s ten minutes. When I walk, it’s with the purpose of getting somewhere.
But last week, walking was its own purpose. I met Sue Day and Dan Byrd at the Walgreen on the corner of Capital and Emmett, and we started off on a prayer walk. We did so as participants in the small ReVision groups in order to help discern what lies ahead for FCCBC (prayer walks are part of that process.) These walks consist of picking a neighborhood and walking for about thirty minutes, paying attention to what we see and praying blessings as we go. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you…”

Sue, Dan and I, we walked past an elementary school, a small muddy pond, several neighborhood homes, an elderly woman with three small children in tow. One beautifully manicured home had an ironic juxtaposition of signs ranging from “WELCOME!” to “NO TRESPASSING!” to “KEEP OFF THE GRASS!” One home had a huge tree stump outside of it. Several had Halloween decorations already up. We maintained an easy pace, not trying to cover particular ground but simply experience what came our way. Before long, it was time to turn back.

Something about this prayer walk and walking as its own purpose, made the time pass both more slowly and more calmly. It was a peaceful experience, and after even thirty minutes I felt a sense of gratitude and deeper connection to this small area of northern Battle Creek. I felt a sense of hope for the welfare of this corner of my community and pride at being a part of it. At this point, it’s hard to perceive much about what God’s future is for FCCBC and Battle Creek. But when it comes to discernment, I am coming to find that there is perhaps more value in a slow walk than if we had stayed indoors and made a quick action plan. May we seek, and find, the welfare of the city in which we make our home, and we trust that the welfare of FCCBC will follow.

Pastor Emily Joye--November/December Congregationalist

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly. We don’t know the future. But God does and I maintain God is way smarter than we are, holding the infinite possibilities for a variety of futures in Her loving, poetic heart”

Since our entire congregational focus over the next months in worship and fellowship is discernment, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share with you how I discerned it was time to move on from FCC. While this piece is testimonial and personal in nature, I hope you’ll focus more on the what than the whom. Because God knows discernment is an art, and while we all do it differently, there are some common denominators, trusted patterns worth noting.

Back in February, we celebrated Koinonia’s 4th anniversary. We celebrated big in worship. We had a potluck luncheon in the Courtyard after service. It was a glorious, joy-filled Sunday. After the party was over, as I was walked to my car alone, I surveyed the smattered snow on the ground. I felt a presence wash over me. In a matter of moments, I felt/heard a voice—a still small whisper—say, “Your time is done now. You can go.” It was a loving assurance, not an indictment. It was permission giving. I felt loved and held in the midst of that revelation.

Then I felt terrified.

I had no idea what to do if I was done. What came next? I’m a full time pastor with two young children. I can’t just quit without something to replace ministry—that would be foolish. Then I started spinning. What if the voice was just a made up figment of my imagination? What if I misunderstood the message? What if G-d was wrong? For about a week I told no one. In fact, I hid the revelation from myself pretty consciously. I had no idea how to act on what was given to me, so I rendered it obsolete. That’s where I went wrong. God didn’t tell me what to do. God didn’t give me directions. I got assurance and permission. But that wasn’t enough for me because it didn’t translate to action. I figured if God was talking, it had to lead me to direct behavior or life-style change, and I didn’t have a clue.

In a session a few months later, I reluctantly shared with my therapist what I’d heard that February morning and how much it vexed me. She lovingly asked me how hiding from God’s truth was working out for me. Truthfully everything had started feeling too small. I wasn’t experiencing much joy in ministry. Little things annoyed me. My spiritual reserves were coming up dry in preaching and pastoral care. I knew my time was done because I could feel it, not on paper, but in my soul. But I still didn’t have a way forward and risking leaving without a landing place felt inherently reckless. “Well, at least I have a paycheck” I said back to her. She prodded me on that. “And that’s what you’re all about, huh?” I knew what she was getting at. “But how can I leave, in good faith, without having my next thing in place, especially given my kids?” I asked. “You can trust what you’ve been given and signal to the universe that you’re open or you can continue denying the truth.” She made it sound so simple. Did I listen? No.

