Fieldwork Projects

A Field Project Promoting Purposeful Conversation – By The Rev. Mike Pennanen

A Field Project Promoting Purposeful Conversation - By The Rev. Mike Pennanen

For several years recently I worked as a hospice chaplain and was therefore free to belong to a church without serving as its pastor. During those years I enrolled in the two halves of the Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry sequence, culminating with the field project. Conveniently for me, the church I belonged to (Westminster Presbyterian Church, Munster, Indiana) was between settled pastors just as I needed to work on it. Transitional pastor Rev. David Comstock was entirely receptive to my implementing my project there. While I took the lead in designing it, Pastor Dave provided significant input to ensure that it would address the church’s needs.
At the time, Westminster Presbyterian Church (WPC) had over 500 members and was blessed with capable staff and strong lay leadership. Over the past year, they’d suffered the loss of many members following the dismissal of a pastor who’d engaged in financial misconduct. This crisis plus other losses left WPC hurting. Nevertheless, the church was so healthy at the core that it managed to cope quite well despite the traumatic events. Pastor Dave had been there over 1½years when I approached him about pursuing my project.
A few months before my fieldwork began in earnest, a workshop led by Pastor Dave had generated a set of”top ministry priorities”for WPC, such as improving our technology, learning how to attract Millennials, and strengthening certain programs. When he and I met, he requested that my project enable the church folk to explore these priorities in greater depth. More generally, our goal was to help people do the inner work of preparing for a new pastor and new directions in ministry. They’d be considering the “price tags”-the potential losses-the church would face while embracing these changes. Dave and I came up with a general shape for the project, centered in an evening of conversation open to the whole church.
I called together a six-member planning team that reflected (to some degree) the makeup of the congregation, including representation from both traditional and contemporary worship services. They helped me improve on the working outline I’d brought, and two volunteered for roles in the central event, which I now called Purposeful Conversations. As agreed on from the start, the planning team met only once.
Forty-plus people showed up for the Conversations.  Dave and I led the event with some help from lay leaders. We had the people sitting in a circle to start with, a spirit-seeking song, a scripture passage on faithful risk-taking, and reflections by Dave established the tone. After that came two segments featuring discussion followed by a period of silence, with a song providing a transition between the segments. To set up the first discussion, I summarized a researcher’s essay on the spiritual characteristics of the Millennial generation. We then asked participants to answer queries about WPC’s strengths and its response to Millennials by way of what I call a “People Mover” exercise-where folks move around in a room or hallway to show where they “stand” on various questions. For the second discussion the people broke into small groups, with each considering the implications of pursuing a particular ministry priority.
The People Mover activity provoked the most laughter and “aha!” moments. After I had people moving to various stations to indicate their perception of the church’s strengths, Dave followed with a series of questions based on the premise of WPC developing a new worship service to appeal to people who are “turned off” by church. How much would you support this service, he asked, if the time of your favorite service was bumped to make room for it? If you were asked to increase your giving to fund it? If the service was publicly advertised as welcoming to both gay and”straight”worshipers? It was eye-opening for all present to realize where they-and their church friends-would place themselves between total foot-dragging and enthusiastic support given these various scenarios.
The ending of the Conversations was marked by a return to the Bible passage and three questions posed by Dave. Silence followed, and then a closing song.  Before leaving, participants were invited to write down “the key feeling, insight, or conviction” that emerged for them in the gathering. These responses were collected afterward.
Three church members joined me in preparing a report about Purposeful Conversations. They were already primed for this task when they participated in the event. Along with highlights of the Conversations, our report included an evaluation of the experience based on the brief statements participants left behind. The two-page document was made available to all members and provided specifically to Session (governing board) members, with a copy set aside for the new pastor to peruse after her or his arrival. When he came, the Session and pastor did in fact give it serious attention.
Was Purposeful Conversations a fruitful venture?  The brief written assessments of the experience indicate that it was for most who attended.  The following pair of comments captures the encouragement that many received. One said the occasion was full of “vibrant spirit filled work.”  Another noted that “WPC has a daunting task ahead. The 40+ people who came tonight show their willingness to meet the task.” A minority voiced skepticism or disappointment. As one put it: “So many good ideas (again) but we never take action to execute the ideas. This time will it be any different?” Another felt the proposals coming out of the small groups were too outward-focused, while the real need is for more “looking inward.”
For my part, I believe the event was largely successful.  Many participants were enlightened, stimulated, encouraged and, I trust, spiritually challenged. I am pleased that we were able to integrate a prayerful spirit into the gathering. I was disappointed, however, that the small group conversations went in a different direction than I’d intended. I asked the groups to consider what risks (and possible losses) WPC might need to embrace to pursue its ministry priorities, and what church strengths we might draw on to help us step out in faith. That is, I was calling for more inner work-it was Lent, after all–but the groups got pragmatic and brainstormed ideas for implementing the priorities.  Another instance of what I learned long ago–what I intend isn’t necessarily what the church wants or needs!  In any case, I am confident that Purposeful  Conversations was beneficial to the congregation.
SNXL: A Field Project Promoting Reconciliation

