As part of preparation for serving on the Next Level Innovations Steering team we were asked to read Canoeing the Mountains (Tod Bolsinger).  You’ve heard the line from the movie, “You had me at ‘hello’”?  This book had me at the third page.  While the purpose was aimed towards encouraging leaders in the Church, there were nuggets, golden nuggets at that, which speak volumes to all of us.

Bolsinger caught me with his historical analogy to the Lewis & Clark expedition of 1804. President Thomas Jefferson tasked the two explorers to explore some land the United States had just purchased and in the process locate and map the water passage that surely must exist across the American continent, connecting the Atlantic & Pacific Oceans.  Bolsinger states “Lewis and Clark’s expedition to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory was built on completely false expectation. They believed like everyone before them, the unexplored west was exactly the same geography as the familiar east.” (p. 13)  What Lewis & Clark did when they discovered that they (and everyone else directing them) had been wrong is an instructive and inspiring story to those who are in a world that is changing faster than we can say “jack rabbit”.   

You see, Lewis & Clark were prepared for a water exploration.  For fifteen months they followed the huge Missouri upriver, enduring a strange land, strange animals, the elements, and a month-long portage of their boats around a waterfall.  But all the backbreaking labor would be worth it, for once they reached the source of the Missouri, the most challenging obstacle would be behind them—they’d only have to crest a gentle slope, their keelboats on their backs, and then gaze out over the source of the Columbia River which would take them to the Pacific.  At least that’s what all the intelligent minds of the day said.  But what they actually saw set them back on their heels.  For miles and miles, the only thing the eye could see was peak after peak after peak of the Rocky Mountains. 

The huge takeaway phrase for me was “The world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you.”  Let me repeat that.  The world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you.

How that phrase strikes a chord with me.  Who can’t relate to it in some way? 

So what did Lewis & Clark do? If you paid attention in history class you may remember that they plugged on.  But we do a disservice if we don’t examine this “plugging along” a little deeper.  We can appreciate the similarities and learn from their example in that:

  • They realized that the mission (what they were charged to do) was bigger than they were and even bigger than the commonly held beliefs of the day.
  • They acquired a new sense of adventure for what lay before them.
  • They adapted and learned new skills (aka, canoeing the mountains).


I’ll share the pithiest of the pithy with you in hopes that you might find something to chew on for a while, maybe even leading you to read the book. (And the pithiest of the pithiest I’ve italicized) At the very least, consider how we as God’s people, can apply what Bolsinger has shared from history and his personal experience as we are leaders for Jesus Christ in uncharted territory.  The numbers in parentheses refer to the book’s page number from which the passage is taken.

  • Bolsinger is laying out 3 purposes: (14)
    • To reframe this moment as an opportunity, all the while embracing the anxiety, fear & potential loss that comes from answering this call
    • To recover the calling for the church to be truly missional (italics added—how Wesleyan is this????)
    • To discover the capacity for leadership in all of us
  • Missional church is a community of God’s people that defines itself & organizes its life around its real purpose of being an agent of God’s mission to the world. (30)
  • Adaptave challenges are never solved through a quick fix. Before we can solve any problems we need to learn to see new possibilities. (33)
  • What does leadership look like in a post-Christendom day when we have left behind rivers filled with the waters of shared Christian culture and are facing a new terrain marked by mountains to climb? A lot like the earliest church leadership.(38) (italics added)
    • Spiritual transformation not just about becoming more like Christ as an end in itself. (italics added) Christian community is about gathering and forming a people, about individual & corporate growth, so that together they participate in Christ’s mission. (39)
  • When our old maps fail us, something within us dies. Replacing our paradigms is both deeply painful and absolutely critical. (93)
  • Core of adaptive work is clarifying what is precious, elemental, essential to the identity to an organization. This is who we are.  If we stop being about this, we stop being. (94) (italics added)
    • For church leaders facing this missional moment, the reframing of church strategy from a sanctuary-centered, membership–based, religious and life-service provider to a local mission outpost for furthering the kingdom of God enables our congregations to discover a faithful expression of our corporate identity in a changing world. (96) (It’s scary and exhilarating all at once—to think that we can serve as the early disciples (and as the first Methodists) did.  These are our roots, after all—to go out and be missional. Laura’s thoughts.)
    • As Lewis & Clark entered uncharted territory they had to start learning all over again, adjusting expectations, reconsidering strategies, forming new alliances & partnerships. (97)
    • Expecting whatever has been in the past to be the same in the future leads us to ignore real information coming to us from our environment. (109)