It took me a few more months and a whole lot more suffering to fathom that faith over fear might be the best bet. One day, after receiving lots of support from people who love me (amidst lots of tears) and in discernment with Tom Ott, I finally said it outl oud and owned my truth. I decided on a resignation date. I made the declaration public. I hoped graduate school would come through as an option (and it has.) Other things have come through too: a local project beyond my wildest dreams, facilitation gigs with two agencies I work for nationally, and a paid writing post. My God! I couldn’t have dreamed a better future for myself.
That’s the point.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly. We don’t know the future. But God does and I maintain God is way smarter than we are, holding the infinite possibilities for a variety of futures in Her loving, poetic heart. We only know what we are given in this moment. What I’ve learned this spring and summer is what we are given in this moment is enough. Choosing to believe the truth of what I was given and acting in faith made all the difference.

I have a certain confidence that if we all take exactly what we are given in Revision, believe the truth of it and act in faith, the future of FCC will be beyond what any of us can even imagine. May it be so. Amen.

Pastor Tom Ott--November/December Congregationalist

Lately I’ve been going through something of a spiritual slump.  I’ve continued my daily prayer practices as usual, but they haven’t been leading me to any profound spiritual awakenings for some time. I don’t feel my heart stirring with inspiration or a compelling vision of where God is leading me at this moment in my life. I’m just sort of in a holding pattern. 

I suspect I’ve needed some time to process some of the significant losses I’ve experienced in my life lately. Several people who have been important to my own spiritual life have either died or left or are close to death or soon to be leaving.  Sometimes we just have to stand still for a while until the weightiness of our grief subsides and we have the spiritual energy to move forward in faith again.

What has been particularly meaningful to me during my current spiritual slump is the inspiration I’ve found from the rest of you. This faith community has sustained and inspired me when I’ve had little inspiration to offer.

Truthfully, I was dreading the Under This Roof campaign to raise money for replacing the sanctuary roof. After finally paying off the mortgage from the huge renovation project we undertook nearly 16 years ago, I wasn’t feeling confident about our ability to raise the $120,000 we needed to replace the roof and repair the plaster. 

But the week after our One Body worship service when the Administration Team gathered to write thank you notes, I was elated to learn that we had already exceeded our project goal in three year pledges.

I know it is just a building, but your commitment to preserve this beautiful house of worship for future generations was inspiring to me. Thank you for helping to restore my confidence in our church.

As I’ve struggled with my own lack of a clear and compelling vision of where I see God leading our faith community, I’ve been deeply inspired by your willingness to enter into the ReVision communal discernment process. That is inspiring to me.  People involved in worship planning both on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings have been exploring the essential elements of spiritual discernment and are helping build our church’s capacity for the work of discerning God’s intended future. That is inspiring to me.
Lately, I’ve been holding the verse, “My grace is sufficient for you” from 2 Corinthians 12:9.  It has become a powerful word for me. It reminds me that I’m not the one who carries sole (soul) responsibility for the future of our church. It isn’t all on my shoulders and it doesn’t all depend on my insight and vision.

God’s grace is sufficient for me, for you, and for everyone. Sometimes I need to be surrounded by an amazing community of faithful people in order to remember that one foundational truth.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

First Congregational Church Welcomes Freedom School

During the months of June and July, FCC welcomed Freedom School into our building each Monday-Friday. Freedom School is a program of the Children’s Defense Fund that seeks to build strong, literate, and empowered children prepared to make a difference in themselves, their families, communities, nation and world today. 71 students participated in the program this summer.

Each day started with Harambee, a gathering time of singing, dancing and stories. The program provided an exciting Integrated Reading Curriculum including carefully chosen developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant books. The children participated in field trips and other activities in the community. They also took part in a Social Action Day in which they focused on ending poverty. They learned about the far-reaching affects of poverty  such  as  increased violence in neighborhoods and the quality of food available in neighborhoods. The program ended with a special programming in which the students presented what they had learned during Freedom School to family, friends and community members.

Freedom School is one way that First Congregational Church seeks to embody difference faithfully as students gather in our space to make a difference in how diversity, poverty and other social justice issues are learned about and carried on both now and in the future.

