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Pastor’s colleagues rally to lead adventures in worship

Realizing she was not ready to return to the pulpit after a six-months extended leave for health care and a new treatment program had an opening she had to accept within 48 hours, the Rev. Tammy Bell called her colleagues and invited them to provide “Adventures in Worship” for six weeks.

The Rev. Myles Alexander, who had served as sustaining pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Colville since March 18, was leaving Sept. 30.

Tammy Bell and Tara Leininger
The Rev. Tara Leininger, right, helps welcome the Rev. Tammy Bell back to First Congregational United Church of Christ in Colville.

Without a regular secretary, how would there be a bulletin? Who would plan worship, music and preach?  Who would provide pastoral care?

Faced with those questions, Tammy had an idea.  She asked six colleagues each to plan one service, print a bulletin and preach, and for some to bring some lay leaders, too.  Neighboring pastors provided pastoral care.

She saw it as an opportunity for members to experience the ways worship is similar and different in UCC churches.

It seemed impossible, but as new member Rose Burns said, “Tammy makes us feel the impossible is easy to do.”

Tammy, who began her ministry in her hometown in December 2004, helped make it easy by arranging for “Adventures in Worship” and organizing lay leaders to tend to a myriad of tasks.  Long-time attendee Donna Williamson began a “Called to Care” ministry to homebound members.

Now that she’s back, the church is planning to visit the congregations that came, and members will continue to do the visitation.

After treatment in Georgia and Florida, Tammy said she is “medication free, pain free and nearly symptom free for the first time in years.”

closing circle
Closing circle as part of worship in Colville church.

The church’s time was also renewing, receiving special “treatment” by UCC sister churches modeling how churches can “take care of one another and give each other hope,” she said.

Her colleagues’ coming and bringing one member to their entire congregation inspired the Colville church both in worship and after-worship discussions.

The Rev. Matthew Melchor-Gordon at Chewelah United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Rev. Tara Leininger at First Congregational UCC in Metaline Falls, were on call for emergencies.  The Rev. Andy CastroLang at Westminster Congregational UCC in Spokane was on call for medical emergencies in Spokane.  Each also preached.

Soon after Matt agreed to go, he realized his congregation could go, too.  The churches are 22 miles apart.  They filled the sanctuary at First Congregational in Colville on World Communion Sunday.

“We just put a sign on our door that said, ‘Jesus has left the building,’ and told where we were worshiping,” Matt said

Jesus, a large cloth doll they use occasionally for children’s stories, sits on a pew by the altar facing the congregation.  They left Jesus in Colville so the church would know Jesus was with them.

“Many people knew each other from camps and retreats,” Matt said.  “One family in our church has family in Colville.”

“We will take Jesus back in the spring when the roads are clear,” said Tammy, who plans to have teams of three or four members go to say thanks to the congregations that shared their pastors and had to arrange for pulpit supply.

Tara not only led worship for Tammy one Sunday, bringing six members of her church in Metaline Falls, but also welcomed Tammy back the Sunday she returned by helping lead worship.

“My people are self reliant.  I arranged a sermon, worship leader and Scriptures.  Lay people often help because it’s hard to find pulpit supply here.  A member read the sermon I gave in Colville,” said Tara, whose husband, Donivan Johnson, led worship at Ione, where she also preaches for an 8:30 a.m. service each week. 

Others who came were the Rev. Dan Berg of Open Door Congregational UCC in Deer Park, the Rev. Hollis Bredeweg, acting conference minister, and the Rev. Paul Forman, retired from Northshore UCC in Woodinville.

Hollis played his banjo and autoharp.  For the sermon, he handed out three-by-five cards for people to write their questions.

Janet Kovalnik, moderator of the Colville church, found discussions with the pastors and lay people after worship over coffee and cookies helpful.

“We asked what fund raisers they do, what they think the church would do if it was bold and brave, how to stay connected in the future, what they like about the United Church of Christ, what they would do with $100,000 and what their vision is for the next five years,” she said.

“Adventures in Worship created stronger bonds among our churches.  It said that the churches care for us, stand by us and will minister to us,” said Janet.  “The time of hardship became a blessing, learning we are not alone.”

In six months of treatment, Tammy saw 30 specialists, had more than 100 medical appointments, 11 procedures and many treatments for esophagheal problems that hindered her ability to speak. 

Members helped drive her to appointments.  She stayed at her home in town, so she saw people at the store and continued to write the pastoral column for the newsletter to stay connected.

Six weeks at the alternative Health Institutes relieved symptoms by natural treatments including a change in diet, supplements and home therapy, she said.

“I am grateful for the congregation’s courage, grace and patience,” she said.  “They could have made a different choice, but chose to live the compassion they profess, helping create a hopeful future for us all.”

In addition to the local church’s witnessing what it means to take care of one another, the wider church witnessed to caring for a sister church.

Rose, whom Tammy baptized just before she left, experienced the “positive loving family of the wider church being there for us, just as we know our families are there for us.  I feel we have a great big church family around us.”

Rose, who was born in Colville, started attending after Tammy led a memorial service for her cousin.  She grew up with Tammy’s parents, and her children went to school with Tammy.

Tammy summed up the experience for her and the congregation:  “This has been a time of understanding what is important and what is not, a time to look at our priorities and passions, to use our best gifts and give up the rest so we can make a difference in people’s lives, in the church and in the community.

“I often thought in recent months, ‘If I have only one more day to live, how do I want to live it?’ or “If this is the last thing I do or say, is it what I want to do or say?’  Those are now my breath prayers every day,” she said.

Returning the first Sunday in Advent, Tammy asked worshipers to write “waiting prayers” on strips of paper—“Links of Love”—each gave to another person.  Then they linked them in a paper chain for the Christmas tree. 

The next Sunday, they wrote prayers for peace on stars to add to the tree as part of the 100,000 prayers for peace the national United Church of Christ invites congregations to offer.

“We passed out 100-Grand candy bars for members to share with friends.  Evangelism can be scary, but giving out candy bars is easy.  I suggested they give the candy to someone and say it’s part of an effort to seek 100,000 prayers for peace,” Tammy said.

In a closing circle, she reminded them how precious life is:  “The challenge is that we not become complacent and that we hold one another accountable to the lessons of love we have been privileged to learn together,” she said.

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Copyright The Fig Tree © January 2008 - By Mary Stamp