As she says ‘Goodbye’ to Michigan, Bishop Laurie Haller celebrates the spirit of Aldersgate UMC in Grand Rapids.
Bishop Laurie Haller
It is not an easy thing to say goodbye to the people who have walked with me for 35 years. At a farewell gathering in Lansing on August 13, I had the opportunity to thank the faithful United Methodists in Michigan for their graciousness and support for my ministry. My remarks went something like this.
“Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would be here today. As a child, I never considered being a pastor because women weren’t allowed to be clergy in the Mennonite Church. I never saw a woman in any kind of leadership position in the church until I went to graduate school at Yale to study sacred music and met women who were preparing to be pastors.
“Yet, as a child and youth, I had a vision of how I could change the world, just as most of you did as well. My understanding of what it means to be a Christ-follower was nurtured by my parents, by my third grader Sunday school teacher, by a young organist whose tragic death inspired me to learn how to play the organ, and by our church choir director, who allowed me to sing Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion with the adults. I came to believe, along with St. Augustine, that those who sing and play the organ really do pray twice.
“My vision of the peaceable kingdom was formed in 1969 when, as a young teenager, I went with a busload of church people to Washington D.C. to participate in a peace demonstration. Three years later, my vision of what it means to be a servant developed when I traveled by bus to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania with Mennonite Disaster Service to clean out flooded homes after Hurricane Agnes.
“I’m not exactly sure how this little Mennonite girl came to be here except for the hospitality and witness of The United Methodist Church, which welcomed me with open arms and said, ‘We’d love for you to be a United Methodist pastor. There is a place here for you to live out your vision and call.’
“Never could I have imagined the opportunities I have had to lead congregations into significant growth by putting faith into action, initiating transformative and sustainable ministries and seeing hundreds of lives changed and faith deepened. Many of you have been my teachers.
“I am convinced that each one of you also has a vision for the transformation you feel called to play in the world and what the world might look like in response. That vision could be ministering to others through music, poetry, Bible study or praying with someone who is in desperate need. Perhaps the fire in your belly is to teach confirmation youth, lead high school mission trips or tell Bible stories to children in the nursery.
“However you envision yourself serving, what we all hold in common is the hope that God will use us to be the manifestation of the body of Christ in and to the world by how we model the radical suffering love of Jesus, honor differences and give ourselves away to the very least of God’s children.
“I’ve had the privilege of serving in a great variety of United Methodist churches in Michigan, and what I’ve learned is best expressed by Bill Plotkin in his book Soulcraft. He writes about Harvey Swift Deer, a Native American teacher who says that every human being has both a survival dance and a sacred dance. The survival dance, which often occupies the first half of our life, is what we’re paid to do to make a living. By contrast, the sacred dance is what we are called to do to live fully and live well. It is the work and/or play that we were born to do in order to nourish our soul and change the world. Many of us expend so much of our time and energy in the survival dance that we never get to the sacred dance. For the sacred dance is not about ego, money, status, power or advancement. It’s about wholeness, passion and kingdom living.
“My ministry has always been about helping clergy, laity and congregations move beyond the survival dance to the sacred dance; to move beyond simply keeping the lights on because that’s all we know how to do; to beckon others to a life of joyful faith and service; and to step out of the building and engage a community that is desperately hungry for the invitation.
“Four years ago I finished up my six years as the Grand Rapids district superintendent and was appointed to a two-point charge in Grand Rapids. Both Aldersgate and Plainfield UMCs were in crisis mode, and my mission was to help the congregations recover their sacred dance. Aldersgate had to move to part-time when I arrived. The first Sunday there were about fifty people in worship, and I sensed depression. Attendance had been declining, apportionments had not been paid at all that year for the first time ever, and there was little responsiveness in worship. The depression was even more pronounced at Plainfield. A dozen people were scattered throughout the large sanctuary plus a few more who helped with a small Sunday school.
“I went home that first Sunday depressed myself! I wondered whether the spark of the Holy Spirit had entirely gone out. At Plainfield, we eventually determined together that the congregation was no longer viable and gifted the building and assets to the conference for a new church restart. By freely choosing to die, Plainfield hoped to give new life to others.
“Aldersgate still had some great leaders, but they needed encouragement. In the summer, we formed a Stewardship Committee, which formulated a plan to pay all apportionments in full by the end of the year. The SPRC also rightsized the staff. Still, the spirit had seemingly disappeared and the survival dance was in full swing … until the third Sunday in August.
“I’ll never forget the moment. It was the song the praise band led right before the sermon. I don’t remember the name of the song, but someone over on the left side started to clap, then another person began to clap, then another and another and another. Then they began to sway and move a little bit. The sacred dance had begun, and there was no turning back.
“I don’t know if anyone else sensed it, but that day Aldersgate chose life. Apportionments were paid in full that year, committees were revitalized and a simple strategic plan was put into place with three task forces, including a new outreach to several public schools right across the church parking lot. When Gary and I moved to Birmingham the next July, Aldersgate was back to a full-time pastor, the school partnership is amazing, and there’s a baby boom in the congregation.
“My friends, our country is filled with United Methodist churches like Aldersgate that are ready to ditch the survival dance and engage their sacred dance. I am convinced that virtually any church can grow with the right lay and clergy leadership, the vision to imagine what could be and the commitment to reach out to their community with grace and hope. Every time we sing, study, preach, serve, reach out and pray, we participate in a future that is more just, merciful, inclusive and kind, and we bring the ‘not yet’ of God’s kingdom closer to reality.
“You are the ones who have shaped and formed who I am today. And so I go to Iowa with joy and the sacred dance, taking with me the love and grace with which you have showered me for thirty-five years. Thank you, Bishop Deb, for being our spiritual leader over the past four years. And I know that my friend, Bishop David Bard, will also be a great leader for the Michigan Area. I will be cheering you on from afar. God bless each one of you.”