Special Thanks--August/September Congregationalist

This summer, the First Congregational Scholarship Committee was excited to provide scholarships to the following college students: Kevin Noble, Abigail Labreque, Emma Kukuk, Mina Kukuk and Meghan Schulz.

I am so grateful for the existence of the FCCBC scholarship. My senior year of college is quickly approaching which means that the writing of my senior thesis on German theologian Rudolf Otto is also swiftly approaching. As I gear up to write my thesis, there are many, many books awaiting to be purchased, as well as deconstructed by my multi-colored highlighters and sticky notes.
Thank you so much to the scholarship committee for selecting me as a recipient, to all that made and continue to make this scholarship possible and to FCCBC as a whole for the continued support.
Ever since I was a baby in the nursery, I have been blessed with this community whose generosity knows no end.
Much love and appreciation,
Abbey Labrecque

First Congregational was also able to provide scholarships for students attending Camp Talahi this summer.

Dear Congregational Church,
Thank you for helping to fund my Camp Talahi experience! I had a great time and made tons of friends! I really appreciate your help. I am forever grateful and hope that I can go again next year!
Kaitlyn Lawhead.

Thanks from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Math Camp

Thanks to everyone for all the supplies and monetary donations for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Math Camp!

The following was received from Inila Wakan by Sandy Wehling:

Dear Sandy,
The boxes have arrived! Thanks so much for your expression of love and kindness towards the Coyote Spring Math Camp for Girls. We are truly blessed by your generosity and we’re looking forward to seeing the many smiling faces at math camp this year. We have lost three young people to suicide in the last two weeks and it’s so heart wrenching to have so many children plagued by this epidemic. Your gifts of love will paly a pivitol role in lending a hand as we are joined by God in the taks to save lives of children here on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Thanks again for your outreach dear Friends in Christ but mostly I want to thank you for hearing God’s call to reach out to us as it is an answer to the prayer of many children. God’s blessing upon you and all supporting our beautiful Lakota Wakanyeja.
In Jesus’ holy name, Thank you!

We would also like to give special thanks to Sandy Wehling for heading up this effort and for her heart for social justice not only in our community, but at Pine Ridge.

Malice in the Palace: Choir Camp 2015

During the first week of August, First Congregational Church hosted Children’s Choir Camp in partnership with First Presbyterian Church of Battle Creek. This year’s theme was Malice in the Palace and focused on the story of Esther from the Bible. 28 children from 12 different churches took part in the camp and the final performance that followed.

Each morning, students heard devotionals on the book of Esther. They learned about feeling empowered to make a difference and about how love can overcome fear. The following Sunday morning, the students performed three songs from their performance during the 10am worship service. Both parents and students were so appreciative of the hard work of Lucy Lower, Associate Music Director, on the camp program.

Music ministries such as Choir Camp continue to be vital parts of our goal of providing a “spiritual playground” where community members can take part in learning and growing in creative expression as worship. 

Spread the Good News About Garden of Dreams

Spread the Good News About Garden of Dreams
by Andria Ryberg

As we approach the first year anniversary of opening our doors on September 2, we are so thankful for all of the support that the church has given us.  We have been able to serve over 100 students this past year.  Our student body and staff members come from diverse socio-economic and racial backgrounds.  We have established ourselves as a high-quality center with a loving environment.  And, we have new babies lined up to enter our school 6 months from now!  It's been a successful year, and we could not have done it without you.

We host two classrooms of a FREE, state-funded preschool program for four-year-olds, called the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP).  We still have 8 slots left for that program, which starts in mid-September.  Can you please help us spread the word about those spots?  This is a highly educational, joyful, full-day Pre-K program that helps prepare children for Kindergarten.  We want to make sure that as many people as possible find out about this program and participate.  Again, it's a FREE program and a family of four can make up to $70,000 a year and still qualify.  

Please help us spread the news about this FREE program by doing one/all of the following:
1.  Email your network of friends - you never know who might be looking for preschool, even if you feel like you don't know anyone with a four-year-old.
2.  Share information with co-workers, clubs, etc, either via email or in person.  We have promotional materials available near the front desk at church if you want to take some to a gathering.
3.  Share information about Garden of Dreams on Facebook.

