Teaching Parish, The Beginning
On September 16, I spent my first Sunday in my assigned teaching parish for the year. For the rest of this school year, I will be worshipping/observing/serving at Saint Paul Lutheran Church in New Cumberland, PA. New Cumberland is just outside of Harrisburg, and around 45-55 minutes from Gettysburg, depending on traffic (which is never bad on Sunday morning).
Since many of my friends and family are teachers, I’ve been answering the “So what is teaching parish?” in terms that and analogies that they can understand, and I’ll use those same analogies here. As part of the field education/contextual education to become a teacher, the vast majority of programs require students to spend time student teaching, where they are taking on the role of teacher (with supervision from a mentor) in an actual classroom.
But before they get set loose in a classroom, most teaching programs send students out to do observations. During this time, teaching students just follow an assigned teacher, observing and reflecting on their methods, and occasionally taking a more active role: walking kids to the bathroom, grading papers, helping with assignments, etc.
Teaching Parish is kinda like that first round of observations that teaching students have to do. We are assigned a congregation to worship with during the school year and basically sent to observe. We have some assignments that we’re required to complete, such as an audit of the congregation’s communication, or of their outreach efforts; and we’re required to teach twice and preach twice during our time in the congregation. Oh, and the lunches.
The lunches may be the best part. Every Sunday, I go to lunch with a different congregation member or family. And, aside from being a free lunch, it’s a wonderful opportunity to get an intimate understanding of the congregation and its people, and begin to build a relationship with the people I’ll be spending the rest of my school year with.
I realize the answer is probably “time constraints” but it’s a wonder to me why more Pastors don’t actively engage in this sort of one-on-one ministry. It seems like a great way to keep grounded in the congregational life, and maintain an understanding of what people are concerned about. I read an article once that suggested house calls just like this are one of the keys to maintaining a vital congregation. Many Pastors make house calls on their shut-ins, and those who are hospitalized, striving for once every month or two, but how many ever visit with the rest of their active members outside of regular church functions?
In my Church’s Worship class this week, Dr. Oldenburg discussed a Notre Dame study where observers went into thousands of churches and observed their worship habits. One of the noted conclusions was that people were more engaged in the worship service when the leader came out ahead of time to make announcements and provide instructions about the worship service. It helps to establish leadership, and establish a connection with the leader for the congregants.
That personal connection between the leader and the congregants, the shepherd and the sheep, is intensely important. And if something as simple as the leader coming out to make announcements can enhancement that connection, think how much more engaged people might be if their Pastor made a concerted effort to meet with them individually at least once a year if not more.
It doesn’t even have to be a meal, just a definitive effort to be an integral part of every parishioner’s life. I think that could mean a LOT to many of the folks filling the pews on Sunday morning. I hope to try my hardest to be intentional about this sort of community-building when I’m ordained and called to a congregation.
In the meantime, don’t mind me, I’m just a first-year seminary student, trying to save the world with lunch-dates…