Area Potential: We feel that the territory of Southeast Raleigh is ripe for a Lutheran presence. If one were to look at a map, one would see that the other six area Lutheran congregations are all located in the far north and west of Raleigh, with the exception of one congregation in Garner, a suburb several miles to the south. Therefore, there is no Lutheran presence in a vast swath of Raleigh to the east and the south, and almost none (save Holy Trinity in west Raleigh) inside the “beltline” at all. So even though we feel strategically and appropriately placed in southeast Raleigh, the truth is we can be open to a huge portion of the city, from Capital Blvd. all the way to S. Saunders St.
Southeast Raleigh is predominately African-American, with some portions containing pockets of poverty. Our specific neighborhood of Worthdale is a middle-class to lower middle-class neighborhood. To my knowledge, we are the only church in Worthdale proper, a fact which should work to our advantage. One of the visions or goals of Joy of Discovery was to be an intentionally multi-racial and multi-ethnic community. As we all know, this is much easier said than done and extremely difficult to implement, for a number of reasons. However, we have gone in the past six months from an almost exclusively African-American community to one that approaches 50% European-American on some Sundays. On one Sunday of particularly low attendance (14 people), it was noted that there were seven men and seven women, seven black and seven white. Such diversity has blessed us, I believe, and seems (to my knowledge) to have occurred naturally and without problems. We continue to worship out of the African American Heritage Hymnal and This Far by Faith, both African-American hymnals.
One challenge we face going forward – particularly with more diversity – is different worship styles. Some have remarked that when they feel the Spirit move and want to express that more audibly and openly that they have to tamp down on that and quench it, so as not to offend others; or they feel as if they must apologize later on if they are unable to do so. That will be a growing edge for us. Another challenge – for me, personally – will be inviting people to worship as a white pastor in an African-American community. Having served as the pastor of a redevelopment African-American congregation in Philadelphia for 13 years, I am aware of a couple of dynamics. One is that people can assume I am the pastor of a white church (and therefore be reluctant to attend); the other is people can make assumptions of my preaching style, which will also make it unlikely they may attend. I am accustomed to these assumptions and normally trust in the building of personal relationships to overcome them. But they still continue to need to be engaged.
In order to engage the surrounding community, I have introduced myself at the following local community institutions and organizations: three funeral homes; the police and fire departments; three hospitals; area churches (including the six area Lutheran congregations); three elementary schools, two high schools, and one university divinity school; the Worthdale Community Center; the Tammy Lynn Center for the developmentally disabled; and the Worthdale Neighborhood Association (which I have now joined). I also intend to begin volunteering at the local elementary school (Bugg) and at “Loaves and Fishes,” an organization which assists low-income and at-risk youth and their families.
Clear Vision and Ownership: I am not aware that we currently have a Mission and Vision statement/s. That, obviously, will need to be addressed soon. However, we have worked very hard to focus on making worship and Bible Study – the two primary ways in which God’s Word is experienced – the fertile soil out of which everything else grows. Attendance for both worship and Bible Study is up considerably from what it was prior. There seems to be much more enthusiasm, energy, and excitement surrounding both, as well. Personally, I try to preach from the various lectionary texts (not JUST the Gospels) in order to give people a broader exposure to the full Word of God. In Bible Study this year, I chose the book of Acts, since it is the story of the first Christian believers and the earliest church after Jesus’ ascension. We are therefore comparing our discipleship, beliefs, and behaviors to those of the first disciples. This is leading to deep, thoughtful, lively, and engaging discussion.
The Lutheran church often seems a far cry from the book of Acts in many ways. But that is precisely why we are studying it. Attendance has increased from around three to 12 so far this year. And discussion often goes a longer period of time, too. Given our emphasis here on the Word of God, our future Mission and Vision statements might have something to do with us being based upon and changed by the Word, as opposed to any tangential things that might grow out of that (but still be secondary matters). I would rather see us become a profound body of believers based on God’s transformative Word than a shallow group based on gimmicks or peripheral strategies of one sort or another.
Leadership: As a mission developer, I try to lead in an upfront way, by example. I am excited to worship and praise God, to proclaim (preach and teach) God’s Word, to offer and experience the sacraments, singing, fellowship, prayers, etc. I try to be as engaging as possible. I seek to draw people to Jesus Christ by being a compelling witness. Having said that, I also seek not to be heavy-handed or dictatorial, but rather seek input and consensus as widely as possible. I feel as if we are off to a good start as developer and congregation. We have a strong and hard-working core of members here, several of whom serve on our Team Leaders Group (i.e., Council). We have had a turnover of one position since I arrived, and we welcomed a strong and gifted leader in Kyla Tresvant. Rose Reubel is our President, Desiree Peterson is our VP, Alisa Washington is our Secretary, and Ostine Swan is our Treasurer. Marge Bailey is also a Team Leader. All these people have labored admirably for many years to ensure this congregation’s survival. Perhaps my chief fear is that they will become burned-out, if they’re not already. We will need to cultivate new leaders at some point, and those people will refresh us with their gifts. However, we are still at a stage of trying to develop consistent worshipers on Sunday mornings, much less new committed leaders.
