May 16, 2011
Bishop Burkat applauds leaders of the Synod during her annual address May 6. (Photo: Rev. Jesse Brown)
“Our lives as we once knew them are changing,” said Bishop Claire Burkat in her Friday (May 6) night address to the Synod Assembly. “Our church … (and) our world as we once knew it is changing.”
She reminded those gathered that the mission we’re engaged in is God’s, not ours. Throughout the Bible God led people of faith through anxious and unsettling times. The Hebrews exiting Egypt had no idea where God was leading them. How could those witnessing the crucifixion possibly appreciate the world-changing, culture-crushing, faith-forming, and life-transforming event they were witnessing?
“No one knows what this century will bring. But we do know this…It’s God’s mission, the resurrected Lord Jesus is Lord of the cosmos, and we can be sure that the Holy Spirit is guiding us, even when we don’t have a map for the journey,” Burkat said.
Admitting that living in the present tense is often hard, the bishop said that changing times called for a new vision of how the Synod operates. She shared a new purpose statement for the synod, adapted from Ephesians 4:11-13 — “Activated by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we equip the saints and congregations for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ.” This focus on equipping will be used to guide activity as the Synod reconfigures its staff and priorities in light of ongoing fiscal challenges.
Burkat acknowledged that congregations and the synod have been hard hit by the recession. Partnership Support of the church at large declined again in 2010, and in response two staff positions were eliminated in April. Two additional staff members, Rev. Larry Hand and Janine Niwinski, are leaving the area this summer, adding to the unfolding environment in the Synod.
“This transition time is an opportunity for us to sincerely seek God’s direction, to boldly lean into God’s future, and to re-imagine the ministry we do together as a Synod,” said Burkat. “This is an unprecedented chance to redesign the structure of the Synod in order to address and meet the demands and possibilities of the 21st century church.”
During her upcoming sabbatical, Burkat will be taking time to pray, play, prepare, and plan. This will also give the Synod an opportunity to discern what God is doing with us, through us, and in us, she said. It is necessary to listen and to learn as the church tries to connect with a generation with different faith needs than it has been used to.
“As Dr. Rodger Nishioka, our keynote speaker, reminds us, young adults today want relationships, community, purpose, authenticity and connections — in real time, with real people,” she said. “Isn’t that what we all want?” She then pointed to examples of congregations engaging their communities in innovative ways.
St. Peter’s in Lafayette Hill took up the charge from last year’s Assembly to have more feeding programs across the Synod. They partnered with St. Michael’s in Germantown to bring a hot dog lunch into the neighborhood. Thanks to a grant from Whole Foods, the program grew into the “Holy Hot Dish,” with volunteers from both churches meeting at St. Peter’s to cook the food and then serving it at St. Michael’s on Saturday.
“The “Holy Hot Dish” program has a sound community purpose, making sure hungry people get fed,” the bishop said. “Perhaps more importantly it’s building relationships” between congregations and across generations. The 259-year-old congregation also won a $10,000 matching grant from Thrivent to increase its spectrum of social outreach programs. (view video)
In Northeast Philadelphia, “the Holy Spirit gave leaders of Redemption Lutheran Church and Rhawnhurst Presbyterian Church the same dream…to reach out to teens who had nothing to do after school,” the bishop said. The churches rented space from a Nazarene-related non-profit, gathered a cadre of 20-something volunteers and tutors from both churches (and no church), and opened Turning Point, and after-school homework program.
“What I love about Turning Point is that it’s not an “evangelistic” outreach but a place where young people learn that their neighbors, who happen to be Christians, love them because Jesus does,” the bishop said. “It’s based on authentic relationships – people being themselves in Christ.” (view video)
Center City’s Welcome Church is truly an “emerging” ministry. “It’s evolving shape continues to emerge from the needs and hopes of the homeless community,” the bishop said. Pastor Violet Little opened a respite center at the Church of the Holy Communion on Samson Street, a place where people could come in off the streets for a while without being chased away. Through the relationships that developed there the need for pastoral care, worship and advocacy arose and spawned an interdenominational faith community that worships on Logan Square.
“The Welcome Church is an exciting example of what happens when church leaders pay attention to where God is already at work in the world,” the bishop said. (view video)
“This is the new world, and Church, in which we live,” Burkat said. It won’t be easy for the Church to change when such shifts are happening in the world. But, the Church of Christ has always been faithful through the ages and will continue to grow long after we are gone.
“We pray that in this century and for this time, we too may be faithful in our proclamation and participation so the world may be blessed for generations to come,” she concluded.
- Rev. Sue Lang. Video by CCI Communications.