On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.
I had been in Flagstaff for three days. I still needed my GPS to get me anywhere. Between the hills, mountains and railroad tracks, Flagstaff's streets curve and bend in odd ways. Butler Street literally takes a right turn at a stoplight! Even with my GPS I often found myself in the wrong lane and on circuitous routes to get where I wanted to go.
But, on day three, as disoriented as I was, I decided it was time to walk the Northern Arizona University campus where I now serve as Interim Campus Pastor for the Episcopal Church and the ELCA. I decided to just wander around and get a feel for the campus. I turned my GPS off and began to explore.
I stopped by the bookstore and had a brief conversation with the student at the desk. The start of semester was almost a month away, and the place was empty. I think she welcomed the chance to talk to somebody. I smiled at the occasional person I met on the mostly empty sidewalks. I made note of the various buildings and the disciplines they housed. I wandered through the Union and noted the "IMQ," the "Inclusion-Multicultural-Queer" office I knew I would want to visit once school started. (And have.)
After a few hours of exploring, I decided to head back to my office. I thought I knew where it was. I turned a corner, and another, and another and another, wondering who had moved the building on me. (Certainly I wasn't lost!) I made my way through an alleyway behind a strip of shops. Finally, I saw something familiar. I had gone half a dozen blocks past my target!
But, as lost as I was, I had learned a lot about the campus and the community surrounding it in the process.
The other thing I did during those first days was to meet a variety of people for coffee (or tea) and conversation. I started with a few of my board members. I asked each one four questions:
Reflecting on your entire experience with LCM Canterbury (or "in Flagstaff") what would you describe as being a peak experience or high point in this ministry (or "community")?
What are the core factors that give life to this ministry without which it would cease to exist? (Or "What are the core factors that make Flagstaff/NAU what it is?"
Imagine you have awakened from a long, deep sleep. You get up to realize that everything at LCM Canterbury (or "Flagstaff) is as you always dreamed it would be. Your ideal state has become the reality. What do you see? What is going on? How have things changed?
Would you be willing to share the names and contact information of three to five people on campus or in the community I need to talk with to learn more about this ministry (or "community")?
I spoke with a wide range of people. Alumni. Students. Administrators. Church members. Other members of the clergy in town. I spoke with a barista at a coffee shop. A server at a restaurant. By the end of the month, I was getting a pretty good sense of the community and the kind of ministry that was happening, could happen and was needed. I found partners and allies for the work that lay ahead.
Since the semester started and the students have returned, I have continued to have these conversations. I still wander around, exploring. I am still learning new things all the time. It's fun ministry!
A friend gave me a bumper stick that says, "I'm not lost, I'm exploring." That's how I've always liked doing ministry!
When Paul and his companions came to a new community, they did three things. They went to the Jewish Synagogue and engaged with the people they found there. Paul, a tentmaker by trade, set up shop and visited with his customers and passers-by. And, I think he did some wandering around too, checking out places like the "supposed" prayer place by the river in Philippi where he met Lydia. A wandering which led to the beginning of the Philippian church. My guess he probably got lost a few times too. Not lost. Exploring. Open to the Spirit taking him someplace he never would have thought to go.
My friend Pastor Liz Bell says that all congregations and ministries need to become "anthropologists" and "tourists" in their own communities. To explore, re-learn the culture, discover the hidden gems, and get lost a little. To look at the community with the eyes of a newcomer, a visitor, an outsider. Only then can we, like Paul, tell the story of Jesus in compelling, loving, and life-giving ways. Only then can we become the missionaries we are called to be.
With her permission, I've attached her two page "Becoming a Community-Centered Church" resource for you to use and to share. Have fun getting lost! Uh, no. I mean, "exploring."
Click for Pastor Liz Bell's free resource: Building a Community Church!