Shared from the 7/15/2017 Albany Times Union eEdition


Ministry bridging divides

As a person of faith, I have lived in many different worlds. I grew up in Berkeley, Calif., where my mom was a Christian educator at the First Congregational Church and my father headed up the city’s redevelopment agency. We saw government as an agent for social good and how the Gospel mandated that intervention. In my 20s, I attended seminary in Berkeley, where we were steeped in the ideals of the social Gospel. By contrast, I did an internship in a church in Condon, Ore., a farming community with a historical skepticism of government intervention. After ordination, I served a small church in a Waukegan, Ill., and two larger ones in Framing-ham, Mass., and Burlington, Vt., each with a healthy blend of liberal and conservative members.

Given my pastoral experiences, I know red and blue, urban and rural, and liberal and conservative labels can sometimes hinder us from doing our best ministry. I have prepared sermons seeking to relate the Gospel to the needs of parishioners who struggle because they don’t have enough money for housing, health care and child care. I have wrestled with how to speak to parishioners who said their businesses were encumbered by taxes they didn’t believe should pay for some programs that serve the needy. If we speak to issues of social justice from the pulpit, we may be praised for addressing the pastoral needs of one parishioner and accused of being too political by another. People’s competing needs and pictures of effective ministry set us up for a clash. There needs to be a better way.

I now lead the New York State Council of Churches, which serves parishes reflecting the state’s political, geographical and cultural diversity. One goal of the Council is to help congregations do good ministry in communities with polarized politics, assisting churches in meeting immediate pastoral needs while advocating for policies and laws that will improve all our lives. To aid us in this challenging work, we are holding our first Bridging the Urban Rural Divide Conference in Johnstown.

This Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we will explore workable models for ministry in a variety of political and geographical settings.

A theologian will help us think about bridging the divide from a less partisan and more theological perspective. We will learn from a historian about the activist role of churches in the Mississippi Delta that advocated for New Deal policies during the Depression and what it means for churches today. Fulton-Montgomery Community College President Dustin Swanger will talk about educating people for jobs and creating a better business climate. A pastor from the mid-Hudson Valley will discuss efforts to reach out to her rural community with a significant population of immigrants.

We hope the conference will help us move beyond ideological boxes to do great ministry. We are excited about the conversation and invite you to join us as we seek to bridge the urban-rural divide.

Peter Cook is executive director of the New York State Council of Churches.

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