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The Next Faithful Step

Dawn Lee, Elizabeth, and Esther

Case Study

The following case illustrates how a leader might create a shared story of future hope by weaving together the biblical story with stories already present in the church. It also illustrates what it means to hear old stories with new ears.

There was a morning-after feeling of listless worry as the Reverend Dawn Lee asked the board members to take their seats. They gathered for a hastily-called meeting at the Elizabeth United Methodist Church on a Tuesday morning before work. They were there to discuss the previous day’s sad news. The congregation is located in what was once an agricultural hamlet forty miles outside of Los Angeles. Over time Elizabeth grew from a village to a town, and then became a neighborhood of shops and apartments as urban sprawl overtook it. In the last few years, Elizabeth was dwarfed by the bedroom communities and commuter colonies that surround it. The neighborhood retained something of its small-town feel, however, because of its downtown shopping district, an area anchored by the Elizabeth Church, on one side of the quaint gazebo, and the Elizabeth Printing Company’s phone book print facility, on the other. In fact, the two pillars of the community were so closely connected that parishioners often parked their cars behind the print plant on Sunday mornings. The board meeting was necessary because the plant was closing.

It had come as a surprise to everyone when the Elizabeth Company announced on Monday that it would close the phone book print facility and move its operations to a new, computerized plant a few miles away in the burgeoning suburb of Santa Eugenia. Everyone in the neighborhood had, of course, known about the new plant. They even took pride in it. The original purpose of the new plant (dubbed by local pundits, Elizabeth the Second) had been to expand the company's work into the specialty newspaper business. The plant would print small-run papers aimed at narrow audiences like soy bean farmers and pipe-fitters. Everyone thus took the company spokesman, Daniel Scott, at his word when he told them over a year ago that the company had no plans to close the older facility. "Elizabeth the First," he jovially said at the time, "will always be the queen of our operations." But the lifeless plant was already surrounded with a chained-link fence to keep vandals out. Dawn Lee could look out the window and plainly see that the queen was dead.

“Good morning,” Pastor Lee said as she called the sleepy board to attention. “Even though our time is short, I want to begin as we always do with a devotion. It sets the stage for our work and it reminds us that God’s love goes out ever before us.” People nodded. They were used to her reflective introductions.

“I’ve been thinking a lot since yesterday’s news about our mission, our calling as a congregation. The Bible is filled with people whom God called. You know how much I love the Samuel story about calling the boy by name. And the Moses story, about how God uses even reluctant prophets. But you’ve not really heard me talk much about Esther. I’ve never really liked the Esther story because God seemed so hidden. The book never even mentions God. After all, it seems like it’s the rulers of the land who have all the power—just as it seems the Elizabeth Company holds all the cards. But in the midst of this seemingly secular story, Mordecai has a word for the queen. ‘Perhaps you have been given power for such a time as this,’ he says.” The pastor paused and looked around the room. “For such a time as this,” she said quietly. “For such a time as this.” Then she shifted gears.

“When I came to this church,” she continued with a new energy in her voice, “I asked people to tell me how this has been a church we can all be proud of. I wanted to know a bit about our congregational calling—our church’s vocation. And I got all sorts of answers.” She looked around the room for the Lay Leader. “You remember what you said, Eugene,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. He nodded.

“Eugene told me about the Turtle Creek fire. He said, ‘About ten years ago, probably more like fifteen, they built these apartments called Turtle Creek. Not the best you’ve ever seen, certainly not the worst. Mostly older people moved into them, lots of widows in one-room units. But not long after they were filled up, there was a big fire. About half the units burned. No one died, fortunately…although one fireman had to carry two old sisters down a flight of burning stairs. He just scooped them up, one in each arm.’” The pastor laughed. “Eugene always tells about the sisters on the stairs.”

“Anyway,” Dawn continued, “Eugene said that ‘the Red Cross set up a disaster center down at the school. But that was only temporary. Many of these people—mostly women—did not have family to stay with in the area. So a number of church people took them into their homes—some for many months—until they could figure out what to do. Mick Scott organized the Elizabeth workers to donate used blankets, lamps, kitchen utensils, you know, stuff that you’d get at a garage sale. Then the people did not have to start from scratch. The church collected the stuff and distributed it. And the pastor—that’s when Luke Chen was here—got a couple of doctors to look after some of the women who could not afford the health care they needed. Pastor Chen even found a lawyer—someone the bishop knew—who would help the little old ladies fend off all the ambulance chasers who wanted to take advantage of them.’ Most of those women have passed on now, although Birtie Blaines was one of them.” The pastor paused to let everyone know she had finished telling Eugene’s story. And then she returned to her theme, “Perhaps we are here for such a time as this.”

Pastor Lee then opened a discussion on the Elizabeth plant. Some people lamented the problems the plant closing would create for the neighborhood and the congregation. Someone else mentioned the newspaper headline. And others expressed a desire to do something, although they eventually admitted that they did not have any answers. Most people’s mood matched the dreary morning sky.

But not Eugene Reed. He was twitching with excitement. “Don’t you see,” he almost shouted, “the pastor’s right. This is just like the Turtle Creek fire. Our neighborhood needs us. We don’t yet know what they need. But we did not really have much of a plan immediately after the fire. All we did was gather people together to see what we could do. And the plan emerged.” People started nodding, albeit tentatively, as Eugene spoke. The momentum had changed. Hope had re-entered the room.

After much discussion, Eugene asked the pastor to write down her devotional thoughts about Esther and Turtle Creek so that they could go out with the church newsletter. And he asked her to invite people to gather on Thursday night. He even added a note of his own to Pastor Lee’s letter. “The community has turned to us before in it’s time of need,” he said, “And the church exists for such a time as this.”