So far, the current leadership has dealt with change and differences well, I think. We try to be open with each other about concerns, and take into account that all people can be sensitive when they labor so hard and long in a solitary capacity. Concerning spiritual practices, we seek to emphasize – as a church – worship, studying God’s Word, tithing, prayer, and service. As a pastor, I have learned that if I open and close every meeting with prayer – for example – no one else will ever learn to pray publically. So I do one and ask someone else to do the other.
Funding: Our emphasis increasingly needs to be on financial tithing. Toward that end, we are having our first Stewardship Sunday (at least in a while) in a few weeks. This will include three or four Temple Talks in preceding weeks, followed by the traditional emphasis on stewardship by way of the sermon, prayers, and commitment forms. The latter – commitment forms of time, talents, and treasures – will be distributed a couple weeks early, so people can view them and be praying about them, in advance of being asked to make their commitments. They will be asked to place these in the offering plate that week, symbolic of the fact that their commitment is most fundamentally to God. My past experience has taught me that these things take time, particularly with people who are not accustomed to tithing. I suspect that we have a few tithers here at Joy of Discovery, but probably many more who are very far from a 10% financial tithe. I am never legalistic about this myself, but do get very concerned when people aren’t at least GROWING towards a tithe. I believe all of us should strive to give sacrificially and increase our giving (even if by only a percentage or two) to a tithe, and then beyond even that. I worry that a few here at JOD are being unduly burdened with the financial well-being of our ministry. Hopefully, we will become more financially committed to tithing in the years to come. We also strive to tithe to the Synod and to causes beyond Joy of Discovery.
The good news is as follows: our own giving here is up 28% -- or $750 per month – from around $2,600 to around $3,300. I am very excited about that but still believe it could be higher. Also, our mission support from partner congregations has doubled over the past year, from around $5-6,000 to around $11-12,000. That is astounding to me. We are definitely headed in the right direction. We just need to continue being faithful and generous. As people experience the generosity of God and others, I believe, over time they become more generous themselves. Our focus – biblically speaking – in almost every sermon and Bible Study is that the key to gaining is losing; the key to life is giving it away; to key to becoming rich is to divest oneself of resources to the benefit of one’s neighbor. That is what Jesus did, and in many ways, that is at the heart of the gospel.
Worship: Our worship is at the heart of who we are and what we do. If we do nothing else, we gather for worship on Sunday morning to hear God’s Word and receive the (weekly) sacrament of God’s Supper. Our worship space has both advantages and disadvantages. On the “pro” side, it is in the heart of Worthdale, a prominent community in southeast Raleigh, in which we are the only church; furthermore, our space is small enough to be comfortable. With our small numbers, we do not look pitiful or pathetic, as we might in a much larger space. We often comfortably fill our small space. On the “con” side, we are located in a frat house (which some find offensive), which is at the dead end of a residential street. So we are not visible; no one would ever stumble upon us. You’d have to be searching specifically for us to find us; and even then, you might double-check your GPS. We are currently compiling a list of criteria we’d like to possess in a church building/facility. Overall, we would like to be more visible and accessible, handicap accessible, located on (or right off) a major thoroughfare, with a bus line and ample parking. It would also be desirable to either rent space from another church or have our OWN small space, where at least we don’t have to set up and take down every Sunday things such as the altar, pulpit, paraments, etc. That takes a lot of energy and commitment and taxes a lot of people. So we are currently seeking a new, small place of worship (without an exorbitant rent) where we can grow slowly, steadily, naturally, and organically. We are also embarking on a conversation with Lutheran Services Carolinas (the office here in Raleigh) to explore the possibility of a joint facility with them (which would bless the both of us, and would provide a WEALTH of potential human service).
We sing traditional African-American hymns and songs out of two African-American hymnals, This Far By Faith and the African-American Heritage Hymnal. We follow the liturgy, but it is often in a more upbeat and dynamic fashion, and we seek to be visitor-friendly by explaining (during the worship service) what we are doing and why -- something that tends not to be done in most Lutheran congregations. Our worship attendance has increased sizably, from an average of 13 worshipers to the mid-20’s. More specifically, our worship attendance the last six months (of April, May, June, July, August, and September) has been – respectively – 22, 25, 21, 22, 23, and 24. Two notable facts concerning this are that we have approached or matched the attendance for Palm Sunday, Easter, and Mothers’ Day (normally the highest attended of Sundays) on a few Sundays in the middle of summer. That is unheard of and bodes well, I feel. The other thing is that we increased over the summer (albeit slightly), a trend which I’ve not heard of in 18 years of ordained ministry.
