by Rev. Ray VandeGiessen - First Presbyterian Church of Miami, Oklahoma
Leaders from three small Oklahoma Presbyterian churches gathered before 9:00 am on a recent Saturday morning. The gathering was the brain-child of Chelsea pastor Bill Wiles. One person voiced what many of us were thinking. “When the alarm clock went off early on a Saturday morning I said bad things about Bill.” But our bad thoughts quickly gave way to gratitude and joy as we shared the day together.
The three congregations, Chelsea, Miami, and Vinita, all share similar contexts. We are relatively small, aging congregations in rural Oklahoma. 26 elders, deacons, and pastors gathered to learn about leadership, get to know one another, and share our struggles and successes in our ministries. A local restaurant, Piguet’s Prime Time in Vinita, provided free meeting space and fed us breakfast and lunch. People from the three congregations sat randomly at tables so that we could meet new people and listen to others from different settings.
Two video clips from “Theocademy”, produced by the Synod of Mid America, PC(USA), provided starting points for conversations about “How to Speak Presbyterian”, and “Learning to Lead”. A third session included a panel discussion with one community representative from each of the three towns represented. A school nurse and two others involved in community resource organization helped us get a clearer understanding of the community outside of the congregation. One learning was that all three school districts received 100% free lunches, meaning that at least 85% of the children lived in households below the federal poverty line.
Our final segment had each congregation gathering together to think with intelligence, imagination, and love about how we might move forward. Each congregation came up with unique ways to put the days learnings into practice. Tim Blodgett, our General Presbyter, wrapped up the day for us, tapping into our energy and offering Presbytery resources. We may have arrived while still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, but by the middle of the afternoon we were filled with new energy and new visions.
One new deacon commented, “I expected to come and learn about rules and how to do things the Presbyterian way. I was excited to focus on the future and dream about change instead.” People were grateful for the meeting place, the great food, making some new friends, and listening to “outsider” viewpoints which were enlightening.
One immediate impact was that women from the Chelsea congregation traveled to Vinita to share in their Women’s Luncheon. Other new ideas included hosting a career fair, building “blessing boxes”, and beginning an “Adulting 101” course focused on basic life skills.
We are looking forward to the ways in which the Holy Spirit will use this time to build more energy and excitement in the days ahead. Plans are already being made to gather on a regular basis to share resources, encourage one another, and imagine new ways in which we might make a difference in our communities.