The Journey from Personal Call to Congregational Call: Final Reflections on the Myrtle Project
By: Pat Gifford, Called to Life Core Team, Oxford Presbyterian Church, Oxford, OH
Our initial “Called to Life” (CtL) Core Team of four at Oxford Presbyterian Church spent the first three months of our discernment process lamenting that we felt as though we were “hugging clouds.” The introductory training at Louisville Seminary gave us insights into the definition of “call or vocation,” but translating that into a call for our congregation was a challenge! We struggled to find a way to communicate with the congregation about call and to turn that understanding into a discernment process for the congregation. With guidance from the Holy Spirit, we put a plan in place…and revised it as some things seem to engage the congregation and others did not! It all took time, so we learned patience and that the congregation had to hug a few clouds too.
In the fall of 2019, we embarked on a small group study of call/vocation adapted, with permission, from the Collegeville Institute, entitled Called to Life. This ultimately gave us our “name” as “Myrtle Collaboration” did not seem to resonate with our congregation. A member who was retired graphic artist designed a logo for us! The study would take us from examination of our personal call to looking at options for a congregational call. It was my responsibility to organize the small group sessions: find and adapt materials; identify 10 group leaders and train them, coordinate dates and times and register participants; review weekly feedback from leaders; and communicate with leaders and participants throughout the six-week study. We also conducted a follow-up session/luncheon with leaders; collected and reviewed evaluation data from participants; and discussed next steps with facilitators and the CtL Core Team.
This process led me personally to a life altering revelation of the Holy Spirit working in me. In August of 2019 I was at our vacation home in Michigan reading and researching Call/Vocation and looking for a study to use with our congregation. Through my reading and prayer, I looked at my own life and where I had been called over time…so much easier to see in retrospect. Examining my retired life now I knew I was being called to support my adult children with several life/health issues they were facing, to serve my church and my community, and to be a wife…I was called to be a WIFE to my husband! I think the Holy Spirit hit me in the head with a pillow, because I woke up one morning realizing that this was a call I was not fulfilling very well.
To briefly set the context, my husband was a college professor who loved teaching and mentoring junior faculty. He doted on his grandchildren and helped take care of them frequently for our single-mom daughter after his retirement. The children grew up, he had less to do, and spent hours avidly reading, without much outside activity. He also had two major surgeries, both resulting in infections but corrected by subsequent surgeries. He then began to suffer from neuropathy and an arthritic knee that needed replacement. Unfortunately, much of our conversation centered on my encouraging him (read “nagging”) to find some outside interest or hobbies, exercise more, and see his doctors about his knee. It was mostly negative interaction…Why? Why? I said to myself. This is not the kindness, understanding, and support I should be giving him. I literally “flipped the switch,” stopped talking about his health issues, indicating that he should do what he felt best. I joined him kayaking, I ask questions about what he was reading, and some great discussions ensued. We went to museums and to the theater together, things that we hadn’t taken time to do recently.
In October the CtL Core Team and facilitators began the Called to Life study. I felt as though the Holy Spirit had given me insights into discerning and living into personal call which I could share with the facilitators and my small group. The response to the CtL study was overwhelmingly positive, but there was clearly more to do to determine how our personal calls could lead to a congregational call. Our Called to Life Core team began to plan two congregational retreats in December 2019 and January 2020 to focus on Congregational Call. Our challenge was to discern how our personal calls, passions, and talents coalesce to serve God. Through a multistage process using discussion groups and feedback loops we identified Caring for Creation (C4C), an environmental focus, and Eradicating Systemic Poverty (ESP), with a focus on food insecurity, homelessness, and affordable housing. We became a PCUSA Matthew 25 Congregation and a PCUSA Earth Care Congregation.
While COVID slowed our progress in implementation over the next year and a half, so much has been accomplished! To name just ta few: Our ESP team collaborated with the Homeless Network in Oxford to form Oxford Area Solutions for Housing (OASH) a broad community sector approach, meeting monthly to solve problems along the housing continuum, now with over 100 members. The C4C team has a robust Trees for Life program having distributed over 1500 free native seedling trees, as well as a broadly distributed Oxford Sustainability Newsletter promoting monthly environmental and sustainability events and programs in the county. Just before Thanksgiving 2019, my husband and I spent a long weekend in Arizona enjoying a family wedding. He woke up Monday morning and couldn’t breathe. Two hours later he died in the ER from a pulmonary embolism as I held his hand and prayed with him. Through the sorrow and grief that followed I could still hold on to the grace that God had given in showing me how to live into my call as a wife. Those last three months that we enjoyed together were a precious gift.
Over the last three years as our Called to Life Core team has supported the leaders of the call teams, educated new members of the congregation and refreshed current members about the meaning of call/ vocation through annual congregational retreats. I realize that my ongoing call has been “the Call,” helping our congregation continue the journey of discernment as God leads us in new directions to serve our community.