I’m one of the long timers in this congregation, I became part of it when I was eleven years old. I’ve seen a lot come and go over the years, but one thing I’ve heard said time and time again is that we as a congregation feel called to remain here at this location as we feel God has a purpose for us here.  My question is if we really believe this or if we just give it lip service because it sounds so noble.  So many times as I was reading Canoeing I felt as if Bolsinger had pulled back the roof, peered in, and then shared his experiences and thoughts with us, especially when he wrote, “The mission, when enacted and owned, becomes a conviction that holds and changes us.  It is a simple, clear, humble statement of the reason we as a congregation believe we are occupying the bit of real estate God has given us at this moment of history.”(129)





We Are the Clay

By Dee Swanson

A sign in a local party store reads, “Don’t just count your blessings; share them.” And that is exactly what Virginia Beach United Methodist Church sets out to do with its many ministries. One vital ministry is our Potter’s House through which we share our blessings by providing support for the homeless and working and non-working poor in our community by striving to meet their immediate needs.

Each month’s requirements are different, of course, but in one recent month, Potter’s House volunteers interviewed 186 clients, gave away 577 lunches, distributed hygiene items to 61 customers, paid for rent or utility assistance for 87 families, and pledged to help with rent or utilities for 48 families.

Whom do we help with financial assistance?

A mother who lost her infant and whose employer would not pay for the time off during her trying time of spiritual need; we assisted with her rent.

A woman who is caring for her elderly parents who lost her job and needed help to avoid having their water cut off. Her mother has dementia, and her 80-year-old father is unable to help.

An elderly couple–the man has leukemia and his wife took off work for a short time to care for him. We assisted with their utilities.

These are but a few examples of the financial assistance that allows us to share our blessings, but Potter’s House also provides bikes and bike repair service to people to use for transportation to and from work, a ministry handled by the careful leadership of Dave Moore. Clients must produce two weeks of pay stubs to be eligible for bikes.

In addition, Potter’s House offers help to the homeless to secure Commonwealth of Virginia IDs, birth certificates (domestic and foreign), and information about housing resources and services through PIN (People in Need) for those who need transportation to the Social Security Office, DMV, or beach clinics.

Leslie Shaffer, Director of Outreach and Missions, oversees all of these projects and works with a coalition of other churches to meet the financial demands of these ministries. Private companies also offer assistance: free provisions come from Harris Teeter (bread/pastries), Panera Bread (pastries), Three Shipps Coffee (coffee), Abbey Road Restaurant (ham), and Rockafeller’s Restaurant (soup during the winter months). These donations help us to share our blessings with so many in our community who just need a little help to meet their immediate needs; we are grateful for the assistance these establishments so graciously donate to help us meet these urgent community needs.

Potter’s House has occupied the building across the street from our church since June 1999. Its name comes from Isaiah 64:8:

“But now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou art the potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.”

We recognize that the only way for us to become all that God desires us to be is to remain pliable in the Great Potter’s hands.

Potter’s House volunteers find this mission so rewarding because they can see their Christian love at work helping the less fortunate. To see the smile on the recipients’ faces and their sigh of relief that help is available provides instant gratification for the work that volunteers do through the prayerful assistance of the Virginia Beach United Methodist Church congregation.

If you would like to share your blessings through the Potter House ministry as a volunteer or as a financial partner, please email Leslie Shaffer or call 428-7727, extension 212. Donations may also be made by check with the memo designation “Potter’s House” and dropped in the Sunday offering plate.

Christian Evidence

By Dee Swanson

“If being a Christian were made illegal tomorrow, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

William E. Gladstone, a statesman and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, posed this question in 1879, yet it is a query that is still worth asking today.  What kind of evidence could we gather for ourselves? Virginia Beach United Methodist Church offers a host of opportunities for service, “evidence” to confirm our Christian stewardship: attending a class, serving as an usher, tithing faithfully, singing in the choir, playing an instrument in the praise band, volunteering at Potter’s House, leading a Life Group, chaperoning a youth group—to name a few.