SNXL: A Field Project Promoting Reconciliation

By  The Rev. Patricia C. Cashman
     Called as priest in charge two years earlier, I had come to redevelop this urban parish with a three year contract supported by the Diocese. I had come brimming with passion and ready to transform the congregation into becoming a leader in the neighborhood. The property was on a corner of prime urban real estate and sported a massive bell tower alongside an even larger tree; its multiple classrooms and parking lots sent visions of jubilee ministry dancing in my head.
     Across the street and two blocks down, they were imploding blocks of buildings owned by a former corporate behemoth. Dark skinned people from African nations, Nepal, and Burma subgroups were moving into former mansions, traipsing down the main street with flocks of children, the adults wrapped up in exotic garments. The church was in a neighborhood undergoing massive change and I hoped our congregation would follow my vision to welcome and care for our new neighbors.
     Of course, I needed to find people to share my vision and become leaders with me. Through a worship experience I developed, I began to see results. We called the service “Saturday Night Xtra Live” (SNXL) and its recipe for spiritual growth, fellowship, and adventures into the neighborhood to try new ministries began to call forth and equip new leaders. But the vestry was not on board. Conflict erupted and a consultant was called in. We spent hours and hours trying to reconcile the Old Guard and SNXL.
     Then, things took a turn for the worst and, just like the buildings across the street, my ministry was demolished in a blink of an eye. As part of my severance package I asked that tuition for IMN training be included.Within a few months, I completed both courses and it was time to do a field project. Since I was feeling a bit sorry for myself and searching for a new job, coming up with a project was like facing an insurmountable wall. However, my instructor disagreed with me. He believed there was something for me to do. His lack of doubt and his quiet, kind words gave me hope.I began to think about SNXL. They – about 20 people – had left the congregation when I had. Previously, they had begun to feel themselves a new congregation and had gone to the bishop to ask for help to start a new church with me as their priest. But now, they were angry, bitter and isolated. Some were even breathing threats to go to the newspaper to spread the scandal or join with other disgruntled people to find some way to hurt the bishop.
     I began to think: What if I were to reach out to them with a field project? What had I learned about transitions that might open them up to new possibilities? Could it be possible to care for them and keep their gifts within the life of the Diocese? What if my leading them through a transition could help them reconcile with the Diocese?
     Of course, I had to begin by calling a meeting of the leaders of SNXL. I explained that I needed to do a field project and asked if they would be willing to help me do three separate activities that would involve them meeting with another congregation. Motivated to help me, they agreed.
     I then contacted the priest at the church where I wanted to do my project. Our bond was strong because we had supported each other in our ministry to aid parishes and our churches were located within a few miles of each other. I explained my plan to bring the two congregations together to see if a transition could happen with her congregation welcoming SNXL and SNXL finding a future in her congregation.
     She selected about 15 members from her parish and they welcomed SNXL for the first meeting with an upbeat spirit beginning with a delicious meal. Then we priests stood together and thanked our people for coming out and I explained the whole project to everyone present.
     After this, we broke into several small groups made up of people from both congregations. The task was for one parish to tell the other all they could in 20 minutes about their history, connections and missions. After 40 minutes each congregation posted a thumbnail sketch of their church using the focus points. It was immediately apparent how different the two groups were and a silence ensued as we contemplated the results.
