SPOTLIGHT: The Phoenix Rises in Haverhill as a New Church Start

SPOTLIGHT: The Phoenix Rises in Haverhill as a New Church Start

Pastor reaches out to a new generation to help connect to God and the community
The Advisory team and FCC Board of Ministry
Back row: Audrey Spencer Collins, Paul Nickerson, Gretchen Elmendorf, Bob Clark, Paul Sangree,
Front Row: Judy Proctor, Lina Bartow, Linda Hacker, Donna Spencer Collins 

When the members of First Congregational Church, UCC, of Haverhill sold their brick and mortar institution and set out on two different pathways, it was a rebirth of the members.  One group chose to continue worship by joining other area congregations and using part of the proceeds to continue traditional mission work.  A second group, a small band of devotees who had rediscovered the radically inclusive Jesus that speaks to the marginalized, envisioned a new church for a new Haverhill, now called Phoenix Rising, United Church of Christ. (See Donna Spencer Collins’ blog article for more details about the path leading to the new church.)

"It is my vision to help individuals understand their place in a re-emerging Christian community," said the new church start pastor, the Rev. Donna Spencer Collins. "I look forward to helping to bring spiritual vitality to the community and witnessing the experiences of folks who gain a new sense of identity and self-worth by connecting to God and others."

"I used to go to a UCC Church but the Church left the UCC so I left the Church," said Shelly Smith, a new member of Phoenix Rising. "Pastor Donna is real people and really believes in what she is doing. After joining the Phoenix Rising Facebook page, going to the website and spending time with Donna and her spouse Audrey, I told Donna I am IN!"

The plan is to have events monthly leading to the launch of public worship tentatively, in October, 2015.  The goal is to create a critical mass so that the church will thrive.  A critical mass refers to the number of people necessary at an event in order for the attendees to feel like there are "enough" people there.  They had their first gathering with the Advisory Team in June.  In August nine people attended a mini boot camp led by vitality coach Rev. Paul Nickerson, where they did some asset mapping and started developing a plan of action.  The goal is to hold several key public events over the coming months, and hopefully build a joyful, adventurous, vibrant congregation where worship will be innovative, varied in style and provocative.
To get to that critical mass, Spencer Collins is reaching out to the community in many different ways.  She created a website and is using social media to spread the word.  The church's Facebook page already has over 400 Likes, a sign that people are becoming aware of the church. Spencer Collins used Facebook advertising tools to target Haverhill and the surrounding towns -- which accounts for so many followers in such a short time. It also is a gauge that shows there is a need for a Still Speaking Church in Haverhill.

Phoenix Rising will be a church of "all the people" extending extravagant welcome to people of every age, gender, ethnicity or tradition, marital or family status, of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

As a church start pastor, Spencer Collins spends most of her time immersing herself in the local community and making introductions. "Joining Toastmasters International has also been a wonderful way to meet new people and hone my skills as a public speaker and learn conversational skills," she said.
Spencer Collins and her family moved to Haverhill, and she has used that situation as a conversation starter at many of the local restaurants and coffee shops.  One assignment that many pastors may not take on is one in which she jumped in with both feet... and a microphone -- weekly Karaoke at a neighborhood restaurant.  She loves to sing and those Friday Karaoke nights led to her being invited to Tuesday night Blues Jam Fest.  This opened the doors wide for conversation.  In fact, she was later invited to a fundraiser at the restaurant.

The fundraiser was for a member of the restaurant staff and his wife who had experienced a personal tragedy -- the loss of an infant -- and staff and friends held an event as a show of support.  "I went and was asked if I would say the blessing," said Spencer Collins.  "I talked with the family and the mother spoke candidly to me about what had happened.  By the time I was to say the blessing I was able to speak about the power of our belonging to one another and to God. For even though we did not meet this little one, this little one's short stay on earth reminded us of our interconnectedness to each other and God. I was 'out of the closet' if you will and people have been coming to me and wanting to know more. This is just one chapter of the unfolding story that is becoming Phoenix Rising UCC."

In addition to Karaoke nights, Spencer Collins will be offering small group gatherings via a MeetUp group, and she holds office hours at Wicked Big Cafe, a downtown Haverhill coffee shop.  The MeetUp group is just forming and will be made up of people whom she has met in person or through Facebook.

One person she recently encountered said to her: "I thought that you are not supposed to be with people like us; you're supposed to be in the church with the church people!" 

"This is the impression of many people beyond our church doors," said Spencer Collins.  "This view is a them and us. However, at this phase of the Phoenix Rising's mission, we are a church without walls --where the line is blurred between them and us."

There will be walls, however, at Spencer Collins' official ordination at Tewksbury Congregational Church on October 5th.  "I have invited all the new people I have been meeting to come to my ordination so they can see who the United Church of Christ is!" she said.  "This is an exciting opportunity to show our extravagant welcome and hospitality."

"Building Phoenix Rising UCC is going to take a tremendous amount of effort with lots of people joining and contributing," Nickerson said.

Spencer Collins agreed:  "I have a stewardship saying: 'If everyone gives a little, a little becomes a lot.' Over time the compounding effort required to keep it growing will become streamlined and will take different kinds of effort."

"We imagine Phoenix Rising as a sprout growing out of an old tree trunk -- First Congregational Church Haverhill," she said.  "Personally, I am so grateful for the remnant of First Church Haverhill and the many years that they dedicated to bring this forth.  Even as their numbers dwindled, they faithfully continued laying a foundation for this new start. In this early stage we are finding our footing as we flesh out next steps.  I think this sums up how I see this work unfold: 'Anyone can count the seeds in an apple, only God knows how many apples are in a seed.' Seeds have been planted and grown and produced and now there is a new sprout getting ready to do it all over again. Please keep us in your prayers."

You can reach Pastor Donna Spencer Collins at or through the Phoenix Rising Facebook page.
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