Sample Email to Co-Workers, Friends, Network
Our church hosts Garden of Dreams Community Preschool and Child Care.  Part of the school's mission is to serve a diverse student body, and as such, we have two FREE Pre-K classes for four-year-olds.  These classes are part of the state's Great Start Readiness Program and families making up to $70,000 a year for a family of four qualify (or more, if you have more children.)  Please share this opportunity with any families you know looking for a great preschool program for their four-year-old!  The phone number at Garden of Dreams is 269-788-0081.  You can check out the website at and the Facebook page at  

Build Strong Families--Aug/Sep Congregationalist 2015

Build Strong Families
By Jaimie Fales-Brown

In the previous Congregationalist, I shared five ways that the Church can help build strong families. This month, I would like to highlight how the Church can build parental resilience by helping families exercise flexibility and develop inner strength.

My son, Isaac is three. You can only imagine the number of things that don’t go the way I plan each day. I often find that when I am trying to get things to go a particular way, that’s when I get the greatest resistance from my son. This resistance can be a huge source of stress for any parent.

Sometimes, this stress is what causes me to lose it and snap at Isaac. Almost every time I snap, I feel ashamed of losing it just because he’s doing what comes naturally to him—being a three year old!

One of my greatest sources of encouragement as a parent is grandparents. I’m not just talking about my parents’ parents. I’m talking about all of the older adults in my life who know all about this stress. No matter the differences in opinion about child rearing or the age gap between us, grandparents get the stress of parenting.

The difference is, they are on the other side of this stress. They help remind me of the joys of parenting even if I can’t remember them (mostly due to sleep deprivation.) They also remind me that I can do it. That I have what is needed within me to parent and love well. They remind me to stop and find sources of resilience in G-d through self-care and looking at things through a difference perspective.

This spring, the church offered the Wisdom Heart Parenting Retreats. During the retreat, we focused on a phrase to help us gain perspective and accept circumstances when they don’t go our way: “It is what it is. In light of what it is, who do I want to be and what do I want to do?”

The Church is full of grandparents who can help remind us of who we want to be as parents and how we want to parent—especially when parenting doesn’t go as planned! Parents can’t change the fact that three year olds don’t like getting dressed or don’t understand the words, “Hurry up! We’re late!” But through the support and encouragement of grandparents who have “been there and done that,” we learn to accept what we can’t change and parent with intention and grace.

Pastor Tom Ryberg August/September Congregationalist

As you probably know, I have been out for some weeks this summer, spending some fabulous family time with my newborn son, Luke. At the time of writing this, Luke is 15 weeks old. He's doing well, and Ellie is relishing her new role as big sister. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you, my church family, but also my collective employers, for the space to be away, and for valuing family leave enough to offer it in your call agreements with pastors.

Unfortunately, paid family leave is not a given in America. The legal standard is six weeks of unpaid maternity leave, which doesn't always help new moms make ends meet, and doesn't offer anything to dads. By contrast, here at FCCBC the call agreements we offer our pastors include six weeks of paid family leave, regardless of gender. What a tremendous difference!

As a result of this policy, I have been able to spend significant time with my son during some of his most formative, rapidly-growing weeks. He is at an age where nearly every day brings something new that he couldn't do yesterday. Being able to be present while he learns and grows, I have gotten to know him deeply already -- and he clearly knows who his daddy is as well! I have relished this time with him, and I return to my pastoral work with a sense of deep peace, gladness, and gratitude for the time I have been given with Luke.

So, my church, thank you for being a community of faith that values families. From the preschool, to the Joyful Path children's program, to the family leave you have written into your pastoral call agreements, it is clear that we value children and strive for their well-being however we are able to best impact them. To the extent that my own family has been blessed by this generous commitment this summer, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Pastor Tom Ott August/September Congregationalist

We are a different church today than we were eight years ago when I first came to Battle Creek.  Some familiar faces are no longer present when we gather.  Beloved members and staff have died, moved away, become infirmed or have left our faith community.  Other new faces have come into our church life, some at our 10:00 service and lots at our Koinonia celebration (which only began meeting in 2011). 

