"Change is Scary for Us, But Not for God": How to Activate a Church

"Change is Scary for Us, But Not for God": How to Activate a Church

In each month's Discipleship Matters newsletter, SNEUCC's Faith Formation team works to showcase the good works and best practices present throughout the Southern New England Conference of the UCC and beyond. If you're interested in having the work of your church/faith body or para-church organization showcased next month, please reach out to Faith Formation Program Support Associate Sean Amato for more details.
This month, our Spotlight on Service is on the Faith Formation programming of the First Congregational Church of Branford, CT. Coordinated by Kerry Stewart, Faith Formation Coordinator, Branford's energized and boundary-crossing faith formation activities put on display the many ways in which a congregation's good works can enrich across boundaries - across different generations, groups of need, and even town lines! I had a chance to interview Kerry Stewart about the faith formation opportunities at her church.

Sean: Tell us a little about your journey toward faith formation. What led you to this work?

Kerry: I'm a working mom. Engaging in my own faith is so important to being able to do this work - learning to let go of things I can't impact, so that I can better grasp the lessons God is teaching me: recognizing them instead of fighting them. I had a huge career shift just before COVID-19 started, and fell into faith formation work. I'm now in a ridiculously happy place! I love the other staff, and love our pastor Joe Perdue. He's empathetic and trusts his staff - and we're all passionate about this work. Work is my happy place.

Sean: Can you tell us a bit about the faith formation activities at Branford?

Kerry: There's a lot! A whole lot. I try to create a lot of space and room in our activities for both youth and adults, so that they can fully participate. Art projects are, to me, very important in this regard. We've initiated projects such as a mural based on the concept of what "home" might mean to those who create it. Since then, parents have continuously come back to me asking for art-oriented resources for home activities. it's calming and centering, so I can see why they might ask for more resources. Our pastor told me that I've "created coloring monsters".

Our church also runs Killiam's Point Conference Center, which is an amazing space and such a resource for our work. There's lots of territory, and we have plenty of kids participating. Once a week we bring in a VBS activity for our church camp there. We try very hard to err on the side of environmental justice and social justice activities; dependent upon the age of the youth, activities can range from scavenger hunts to more perception- and discussion-based activities. We try to be as inclusive as possible.

Sean: Does Branford work to benefit any local organizations?

Kerry: We do. We work with Project MORE, an initiative that supports men and women as they depart the prison system. Project MORE is often the first stop for many of those released from the prison system, sometimes just after they leave the gates. Our youth help assemble essential supplies for these individuals, especially the men: we've noted that women returning from prison typically do so with some sort of support network or place of residence. More often than not, men departing the prison system are completely on their own.

We also work with Branford's Community Dining Room, which is right across the street from the church and includes resources like a diaper bank and clothing bank. Our church will be taking part in a big "family night" activity to assist with backpack distribution for local youth. It will be a fun time, with a DJ providing music, a few different local food vendors, and some opportunities for on-site crafts the kids can do and take home. Our older youth will be taking the lead on distributing backpacks, while our younger kids will be helping with baking activities to "fill out" the Dining Room's stocks of food. Our older kids will be serving a meal at the Dining Room the next day.

Sean: So is it just the kids who get involved with this kind of missional work?

Kerry: No, no. Our youth are incredibly capable of doing all kinds of things - they just have to be taught how to do it. They need instruction and guidance. Older members of the congregation take part in these service activities as well, including our Mission Project. Parents assist with the cleaning and restoration of garden beds on our church property, including buying new plants and setting up planters. They'll also be helping with lots of room painting in the youth room - after the kids pick out the new color theme! Older church members advise youth as they work at the Community Dining Room or help with baking activities, too. There's a lot of back-and-forth growth between them, a lot of nurture even if people don't necessarily realize that's what's happening.

Sean: Has this "back-and-forth" led to any changes in how the church operates?

Kerry: It gives us a new perspective as to how the church might work - how it's currently working, actually. We're considering new devotionals and ways of worship to better speak to everyone in attendance at worship. Our lock-ins and mission activities have changed as a result of our kid's comforts and schedules, too: when you have to wake up early the next morning to do hands-on work, it's less of a traditional youth activity with served meals and staying up late than it is a chance to build community before working together on tough work. The kids work well when they're 'mixed up' into different groups, when we avoid age- and gender-based uniformity in our work groups. Our kids end up feeling more accountable, more likely to participate.

Sean: You mentioned Branford's upcoming Mission Project. Could you say more about it for our readers?

Kerry: Our youth are driving our mission trips - we're facilitating it, but we're going to let them loose when the time comes. Our church has a few different partnerships with regional churches, and we're actually planning that next Mission Project with United Parish from Brookline, MA. We'll be at the beach for three days, doing hard and wonderful work in nature.There will be a lot of community building at the event, based on how our kids interacted and engaged at our recent lock-in: they naturally gravitated toward their work groups, and began working together organically right from the start. I'm a big proponent of the 'one-room' style of Sunday school, where kids of all ages - and now from different churches - are able to interact and develop socially. The intergenerational piece matters here, too, when older members of the congregation act to teach and advise the youth groups. Everybody's participating and getting something out of it, everybody has a place.

Sean: On that note, do you have anything you'd like to say to other folks conducting faith formation work in Southern New England?

Kerry: Mission is a place where we all grow. There's so many different ways of doing ministry, even within our church: this community used to have a lot of typically middle school-aged or high school-aged groups that rarely met, and did the standard "youth" activities. What we're finding is that if we urge the kids to take ownership of this work, they'll do it - and they'll tell you that they want to do different activities, like outdoors ministries or spiritual care with animals. They keep coming back because they want to keep coming back.

Be open to what's going on around you, in your town or at churches in different states. You never know what might come from reaching out. Everything's changing, and doing things differently can be scary. Change is scary for us, but not for God. Say "yes" and see what comes from that "yes".

The Faith Formation team would like to extend hearty thanks and congratulations to Kerry Stewart and the congregants of the First Congregational Church of Branford, CT for their good works and ready engagement with their faith. How is your church putting faith into action? Share your stories with Program Support Associate Sean Amato, and you may just be spotlit in the next issue of Discipleship Matters!

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