Consensus, my congregation, and a miracle in progress

“I can’t wait to tell my friends back home that I’m a Quaker missionary,” said my co-pastor at the end of the meeting. Born into the Friends tradition, he had just led us through a Spirit-based consensus model for decision making as the second half of our meeting to determine what our next steps together would be. “In all my years living in this model, I have never seen consensus done better than what you did today.”

“Suck it, Quakers,” I cheered quietly.

Wisely ignoring me, he went on to say, “if you feel unsettled at the end of this, then we probably did it right. In a spiritual setting, consensus ultimately is about getting past our individual desires to reach and accept the Holy Spirit’s desire.”

For First Christian Church of Oakland, at the end of a long journey to this point, we understood the Holy Spirit’s Desire to be this:

-for the congregation to give its building to the Oakland Peace Center, and for the Oakland Peace Center’s key leaders and the church’s key leaders to meet with a local development corporation to learn whether we would be better suited to stay in the existing facility and renovate it or sell it and use the proceeds to move to another location in Oakland (and possibly build from scratch).

-for the congregation, now not under the huge weight of maintaining the facility or figuring out how to sell it and manage its assets, to shift its focus to the great new thing it needs to be and to do.

For myself, that great new thing will happen without me. I’ll have been at First Christian Church of Oakland for seven years in May. Talk about a biblical number. And I came with fierce clarity that my task was to work with the congregation so that it might be radically transformed. At this point in my journey, I have the humility to recognize that my task was to get them ready for whatever their next phase will be. And in the midst of that, we have given birth to the Oakland Peace Center, that two-in-one (physical entity and also loose confederation) that is where my next phase of ministry will reside. At the end of June I’ll step down from my position with FCC-O to put my energies more fully into the Oakland Peace Center.

For those who are interested in process, this moment of discernment happened because of almost a year’s preparation. Here’s a quick series of events:

-The staff and trustees met with denominational leaders (Christian Church Foundation, Church Extension and the regional minister) in June to talk about options for the building. For the first time, leadership named that we couldn’t take care of the facility and we might serve the community better if we left the building that was, for some of us, the reason we were part of the community.

-Feeling much of the weight of the building’s future on my shoulders, I met with a colleague dealing with similar issues. She warned me of the dangers of letting your mission be displaced by fixing a building, and she also pointed me towards an amazing progressive non-profit developer that might be interested in working with the Oakland Peace Center on a renovation project (a secular nonprofit has access to different resources than a church does). I met with them in July and we began a conversation about a possible partnership, probably to renovate the building, since that was what I was hearing from the congregation.

-In September when I returned from an unpaid leave of absence (due to financial issues, I worked without pay for 6 months and then took a leave to do some contract work so I could pay some bills; I came back on salary in the fall), the congregation’s leadership team came together to evaluate, with a regional minister (the amazing Paula Pociecha who led us through this with distinction), where we had been and where we were going. We talked about the trustees’ concerns. We realized we needed to get serious about a concrete trajectory for the church, and we were clear that the congregation couldn’t really be a church so long as it was in charge of a building too big for it to be able to manage and maintain. We designed a three-part process for the congregation to process this information.

