Letter to the congregation
From Pastor Nicoletti
January 10, 2022
Dear FPC Family,
As we come to the beginning of 2022, I am writing to share some exciting news about the plans that we have been working on for our congregation in the year ahead.
In this letter I’ll try to concisely lay out what those plans are, but there is so much more that can be said, that I would direct your attention to the links in the middle of this letter, which will lead you to more information on the context, the process, and the rationale behind these decisions.
I will also share more below about ways in which we want to continue the conversation with you about these upcoming plans.
Over the past few years I have been thinking, researching, and talking with many people (in our congregation and outside of our congregation) about where we are as a church and how we can best apply the Biblical principles that have been so dear to us as we look to the challenges of the years ahead. In 2021, over several months I began an extensive discussion with the session about these questions, as we sought together to evaluate where we are. The overall generational transition in our congregation, the senior pastor transition of the last few years, and the unexpected upheavals of the pandemic and cultural conflict around us, all played into that discussion as we sought to clarify our theological vision for our congregation (rooted in the same key values that our leadership identified ten years ago when they began speaking of the pastoral transition). With that, we also sought to identify the most urgent areas of need in our congregation.
After a long process of discussion, prayer, and reflection, the session identified two of the greatest needs in our congregation right now as: 1) the need for deeper community and relationships, and 2) the need for more shepherding, discipleship, and pastoral counseling for our congregants. Our perception of these needs comes from the conversations we have had with many of you, as well as our observations of the gaps in the ministry of our church, whether in the larger context of our generational shifts, or the more acute wounds that the events of the past few years have visited on many of our members, individually and as a community.
The next question we faced, of course, was what steps to take in addressing these needs. After extended discussion and research we settled on six concrete steps we plan to pursue as a session in the coming year:
- We will engage in a focused discussion on the best role for our ruling elders in the shepherding of our congregation, on both a community level and an individual level.
- We will begin the process of researching and developing a centrally directed and supported small-group ministry in our church (though this will likely not be ready to launch until 2023).
- We have moved Pastor Gutierrez’s position from being a 3-5 year position to being a long-term position.
- We have decided to hire an additional assistant pastor for our congregation, who will focus on pastoral counseling, and leading/supporting our new small group ministry.
- We will return to having a part-time bookkeeper in the office (as we had prior to 2018), in order to free up time for Mr. Whaley to provide more direct administrative support to the ministers (thus helping them more efficiently use their time for the work of ministry).
- Starting this summer, we will bring a part-time ministry intern on staff for one year, with the goal of mentoring him towards a possible future calling in full-time ministry.
Now, that list is a lot to take in, and some of the items above may raise questions for many of you. I appreciate that, and want to engage with you on those questions in the days, weeks, and months ahead.
In the links below I have provided a bit more context and explanation for these decisions, and I encourage you to click below to read more if you are interested.
We find ourselves at an interesting time as a congregation.
From a big-picture perspective, we are in the midst of a generational transition in our congregation. This is a time of both excitement and anxiety for a church. We are seeing generational turnover in our staff (the average age of staff in the church office and CHS office has dropped considerably from when I first arrived here in 2013, when I was the only one in the church office under the age of 60), in the lay leadership of many of our ministries (including the Women’s Ministry of Faith), and on our session and deaconate as well.
Then there is the senior pastor transition. While the official “change” of the minister was accomplished in an hour-long installation service just under three years ago, the “transition” in the life of the church – in its identity and self-understanding – takes much longer. While our theology, our commitment to the Scriptures, and our core-values remain very much the same, a transition in leadership like this, after a 41-year pastorate, is a long process for a congregation like ours, and one that must occur on a social, institutional, and even psychological level. The common wisdom of those who think about such things is that our overall transition process will take about five-years. We are currently in year three. Such a transition has several stages, and at the moment I believe we find ourselves at the point where we need to begin setting our trajectory for how we will move forward, applying our historic values to the new setting we find ourselves in and the new challenges and opportunities that lie ahead both in our church and in the culture around us.
Third, there is the setting of the pandemic and the cultural tension that has led to so much upheaval over the last two years. While we may disagree about what caused the most difficulties around us and among us, or what course of action might have best mitigated those upheavals, the fact is that most of those decisions lie in the past, and we need to focus our energy on the question of how to move forward as a congregation into the future, in light of the significant changes we have undergone over the past two years. As a congregation, we have gone from an average morning attendance of 427 in 2019, to an average morning attendance of 290 in 2021. Our evening worship attendance went from 197 to 125 over the same period. Some drop was expected in the midst of a pastoral transition, but I believe it was also accelerated (and possibly amplified) by the pandemic and the cultural conflicts that came with it. Of course the core of our congregation remains strong, with members who have been committed to our church for decades and many families of two or three (or even four) generations worshipping side-by-side. Then, along with those long-term members, there are also many new faces among us, who have come to us in the last year. We are very thankful for them, and eager to incorporate them more deeply into our community.
