Member Susan DeVaney recently asked Jill about Covid time, reaching younger people, a divisive national climate, and joy in the journey.
Coming to Greensboro is something of a homecoming for Jill Duffield and her family. “We’ve been longing to be grounded in a community for the long haul, and our special love of Greensboro runs deep,” Jill explains. She, husband Grant, and son Joseph, 23, graduated from UNCG . Jill’s mother, father, and sister live in the area and daughter Marissa, 17, is a freshman at Elon University. Jessie,20, their middle child, resides a bit farther way at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. Their first home as a married couple was at the Dolly Madison on Elm Street, and they have fond memories of excursions to Battleground Park and Halloween parties at Fisher’s.
Jill comes to FPC with extensive credentials, most recently after nearly six years as editor/publisher of the Presbyterian Outlook. There she tackled the challenge of speaking to the larger church — one comprised of distinct and diverse congregations — and of supporting their varied ministries. She acknowledges the humbling nature of that assignment, but in her editorial capacity she increased her knowledge of the broader denomination and strengthened her personal ties to what she fondly terms “our connectional church.”
Although Jill had not thought to leave congregational ministry (she had served five congregations), the Outlook’s 200-year tradition and its rich, prophetic voice on matters of civil rights and women’s ordination offered major appeal. It was a stretch, she admitted, but editorship allowed her to use her writing skills and ultimately to strengthen her faith and witness.
In particular, heading a small publication that was going digital in a time of rapid change provided challenges, as did working with a staff located not in the same office but scattered throughout several states. “I had to collaborate with people living in Illinois, Kentucky, Virginia, D.C., as well as to find my own voice.” The former publication emphasis on denominational restructuring was giving way to a promotion of congregational ministry. Jill understood the huge impact of local churches on their communities. Her challenge was to support and equip the work of individual churches.
Quickly, Jill began writing weekly lectionary reflections, furnishing curriculum, and increasing worship resources. Small churches soon began using the lectionary materials for Bible study; the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
Missing a congregation
In time, however, Jill began to miss congregational ministry, particularly knowing people’s stories, journeying alongside them, and preaching to a stable congregation. “My prayer was Lord, how can I best serve you?”
Enter FPC’s Pastoral Nominating Committee calling to assess Jill’s interest and availability. Again, she decided to pay attention to the Spirit. With each conversation, her sense of call intensified. Having family in North Carolina was certainly part of the allure, but preeminent was FPC’s “long tradition of excellent worship and commitment to witness and service,” particularly to racial justice and reconciliation.
“There seemed to be a good fit between what was happening at FPC, the hopes articulated by the PNC, and my own hopes, yearnings, and gifts.” Now that she has met with staff, the welcome, open attitude has confirmed her choice. “They ask me what I would like to try!” she exclaimed.
Learning from Covid
For two years, and most recently in the time of Covid, FPC has been searching for a senior pastor. Clearly, Jill has given these circumstances considerable thought. She describes Covid as a period of “forced creativity” and “beautiful constraints.” The question Jill poses is, ‘How do we work within this pandemic in ways that are faithful and share the good news of Jesus Christ? Because things were working pretty well before Covid, examining how the church operates was not a top priority. But now we must ask, “What will we learn from this time. What will help fulfill the mission of the church? How can we establish a hybrid church with both digital and in-person strands?”’
Jill acknowledges that all forms of communication are essential and that both secular and technological avenues can be not only tools for good, but also bridges between generations. “Establishing a hybrid church was critical 10 years ago, but with the advent of Covid-19 it’s inescapable,” she explained. “We can’t capitulate digital space to those espousing false teachings. And we can identify members with specific gifts and pull them in to work in new areas.”
Of course everyone doesn’t have to use every means of communication, but in fact, some people already are more involved with the church than they’ve been in years, simply through using Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook.
Even so, how does Jill articulate the rationale for keeping the church closed to most functions? Her reply: “When I think about the Covid protocol, I think about the most vulnerable, the least of these, and how to protect their well-being. The Bible tells us to not be a stumbling block to others.”
She likens the situation to the decision to close the church when it snows. “People who are most vulnerable to slipping on ice are often the very ones most likely to brave the elements, to think they must be at church. We’re called to be gracious and flexible, to consult with scientists, to recalibrate and consider what is best for staff and our most vulnerable members. It’s a moving target. There isn’t a right answer, but it’s the best we can do for Christ’s church.”
Grounding a congregation
Another strand of creative thinking involves consideration of “traditional” and “non-traditional” forms of worship. “First Presbyterian is a large church and, as such, may contain many smaller congregations. The church, therefore, should articulate a common vision that grounds our identity and sense of purpose.” Jill advocates use of common themes throughout the year to bolster that common identity even while groups worship somewhat differently.
