Lessons learned in Sheridan

I was invited to write for the pastor’s corner since I am leaving Sheridan and my position as pastor of First Congregational UCC. I have taken a new job, starting this month, as the campus minister for Ecumenical Campus Ministries at the University of Kansas, a Presbyterian and UCC student ministry.

I wanted to take an opportunity in this column to express what I have learned in my time at First Congregational and in Sheridan. They are themes that perhaps will ring true for you as well, especially for those in the church and in the various community organizations in town.

Small numbers can produce great things. First Congregational has a small membership but I kept on being astounded by the kind of things we regularly pull off. Just within the last year or so, our church celebrated the 100th anniversary of our building, hosted the Yellowstone Association meeting for our denomination, held community Christmas hymn sings, started construction work in our kitchen, and celebrated the 19th anniversary of our hosting of Lunch Together.

Ecumenism Matters. Moving to Sheridan and working at First Congregational meant I already had a community of churches, pastors, and groups to work with and which welcomed me. The Sheridan Ministerial Association, the youth work we did with First Methodist and First Christian, the community Vacation Bible School, the relationship we’ve enjoyed with the Rock, who we shared space with for a number of years all, added to the work we did and to the building of relationships.

Social capital moves outward. Social capital is another of way of saying that our relationships with each other mutually sustain a wider set of connections. In our church, we have members who work with the Girl Scouts, the Senior Center, the Wyoming Girl’s School, and Lunch Together. We have members who volunteer for hospice care, the school board, and the animal shelter. Those connections pull in more relationships and magnify the impact that any one group and church can have.

My concern for the churches in Sheridan is this. I think the time has past for most folks, especially for the younger generation, where they will accept churches that tell them what to believe, that marginalize gay and lesbians, discount the findings of science, and dismiss the increasing religious diversity which marks our land. As a result the amount of people who not identify with any religion has more then doubled in the last two decades.

Some three-fourths of Wyoming residents say that on any given Sunday they do not attend church. Undoubtedly the number is actually higher. That’s a challenge for the churches here and it’s a challenge for the building of community here in Sheridan, where churches do form so much of the social capital that make this place what it is. If we want to build for the future, then addressing this issue is vital.

That is why I’m excited to be working in campus ministry, where relating an open faith to college students and having a chance to impact the next generation is part of the job description. But I won’t say that it’s not hard to leave Sheridan. I will miss the beauty of the Bighorn Mountains to be sure. But more importantly I will miss the people I’ve had an honor to be in relationship with.

People Matter. I suppose that goes without saying but really it’s the people and the impact that has had on me that I take with me to Kansas. In particular, my friends at First Congregational, the folks who serve and eat at Lunch Together, those who worship with us at Sugarland, and of course the Sheridan Peacemakers. I’d invite folks who yearn for that kind of connection to visit a church or get involved in an organization. And for a shameless plug; First Congregational will continue having services on Sundays at 11am and this Sunday Bob Miller, our former pastor will be leading that service.

Blessings on the journey that marks all our lives and thanksgiving for the friends we get to enjoy on that journey.

Rev. Dwight Welch is the pastor at First Congregational Church.