     Then, one person from our host church began to speak and others followed. People from the host group offered words of comfort to SNXL, They did not urge an action or suggest a fix. They just acknowledged that the SNXL people were in pain and in no mood for peace or reconciliation.
     Then it was time for the bible reading (The woman at the well) we had planned, and again, something spontaneous happened. Instead of the serious reading I had imagined, a woman from the host congregation volunteered to read the part of Jesus, and a man from SNXL volunteered to read the part of the Samaritan woman. These two had never met before but both proved to be hams and the room erupted into laughter. Afterward, the priest of the host congregation led a brief reflection on the question, what do we bring to give Jesus?
     As we left that night I felt that the host church had succeeded extremely well. They had helped in the healing process by conveying respect and caring for SNXL. SNXL experienced healing through validation of telling their narrative using the focus areas of history, connections and mission.
     About ten days later we held the second event. This time the two groups came together on a Sunday morning. I was the preacher at the Eucharist and spoke to the whole congregation, informing them that they had a group in their midst and about my project. Later at the coffee hour, I observed host members and SNXL members engaged in lively conversation. I was happy to see how easily they were connecting.
     For the third and final event, I had to do some work on my own transition as I simultaneously helped with the transition of bringing two groups together. I needed to say good-bye to my ministry in this place and take my leave of the city. This was done by my being allowed to celebrate the Eucharist and preach on a weeknight at the host church.
     Planning such a ritual would make up for my having had to leave my former parish so abruptly (due to a death in my family) that my farewell had not taken place. I had just disappeared. I needed some type of closure to my ministry, not only to SNXL but with many others in the community as well.
     When word got out about this farewell service via social media, the Diocesan staff (the Bishop was away on sabbatical) opposed it, concerned I would be breaking my separation agreement if members of my former church attended.
     The priest I was working with did not waiver. We agreed I was not to solicit members who remained at my former church to come, but if anyone heard about it and came, we had no means to stop them nor would we want to.
     As we prepared for the evening, we got a shock when news came that the priest of our host church had suffered an accident where she and her small dog were injured in an attack from a neighbor’s dog. When I got to the church, everyone was very upset and the mood was sober.
     Several people from around the Diocese were there, including two other priests. We stood together at the altar for the Eucharist. My sermon had been on The Beatitudes. It felt strange to be leading heartfelt prayers for the injured priest and her beloved pet. After having THE farewell cake my project was officially over and so was my time in that city. My plan, stated from the beginning, was not to discuss with SNXL their immediate thoughts on their experience of my project; I wanted them to make their own decision if they wanted to join this congregation or not.
     As it turned out, almost all the SNXL people showed up at the host church the following Sunday and it didn’t take long for them to transfer in and become members. SNXL had dissolved but the people had found new friends, new ministries, and a new priest. Two years later, three former SNXL members serve on the vestry.
     The transition work I learned from IMN training helped a distressed, alienated group find a place to belong and thrive. It helped them reconcile with their bishop and resume relations with his staff. I couldn’t ask for a better transition than that.


The Rev. Patricia C. Cashman is currently the Rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Burlington, Iowa. She began her ministry in November of 2013 after serving as the Priest-in-Charge at the Church of Ascension in Rochester, New York. She completed the IMN Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry training in 2013.

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