Two Columbia pastors think big during summer sabbaticals

Sunday, June 28, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Pieter Van Waarde has had a 15-year ministry at Woodcrest Chapel in Columbia. His preaching style is generally conversational and casual, and he suggests through his ministry that Woodcrest is a place for people to come who are uncertain about their religious beliefs. His series is targeted toward this demographic, a group of "fellow stragglers" who have not yet formed strong convictions about their faith.

COLUMBIA – Two Columbia pastors, one from Woodcrest Chapel and the other from St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, are both taking some time off to recharge their batteries.

Pieter Van Waarde of Woodcrest and Paul H. Moessner of St. Andrew's endorse different ideologies when it comes to preaching the word of God, but they both recognize the importance of taking time for personal reflection.


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Van Waarde will be writing about his experiences, and Moessner will be studying the dynamic between church and state.

A text targeted toward fellow stragglers

Van Waarde has been granted a second sabbatical after 15 years of ministry at Woodcrest Chapel. The pastor said he has been struggling with issues that are at the heart of religion and self-image, and he wishes to extend his insight to others. The sabbatical will last the summer and will be a period of rejuvenation for Van Waarde as he begins to write a collection of books, which he plans to call “The Confession Series.”

Van Waarde came to Columbia in 1994 and took his first sabbatical seven years ago.

Sabbaticals provide a chance for clergy members to take several months off to renew, replenish and refocus, Woodcrest administrative pastor Beth Bramstedt said. In addition to looking back on the past, the sabbatical will offer Van Waarde a chance to reflect on what God will be asking for the coming season, she said.

Bramstedt also said sabbaticals may be based upon the years of harvest in the Bible, where the soil is supposed to sit during the seventh year between replanting.

At Woodcrest Chapel where Van Waarde is senior pastor, the services are conducted in an informal, contemporary format. Video presentations, large screens and rock music are often incorporated into services that allow the congregant to experience God, not religion, according to the church’s Web site. The church began in Columbia in 1987.

Van Waarde consulted an agent in the preliminary stages of his book series, as bits and pieces of a manuscript came to fruition. There were three main concepts that Van Waarde wished to explore: relationships, health and fitness and spirituality. The book aims to counter the traditional self-help formula where authors are instant authorities, Van Waarde said.

“I think there’s an increasing suspicion in people who come off this way,” Van Waarde said. “I think there’s this message that needs to be shared. One that says, ‘Hey! I’m a fellow straggler.’”

With this acknowledgment of fallibility on the author’s part, the book series intends to provide a more palatable approach to self-help, Van Waarde said.

“Confessions of a Frustrated Small Talker” emphasizes the way in which conversation is the heart of a relationship.  

“How do you get to a place where you are below the surface?” Van Waarde said. The first book in the Confessions Series will encourage readers to ask great questions in their relationships and to be honest about their responses.

Another book in the collection began with the working title “Confessions of a Couch Potato,” referencing the frustration Van Waarde has felt over simplistic approaches to health books. Van Waarde was never the athlete or frequent gym-goer and felt discouraged by “just do this” health resources.  

“The word ‘just’ is offensive to me. It’s offensive for people to go in front of a trainer and hear that. It isn’t ‘just’ that easy. I speak in front of several hundred people – I could never stand in front of people" and offer simplistic answers, Van Waarde said.

Another book in the collection is titled “Confessions of an Evolving Spiritual Seeker.” It will focus on Van Waarde’s belief that people walk through various seasons in life, asking different sets of questions along the way.  

The book’s audience is mainly those individuals who feel like a fish out of water, Van Waarde said.

“There are people who are confident – that’s not my audience. I’m hoping people will read it and say, ‘That’s exactly what I felt and never had the words to say.’ I want to provide people a vocabulary for things they feel, and they’ll feel understood as they’re reading.”

Although the series aims to foster a “plotter” identity in readers, as opposed to someone who is quick to accept and believe, it is also directed toward religious leaders as well.

“We tend to ask more of people than they are ready to give,” Van Waarde said. He urges spiritual leaders to exercise more patience in his text.

The Confession Series remains in its early stages. Van Waarde will continue to meet with publishers and work on the manuscripts during his break from Woodcrest.

The series is related to the church’s mission through similarities in attitude, Van Waarde said. “They are both related in the idea that it’s OK to be messy. You can ask, ‘Why are we playing this game?’ Part of what we do as a church is give people permission to ask.”