These big changes: the generational transition, the pastoral transition, and the unique events of 2020 and 2021 all form the context and the background as we seek to set a trajectory moving forward.
How, then, did we move from the context we describe above, to actually identifying our needs as a congregation and the best concrete steps to address them?
For one thing, I can tell you that I have been thinking about how to help our congregation meet the challenges ahead in the coming generation, since I first applied to be your senior pastor (and in some ways, even before that, as I worked with our youth). That thinking has taken sharper and sharper focus over the past two years as I spoke with many of you, talked with other ministers about these topics, read thousands of pages relevant to church leadership and institutional development, and even ran a pilot small group over the course of eight months with several young men in our congregation (both to better get to know them, and to test out some of the ideas I was wrestling with).
That thinking was certainly not limited to me though, as Pastor Gutierrez, Mr. Whaley, and I have spent countless hours discussing these same issues over the past few years.
Then, this past spring, I brought my thoughts (as they were at that point) to the session. My goal was not to present finished thoughts to them for their rubber stamp, but for us to engage in a process together, gathering our collective wisdom, to evaluate where we were as a congregation, what our most significant challenges are at this time, and what the best concrete steps were for us to take in the year ahead to face those challenges.
Each elder spent time collecting and writing out their thoughts on a series of questions related to these issues, bringing to bear not only their own observations, but the numerous conversations they have had with many of you. Our answers were then compiled together into a document for each elder to read through and reflect on. In the early summer, we had a session retreat in which we discussed these issues in great detail, and wrote up an initial draft of a strategic plan, which (among other things) identified what we saw as our congregation’s greatest needs, and outlined how we might best move forward to address them. When our new elders were installed, we brought them in on the conversation, and they provided new insights that added to our approach and thinking. In our session meetings over the fall we further refined our plans, forming and then hearing from several session subcommittees, and then finally, in November, finalizing our decisions on the concrete steps we have outlined above.
Underlying our decisions about the concrete steps I have outlined for you, we developed and adopted a “Clarified Vision & Strategic Plan” for the year ahead, in which (drawing a good deal from the work of our elders and deacons in 2011) we clarify our core values as a congregation (those things we highly value in theory and are also living out effectively in practice), identify our “aspirational values” (those things we value in theory, but need to improve on in practice), and lay out concrete steps we plan to take to better pursue our “aspirational goals” in the year ahead.
The aspirational goals (our important areas for growth) that we identified are:
- Relationships & Community
- Shepherding & Discipleship
- Evangelism, Outreach & Missions
The concrete steps for the year ahead that we decided on are the six items we listed in my letter. Some rationales for both the aspirational goals and the concrete steps are given in the sections below.
The basis for identifying our “aspirational goals” has been the observations of our ministers and elders over the past few years, as well as the interactions, perspectives, and feedback which we have received from many of you over the years, in both formal and informal interactions.
The first thing that emerged in our work, was the need for relationships and community. We have experienced a good deal of painful fracturing of community and relationships over the past two years. But even before then, we know that many have struggled to find deep and meaningful community and relationships in our congregation. Some of you are already deeply embedded in our congregation – and that is a wonderful thing. To you, this statement may seem odd. But many others will know what I am talking about. New individuals and families are often warmly greeted and they make many initial connections here – and that is great. But many new to our congregation also desire deeper relationships with other Christians in the congregation that go beyond Sunday mornings. Many come looking for “on ramps” to get “plugged in” to the community here. But such “on ramps” can be more difficult to find. Others have been a part of our congregation for years, but still feel like “outsiders” in many ways. Still others have seen their close relationships broken or weakened over the past two years. There is a lot I can say about all of this, but these thoughts and others led us to conclude that a key aspirational goal for us at this time must be providing structures and support for our congregants to form deeper relationships with one another and find deeper Christian community within our congregation.