Perhaps we could think of evidence in a different way. While we imperfect Christians may be searching for evidence to validate our Christian discipleship, there is one group with whom our church works for whom the word “evidence” has a different connotation: the inmates at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center, the largest such facility in the Commonwealth. The inmates are serving a term in the VBCC precisely because sufficient evidence was produced to convict them of a crime and incarcerate them.

In an effort to reach out to these inmates, our church partners with other local churches as part of the international Good News Jail & Prison Ministry and operates on one basic tenet: “No one is beyond Christ’s love and power to redeem.”  Following the motto of “breaking the cycle of crime, one life at a time,” the group aims to use the correctional center as a place for transformation, and research supports the effectiveness of that aim. According to a 15-state study reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Over two-thirds of released prisoners were re-arrested within three years.” Some data suggest that the re-arrest rate could be as high as 80%. According to James Fryer, one of the chaplains at VBCC, “Research conducted by Christian ministries indicates that this figure may drop to as low as 5-20% for inmates who have been exposed to a consistent Christian influence,” such as the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry.

As Jim Eilertsen, a Virginia Beach United Methodist member who has volunteered with the organization for almost 30 years and now serves as board member and chairman of the Virginia Beach Chaplain Support Team, explains, “Jesus teaches us that we must share the good news and work to transform lives, to help people become whole. Our participation is not an option.”

A group of us had an opportunity to see this ministry at work recently during a “Look Behind the Walls” Tour of the VBCC. The women who are housed in the Christian Block admitted that their transformation began “as soon as the doors closed behind them,” and our tour members personally understood the power of that comment. Walking down the narrow cinder block hallways with metal gates along the way, we could feel the finality of the clink of that metal door when it closed behind us.

Incarceration encourages inmates to take an honest look at their lives, to focus and reflect. Talking with the women through the bars in their Christian Block room, we were amazed to hear them speak with optimism as they expressed gratitude toward the volunteers who are dedicated to helping them create a better tomorrow. They commented on “not feeling condemned,” but simply “lost.”  In short, they said they “see God in the volunteers.”

Volunteers help the VBCC through assisting in the Life Empowerment Program, distributing Christian books from the book cart, teaching Bible study classes and lessons, grading tests, and showering the inmates with their Christian love.  Sometimes if inmates have not completed their required 226 lessons, they continue their study after their release. Once the inmate is released, Jim Eilertsen said he has even helped inmates find appropriate housing and jobs.

Virginia Beach United Methodist continues to contribute significantly to this ministry, praying for the program, supplying graders for the Bible study courses, and providing much-needed financial support. No funding is received from local, state, or federal governments. To support the mission, Bob West, a Virginia Beach United Methodist member, serves as the Stewardship Chairman and sponsors two fundraising events each year: a stewardship banquet and a golf tournament. With an annual budget of about $120,000, Bob looks to the faithful stewardship of local church communities to support the program financially, particularly the annual banquet which produces about one-third of the program’s revenues. The 2019 banquet is scheduled for March 8 at the Holiday Inn on Greenwich Road. Bob will supply the congregation with more information about the banquet as we get closer to the March date.  If you want to support the program but cannot attend the banquet, Bob is happy to accept donations for the event.  Many of our members in the past have specifically earmarked donations to be used for that purpose.

The vision for the Good News Ministry includes “work that takes us to places most would never consider—jails and prisons—where we are seeing God do amazing things in the hearts and lives of men, women, and children behind bars.” What a joyous opportunity for us to be part of this vital ministry, another piece of “evidence” to convict us of being a loving, Christian fellowship, acknowledging Jesus’s words in Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Visit the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry website to find out how you can get involved in this life-changing ministry:

I’m Not Supposed to Judge?

