Son Light Parish

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader


Last Sunday afternoon, I preached at the joint congregation worship of the three churches in the Son Light Parish. It was an outdoor service on the grounds of Bellevue Presbyterian, in Caledonia, Missouri. Bellevue was the first Presbyterian church west of the Mississippi, organized in 1816. It was an awesome experience preaching in the shadow of this historic building!

These three churches, First Presbyterian Churches of the Leadbelt:  Park Hills, Fredericktown, and Ironton share the same pastor, Mark Wiley. Every Sunday morning, Mark does a “circuit” among the three congregations. He begins with an hour drive from his home in Hillsboro to Ironton for 8:45 worship, then heads to Fredericktown for 10:15 worship, and finishes at Park Hill at 11:30 worship. Mark says that often by the time he arrives at Park Hills, the service has already begun, and he walks into the door directly into the pulpit! He also jokes that by the time he gets to Park Hills, his sermon is really cooking! Mark returns home to Hillsboro about 1:30 each Sunday.

The Son Light Parish is a form of church from the 17th and 18th century. That is when ministers were assigned a geographic area of congregations. The minister would go on horseback from church to church, completing their circuit, preaching and leading the sacraments.

Ten years ago, these three congregations were struggling with their future. They did not have a way forward, so they looked backward for possible solutions. They realized they could not stand on their own, so they found a way to stand together. Through the leadership of Rev. Pam’la Cowan, the three churches came together to share resources. That was the beginning. They would later share events, fellowship, and find encouragement through cooperation.

As I look over the 77 congregations and 2 new worshipping communities of Giddings-Lovejoy, I see several congregations struggling week to week. I worry about their future. But when I see places like Son Light Parish, I feel relief. I realize I don’t have to figure out a plan or come up with a program for the survival of congregations. Congregations have the capacity to figure it out for themselves. There is something about life that craves to be lived. This applies to people and churches.

For some, it may mean merging like Berea and Curby did at our last Presbytery Gathering. Others will yolk like Union and Pacific. Still others will try different arrangements, and they may not work. Trying itself is a sign of life. And some have come to the end of their local ministry and will close like Maryland Heights did.

The presbytery is a living organism. We seek to find a way forward together. Mark and Pam’la are examples of the many innovative, creative, and energetic pastors and leaders with ideas to pave the way into the future.

Rev. Craig M. Howard





Listening and Doing

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader 

A significant part of my work and call is learning. I attend conferences, workshops, take online courses, belong to an executive cohort group, receive coaching, and read books (lots of books!). We are living in a time of change that requires learning new things and doing different things in order to find our way into the future. It is a time of experimentation and risk.

I am currently reading the book, The Mainstream Protestant Decline, which focuses on the decline of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the 20th century. This decline goes beyond membership. It is a decline in budgets, congregations, pastors, and social and cultural influence. The decline, which began in the 1960s, is defined as the third disestablishment. One of the conclusions the authors reach is that the cause of the decline was more external factors than internal. It was more about the changes in American society and culture, than what was going on inside of the Presbyterian denomination.

Although we are living in the 21st century, we are experiencing the momentum of the 20th century decline. Over 80% of the congregations in the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy are either stagnant or in decline. The same can be said for the PC(USA) and mainline denominations as a whole. Many pastors and sessions look around their congregations each month and just feel stuck.

There are many possible responses to where the church is today. One response is to continue doing what we have been doing. In this way we see ourselves as preserving the tradition. Perhaps if we do the same thing in better ways, things will change. Another response is to try and do things differently. This includes changes in liturgy, music, design of the worship space, and preaching styles. Some change and rotate like a Rubik’s cube, hoping to find the right combination.

I believe the answer is between learning and doing. The challenge of the current and future church must be answered with education and programs to address the issues we’ve discovered.

This year the presbytery has offered four programs to help congregations assess their situation, possibilities, and opportunities for change. Healthy Pastors-Healthy Congregations has had the most response. Ministry Architects begins in the Fall with 5 congregations. We were hoping for 6 – 10 (It’s still not too late to sign up!) We are still building congregations for Partners for Sacred Places. However, Project Regeneration did not attract any congregations.

