Lessons learned for the road ahead

I attended a college commencement recently and sat through the usual round of graduation speeches, mostly a garden variety of idealistic “carpe diem!” and “full-speed-ahead!” charges to the new graduates.

When I graduated from college many years ago, one of the adults in my life told me, repeatedly and enthusiastically: “The world is your oyster!”  I never quite understood what that meant or why it would be a good thing.  I wonder if graduation speeches really mean anything to the graduates or if they just provide a bit of filler before your name is called and you get to walk across the stage?

What these particular speeches did for me was to start me thinking about this past year at the Chapel Center: what progress we have made and what lessons we have learned.

Starting with what we have done this year:

We celebrated the Eucharist together every Sunday night. The cornerstone of our community life is weekly worship.  There is sometimes a bit of levity–ask anyone in our group about the “goldfish of Christ”–but worship is lively and participatory.  We’ve added new songbooks this year and are experimenting with the various liturgical odds & ends excavated from our sacristy.

We shared an evening meal together each week.   We practice kitchen fellowship in cooking and cleanup.  Souper Bowl chili, Shrove Sunday pancakes, and a few other favorite recipes such as “Mediterranean Medley” (the secret ingredient is cinnamon) are becoming traditions.

We filled the Chapel Center with residents.  Our single student scheduled to live in the Center last August quickly became a houseful with all four bedrooms rented.  As we finish this term we have three new renters moving in to fill graduates’ spots and we now have a rapidly growing waiting list.

We started a weekly book discussion group.  We started “Dig Deeper” as a student book club but it quickly evolved into an intergenerational mix of adults from a neighboring parish and students from USF.  So far we have read Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” and Joan Chittister’s “Uncommon Gratitude.”  The conversation typically covers everything from Death to blueberries.

We built a garden.  Yes, I know that should be “planted a garden.”  What we actually accomplished was building raised garden beds in the shape of a Jerusalem cross.  (Such a cool design!)  The planting and nurturing has been less successful, though we currently have some Feed-Me-Seymour-sized kale plants running amok and untended in the midst of our beds.

We hosted a successful lecture series, panel discussion, and musical event.  We learned that topics like sustainability and female spirituality&sexuality are a draw for our university community.   We learned that we can talk about fairly controversial subjects fairly well.

So, what does this mean for us in the year ahead at the Chapel Center?

We need to plan for growth.

I dearly love our Sunday night gatherings but I think it would be  REALLY easy to get comfortable and clique-ish with our current attendance.  For example, when I recently started going meatless in my own diet, I realized that we really didn’t have a vegetarian option for the occasional visitor who is not a carnivore.  And, while we comfortably feed our current crowd, shouldn’t we plan to accommodate more?  Are we welcoming the newcomer who happens to drop in or does our full table seem to hang a “No Vacancy” sign on our door?  I think there are 40,000 students currently enrolled at USF.  We need to invite a few more in on Sunday nights.

We need to build an intentional community.

While our house has been filled with a variety of really nice students, we have maintained a sort of “Union Station”–lots of trains coming and going with everyone following his own agenda.  A community needs to be, well,  communal.  Shared work, shared play. Learning to get along with others in the same household. We can do so much more together.

We need to be good stewards of our resources.

We need to figure out what we do well and focus.  No more shotgun approach, which is sorta what we have tried this year.  Like many other campus ministries, we are SO limited on staff and budget.  What can we do that will be truly meaningful and useful?  What will make a difference?

Also, we need to take good care of our building and grounds, knowing that they represent the physical presence of the Church on our campus.  Dilapidated building and forlorn entrance?  How can we welcome visitors into the house of God if the very front yard is untended and unappealing?

We need to plan carefully and follow through,  holding each other accountable for the tasks we undertake.

It is easy to make plans.  The tough part is putting feet on them, deciding who will do what to actually follow through on those really great ideas and how will that person be accountable to the rest of the community.

We need to look to the future and work towards long term sustainability.

The Chapel Center will celebrate its 50th anniversary later this year.  The history of the Chapel Center has included times of growth and expansion but also periods of decline and inactivity.  How do we get off that roller coaster?

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