As the Fall begins, we do so with hope. Hope that better days are ahead. Hope that we can Zoom less and sing more. Hope that our community may emerge stronger and more intentional.
I share those hopes and more as I help guide this congregation into who they are meant to be and into transformation. The way of Christ is a way that is always growing and transforming us more and more into wholeness, more into love-motivated souls, and more into partnership with the Divine. As that happens, our community will continue to be changed, ceasing those things that do not relate to this growth and taking on what helps us grow.
At the core of faith is an acknowledgment of mystery. There is much that we do not know. Not everything we experience or observe has a logical basis or can be understood. Our faith has libraries full of writings about it and yet, we still cannot fully grasp this mystery. Religions become toxic and exclusivist, the more they insist on certainty and infallibility. However, I believe we can experience the presence of the Divine Mystery and allow this connection to transform us and help us live from a place of love, rather than fear.
Session Decision on Mental Health Ministry
We are Presbyterian, which means that our Session is the discerning and governing body of the church. Every year, members elect elders for a three year term to serve on Session. Pastors moderate the Session, and the moderator only votes in the case of a tie. There are many opinions about what the church “should” do, but Session members, and those supporting the work of Session like the trustees and committees, have to make decisions that ensure that all of our efforts are feasible and sustainable. Some ideas sound great, but when we get into the details, there is not enough volunteer support or other vital resources to make it happen.
For over a year, a group has been investigating the possibility of using the manse for transitional housing for a family or two as they establish stability and are able to secure more permanent housing. We knew that a key to this effort would be having a partnership with an organization that could manage the day to day operations and details of such a service, as we do not have the staff or volunteers to do so. Even before I began my sabbatical, it was becoming clear that the house was not ideal for this purpose and that the organizations involved in transitional housing in Corvallis were prioritizing larger efforts in more suitable sites.
During this same time, our Parish Associate, Rev. Hillary Roethlisberger, was expanding her mental health ministry and needed more space than we had available in our main buildings. After other plans for an off-site center fell through, we began investigating alternate options. While I was on sabbatical, it became clear to those involved in the effort that First Presbyterian had no viable partner to convert the manse into transitional housing, but we did have one to convert it into a center for mental health ministry and services. There are many in our congregation who have come forward to support this and who are willing to offer their own energy, time, and resources to help make it happen.
In July, Session discerned that this is where the Spirit was moving us and that this may be an area where we can help provide a much needed ministry and service. We are in a mental health crisis, and the need is no less important than other needs. Session voted unanimously to dedicate and convert the manse into a mental health center. We are now in the process of converting it and hope it will be occupied by therapists by the end of the year. Rev. Roethlisberger has great vision for our partnership and can see this growing in ways that establish a ministry which helps people of all ages in our community.
First Presbyterian Church remains committed to helping those without homes. You have already given so much that has provided for many. We funded two micro-shelters for Unity Shelter’s Safespace on West Hills Rd., that are now inhabited, groceries for many homeless and/or at-risk families when the pandemic began, support for Jackson Street youth services and teens without homes, funds for the Drop-In center, support for Stone Soup and other organizations that directly and indirectly help people without homes. We continue to have this commitment. A task force was formed by First Pres. to see how we can best continue to help the many who do not have homes. Part of discernment is to evaluate our motivations. We often feel the pressure of the “should” and when you are a people who want to love then there is no limit to what we “should” do.
In my experience, both personally and with organizations, the motivations for the “should” aren’t always clear, and the things we are actually called into are always supported by other factors falling into place to make it possible. That is, God has already been at work, preparing the way, opening and closing doors, and putting things and people in place. I’ve tried to hammer through a lot of “shoulds” in my life and have learned that I was making my life much more difficult than if I simply did that which I was called to do. We must be self-aware and know our limits and know our specific calling.
As Session continues to discern our calling as a church, we all can continue to learn how to rest in grace and in the knowledge that God is in control. So whether it is best to help people on-site with our facility or by supporting in other ways, we move forward trusting in our calling to God’s plan. I also urge those who want to see something happen to offer up their own time and resources to help make it happen because you are the church, afterall.
COVID and In-Person Gatherings
Today I hear many people of faith speak about having “no fear” but then not replacing fear with love. They exchange one fear for another and do not embrace what is best for the whole out of a love for the whole and their neighbor.
While we do have anxiety about keeping everyone safe, the choices of First Presbyterian Church to continue online worship have been made out of love. Leadership continues to listen to the facts about what is needed for the whole community, for our health care workers and hospitals, for the vulnerable, and to align our actions out of a love for them. I am so grateful that the people of First Presbyterian Church supported the choices we have made.