The presbytery gathering on Thursday will introduce Congregational Vitality as another way to learn and act in transformational ways for 2020. It is a denominational program that offers ways to look at congregations and neighborhoods (inside and outside of the church) that will make the congregation more relevant. I strongly suggest commissioners, teaching elders, and congregational leader take a look at this program.

In addition, the presbytery has made available $100,000 in grants for congregations, pastors, and leaders. These funds can be used to offset costs of programs, and to promote new ideas which leaders and congregations develop.

Take advantage of these learnings and programs. Become a bold church, a leader who takes risks, a congregation that is willing to experiment, as we continue to seek God’s will for the church in the 21st century.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Do It Again

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader 

I was raised in a cozy brick house on a corner lot in an African American middle-class suburb of Chicago. You know that house where all the kids hang out? That was my house! Although the house wasn’t very large, there was a constant parade of people in and out. My friends, along with those of my brothers and sister were always welcome. Also, my parents hosted small meetings of adults strategizing about schools, gangs, and racial tensions in our area.

The future of the Presbytery and the Presbyterian church will depend upon our connecting to the local communities we inhabit. It is important that the people inside of our building reflect the population in the surrounding neighborhood. The community must feel as though the Presbyterian church is their church, an asset in the community where they can hang out.

This is why we are practicing another Neighborhood Exegesis at the upcoming presbytery gathering. We will have a pre-session that will involve learning and exploring the neighborhoods of Belleville IL. The Neighborhood Exegesis is the same process we did last year in Edwardsville. We will gather at Westminster Presbyterian church at 10 am. Westminster will share some exciting ministries they are doing and provide a preview of the neighborhoods we will be exploring. After their presentations, we will hit the streets! We will be provided maps that have been put together by the planning teams of Westminster and First United. We will explore the diversity of the community called Belleville. Hopefully this will include conversations with people we encounter on the street, in the shops, and coffee houses. The groups will eat at local restaurants. This will provide a chance to debrief the experience before heading back to church. Finally, the Neighborhood Exegesis experience will be part of Kathryn Threadgill’s plenary session.

I strongly encourage everyone to take advantage of this learning opportunity. Many of our congregations have completed the neighborhood exegesis since last August. It is an experience that is worth the walking! Registration can be found here.

Rev. Craig M. Howard



Gone in 30 Seconds

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader 

Like most of you, I am still spinning from the weekend shootings in which 22 people were killed and 53 wounded. It has happened again. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. San Bernardino. Orlando night club. Las Vegas festival. Now El Paso. Dayton. Wave after wave. Shock after shock. The weapons seem to get more powerful and can shoot more rounds at a faster speed. These weapons do not wound but destroy limbs and create gaping holes where life can bleed out. In Dayton the shooter was killed in less than 30 seconds. Yet, he was able to kill 9 and wound 27. The shooter still had over 200 rounds of ammunition on him.

As long as these tragedies are happening someplace else, I can still maintain emotional distance. But it is hard. San Bernardino was the closest to me. Marilyn, my wife, was serving as transitional presbytery leader in an office a few miles from where the killing of 14 people occurred. I still tear up reliving the fear of not knowing if she was okay on that tragic day.

The poet Martin Niemöller wrote the following about the holocaust.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

And what if it comes to our town? Our school? Our Walmart? Our office? Our church?

Pray for our country. Pray for our world. Pray for our communities. Write to your legislators. Stand up for non-violence. Have your church view the film Trigger: The Ripple Effect of Gun Violence. We have a copy in the Resource Center. Every church should have a plan. Connect with your local police and talk about an on-sight inspection to determine what to do in an active shooter situation. I am not trying to stoke fear. I am not pushing a path of unbelief. I’m simply saying that just as there is a plan for a fire, there should be one for an active shooter. I pray that we all become apostles of peace in our area of the world.

I end with a portion of the Peace Prayer by St. Frances.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

Rev. Craig M. Howard