Nobody wants to be a “holier than thou, judgmental hypocrite.”  And most of the time we aren’t.  I often read of surveys where atheists and agnostics suggest that most Christians are “judgmental” and “hateful towards those with different beliefs.”  And I know that there are times when some Christians might demonstrate those traits, but most of the Christians I come across are not that way.   In fact, I find that sometimes, those who accuse Christians of being judgmental are actually more judgmental than the Christians they are accusing.  Still, judgmental-ism is an unattractive quality that we should try to avoid.  But life requires us to make judgments all the time.  So how can we be “discerning” and make wise judgments without being “judgmental?” 

We can cultivate two qualities that Jesus often demonstrated. 

  1. Curiosity.  Curiosity allows me to resist the temptation to jump to conclusions about people and circumstances.  Rather than making assumptions based on limited evidence, we ask questions and seek clarity.  Rather than hurling an insult at someone who has a different political persuasion than me, I choose to ask clarifying questions to try and understand this person’s point of view.  I may end up disagreeing with an opinion, but I don’t have to assume the worst about the person who holds that opinion. I often talk about the importance of turning our frustration into fascination. When I am frustrated, I tend to get judgmental.  When I am fascinated, I tend to get curious.  If I get frustrated with a person, I start to lash out and attack.  But if I will get fascinated, I will seek to understand a person’s story and perspective, which typically helps me respond in a more patient and loving way.  Curiosity about people and perspectives can help us avoid the tendency toward judgmentalism.
  2.  Humility.  Humility isn’t a quality where we beat myself up and tell ourselves how awful we are, but humility does acknowledge our own faults and frailties.  Knowing that I have received God’s grace in spite of my own sinfulness, I can see others through a more gracious perspective.  This is the real beauty of Christianity.  We don’t assume an attitude of arrogance or superiority, we assume an attitude of humble gratitude that recognizes our need for God’s love in our lives.  We then become instruments of God’s love in the lives of others.

When Jesus tells us that we are not to judge, he is not suggesting that we should not make decisions or stand up for what we believe in or stand against evil and injustice.  He is telling us to go through life with a curiosity and a humility that helps us avoid the tendency to become arrogant and assume the worst about others.  Let’s work hard to become discerning, but avoid becoming judgmental.

Pastor Mark Miller

Circle of Friends

Circle of Friends

I attended a friend’s fiftieth birthday party a few months ago and watched as the birthday girl entered a room filled with the people she loved best.  Long after the initial surprise had worn off, we chatted about the diverse array of people in attendance, neighbors, work colleagues, parents of her children’s friends, fellow Navy families, folks from her church, and her closest friends.  These were people she saw all the time, but she had never seen them all in the same place at the same time before.  Her circles had collided, and it brought her great joy. 

It got me thinking about a time not so long ago when my own circles collided.  Those of you who know me know that two years ago I found myself facing a dire prognosis after being diagnosed with stage IV endometrial cancer.  It was a frightening time where I found myself feeling very alone and vulnerable, and had it not been for my circles of friends, many of them from this church, I don’t know that I would have made it.  But God was at work, even before I knew what was happening to me.  As I was transferred from the ER at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital to Virginia Beach General, I was met by church friends who sat with me and offered support to my family while I underwent procedures.  As I was moved to the Oncology unit, I was met by the charge nurse, my kids’ former youth counselor and my dear friend and Emmaus sponsor, who made sure I had the best nursing care available.  Awaiting surgery the next morning, a church staff member came to sit with me and was surprised to see that the anesthesiologist was also a member of Virginia Beach United Methodist.  Friends and family filled my hospital room, many them the faces I saw at Virginia Beach United Methodist on Sunday mornings and throughout the year.  And so it continued over days and months with phone calls, visits, meals, offers for rides, gift cards, and text messages of support.  My family and I were overwhelmed at the sheer army of people, my colleagues at work, members of my life group, orchestra members, fellow mission volunteers, neighbors, family, folks I had served on church committees with, and friends I had met through Bible study, who were there for us through the initial hospitalization and the ensuing year of biopsies, chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.  In facing this terrifying medical crisis, my circles collided in an explosion of love and support that allowed my family and me to feel that peace of God that surpasses all understanding.

The crisis is over and I am a year into remission, but all I have to do is ask prior to a routine scan or exam, and my circles collide again to remind me that I am and have been covered in prayer every step of the way.  My cup runneth over.

-Karen Millman