I know it hasn’t been easy. All of us have suffered in some way or another. We can minimize our own suffering, as we know or see those who have lost so much more, but we can all recognize that it has been hard, we are grieving, and we crave certainty. Living in the midst of mystery is difficult.
This Fall we will highlight some mystics and the ways they embraced mystery, struggled with it, and developed practices to allow it to be experienced and transformative in their lives. This will help us as we enter into some time of discernment for our lives and for the life of our church.
Below is a list of things to prepare you for the way forward and information that you may find helpful:
When will we gather in the sanctuary again?
We have been preparing for in-person worship. The earliest we envisioned was September 19th. As things stand now, we may need to push that back. Many voices, from OHSU to the local hospital, are imploring us to not gather indoors. I know our county is not facing the same level of crisis we see just south of us, but that is because we have been a relatively cautious and proactive county. Our leadership meets next week and we will have an update next week.
Do I have to bring and wear a mask during in-person worship?
Yes, everyone must mask, no exceptions. If you cannot wear a mask, please continue to stream from home. If you arrive without a mask, one will be provided for you.
Do I have to be vaccinated to come to in-person worship?
We are not checking for vaccine proof but if you are able to be vaccinated, but choose not to, then we request that you continue to stream the service from your home. Unvaccinated children under 12 can come to the service if they are masked and maintain proper distance.
How will worship be different?
- Pews will be marked to maintain a 6 foot radius from non-household members. Please only sit in marked spaces. (Household may include those you care for regularly, i.e. an aging parent, but not friends you choose to gather with outside of church.)
- We will have music but will not have congregational singing. Singing from the Chancel will be limited to just a few so, at this point, no full choir. Hymns may be played or sung and those masked can quietly sing along.
- Services will be shorter. It is recommended to reduce the amount of time we gather together indoors. Our goal is to keep services under 40 minutes.
- There will be no hymnals, Bibles, Pew Pads, or bulletins. Everything will be projected onto the walls next to the organ pipes.
- There will be a mix of live content and projected video content.
- There will be no passing of the peace or passing of offering plates. We will have boxes to place offerings in the narthex for those who bring them.
- Until the indoor mask mandate is revised or replaced, all participants will be masked to remain in accordance with the law. We have good speaker’s masks and microphones to be sure the speakers can be heard clearly.
- The Sanctuary doors will remain closed and locked. Though you can exit through these doors we ask that you enter through the 8th Street Gathering Space doors (double glass doors) or the 9th street parking lot doors under the portico.
- There will be no other programs: Sunday School, nursery care, fellowship/coffee hour, library use, etc. are all suspended at this time. We have determined to wait to see how in-person worship will go. If all goes well, after an undetermined amount of time, we may begin to reintroduce other indoor programming.
Will this change online streaming?
We will stream this same service to the usual places. So the style and content will change in that it will now be hybrid. We are investigating ways to add other elements, for instance, a time of prayer where those in person and online can offer prayer concerns and joys to be spoken during the service.
How long will this last?
This is the mystery. I do not think setting our minds on a certain date is helpful, as that makes it difficult to accept that the date was wrong and continue to do what is needed.
How can I help?
- We do have a need for those willing to usher. Ushers and greeters are needed to help direct people, help make sure those who need a mask are given one, help people understand the markings on the pews for seating and other tasks that support worship. Please know, this is not policing and enforcing. You are the first line and your role is informing and aiding people who come to worship with us. Please be vaccinated and healthy before volunteering.
- Worship participants. We invite you to take part. Whether you play an instrument, can read a litany or scripture, or provide other talents for worship, we would like to include others. Please note, for now, you must be comfortable doing what you can with a mask and we are waiting before reintroducing wind instruments. Please be vaccinated and healthy before volunteering.
One final note, we find that announcements and information about upcoming events are best communicated digitally. For one, we can send out the email weekly and are not subject to the delays of a monthly, or bi-monthly, printed newsletter which takes time to prepare and mail out. For now, we are pausing the production and mailing of a printed newsletter as we evaluate and discern the role a mailed newsletter plays for a congregation when announcements are communicated more efficiently through email and online.
A periodic mailed publication could be valuable in conveying deeper stories of ministries and individuals, and we are looking into the feasibility of this. We would need volunteers behind such an effort, so if you are passionate about communication and storytelling then let us know! The office can handle the layout and production but where volunteers are needed would be in the area of gathering content and editing.
No matter how we meet this Fall, I am looking forward to being in community with you. In about a month, we will begin inviting you to join in a time of discernment for our church. I hope that you will participate as each of your are part of this whole that God has brought together to be the Church in this place and time.
Rev. Matt Gough