  • In November, the congregation engaged in a “circles of inquiry” process where 9 different possible futures were presented to the congregation. None of those futures involved the congregation owning the building. The congregation broke into four groups—each group discussed their feelings and energy around 2 of those options, plus every group also discussed the option of “closure with legacy.” (That is, closing this manifestation of FCCO, selling the building and using the proceeds to give to work that we believed represented our core values of creating peace, family, and access to the Holy Spirit for all.) Groups reported back and we formed “circles of action,” or research teams that would learn about the options that people were the most excited about. At that point, the church said they didn’t want to research closure with legacy, because they saw it as the default—it’s what they would have to do if the option they chose didn’t work, and they didn’t want to give up on the future of this congregation yet.
  • In January, the circles of action met with a staff person from the Hope Partnership who gave them information, and I gave them churches to talk with who had done variations on the four options we were considering. They researched, they interviewed, they met and prepared their presentations.
  • In February the congregation met with the circles of action for the sole purpose of receiving those reports and being led by Paula Pociecha through some meditation on how each one felt and whether people could picture themselves participating and who was missing and who was there who isn’t now.
  • Between that meeting a yesterday, we were put into prayer triads to really pray for wisdom and discernment. I have a lurking suspicion that was outside of some folks’ comfort zones and some folks just weren’t excited about protecting three different prayer times like that, but for those of us who were able to do so, it was really powerful breakthrough time where we got to work through our own struggles and losses and joys and hopes related to the congregation. In my own triad, we walked in with three radically different ideas about what should happen and walked out with a totally different but shared vision. The spirit was clearly working on us.
  • Yesterday we reviewed the four options. (Become a house church, merge, give or sell the building to a non-profit and remain as tenants or sell the building and become tenants somewhere else—each of these actually had variations and different complexities.) One of our board leaders emphasized the need for honesty about the level of energy we really are able to bring to a project, so that we didn’t choose something that sounds good, with all of us assuming that others would do the hard work. People could ask clarifying questions of our facilities coordinator or myself. Paula again led us through some visioning work. And then my co-pastor, Tai Amri, led us in consensus, which led us to the decision above.

I was sure we’d be done by 2. It was about 3:45 when we left, but we left having popped open sparkling grape juice and challah bread to have a real celebration as our closing communion. Here’s what I think we were celebrating:

  • People spoke bold and prophetic truths. Sometimes those were apparently contradictory and yet they were both true. Among those were one person saying, “I ask myself, ‘What would Jesus do?’ and I don’t think he’d let this building be replaced with high rent condos,” and another person saying, “I know this place has powerful memories—my faith was restored in this building—but those memories are actually in us. And if God could give up his son for the sake of change, shouldn’t we be willing to give up this building?” Both of those perspectives were named in several ways by people who didn’t feel like they were fighting—they were just putting their truths into the room. And I looked at things differently because of all of them. (Similarly, I heard people say we do not have the internal capacity to continue to own the building but that the process of selling it would probably wipe out the congregation, while simultaneously someone said that if we don’t use this moment to do something big and bold as a congregation, we’re slapping God in the face. Both truths stood beside one another, not in tension, both contributing to our final decision.)
  • People felt like God had guided us to a place where all of our named concerns were addressed, including “What will happen to everyone in this building?”
  • A congregation that has been trying to shift from neutral to drive for decades has a clear path forward.
  • There are clear steps for the next 9 months, so we feel neither abandoned nor at the end.
  • FCC Oakland gets to reinvent itself without the burdens it was carrying, and FCC Oakland’s legacy, the Oakland Peace Center, might get to flourish in some amazing ways as a result.

Here are the next nine months, just as an FYI:

  • April-May: FCC Oakland member (and hospice chaplain) Jeffrey Ishmael will lead the congregation through a series on grief and grieving. Even if what’s next is exciting, there’s a lot of letting go. We’ll do that together.
  • April-May: OPC leadership, inviting in FCCO leadership, will meet with a local development corporation to learn what our best option is related to renovating versus selling and moving the OPC (in partnership with FCC Oakland). We will also begin to spell out the ways in which FCCO’s values can be represented in the OPC’s decision making.
  • May-June: The congregation will clarify what they want to be and do as a congregation, sans building, and determine what leadership is needed for that.
  • July: the congregation will take a sabbatical. My tenure as pastor will finish, and Tai Amri will shift to once-a-month worship leading and preaching.
  • August-December: implementation of OPC and FCCO’s plans.
  • January: Evaluate. Is this the right path, or do we need to shift to closure with legacy?

