Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Ministry Fondly Remembered (And Lessons Learned)

Perhaps this is a sign of aging, but lately I have been recalling some of my more enjoyable times of service as a pastor. A ministry I am especially fond of is the Cortland-Chenango Rural Services, a community self-development organization for the poor residents of a predominantly rural area about 60 miles southeast of Syracuse, New York. This grew out of an outreach initiative of the United Presbyterian Church of Cincinnatus, New York in 1987.
When I came in the spring of 1986 to serve as the pastor of this thriving little church in a breath-taking picturesque Appalachian valley, I was quite unprepared for the abject poverty afflicting so many people in this area. We are not just talking about low income! We’re talking about people with dirt floors in drafty shacks, little knowledge of basic health issues, pervasive tooth decay, undernourished infants, little or no reading ability making it impossible to fill out a job application, and no reliable transportation to get to a job. Most of this population eked out a living by cutting, selling, and using firewood. I even met people in their late 90’s who had never been further than a few miles outside the valley.
I really never had a plan for developing the Cortland-Chenango Rural Services. It was a ministry opportunity that was obvious and demanded my response. I discussed this problem with people in my congregation who knew the area far better than me. They and the local school officials were helpful in developing an understanding of the obstacles involved. I also networked with as many community leaders (both informal and official) as possible. After a year of getting to know the people, area, and culture, I asked several concerned individuals to sponsor a “Business Forum,” to be held as the outreach segment of a renewal week planned at the Presbyterian church. At this gathering I simply focused on the local poverty issues and opened discussion for sharing ideas on what we could do to make life better for the severely impoverished in our valley.
My wife, Jackie, and I were able to add to the discussion our personal relationships and experiences with this population. Most of the local pastors, including me, had some of severely poor in their congregations. In my case, I had become good friends with some of the “backwoods” men, which was significant because these men considered male ministers to be “sissy” and believed church was primarily for women. Jackie knew poor families through going into their homes to help people work on getting their GED and assisting young mothers in the basic care for their babies and young children.
To telescope the process, the “Business Forum” led to a series of community discussions which grew to include all the churches (even the local fundamentalist Baptist church) and community leaders. Ideas were developed for addressing basic parenting needs, educational help, personal skills development, and marketing native crafts. A local funeral director and his wife were able to communicate the exciting possibilities of this ministry opportunity to their regional church leaders, which led to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Binghamton, New York giving us a grant for the first three years of operation. The most significant contribution, however, was the willingness of three sisters of the order of St. Joseph to come live in the valley and develop this ministry to the rural poor, which late 1987 became known as the Cortland-Chenango Rural Services.
The ministry continued to be ecumenical and community-based, with the headquarters located initially in the Catholic church building. Within three years we expanded to two buildings where a number of ministries were offered: family counseling, basic skills development, reading classes, marketing workshops for local products such as maple syrup, crafts, and firewood. A twentyfive acre field was donated, which was divided into parcels for local poor families to grow gardens. It became known as “the field of dreams.”
I led and spearheaded this ministry until the three sisters felt they knew the area well enough, and a strong community board had been formed. Naturally, as pastor of the Presbyterian church I had encouraged people in the congregation to find places of ministry and leadership, which included some working with the Rural Services. The particular issues (which are related) the Presbyterian church became particularly involved with was addictions and families in crisis. We developed a strong AA group (led by members of the church who were just beginning to face their own alcoholism), and our Christian growth small groups typically had a few members who were wrestling with drug addiction. Our announcements in worship included such things as “Brian has been clean from cocaine for three months now” with applause following. The local fundamentalist Baptist pastor even started sending his “troubled” members to the Presbyterian church, telling them “They fix broken people at that church.” Certainly, this remains one of the best compliments to any ministry of which I have been a part.
In the fall of 1987 I was invited to participate in a group advising then Governour Mario Cuomo on rural issues in New York state. While this was a nice honor, and was fun to get free trips to Albany, the closest I ever got to the governour was almost crashing into him when we were leaving one of our “advisory” meetings (where he did 98 percent of the talking).
Not everything I’ve tried to do has come together as nicely, worked as well, and been as long lasting as the Cortland-Chenango Rural Services. Just ask Rev. Michael Romero (now executive pastor at Desert Son Community Church in Tucson, AZ) about our attempt (in Denver, Colorado) to develop “GraceTech,” a ministry to help people have access to low cost training for computer careers. We tried to do too much too soon with too little support (although we still had lots of fun even in failure). However, my basic premises in how to approach any ministry are similar. I seek God’s call to a situation, trust God’s leading, come into the situation being open to the Spirit’s guidance, assess the needs, set my objectives, learn the culture, network like crazy, find and encourage emerging leaders, develop equipping structures to reinforce present ministries and promote the development of new ones.
One thing I have learned both through doing it right sometimes and wrong other times, is to concentrate on two basic resources before attempting or continuing a ministry. The first is to have the core group of people who are called and passionate about the endeavor before them. It is critical to find this group and do adequate preparatory work on the relationships before engaging in the challenges and stresses of developing the ministry, whatever it may be. The second resource comes out of the first, the finances and skills needed to accomplish the goals of the ministry. These are obtained through a number of ways, but primary to their effectiveness is the work of the people who are committed to the ministry. It is their diligence, passion, and risks that inspire others to give to a ministry project, sometimes even inspiring others to give themselves to the project (as God so leads, of course).

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