A Gathering Voices post by Roger J. Gench, author of Theology from the Trenches: Reflections on Urban Ministry
The first thing I’ve learned about urban ministry is the importance of a relational foundation for our many tasks and demands. Urban congregations devote time, energy and attention to all the basic demands of church life such as budgets and buildings, and also grapple with formidable issues endemic to city life such as homelessness, scarcity of living wage jobs, racism, and mental illness. Any one of these demands or issues could completely absorb the time, energy, and attention of a dedicated congregation. In order to address these tasks and demands, we must build and maintain a strong relational base. Twenty-four years of work as a pastor/community organizer has taught me a great deal about the power of relational culture - the power of connecting deeply with people’s anger over injustices and their yearning to do something about it. A simple community organizing tool called the “relational meeting” is the key to building a relational culture. In the relation meeting the “why” questions are asked. Why do you do what you do? Why are things like they are? Why do you care about ministry? And what are you going to do about it? These kinds of questions can elicit stories that give insight into what makes people tick - what motivates people for ministry. I have found that the tool of the relational meeting is not only an effective way to organize a community, but also the life and ministry of the church as well. I am convinced that such tools touch something very deep and essential in Christian faith.
The second key aspect of my life in urban ministry has been the contemplative, or what others might refer to as engagement with spiritual disciplines. For the last 20 years, I have been a devotee of the contemplative arts – prayer and meditation of varied sorts. They have played a vital role in my own life of faith, and I am convinced that they are essential also to the life and ministry of an urban congregation. Facilitating and nurturing congregational engagement with contemplative practices such as lectio divina or the daily examination of grace is essential to discernment of what God is calling a congregation to be and do, and a wellspring for all its engagement in the world. They enable us to grow more fully into the love of God and neighbor to which the Great Commandment calls us. Marjorie Thompson’s book Soul Feast is a helpful guide into such practices. I encourage your attention to the contemplative in the life and practice of urban ministry.
Roger J. Gench is the Senior Pastor of The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. He frequently leads workshops and retreats at local and regional events throughout the country. A member of the Society of Christian Ethics, he has published numerous essays and reviews in various publications, including Interpretation, The Presbyterian Outlook, Feasting on the Word, and Lectionary Homiletics.
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