For the last six years, we have been guided by the recommendations of Paul Nixon, the church consultant and author of the book, “I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church.” Nixon met with us, studied our demographics, financial trends, membership data and helped us identify the most urgent priorities for our life together. 

His consultation helped us recognize that as a downtown church with an aging membership, we had a limited window of opportunity to reach out to expand our congregation by attracting younger and more diverse people.  His recommendations included:

· Hire an outstanding associate to help us reach the young adults who are not currently in our congregation.
· Reduce the debt burden by at least half
· Market our Open and Affirming status to intentionally create a more diverse church
· Grow the number of small groups until at least half of the worship attendance is engaged in small groups.
· Think families with kids in all things
· Pay close attention to worship growth.

The good news is that we’ve made significant progress on each of these priorities.  That is why we are a different church today then we were when I first came.  And because of the progress we have made and the growth that we have experienced, we have lots of new questions and issues to faithfully discern today.
That is why our church council has decided to engage the entire congregation in a ninety day discernment process called, “ReVision.”  The purpose of the ReVision process to clarify our understanding of the desired future that God is calling us to embody in our life together.  Through a series of six small group conversations, we will work at discerning God’s vision, mission and core values for our faith community.

We will begin the ReVision process in September of this year by inviting everyone to share a daily prayer discipline.  In our worship life we will focus on the sacred texts and songs that speak to the purpose and mission of the church.  And during September, October and November, we will invite everyone to join a small group that will share six guided conversations to help us listen closely to God’s claim on our lives.

At the heart of the ReVision process is the assumption that vision is discerned in community.  It comes to us from God but requires us to listen intently as God speaks through every voice to articulate God’s desired future for First Congregational Church of Battle Creek.

Having greater clarity about our shared vision, mission and core values will help us navigate all of the perplexing challenges and choices we will face as we move forward together in faith.  I look forward to engaging in this community wide discernment process with you throughout the months ahead.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

5 Ways the Church Can Build Strong Families

One of the first ways I connected with First Congregational Church was Wednesday night dinners. My three year old, Isaac, looks forward to eating dinner at the church each week. He loves to sit with Tom and Patrice Ott, Toby Haughey and other friends. He especially likes the end of the serving table that usually holds cookies, cake or ice cream.

I love watching my son interact with friends of all ages. Our church has been a place where I have found support and love as a parent of a toddler. Parenting is a mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically exhausting journey. One night a week, I got to have a break. I didn’t have to think about what to make for dinner. Other people wipe Isaac’s face, ask him about what he did at Garden of Dreams Child Care during the day and just love on my son.

Wednesday night dinners are an example of how our church can build strong families. We feed many, many people from the community. Attendees from both services in our faith community attend. Families with children can connect with one another. The sound of little feet and laughter fill the Courtyard.

The Church has the opportunity to build strong families that can greatly influence a child’s life long term. Hosting space such as Wednesday night dinners, provides natural opportunity for church members to take an active role in building strong, resilient families. There are no lesson plans to prepare. It isn’t “children’s ministry.” You don’t have to have special training or certain spiritual gifts to participate in this ministry. You offer yourself, your presence and your love. You show up.
In the Battle Creek community, a group of service providers who work with families with young children convenes each month. We have been talking about five specific ways that we can help build strong families. As we have been discussing these, I have been encouraged by the opportunity that our church has to truly embrace these five ways of building strong families. 

The Church can:

1. Build parental resilience by helping families exercise flexibility and develop inner strength.
2. Assist parents in nurturing social and emotional competence as they give children teach their children to effectively communicate and interact to build positive relationships.
3. Host space for parents and children to make social connection through friendship. These social connections build a support system.
4. Encourage parents to be come their children’s expert. Parenting is part natural instinct and part learned skill.
5. Show parents where they can get concrete support in times of need. Connection to community support and resources increases resilience.

I am so thankful for how members of our faith community have showed up and helped make my family stronger. My son and I are stronger because of you. I hope and pray that other families in our community can view the local church as a place to find to strength and resilience.
—Jaimie Fales-Brown