Second, we have seen a deep and increasing need for shepherding, discipleship, and pastoral counseling among our members. Some of this need was very present before the events of 2020 and 2021, but other needs became much more pronounced during that period. Some of these needs can be met by relationships with other Christians. Other needs can be met by wise counsel from our elders, deacons, and Women’s Ministry of Faith leaders. Some needs can be referred to Christian counselors. But many of the situations our congregants are facing need the attention of a pastor – and not just in a one-off meeting, but in a number of meetings over a length of time. And try as we might, Pastor Gutierrez and I have felt unable to meet all the needs we see among us (let alone search out the needs we don’t yet clearly see). While we want to see shepherding and discipleship happening through the ministry of many different members and officers, we have especially considered the need for more pastoral counseling in this context.
Third, as we move into an increasingly post-Christian culture, we have seen the need for us to grow in our work as a congregation in evangelism and missions. This especially means equipping our members to engage fruitfully with non-believers in the places that the Lord has placed them in the world, and also to be connected with the global work of missions around the world. This calling and sense of mission is the third aspirational goal that we have identified for our congregation.
Some Rationales for the Concrete Steps We Plan to Take This Year:
The session is charged with the spiritual oversight of the congregation. The best way for them to do that work is, in many ways, a matter of prudence and wisdom, and may change over time, depending on the circumstances and situation. In the past, our ruling elders conducted annual home visitations. Later, those visitations ceased and were replaced with the shepherding group model we have today. As we discussed among ourselves, and observed the practice of different elders and how they related to their shepherding groups, and as we heard from various congregants, it became more clear to us that we did not have a shared understanding (as a congregation, or even as a session) as to what congregants should expect from ruling elders in terms of personal shepherding, as well as what our ruling elders should expect from themselves. Identifying and communicating the most prudent way for our ruling elders to oversee the spiritual care of our congregation, while also making the best use of the range of gifts of our ruling elders with the range of responsibilities they bear, is one of the tasks we intend to pursue in the year ahead. We welcome your thoughts as we do this, and we plan to keep you updated as we consider these topics.
After much thought, research, and discussion both within our congregation and with leaders in other congregations, we have come to the conclusion that one of the best ways for us to a) cultivate deeper Christian community among our members, b) provide opportunities for relationships of mutual “one another” discipling, c) help those new to our congregation to find deeper relationships, and d) help us all engage more deeply with the content we receive on Sunday mornings, is to develop and begin a centrally directed and supported small group ministry.
While we are still in the research and development phase of this, it is a topic that both I and Pastor Gutierrez have already thought about, read about, and discussed a great deal (and, as I mentioned above, I ran a “pilot” small group over the course of eight months to try out one possible model). While we consider what setup will be best for our particular congregation, key in our consideration is something that will have easy on and off “ramps,” something that will be linked to (not independent from) our Sunday morning worship, something that will provide opportunities for deeper connection and discussion without requiring a significant burden of outside reading or prep work for members, and something that will create opportunities for congregants to step into leadership roles within these groups.
While many of the details remain to be determined, our goal with these groups will be to provide a setting to cultivate relationships and community, and to foster and support mutual discipleship, lay shepherding, and spiritual growth.
One of the questions that came to us as we considered the need for a minister to develop and lead this small group ministry and provide additional pastoral counseling was whether Pastor Gutierrez might be the right man for this role. Our session subcommittee tasked with outlining the pastoral needs for a small group ministry and increased pastoral counseling asked Pastor Gutierrez to speak to us about his interest and possible gifting for this role.
After a lot of thought and prayer, Pastor Gutierrez came back to our committee and said that he felt that his gifts would be best used not in this new role, but in an extended and more developed version of the role he is currently in. In the weeks that followed (and with the help of another subcommittee) Pastor Gutierrez gave us a picture of how the philosophy of youth and student ministry has been developing in the broader church, and what the implications of many insights they provide might be for us. Where many churches in the past have valued having a young youth pastor (thus, one who needs to be replaced every few years), more and more churches now stress the value of having a minister with a gifting for cross-cultural ministry, serving youth over a longer period of time. Pastor Gutierrez also shared his vision for increasing his focus on young adults beyond high school and into their twenties.
Up until now, there has been a time limit on Pastor Gutierrez’s current position (as there was initially for me, when I filled that role: in both cases we were hired for a three-year term, and the term was later was extended to five years). In the end, the session voted unanimously to remove the current “five year” limit on Pastor Gutierrez’s role, and to consider him not our “Youth Pastor” as much as our “Assistant Pastor of Students & Families” (we will probably adjust the title a bit more in the months ahead).
We believe that this change will help us continue to minister to, equip, and build church community among both our youth and our young adults in the years ahead, and we are excited to have Pastor Gutierrez with us for the long-term.
