A group of young men joked and laughed as they rolled balls down the lane at a crowded bowling alley in Grand Rapids, Mich.
A few pumped their arms, and a loud cheer went up when one of them rolled a strike.
Rev. Jeff Brower, pastor of Bethel CRC in Waupun, Wisc., paddles down a river as part of the Go Green group.
They were a little rowdy, but it was clear they were having fun—thanks to a grant from a Christian Reformed Church program called Sustaining Congregational Excellence (SCE).
These young men from the neighborhood around Coit Community Church in Grand Rapids don’t have jobs and rarely have enough money to splurge on a night out. So Rev. Jerome Burton, pastor of Coit, applied for a grant to encourage them.
Burton says the ministry provides “an opportunity to witness to our neighbors and show that we care, and that we are committed to being a part of the solution to improving the quality of life in our community.
“We are focused on reaching out to the hard-core, streetwise young men in our neighborhood with the underlying purpose of building strong, trusting relationships with one another.”
Often the group met around tables at the church for Bible studies tailored to their needs. Some went to Coit as children, but none now attend church.
A week or so after the group meetings concluded, one of the young men did come to church with his young child. Coit members greeted him warmly.
Besides SCE, the Christian Reformed Church also supports the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) program for encouraging and supporting pastors and pastors’ spouses.
SPE and SCE have been active for several years, touching many lives and boosting the health of many churches, including Coit Community Church.
Lis Van Harten, who directs both the SPE and SCE programs, says, “Today's congregations need strong servant leaders who can adapt to, change, and grow with their congregations. For this, pastors must develop character, knowledge, and skills.”
SCE, she said, emphasizes prayer and thanksgiving to God. It helps churches to develop a sense of purpose and encourages congregations to look outward to meet needs in their communities so that they can thrive into the future.
Reaching into the Community
SPE and SCE work in many ways. For example, funds from an SCE grant help CrossWay Church, a Christian Reformed congregation in Vancouver, Wash., run the Barnyard, a children’s play and activities area at a farmers’ market in Salmon Creek, Wash.
CrossWay Pastor Brad Vos says the Barnyard gives church members the chance to live their faith outside the walls of the church and to return to church with a deeper sense of mission and purpose.
And there are other benefits. People often ask Vos why he works in the Barnyard. He tells them simply that CrossWay, out of love for Christ, is reaching out to the community. A few Barnyard visitors have since ended up attending CrossWay.
“I also know that my personal involvement in the market has blown away the stereotypes that people have about pastors,” says Vos.
Ann Foster, coordinator of the market, says the Barnyard has been quite a draw, bringing in hundreds of children to play and do activities as their parents shop for produce. Without being overtly evangelistic, she says, church members reflect qualities that attract people to them.
“The farmers’ market is really the only high-profile thing that happens in Salmon Creek, and the church has helped to make it happen,” says Foster.
SPE grants nourish the hearts and spirits of pastors, helping them stretch and grow, become healthier, and experience a deeper connection to God.
The “Go Green” group in Wisconsin, for example, met to talk about their ministries and how they could improve, especially so their churches could glimpse what healthy Christian outreach looks like.
Rev. Verlan Van Ee, pastor of Living Hope Community (CRC) in Fox Lake, Wis., says the pastors also bolstered their health by hiking through the woods, canoeing, and rock climbing.
One of the purposes of the group has been to get outdoors, to revel in God’s good creation, says Van Ee.
Another SPE group included more than a dozen pastors from scattered communities in eastern Canada. An SPE grant helped the isolated pastors, who traveled many miles to meet, feel less alone and enjoy more collegiality.
The pastors meet monthly for lunch, fellowship, prayer, and reflection on experiences of the past month.
Seeking the grace and work and presence of God, the group strives to “reflect upon the sometimes very ordinary and sometimes very strange little moments that make up the life of parish ministry,” says Rev. Ken Gehrels, pastor of Calvin CRC near Ottawa.