“Discernment Update: Toward a Beneficial Presence” by Rev. Daniel Pryfogle

Dear Church:

Earlier this year we inserted into the church’s announcements a prayer request: “Please pray for our Discernment Committee, the staff and the congregation as we step further into the wonder and fear of what the Spirit is doing at the corner of 22nd and Guadalupe.” The prayer request was not perfunctory, for the wonder and the fear are real, and we do need prayer.

We’ve stepped into the in-between, the liminal space where we travel from what has been to what might be for this church. Everyone in our fellowship can agree it is a difficult journey. Some are weary, which is natural. Some of you have told me about past planning and discernment efforts that didn’t result in the desired actions. I read an ad hoc’s committee’s 2014 draft report that noted the unfinished work recommended by a 2010 Discernment Committee. Here in 2019 that unfinished work is still before us, primarily the work of communicating the church’s mission to the wider community. So frustration with lack of action is inevitable. I feel it too, and I have only been here for nine months!

The ad hoc committee that shared its report in 2014 made two observations relevant to our discernment now: First, “Reclaiming a prominent reputation in the faith community may be key to the long-term survival of UBC’s congregation, as it is now a struggling or dying church”; and second, “Though the church is very active on Sundays (Sunday School, church service, street youth drop-in) and on Thursdays (God’s Family Dinner), creating a more vibrant church community which is a hub of activity will only happen if the church finds ways to use its space to reach out to key demographic groups in the city.” The committee identified those groups as (1) “Seniors who are looking for activity and fellowship”; (2) “Millennials who are oriented to service to others but are skeptical of the practices of organized religion”; (3) “Members of the LGBT community who don’t generally associate the words ‘Baptist’ and ‘progressive,’ as well as those who are supportive of the LGBT community and prefer to attend a socially progressive church or raise their children in a socially progressive church”; and (4) “Members of the communities of the arts …”

It’s clear that the church has been thinking about its future for a long time. And it’s clear that the church has been naming its desire for vibrancy in the community for some time — “a hub of activity,” as noted above, or what I call “a beneficial presence.” Finally, it’s clear that the church is eager for action.

I get the sentiment expressed by Elvis: “A little less conversation, a little more action.” We tire of conversation if we don’t see results. Now, I believe the catalyst of action must be the staff, who have the time, responsibilities and renumeration to carry out the work of the church in collaboration with members. It’s important for the church to know that the staff is acting, moving on ideas that have surfaced in our current discernment as well as the 2010 discernment. It’s also important for the church to hold the staff accountable to advancing this work. We are more than adequately staffed to create a beneficial presence. We have six full-time team members and three part-time employees. The staff is acting on this aspiration in new ways, and we can do more.

However, the congregation needs more conversation about what a beneficial presence actually means for the church and how we bring this about. So, beginning April 28, the Discernment Committee will host five church-wide conversations on Sunday mornings in place of Sunday School. Each conversation will center on a question that clarifies the church’s vision of being a beneficial presence in the neighborhood and illuminates the leadership skills and experiences required to live into the vision. The schedule is as follows:

April 28, 9:30-10:30 a.m.: Question #1: How boldly does the church want to move toward being a beneficial presence?

May 12, 9-10:30 a.m.: Question #2: Among our partners, what are the opportunities for greater shared ministry with Congregational Church of Austin and University Christian Church as these congregations ask similar questions about their future? (Note the earlier start.)

May 19, 9:30-10:30 a.m.: Question #3: Who are the church’s other partners that will bring energy, expertise, and additional resources to the work of being a beneficial presence?

May 26: 9:30-10:30 a.m.: Question #4: What church and leadership structures as well as leadership strengths — in staff and membership — are needed to facilitate the journey inward and the journey outward toward a more beneficial presence?

June 2: 9:30-10:30 a.m.: Question #5: What have we learned from these conversations?

On May 12 and May 26, sermon talk-backs will be held in the sanctuary from 12-12:30 p.m. to dialogue with me about discernment-related themes.

Please make time to be part of these conversations. And catch up on what we’ve learned so far in the discernment process here.

If your energy has faltered or you are frustrated, that’s OK. It’s natural. The in-between of discernment is “hell in the hallway,” as my Benedictine friend Sister Kathleen Atkinson says. I let out a big laugh the first time I heard her say that, delighted that a Benedictine used salty language and delighted that she honestly named the struggle.

I promise you this on this Good Friday: Though it is “hell in the hallway,” the journey is worth making. So let’s go together.

Holy is the moment in between.


Daniel Pryfogle, Interim Pastor

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