December 2023

On the first Sunday of Advent, December 3, the First Congregational Church of Mansfield, Ohio (#50) welcomed me. The evening before, I had fun catching up with Ellen Stiffler, daughter of Joe Polhemus, longtime editor of The Congregationalist, and her husband, Ted. We laughed about the Elvis impersonator who was part of the Host Committee entertainment at the 1991 AMC in Seattle (my first AMC when I graduated from CFTS).

I was honored to participate in the Advent candle lighting liturgy and assist with serving communion at the 8:30 and 10:30 am services. A seminar between the worship hours occasioned thoughtful dialogue. They have embarked on strategic planning and are exploring new ways to reach out to their neighbors. We discussed the metaphor of the clear windows in the newly renovated Blymer Hall, signifying a connection to the community. With delight, members shared ways that the congregation lives out their motto, “We don’t think for you; we care for you.”

That evening, I gathered with a dozen members of Heritage Congregational Church in Berea (#51). The lively group of primarily longtime members had terrific stories of congregational life, including how they invited (borrowed? stole?) children to participate in the Christmas play written by a church member. The diversity in the congregation reflects the diversity of the surrounding community. They participate in several efforts to overcome food insecurity. They open their doors to many local initiatives. The church is a polling location; voters come early to buy bake sale goodies before they sell out! A spaghetti dinner raises funds for a local mentoring organization, Boys2Men, Inc. Through a partnership with the Kiwanis Club, members make unique mats from recycled plastic bags for homeless people.

In addition, the congregation is renowned as a praying church. In-person and online, their circle encompasses the concerns of individuals around the country and the world.

It was not hard to see why this small but mighty church is known for its hospitality!

On Wednesday, December 6, I journeyed east to Columbiana to visit Grace Church (#52). Lisa Bircher, the interim lay leader enrolled in the NACCC Lay Ministry Training Program, gave me a tour of this community with characteristics reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. We visited shops on Main Street within sight of the historic church building.

After a building tour, I met with about twenty members interested in learning more about the NACCC and reflecting on their past, present, and future. I heard about a note-writing ministry that extends across state lines. A highlight of the year is the annual chicken BBQ, a favorite feature of the street fair.

Members brought angels to the Women’s Guild Christmas party and told stories of why they treasured them. We then had an uproarious time trying to keep up with an edited reading of the nativity story while passing presents left and right!

Thursday, December 7, I traveled to Lawrenceville Community Church (#53). This village west of Springfield is in a fast-growing region between Columbus and Dayton. I spent a leisurely afternoon chatting around a locally crafted table with Art & Nancy Thibeault and Seth Evans. After serving for over two decades, Art became Pastor Emeritus in October 2022. Pastor Seth, who has ties to the community and the church, enjoys a collegial relationship with the Thibeaults.

While listening to remarkable stories of generosity and compassion, I chuckled at their nickname, the hot dog church, a moniker that speaks to the hearty treat they offer on Halloween night. Their approach to choosing liturgists is noteworthy. Slips of paper indicating different parts of the worship are left on a table. Parishioners pick them up as they enter the sanctuary and provide the reading or prayer. Only occasionally has Pastor Seth sweated about whether all parts of the service would be covered. Maybe one day, he’ll dare to include the sermon as one of the options!

My week concluded at Gahanna Community Congregational Church (#54), where I drove down Oak Creek Lane (coincidentally named after the city where the NACCC office is?) to get to the parking lot. The church has an extensive front lawn where members worship several times each year. It was a treat to see the community garden depicted in The Congregationalist and the topic of an AMC workshop a few years ago. The garden produced 1300 pounds of food for GRIN (Gahanna Residents in Need). The number of servings that amount of food provides varies based on what is produced. A pound of kale generates more portions than a pound of cauliflower.

Rev. Robb Tarr showed me the interior of the building. Built by members with their own hands in the late 1960s, it is also the site of outreach. An East African congregation gathers there a couple times a month. On Thursdays, Goodwill brings volunteers with special needs to assist with gardening and crafts projects. Many members participate in a ministry of correspondence with women in prison.

The finale of my week in Ohio was the Christmas musical, “Together for Christmas.” This annual event is a high point of the year for the church – humorous scenes mixed with familiar and fun music. The lively production draws people from miles away!

As a complement to the Listening Tour visits, I attended three Advent events in the Milwaukee area. Newly ordained Rev. Tesha Urban led a meaningful longest night service at First Congregational Church of Wauwatosa. I had a blast at Faith Community Church in Franklin at the interactive Stellar Christmas (an out-of-this-world worship event). Midweek Manna at North Shore Congregational Church is where I worship most frequently. The last service of 2023 included a whistling solo of “Away in a Manger.”

As Epiphany approaches, what new light will Congregational churches radiate in 2024?

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