We have a new logo for our church, incidentally, which is now on a new (small) church sign outside our current place of worship. Our website is currently being updated, as well, by George McDowell, a very faithful and gifted person in our ministry. We will shortly put up a video collage of members inviting others to our church, and the sermon is posted (almost) weekly, as well. At one point, the sermons were being accessed in 92 cities or towns in 28 states, so we rejoice that God’s Word is reaching people far beyond our own walls. We have also begun to consider adding a new “Jazz” worship service (for lack of a better word) once a month, simply to increase the diversity of what we offer. We have Darlene Coleman as our current musician, who is faithful, devoted, a tither, and invites more visitors to our church than anyone else. Jay Wright, whom we may retain once a month, is also very gifted and dynamic.
Ongoing Ministry Plan: We have just begun putting together goals for our ministry here. We literally assigned all Team Leaders “homework” at the last monthly meeting to bring their respective lists of goals to the next month’s meeting. Unfortunately, that meeting is still two weeks away. At that meeting, we will compile the lists and begin working on them. All were instructed to bring goals that were challenging but realistic, a smaller list that is achievable rather than a long list that is too burdensome, and goals that they themselves could help achieve (rather than giving other people more work to do).
I myself will suggest that we become Christ-centered in terms of faithful proclamation of Word and Sacrament; that I become the best and most powerful preacher and teacher that I can be; that we encourage all people to financially tithe (as well as tithe of their time and talents); that we promote consistency and commitment of members; and that we stress outreach, evangelism, and service to others.
I often attend – by way of continuing education – the Hampton University Ministers’ Conference and the Yale Divinity School annual Convocation to help equip me toward my personal goals of better preaching and teaching. I will also receive Mission Developers’ Training this winter.
Two special concerns I have going forward that I perceive are greatly limiting us are the following: consistency among members and retention of visitors. Too many of our members feel too free to miss worship on Sundays. Not only do they not get “fed” themselves when that occurs, but it reflects poorly on us when visitors arrive and see a small crowd. When visitors arrive and see a low attendance (below 20), they are unlikely to ever return; if the attendance is approaching 30, they are much more likely to return. If everyone here insisted on worshipping weekly, our average attendance would be over 30. I would suggest that people miss worship only if they are physically sick or out of town, but not simply to do other activities. As long as that persists, it will be very hard for us to grow. If we can nip that tendency in the bud, however, I think we might grow impressively. I hope people can be mindful of the impact their absence has on others in the worshipping community on Sundays. Finally, one of our blessings here so far has been that we have actually had MANY visitors over the past six months. Most of them appear to really enjoy the experience and consider themselves blessed, edified, and fed. Many of them even “gush” about their attendance and participation and promise not only to return but also to “invite everyone they know.” They seem to be very genuine. But then we don’t see them again. So we have to examine that trend.
Support Mechanisms: We appear to have the good will and support of our Synod and the Triangle Conference of which we are a part. We certainly seem to have the support of the local Raleigh-area Lutheran congregations. Most of them have given very liberally and generously by way of financial offerings. As I noted earlier, our mission partners’ support has doubled this past year, and most of that is from the Triangle area. Holy Trinity in Raleigh, in particular, serves as our fiscal agent and has partnered with us recently in our national “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday. Another telling example (not of the Triangle area) is St. Luke’s, Taylorsville, the pastor of which (Andrew Miller) recently informed me of three moving factors: they pray for us by name every Sunday in worship; rather than simply giving us “spare-change” offerings from time to time (what they used to do), they have placed us as a line item in their budget; and they view us as doing outreach that they are not able to do themselves. Suffice it to say, it is very humbling to hear that. We are so grateful and appreciative. And we hope to begin – in some ways – to see ourselves in the positive light in which others regard us.
In terms of collegiality, I as a mission developer seek to be in creative partnership with others, so that I – or we at JOD – are not simply seen as “receiving” the benefits of support without contributing in return. In that vein, I seek to be a “team player” and represent JOD as widely as possible: I attend and participate in: Synod Assembly; Synod Convocation; Triangle Conference meetings; African Descent Strategy Team Meetings; Mission Developers meetings and conference calls; Boundaries Training Workshop; the Bishop’s installation service; and the ELCA’s Renewal/Prayer/Revival Team’s annual meeting, conference calls, and revival events around the nation.
As a congregation under development, we continue to ask for the prayers and support (financial and otherwise) that the ELCA, the Synod, and our mission partner congregations give us. And we continue to be SO thankful and appreciative of all that our partners do to ensure our continued mission and ministry in the vital area of southeast Raleigh.
Pastor Tim Poston
Joy of Discovery Lutheran Mission