I will not lie. I didn’t get into ministry planning on this being what it looked like. I am tireder (and markedly fatter) than when I started. I have lost a lot of sleep over a flock that had a very passionate but not very experienced shepherd. I have been bruised in this process and I know the congregation has, too. And yet, on Sunday, it felt like we’re getting it right now. We said to God, “here’s who we are. Here’s what we have to give, honestly, really. And we know you will make something of it.” And God said back, “Yeah. I can work with that.” And God worked a miracle—a miracle in progress, anyhow.

Comments (8)

  1. Hope Attenhofer

    Dear FCCO,

    The journey here is richly steeped in love and longing. There is beauty in remembering, there is creative power in what is becoming. Everything that once was, that is and will be is FCCO. My prayer is for a full embrace of the summation of all that makes up FCCO (and the Peace Center) in order to fully live into what will be. Go bravely. Peace, Hope

  2. Randy Siever

    Thank you for this overview and update. What a hard journey this must have been for you all. Thank you, everyone, for being good stewards of not only the building, but the mission and purpose of FCCO as you transition to the next chapter of your story. It will be fun to hear how this transforms the church and the community as you take flight in some new directions this year. Well done, good and faithful servant-leaders (both of you…all of you). May you find some rest and an overwhelming sense of peace and joy as you step out into the unknown and trust God for life itself.

  3. Janet Hecker

    I am thankful that FCCO and OPC have such stong and faithful leaders to guide this difficult process. Lifting the leaders and congregation up in prayer for their continued journey.

    I must admit some sadness reading your blog, I think that I am not alone when I say that the building that houses FCCO holds a place in my heart. Between time spent at a Miracle Day and a Mission trip I too have come to love the quirky place.

    Many of us will grieve, but that is okay, as grieving and moving forward into new places, and new adventures are a part of life.

    Peace and many blessings to all,
    Janet

  4. Dwight Bailey

    Dear FCCO, Thank you for sharing a powerful and well thought out process. I applaud the leadership and “follow-ship” of your pastors and leaders. You have modeled the hard work of community that is mission driven. The Legacy of FCCO’s history is indeed in your very soul and will continue to inform your future decisions. I am so thankful that you were able to release the building and hold on to God’s empowering hand for your life together. Blessings on you as you continue……

  5. Dick Hamm

    Dear Sandhya,
    Thank you for sharing this journey. But more, thank you for TAKING this journey! It is a journey that few congregations (and pastors) have the courage to take, yet it is a solid path to faithfulness.
    You are very wise to provide an intentional time of grief work for the congregation. This will help assure that their next step will also be faithful and energizing.
    Rest in the Spirit, friend. You have done your job well, cared for and led your people with passion and compassion. I’m proud to call you friend and colleague. Dick

  6. Dwight L. Wilson

    For weeks I have been praying with the congregation, and yesterday morning requested the congregation to which I belong do the same, Ann Arbor (MI) Friends Meeting. The courage that is being exhibited by FCCO is laudable. The world is full of challenges, many of which will go unaddressed. Instead of choosing not to choose, FCCO chose to open the community to the Holy Spirit. That is our calling as Christians. Answering it time and time again is what makes us Christ-like. May you continue strong in the faith, stronger yet in the follow-through.

  7. Sandhya (Post author)

    Friends, all of your reflections are really powerful. Your prayers and support for FCC Oakland really have availed much. I think Tai Amri and I today are fully realizing that this is the BEGINNING of a decision-making process as much as it is the conclusion of one, so we continue to covet your prayers both for the pastors and the whole congregation (and the nascent leadership of the OPC, which is as of yet still technically a project of FCCO, about to get a big promotion).

  8. Stevens

    Sandhya:

    from day one when I 1st meet you as a neighbor, I positioned myself to be a voice of support.

    All of this info is news to me because I have been traveling….let us meet so I can understand it all …properly.

    I send my prayers ready to offer a trench like plan so we (as your neighbor) can make things/our goals happen.

    the time is now……

    never to late to realize …all of the possibilities!

    blessings

    Stevens

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