The above points then brought us to the conclusion that it would be prudent to hire an additional assistant pastor to serve as our “Pastor for Shepherding & Small Group Ministries.” The two primary responsibilities of this pastor would be to provide direct pastoral counseling and shepherding, and to research, develop, implement, and then provide ongoing support and leadership for our future small group ministry.
We realize that hiring an additional pastor is a major change in the life of our congregation. And we realize that this will raise questions for many.
Some questions will be concerning how the roles of the three pastors will relate to each other. There is a lot we can say about this, and I hope to expand on this in our upcoming forums. For now I will say that we want to be very intentional about defining the roles and expectations for each minister, with each having defined aspects of our church’s ministry they are responsible for, even as we share in the work and have some overlap in a number of areas.
Others will wonder what kind of candidate we will be looking for for this role. While we certainly want a man who is able to preach and teach, we are especially interested in a minister with gifting in pastoral counseling and entrepreneurial leadership. That first aspect will be key for his shepherding responsibilities. The second aspect will be key for the responsibility he will have to start and to effectively run a small group ministry consisting of a number of groups and leaders. Those are two somewhat different sets of gifts. Some may wonder if such a candidate exists. I believe that there are men out there with gifting and/or experience and/or additional training in both of these areas. That said, we will not know until we look. And that will be our task in the months ahead. I urge you to begin praying now that we will find the right man for this role.
Others will wonder about the financial prudence of this decision. Without getting into details here, I will simply say that the session believes we are in a solid financial position to pursue this right now. And we believe that this is the best way forward for the long-term health of our congregation.
Finally, some will have questions about how this action step for 2022 relates to the session’s recommendation to end Pastor DeMass’s time with us in 2017. This remains a sensitive topic for many people, and for understandable reasons. We love the DeMasses, and Rick and Lisa have had a positive impact in many of our lives. I, for one, was very thankful for Rick’s care and concern for me as I arrived here, settled in, and sought to grow in ministry working alongside him.
At this point it might be helpful to make clear that over the past few months, I was the one who first proposed to the session that, in order to pursue what I thought we needed to pursue at this time, we would need to hire an additional pastor for shepherding and for overseeing our small groups. I brought that proposal to the session knowing I was speaking to the men who made the very difficult recommendation to reduce the size of our pastoral staff in 2017. Between my initial proposal and the session’s final decision, there was a lot of prayer, thought, and discussion.
And when I first proposed this step to them, I said to them what I also want to share with you: After all that our church went through in 2017, we might ask: What has changed? If a third pastor was not a good idea in 2017, why would it be a good idea in 2022 – especially when we are now working with a smaller congregation? What difference calls for this change?
And the first difference is that in 2017 I was not your senior pastor. In 2017 the search for a new senior pastor had only just begun. The session was making a recommendation based on their staff at that time, and our model of ministry at that time, and with an eye to going through a period of uncertainty and transition. There was not, at that time, an intentional and strategic goal for Pastor DeMass’s position that was clearly outlined and shared. Almost five years later, we find ourselves in a very different situation. As your senior pastor, I have been working to develop a vision for how we can best pursue our historic values in the next generation – a vision that did not exist in its current form five years ago. As a congregation we are also recovering from the unforeseeable disruptions of the past few years, which unveiled needs among us that were not as openly exposed five years ago. As a session, we are no longer looking at entering the uncertainty of a transition, but at building forward, looking beyond that pastoral transition.
Our decision today does not represent a reversal of the session’s recommendation in 2017, but a new decision for a new situation, under new pastoral leadership, with a new vision that did not exist in 2017. Our decisions for 2022 represent a change. There are, for example, goals we outlined in 2017 for our budget (goals which Mr. Lawty and our budget committee have faithfully striven to pursue in the years that followed) that we will be pulling back from as we pursue this new way forward. But as I said above, the session believes we are in a solid financial position to pursue this, and that it is the best way forward now for the long-term health of our congregation.
The process of 2017 was a painful one for many in our congregation. In some ways this new decision can reopen that wound. But I would urge you to view these two actions with some separation. Even if you still disagree with the session’s recommendation in 2017, you can support this decision for 2022. Even as many of us have a lot of affection for the DeMass family, we can pursue this new way forward and recognize it is a new decision for a new situation, seeking a man with a particular set of skills and gifts at this time.
And with that in mind, I encourage you to be prayerful and even excited about this step forward. A lot rides on this, and we will need to rely on the Lord as we go forward with this process. But as we do, I am excited to see what the Lord will do – whom he will bring to us, how he will work in many of your lives, and how he will help us cultivate deeper community and relationships among us as a congregation.
