This Sunday following worship the congregation will continue its discussion about extending the interim process. I realize now that this is how we should have framed the discussion — “extending the interim process” rather than “extending the interim pastor’s contract.” I am a resource for the process, but the process is the thing, and it should continue for a while longer with or without me. I want to tell you why.
First, it has taken longer than expected for the Discernment Committee to reach the clarity we have and the recognition that there are significant questions still to answer. The committee is clear that the church desires to be a beneficial presence in the university neighborhood. We came to this understanding last fall. In one exercise we considered the church’s promise, meaning both its commitments and potential. Here is what the committee members said:
We promise to show Christ’s love to those who enter our doors.
We promise to stand with our siblings who are oppressed.
We promise to be inclusive of all who seek God’s grace.
We promise to love as Jesus instructed us.
We promise to be a blessing to those outside our doors.
We have the promise to seek out others and invite them into our doors.
We have the promise to serve an even greater community (UT, city-at-large).
We have the promise to tell a story of hope in a conflicted world.
We have the promise to contribute meaningfully to the needs of downtown Austin.
We have the promise to be a beacon of light and love in Austin.
As we listened to church members share their stories and aspirations one-on-one and in small groups, then listened again in the Discernment Committee meetings, certain themes began to emerge. In December, Lisa Cauble shared the following in worship:
“What is the Spirit of God calling us to do together? As you have heard through conversations and sermons, we are sensing a desire to partner with others in our community to further the mission of our church. And we are hearing excitement about maximizing the use of our space in ways that align with our beliefs — whether as a performance venue, co-working space, or a place for different groups to gather — as well as leveraging our property and assets to create the social justice we seek in Austin. It is clear to the Discernment Committee that there is a new energy around these possibilities. We also perceive a yearning to find ways to join our personal stories with the great story that has been shared with us in this place so that we might bring good news to our wider community.
“We have experienced community, love, family, and acceptance here at UBC. How will we share that with people who haven’t yet come into our doors? How can we be a blessing to those who may never participate in Sunday worship? What do you have to share that will contribute meaningfully to our neighborhood and city?”
So Lisa outlined both the clarity and the questions. The Discernment Committee began its work in August. It took us until Christmas to discern these things. But that was the time required.
In December as well I convened an ad hoc committee — Janet Allen, Paul Taylor, Marc Holm and myself — to study potential scenarios for the church’s property, in keeping with what Lisa described as “maximizing the use of our space in ways that align with our beliefs.” The ad hoc group delivered to the Discernment Committee three scenarios that ranged from low risk/low cost to high risk/high cost. The purpose of the exercise was not to propose options for the Discernment Committee to evaluate but to use the scenarios as stories to evoke emotion, so that we might come to even greater clarity about the church’s vision.
The scenarios did what we intended — to evoke emotion — but I for one underestimated the fear that the stories kicked up, namely the fear of profound change. And fear begat uncertainty.
In February the Discernment Committee engaged the full congregation in a lectio divina exercise around the following statement, titled “Toward a Vision for University Baptist Church”:
“University Baptist Church exists to nurture the spiritual journeys of our members and our university neighbors so that together we work for the good of our community. We shelter those wounded by rejection or indifference, and we step out into our parish to build relationships with everyone who lives nearby or passes through—students, professors, merchants, artists, workers, individuals experiencing homelessness. We partner with others to help our neighbors, which in turn helps us sustain the programs that shape our common life. We open our doors for worship, spiritual formation, and holy friendship; we open the same doors to benefit our neighbors by meeting basic human needs and by fostering innovative social enterprises. Every day we listen for God’s call at the corner of 22nd and Guadalupe. We believe our parish will flourish as church and neighbor grow together in justice, kindness, and mutuality.”
The fear and uncertainty were woven into the juxtaposition of “members” and “neighbors.” The concern the committee felt and heard from others was the anxiety that members would be forgotten as the church moved toward neighbors. Although we talked about the wholeness of a journey inward and journey outward, the committee struggled to see past the binary of inside and outside, struggled to see with confidence and conviction.
So, naturally, the statement evoked conflicting responses from the congregation. Some church members were energized, some were confused.
In March we dipped our toes into the question of leadership with the full congregation — to ascertain the church’s aspirations for future leadership and to bring further clarity to the vision. The toggling between vision and leadership is intentional, for vision determines what kind of leadership the church needs; and the expectations of leadership fill out the vision with more definition.
Here again there were conflicting responses. Yet the one thread that emerged last fall, that Lisa pulled through in her December statement, that the ad hoc committee highlighted in January, and that the church touched in February through the lectio divina — a thread now slightly tattered yet still visible — was this: that future leadership help the church be a beneficial presence in the wider community.
So now Palm Sunday is upon us, and the church will continue its discussion. Some members are eager to wrap up the process. Some believe that it’s time to get on with naming the next senior pastor, and they want Associate Pastor Stephanie Cooper to step into this role. Stephanie was the de facto senior pastor for nine months between the first interim and me, so she has already demonstrated that she can be the senior pastor for the church as it is.
However, as Discernment Committee member Richard Moore put it, Stephanie and the church will not benefit from a short-changed process, because several major questions remain:
One, how boldly does the church want to move toward being a beneficial presence?
Two, who are the church’s partners that will bring energy, expertise, and other resources to the work of being a beneficial presence?
Three, among these partners, what is the nexus of opportunity with Congregational Church of Austin and University Christian Church as these congregations ask the very same questions about their future — namely, the reason why they are in the university neighborhood — and have already signaled their interest in discerning with UBC the possibilities for greater shared ministry, including shared staff?
Four, 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?
The congregation has the opportunity to wrestle with these questions. The interim period is the opportunity. It may be that four additional months (from now through August) is sufficient to at least consider these questions and arrive at some consensus that enables the church to commence a leadership search with confidence.
But what will be required apart from time is a loosening of the grip on outcomes, a letting go of the locking in on positions, a genuine curiosity about others’ hopes and aspirations, as well as their fears, a habit of prayer for each other, and a maturity to recognize the Spirit’s leading. This is a big task, and a big ask. Yet I still believe the church is capable of doing this work. My encouragement to you is to persevere.
May you feel the peace of Christ in the days ahead.
Daniel Pryfogle, Interim Pastor