In addition, she suggests scheduling gathering times between services; holding a blended service every few weeks; and engaging in periodic whole-church reads, studies, worship events, and service projects throughout the liturgical year.
Continuing the theme of of Christian formation, Jill recognizes that “all churches are struggling with how to build a larger, more active, and more youthful membership.” Within this focus, she recommends meeting young adults where they are — which may not necessarily be in our pews — and also accepting all they have to teach us. Jill calls this “reverse mentoring.“
By way of example, Research conducted by Sacred Design Lab that has demonstrated that millennials and subsequent generations are seeking accountability, creativity, social and personal transformation, and community. Although the church offers all these things, younger people have found them primarily outside the church. “We have to ask ourselves, What’s not translating? What’s not compelling? Our task is to make our church available where and when people need it, and at the same time to celebrate the different ways people engage, rather than lament the ways they do not.”
So, what, thus far, has prevented this attraction from taking hold? Jill believes that in part it’s a perception of exclusivity — not entirely deserved — on the part of the mainline church, coupled with a whiff of hypocrisy and the perception of a particular political agenda. Above all, she believes, “We must be able to articulate our theology; however, we can’t do that if we don’t know it ourselves. Often Christians can articulate what they DON’T believe but not what they DO. Our role is to become comfortable articulating the gospel in every circle of influence.”
For Jill this articulation means a consummate belief in the power of the gospel. “We don’t need to accessorize the gospel, don’t need to tweak it. Instead, we are called to embody its life-changing power.” Her thought: each Christian can give testimony by saying, “This is Christ’s impact on my life. Whatever our spheres of influence, there are authentic ways of demonstrating faith to others.”
One authentic means of demonstrating faith is through stewardship. Money, pledging, fund-raising, and budgets are perennial topics of conversation in every church — as they indeed were at the Outlook.
“I believe we need to look at stewardship differently,” Jill asserts, “seeing it as a year-round endeavor and a spiritual practice. We need to talk about it biblically, but also to show where the money goes. We can learn from organizations that do a good job of asking for money year around. We can CONNECT the dollars to stories, pictures, and impact, letting people know why we are doing this. “
In today’s economic landscape, people use a variety of means to contribute to the church and indeed expect a greater level of transparency regarding costs and needs. One cannot assume a member’s knowledge of church finances and therefore should not be embarrassed to ask for money. Above all, the church’s acknowledgement of gifts and sincere expression of gratitude brings the process full circle. “We can supply a message that is genuine, honest, and crafted in order to be heard. In essence, This is what we do and why I think it matters. Now I’m inviting you to participate.”
Re-uniting the states
Another major challenge for today’s church is addressing the climate of mistrust and division so prevalent in our culture. To answer how First Presbyterian might serve as agents of change, Jill drew on her current writings.
“I woke up at 4 am, trying to sort through my own thoughts. Let’s begin within our faith tradition. We are united in Christ. That is not our doing. We cannot pull ourselves apart because God has put us together. We are in a covenant relationship with God and one another whether we like it or not. That’s not transactional, not dependent on my feelings about you or yours about me. It’s a covenant that God has made with us. People will know you follow Jesus if you love one another. This is completely counter cultural. We want to be in our little tribe, with people who agree with us; we want to be completely right and others completely wrong. Calvin said that because we are in covenant, we are to contemplate one another in light of these truths. We are to look at our neighbor as a person for whom Christ died and then act out of that belief. There is a Christian maturity factor here that we must practice even in our own homes. The person in front of me was made in God’s image.
“Mr. Rogers said we should look for the helpers, but we must also look for those who are hurting, whether they are across the table, in the pew, or across the world. People are hurting now. There’s a pervasive loneliness. People across all political spectrums don’t like how we’re living together in anger and hatred. I may be uncomfortable; I may not agree with this person; but because God loves this person I’m called to love him too. We need to demonstrate within the church how we humanize rather than demonize each other.”
So as Jill, her family, and our church embark on their great new adventure, she has asked us for “your prayers, your grace, your honesty, your commitment to be in this together, your friendship (because I’m eager to know you and for you to know me), your good humor, and for a sense that there will be joy in the journey. This is not an easy time, but being timid won’t change our outward circumstances. Jesus said, “I came that your joy might be complete.” There is something contagious and compelling about joy. If we could be a place where people find a sense of joy, people would be drawn to us. As we approach the 200th anniversary of this great church, there is much to celebrate and some things to lament. As we enter these next years, let’s use these stories to shape our identity and forward movement, and let’s have fun along the way. “