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The Next Faithful Step

Background Episode B: Shared Vision

Almond Springs (Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary)

Laura Webber invited Rev. Charlotte Robinson to breakfast in late July. It had only been a month since Charlotte arrived to pastor the First Church of Almond Springs, CA -- and the two were already becoming fast friends. Charlotte was relaxed around Laura.

But today Laura, a member of the Church Board, had a warning for Charlotte, something that Charlotte had begun to sense. "Since you came," Laura said, "people have breathed an unfortunate sigh of relief. They expect that they can relax now and let you minister for them and to them. If you don't do something soon, every little thing will become your responsibility."

Over pancakes at Vargo's Diner, the two friends decided that the church needed two things. They wanted a common vision for the future -- a "shared sense of purpose," Charlotte called it -- and they needed to find a way for each person in the church to discover a calling so that they could fit into the congregation's larger vision. Laura felt so worried about the rising passivity that she counseled Charlotte to begin a visioning process immediately, without waiting for the August lull to subside. "By September, it might be too late," Laura said, "Everyone will say it's your church and your problem."

The vision, Charlotte believed, had to come from the congregation. It could not be her vision alone any more than the labor could be hers alone. She invited the entire Church Board to meet weekly with her throughout August and September to figure out the church's reason for being. To her pleasant surprise, the board seemed to enjoy the invitation, with each member attending faithfully whenever in town. Charlotte specifically asked Hazel Moore (a town librarian) to do the background research on the community -- while Joe Bellini and Lorenzo Leon hosted a series of potluck suppers for church members to talk about their view of the First Church congregation and the Almond Springs community.

Hazel presented her findings at the end of August. "I used census data from the Internet and an afternoon of phone calls to discover a lot about our community," she began. "Less than a thousand of the 10,148 people in town attend church. Our 152 members makes us smaller than other churches in town -- but we have more 'influence' because four of the five Town Councilmen are on our board. Demographically, we are older, more educated and less ethnically-diverse than the town. Oh, and the new highway should make a big difference in the time people have for church. Before the new highway, the census said that the average commuter spent over 45 minutes getting to work. A straight-shot to Fresno should cut that in half."

The potlucks revealed some important stories. "A lot of people don't know what to expect," Joe Bellini reported. "People are pretty upbeat about your coming here, Charlotte. But they spent most of their time complaining about the past. The boarded-up stores and lack of jobs make people a little jumpy about tomorrow. Oh..." he said with a laugh, "...and there was one group of, um, older women who asked for more Bible studies and youth groups. One of them said, 'We need to start acting like a church instead of a social club.' I'm not sure what they mean but they're probably right -- so long as no one starts playing a guitar, I'm open to just about anything."

Two views of the church eventually emerged from the August discussions. Louis Walsh spoke for the civic-minded group when he said that the church should be the "soul of the community, the moral center of Almond Springs." "The Pass-through could bring a lot of people to our little town," he said, "and we have to make sure that we don't lose what's important to us." "You're right," Ansel Richards interupted Louis to say, "Too many people in this town would be a disaster." At that, Louis smiled strangely and said, "I'm glad you think I'm right."

Laura presented an alternative vision. "I don't disagree Louis," she said, "but I think that our children need to be the focus of all we do. Most of us first went to church as children. The kids I see at school each day have no comparable experience." And, as the school teachers in the room nodded, she concluded, "The whole reason the church exists is to pass the faith to the next generation. And until Charlotte came, I'm not sure we had much to say to the kids even if someone brought them."

At that, Hazel Moore raised her hand, the first person in the meeting to do so. Everyone looked at her expecting a statement. But she waited until Charlotte called on her, "Yes, Hazel." The pastor had never heard the retired librarian speak up in a meeting. "I'm a little worried about something," she began. "We keep talking about mission. And Louis thinks we should focus on the community and Laura on children. And I guess I can't be against any of that. But I wonder if we are missing something. Where's God? How will people know we are a church if we don't have a religious focus? Do you get my meaning?"

"Thanks for speaking up," Charlotte responded, "I agree that whatever we do God must be the center of it." Then she played a hunch. "Hazel, were you one of the women at Joe's potluck who said we need to start acting like a church?" Hazel nodded, "Yeah." "Can you tell us a little more about what you meant? I think it's a very important point." Hazel fidgeted a little and then she spoke. "The church is supposed to be a life-boat," she said with a shrug, "If we don't preach salvation, who will?" Charlotte looked her in the eye, "Thanks, Hazel, we needed to hear that."

A team of three people (Louis, Ansel, and Laura) worked on finding the common theme running through these visions. By the beginning of September, they had come up with what Louis insisted on calling a "mission statement" for the congregation. "HOPE FOR THE FUTURE,"it said succinctly. Laura described the statement to Charlotte as a "treaty rather than a mission statement" because there were still significant differences buried within the statement -- differences neither Louis nor Ansel would acknowledge.

The statement pleased Charlotte to the extent that it grew out of the concerns of the congregation. Her presence and ministry were clearly signs of the congregation's hope. The Three Wise Men had told her that when they interviewed her. Moreover, Ansel's interest in kids (and in the environment) were the reasons that he placed such an emphasis on the future. So perhaps, Charlotte thought, there might be a way for this statement to grow on the community.

But there were things about the statement that worried Charlotte. It did not mention God. It could be the mission statement for a town council or for a school -- or a social club. She also worried that it hid as much as it revealed -- for she suspected (as Laura did) that Louis and Ansel had very different interpretations of whose hope and which future the church was pursuing.

So Charlotte invited the writing committee (Louis, Ansel and Laura) to her house one night. She repeatedly thanked them for their hard work in coming up with a statement. But she decided to press them a little further. She reminded them of Hazel's comment about the social club -- and pointed out that Hazel was one of many who felt that way. Louis protested, "But that's not what this town is going to need, you'll see." When Charlotte asked him to elaborate, he said with the air of a father concluding an argument with a teen, "We brought you here because our town needs to face its fears because it's about to change whether they like it or not."

"No, Louis," Charlotte said very gently, "You did not bring me here. God did. And the fear that these people need to face has tremendous spiritual dimensions. The Pass-Through is not the savior of this community. Jesus is. The message we bring is God's hope for the future." Laura stepped in at that point. "You know what you two did? You just solved our problem. I know what our mission is. It's to proclaim, GOD'S HOPE FOR OUR FUTURE." And that became their mission statement.