The passages we read this morning are, in many ways, a model for planning our lives together as a church.
In the United Church’s New Creed, we talk about God who has created and is creating. God has created in the past and continues to create today. It’s an important reminder that God was there at the start of all things when the world was being created, to set everything into motion… and at the same time God is working in our world today and is accompanying us in that ongoing creation.
When we say God has created and IS creating, that reminder that God’s not finished yet is an important one. I think it’s a particularly important message for us today in our context. God is not done with us yet. God is still working in our world and keen to partner with us. And when I speak today about planning, I see it as our part in the co-creation and shaping of this world as a result of our calling.
Whether you take one of the two creation stories literally or you understand them as allegory, I’d like to invite you to see the shape of this story and the different steps God makes in each day. Look beyond the specifics and look at the way God takes on the task of creating.
It’s by looking at the different steps God takes that God is offering us this model of planning in partnership with the Spirit to continue creating. You’ll notice that God begins by looking around and seeing what there was to work with. The Spirit is hovering over the waters. God is assessing what God has to work with and identifying the needs for what God will create.
So the first step is that God looks around. This is also the first step when our church steps back and looks at what we’ve got to work with. What are the tools that we are uniquely equipped with? The church has many gifts and talents. Each of us has something appropriate to consider offering. Spending some time to identify what we are uniquely situated to offer is step one in God’s strategic planning model. This also means knowing what organizations outside the church are good at and not duplicating or trying to compete.
When I look at the needs of the world around us, I see many different things that we are uniquely equipped to respond to… we had a pandemic of isolation and loneliness long before we had the Covid-19 pandemic. How do we respond as a church to build community and help people connect and feel loved and cared for? How do we help people encounter the divine presence so that they are reminded that they are never alone? We have newcomers to Canada who are trying to navigate a foreign world. As a church, we can be a link to some familiar grounding they are desperate to find.
So we take on the first step by determining what we have to work with and what the world needs, just as God does at the beginning of our creation story. The second step is to create something in response to the matching of our strengths and the needs expressed by the world. When the word of God is spoken, things become. Light, oceans, firm ground, animals, humans, plants. God calls them into being.
For us, the second step of the planning process is to respond. To do something. It isn’t quite as easy for humans as it is for God to do this. We can’t just simply say a few words and things appear out of nowhere. Boy, wouldn’t that be much easier! We, however, need to pull our collective efforts together to accomplish a task, work in partnership and be wholly focused on the priority we’ve identified.
The second step takes is that God creates by simply speaking the words. We need a little more than that in our process. We need to rally folks, be clear about what we are going to accomplish and focused on it, distribute tasks and get everyone aligned with the goal. When we are focused on a single goal rather than fifty different things, we are a powerful force for good in the world. When we are scattered and each trying to do something different, we are the chaos of the deep, without order or focus. Just look at what is possible when we all focus on a goal: forest fires across Canada that push people out of their homes and thousands of people open their doors and welcome strangers. Firefighters from Ontario fly to Nova Scotia to help. Donations of food, clothing and money come to help those who have lost their homes. Volunteers step up to do whatever they can.
When we are focused, we do great things. We are aligned with God’s call, God’s kingdom is a little closer to reality.
The third and final step in the Genesis guidebook on strategic planning is to evaluate. At the end of each day, what does God do? God looks at what has been created and says ‘it is good’. When we create something, try something new, we might not always be able to look back on it and say that it was good or that it accomplished what we had intended. But we do need to stop and evaluate.
When God looks at creation and expresses a sense of satisfaction that ‘it was good’ or ‘it was very good’, this is where the third step of the process comes into play. To understand that evaluation of what we did is essential to the process. And to do it well, we need something that is measurable. Without a clear objective, evaluation is not very useful. It can become subjective, attached to our personal desires instead of to a clear, measurable outcome. How will we know if we achieved something if we aren’t clear about our goal upfront?
And if you don’t succeed exactly as planned, you need to ask why and help set a new path to achieve it next time (if the goal is still a good one). We learn from our attempts, and in light of that, there are no failures, just moments of learning.
As one of my favourite singers, Jason Mraz says in one of his most popular songs… you win some, you learn some. Failures are opportunities to learn, to grow and to innovate some more. We need to build a culture of “failing forward” and to not let the fear of failure get in the way of trying new things.
So now that we have a three-step model provided to us by God themselves, we have this great commission that Jesus offers us – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, teaching them.”
I know what you’re thinking… Making disciples! Whoa… that’s not really our thing Jesus. We’re the United Church of Canada… we prefer to do justice work and to hide in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. We’re not big on sharing the gospel with people outside our four walls.
The United Church’s strategic plan has, at its primary purpose, growth. Growth. That’s right. Church growth. Churches don’t grow if they don’t invite people to be part of their communities. Churches grow because people are invited and they find what they are looking for when they come.
If we are to start speaking about the United Church prioritizing growth as a primary objective, then we also need to be clear that this involves inviting people into our communities and being sure that what we have to offer meets their needs.
I’ve heard people complain that people don’t come to church because of hockey, soccer, Sunday shopping, and many many other reasons. But when you peel back these excuses for not coming to church, we are basically saying that people will only come to church if there is absolutely nothing else for them to do. That’s not the best sales job.
If, based on the words of our new call statement, people find a connection to God through deep spirituality – that the people of Plymouth Trinity see themselves as the facilitators, the co-creators, of an encounter with the divine… people will want that again and again. They will travel an hour to experience it. They will want to touch that presence and will push other things aside to make room for it. But most people have not found that.
And when people will find what they are looking for in our communities of faith, they will come out in droves. But for now, they are voting with their feet. For those of us who are normally gathered here on a Sunday morning, could we even tell someone why we do this every Sunday? Can we share our testimony about the value of coming here beyond the coffee and social time afterwards? If you can express something about the value of coming to this place and worshipping on a Sunday morning, we should share it widely. We should not hide from the call of Christ to his disciples to go and make disciples and to make visible the role of God in our lives and in the lives of others.
It’s the heart of who we are, but we’re afraid to speak it. People fear speaking about their faith because people will think that we’re trying to convert them, trying to make them believe something they do not. But if we tell them, here is what my experience is, this is what I have felt, that’s a gentle invitation to feel it too. If we say up front – we will not tell you what and how to believe, we will not require you to leave your brain at the door of the church, come and hear the ancient stories and extract the wisdom in them for you, for yourself and not for anyone else.
We have this great partnership with God. If we plan together, focus on what we need to do together, we can do great things. With or without our buildings, with or without our structures. We are a resurrection people who know that the multitude of deaths we encounter throughout our lives are not the last word. God’s not done with us yet.
- Rev. Éric Hébert-Daly is the Regional Executive Minister of Conseil régional Nakonha:ka Regional Council, Eastern Ontario Outaouais Regional Council and East Central Ontario Regional Council of The United Church of Canada. This reflection was shared with the congregation of Plymouth-Trinity United Church on June 4, 2023.