Mike and Sherry McCuistion, members of Woodcrest, read the weekly e-mails Van Waarde sends to his congregation and expect his forthcoming “Confessions of an Evolving Spiritual Seeker” to be particularly relevant.

“It’s very parallel to the mission of our church,” Mike McCuistion said. “We pick people up on their path and guide and lead them toward spiritual growth.”

Bramstedt agreed the series will likely reflect the church’s ideals.

“We’ve got people coming in at every level of the spiritual journey. Week in, week out we talk about the process of evolving from a spiritual seeker to believer,” Bramstedt said.

Bramstedt, like the McCuistions, expects Van Waarde’s text to be analogous to his preaching.

“He’s an incredible speaker and writer. It’s a gift that he has. His first book was incredibly helpful,” Bramstedt said. Van Waarde’s prior text is called “Building Teams That Last.”

Van Waarde returned briefly to Woodcrest Chapel on May 30 to facilitate part seven of the church’s eight-week series “Characters Welcome.” Each service blends elements of USA network TV programs with larger ideas about faith. The series “Law and Order” was central to the service, which featured Van Waarde’s mother, Kitty Kok, as a guest speaker. Kok, who was a prisoner of war during World War II, spoke about her struggles to forgive those who mistreated her while she was imprisoned. 

The pastor will spend the remainder of the sabbatical hiking in Colorado and getting reconnected in a more personal way to God, Van Waarde said.

A study targeted toward fellowship

An ocean away, Paul H. Moessner, pastor at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, has been on sabbatical in Greifswald, Germany, since April 14.

Moessner, called Pastor Paul by his congregation, said he thinks we could all benefit from a pause in the propulsion of our daily lives.

“I believe the biggest problem with Genesis 1 for our culture is not the issue of six-day creation versus evolutionary process. Neither side seems willing to take seriously the notion that humans cannot survive in a 24/7 mentality,” Moessner said in an e-mail interview.

For a mixture of study, relaxation, reflection and challenge, Moessner said he chose to participate in the summer sabbatical of the Institute for the Study of Evangelism and Congregational Development in Germany.  

The pastor has had a one-month leave in the past, as well as other continuing education. This is his first extended sabbatical.

In an e-mail interview, Moessner said: “The purpose is refreshment to body and spirit, through refreshment of the mind, rest, a change of pace and a time away for reflection and perspective. The concept of rest and renewal, on a seven-year cycle, has deep foundations in Scripture. In fact, the first full day of human existence was a day of rest.”

Moessner collaborated with two planning committees to highlight the purpose of his sabbatical in Germany. The goal was to develop a plan that would be of true value to him in the context of Saint Andrew's past and future operations and would ensure that the ministry would continue during his leave, Moessner said.

Fifteen pastors are attending the program, his wife, Donna Moessner, said, including one from Brazil and one from Switzerland..

The IEEG, an institute of the Theological Faculty of the Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University in Greifswald, offers its sabbatical program from April 15 through July 18. Greifswald holds historical significance as one of the few towns not bombed in World War II, Donna Moessner said.

According to Pastor Paul's statements in the March 5 St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church newsletter, the economic changes in former East Germany left the Evangelical Lutheran Church with an underdeveloped ministry and lack of denominational identity.

The IEEG has studied the collapse of the East German regime and influences that have prevented people from returning to the church, Moessner said. He noted that even before the communist era, the relationship between the church and government has made people suspicious of how religion is structured.

“This is, I believe, important for us in the U.S. as we consider the relation between church and state, the value of the way our system has worked, and what is the best way to address the cultural and moral issues of our society today,” Moessner said.  

In addition to this research, the IEEG is also pursuing the concept of adult faith, how it comes about and how it endures.

“The old model of sudden conversion, on which much of the evangelistic methods of the past century has been based, has been shown (in the U.S., too) to be very short lived,” Moessner said.

“The situation is not exactly that of Christianity in the United States,” he said. “Yet proclaiming the essentials of our faith when the structures of society – its institutions and, now, the economy – are changing has been the challenge to the Church of Jesus Christ throughout the ages.”

Moessner said he cannot foresee exactly how the congregation will be impacted by his experiences in Germany, but the primary benefit for him is renewed spirit and perspective.

In a May 28 blog post, Moessner said, “Gaining God’s perspective takes more than time, is more than lists, it has to do with the kind of open heart that comes only by waiting.”

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