In an age when the dominant narrative about church is one of decline, the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, UCC, is finding new life. A significant dimension of their renewal can be attributed to the church’s small group program called “Mapping Our Faith Journeys.”
The inspiration for this small group is rooted in Rev. Cathlin Baker’s participation in the Massachusetts Conference partnership with the Center for Progressive Renewal (CPR) coaching program. The church renewal certification program in which Baker participated was part of a contract the Conference had with CPR. This arrangement covered the cost for a limited number of people to participate in church planting and church renewal certification courses. The program included a year of coaching, attendance at the National Church Leadership Institute conference, several online classes, and many resources. Financial support for the project came primarily from a legacy gift from the Union Congregational Church of Winthrop at its closing, with additional help from local church giving to OCWM and United Church Mission provided the funding.
Associate Conference Minister Rev. Don Remick had been working with the congregation to identify its core values: extravagant welcome, heartfelt service and spiritual nourishment. Once the church was able to articulate those core values, the entire congregation had a greater sense of purpose and direction.
With a new sense of rejuvenation, Baker was quickly able to apply lessons learned from her Church Renewal coaching and coursework. In particular, she recognized the need for new and old congregants to meet in small groups in order to develop relationships with each other, rather than to have her as the primary point of relationship. At the same time, Baker was having insights about her own spiritual and ministerial formation. In particular, she was coming to value her unchurched, ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ upbringing as an asset rather than a liability. Baker was finding that honest sharing of her spiritual development, including what she did not know or understand about “church,” was strengthening, not weakening her ministry.
While attending the NCLI conference at Andover Newton Theological Seminary in 2015 and hearing inspiring stories of church renewal, Baker began to birth the “Mapping Our Faith Journeys” program.
After applying for and receiving a Pastoral Study Grant from the Louisville Institute for a project on mapping faith journeys, Baker initiated the program, seeking the first seven congregants to meet with her during the season of Epiphany in 2016.
“While all were welcome to participate, I was especially interested in mapping the journeys of people who grew up unchurched, left the church of their childhood, or who -- like me in my earlier years -- have identified as ‘spiritual but not religious,’” she said. “And then I wanted to delve deeper into why people choose church today.”
Participants in the “Mapping Our Faith Journeys” workshops reflected on their own faith journey with a small group of others over four nights. The curriculum included scripture, prayer, guided personal reflection and sharing, silence and the singing of a hymn. Afterwards, Baker met with participants individually and helped them prepare a 500-word testimony about the workshop, which they then shared from the pulpit during a Sunday service. Three workshops have been held already, with over 20 attending. Nine people have shared a portion of their faith journey during five different Sunday worship services, and more are prepared to share during future services.
Following the testimonies, Baker surveyed the congregation about the program. One respondent wrote that it was an amazing experience to be in church when the workshop participants shared their stories. “This is a wonderful opportunity to build a stronger, more interwoven community, which is welcoming to new, returning and long-time members,” she wrote. “It allows us to get to know each other on a deeper level, meet new people, and reach out to others we may not have reached out to otherwise. Keep it up! What a wonderful way to build community.”
Another wrote: “I feel so connected to the other members of my group. It’s a wonderful, safe way to become a spiritual friend to people who have been strangers.”
Through this study project, the church has experienced an increased spirit of welcome and more overall vitality. Relationships have been strengthened as people have found points of connection with each other that were previously undiscovered. Others have been inspired to find links between their past religious or spiritual experiences, and their desire to become part of a new, socially-engaged church community. Still others have deepened their (and others’) understanding of what it means to be religious -- or part of a church. The church’s lay leadership agree that this program is now closely tied to their church’s identity as a welcoming congregation. “Mapping Our Faith Journeys” is now an on-going program of the church.
“It’s exciting to see the creative and faithful ways that pastors like Cathlin are learning and integrating the insights and tools from our Conference sponsored programs,” said Remick. “Innovation like this is a key to our church’s vitality.”
“What surprised me in working with the small groups at my church is the tremendous spiritual diversity present in our pews,” said Baker. “We clearly are all in the process of becoming churched or becoming Christian. I feel empowered and strengthened for ministry as I recognize that we develop spiritually in an ongoing way, and that the process of becoming Christ-like is best done in community, with honesty and vulnerability.”
Rev. Cathlin Baker is considering publishing a book that includes elements of her spiritual memoir with testimonies of her church members to share how people from diverse backgrounds are building community and finding both a spiritual and religious home in the church. You can reach Rev. Baker at the church office at (508) 693-2842 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane writes news articles for the SNEUCC website. She is also the editor of the Starting With Scripture newsletter. Contact her if: Your church has a great story to tell about an innovative ministry. You have a prayer request to ...