An additional change that came to us later in our planning process was the decision to return to our pre-2018 office staff model of having both an administrator and a part-time bookkeeper. Mr. Whaley has done a tremendous job with our bookkeeping, and our decision is not at all rooted in any deficiencies in him in that area (if anything we wish we had two of him), but out of our desire to get the most from how the Lord has gifted him. After much discussion it was decided that we could make even better use of Mr. Whaley, and of our ministers, by going back to having a part-time bookkeeper.
There is a good deal of administrative work that comes with ministry. Those kinds of tasks, whether higher-level work like coordinating with lay ministry leaders, or more ordinary work, like scheduling meetings, are not necessarily the areas our pastors are most gifted in, most efficient with, or what we want them spending a lot of their time on. Our hope is that shifting some of those administrative tasks to Mr. Whaley will help us more efficiently and effectively use our ministers’ time, by focusing them on the sort of ministry work that we most want them to be doing in our congregation.
Finally, beginning in June 2022 we are planning to hire Evan Kvale as a part-time ministry intern, for a term of one year. In our 2011 document outlining the values we wish to preserve in the decades ahead, one item we included was “The continued cultivation of men for the Christian ministry.” In the past, one of the key places we did that was in our youth pastor position, bringing men onto our pastoral staff right out of seminary, helping them get ordained and gain experience, and then sending them out to minister in other contexts. With the change to our approach to Pastor Gutierrez’s position outlined above (making it long-term), we lost that opportunity to continue to cultivate young men for ordained ministry.
It felt, therefore, like a providential blessing that over the past few months Evan Kvale had begun communicating to us about his desire to consider and evaluate a sense of call to pastoral ministry. In November the session approved a part-time one-year position for Evan, after he graduates from college in June. While we are excited for the work Evan may do among us, we are especially excited for the opportunity we have as a congregation to provide mentoring and experience for him that will help him better discern whether the Lord is calling him to pursue ordained pastoral ministry.
The session has been thinking about these topics for many months, and the pastors have been thinking about them for years. I know it will take time and ongoing discussion for many of you to process these decisions, and I don’t intend to rush that process.
I have shared a lot of information in the links above, but of course much more can still be said, and I have no illusions that I have answered all of your questions or settled all of your concerns. I want to stress, therefore, that this letter is intended to start a conversation – not conclude it.
Next, we want to offer a few forums to discuss these changes further (two this week, and one the following week): on Thursday, January 13th at 7:00 pm; Saturday, January 15th at 9:00 am; and Friday, January 21st at 7:00 pm. In these forums I will first give a presentation on much of what I have written in the links above, and then there will be a time for questions and answers.
Beyond the next few weeks, I expect the conversation to continue in a couple different ways.
First, in late January or early February I will begin a topical sermon series in our morning service on our vision and values as a congregation. This series will not be an extended argument for the concrete changes I’ve listed above, but it will instead be an opportunity to go over our philosophy of ministry and theological vision as a congregation. I hope it will be a good time for those who have been here for many years to consider how we pursue those things we hold dear in our current context, a good time for those new to our congregation to gain a deeper understanding of who we are as a congregation, and that series will continue to flesh out the thinking that lies behind the decisions described in this letter (and I will highlight those connections when appropriate).
Second, I encourage you to reach out to us individually with further thoughts, questions, or concerns that you have. I think the best way to do this is to reach out to the elder or minister that you are most comfortable with. A second option would be to email the church office with your thoughts or feedback, they will forward it to the session, and then we will have a minister or elder reach out to you for further conversation. (While anyone is welcome to reach out to us in these ways, I would encourage you to first read the information at the links above, and, if possible, attend one of the upcoming forums before you do that, as that will hopefully make our interactions more fruitful).
There is a lot that can make us feel anxious about these steps we plan to take in the year ahead. I think there is a lot that should excite us as well. And as I look over these plans, I feel excitement much more than I feel fear. My hope is that in the weeks and months ahead, as we continue to discuss these plans, you will come to feel that way too. We are taking these steps with the goal of fulfilling Christ’s calling to us: that Faith Presbyterian Church would be God’s instrument in making, maintaining, and maturing disciples for Jesus Christ. That is a glorious calling. Let us pray that God will bless these efforts, and bless our congregation with the work of his Spirit, that our church would bear fruit in the months and years ahead that glorify God, and that bless his people.
Your servant in Christ,