Dear Friends and Members of First Reformed Church of Bethlehem:
On December 3, the congregation will gather after morning worship for the annual congregational meeting. At this meeting we will consider the budget and spending plan for the following year, and elect individuals to serve as elders and deacons. The time spent together includes a light lunch.
The budget, in the years I have been here, has not seemed to be a problem. Our members have been generous. We have worked hard to improve our gathering space, and have made some modest steps in providing ministry to our young people. This year we will include some money to hire a youth director, one who can assist with framing our long-term goals.
The issue of the slate of officers is another thing altogether. Our by-laws call for five elders and five deacons. Those governance documents were written decades ago in an age that no longer exists. The Book of Church Order notes the specific gifts needed for leadership. The chosen individuals are to be persons of mature judgment, seeking to be servants and representatives of Christ. In modern day language, consistory members are expected to develop a “non-anxious presence.” One pastor recently reported to me that he asked sixteen persons to be on consistory and had sixteen rejections. The times are changing!
If we were to grade ourselves by 1950 standards, we are failing miserably. Building new congregations was the goal, and for awhile those new places were packed with people. But no more. It was the time of emerging television, hence evening church services rather quickly disappeared. People still seemed somewhat motivated by fear, seeing God as score-keeper and church attendance as an insurance policy. This has all changed. If we grade ourselves by current cultural realities, I’d give us an A or perhaps an A-. In this present culture where we are driven by cell phone agendas, we offer a spacious place to worship, have engaged our children positively, and have a great many ministries emerging from our congregation. (Food pantry, writer’s group, dinners and after-church fellowship are a few examples.) Leadership styles and ministry focus are changing. The hardest spiritual test for us is to let go and in some very different ways learn to do our business and invite the next generation into the mainstream of our decision-making. My pastoral encouragement is to walk lightly, have fun even, and be intentional in forming our leadership team. I hope we feel no need to apologize for not meeting 19th century church life standards. A small leadership team is needed, one that focuses not on doing all the work themselves, but engaging people for short-term and time-limited projects. We are well served by our Bookkeeper, Lisa Allendorph, and our Secretary, Diane Kempf.
Most years I have sensed heaviness and worry about the congregational meeting. I pray we may find ways to escape the prison of past era expectations and engage kindness and gentleness as our most effective tools for working together. We really are pioneers traveling over a strange landscape. Let’s make an adventure of it. May love, joy, peace and hope abound!
Pastor Harlan E. Ratmeyer