Thom Cunningham speaks on ‘Elephants, ostriches and cows — oh my!’
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Thom Cunningham, whom APCE honored last week as its ENRICH Educator of the Year, led a workshop during APCE’s Annual Event he called “Elephants, Ostriches and Cows — Oh My!”
Cunningham is the director of Faith Formation and Mission at First Presbyterian Church of Deerfield, Illinois. The workshop title came from conundrums that churches must often deal with: the elephant in the room, folks who bury their heads in the sand waiting for things to get better, and sacred cows, among other common reactions to stress and change.
“These images come from a place of anxiety, don’t they?” Cunningham said, citing this Swedish proverb: “Worry often gives the smallest things the biggest shadows.”
Cunningham asked participants to name the thing their faith community is most worried about. The answers they shared included growing, adapting to a new pastor, having enough money and worshipers, needing more young people in worship, and remaining relevant.
“The church used to be the place that spoke up and everyone listened. When that no longer worked, we started to change the model of the church to reflect the society we live in,” Cunningham said.
To reflect the increasingly important role technology plays in churches working to deliver their worship services to anyone with access to the internet, Cunningham said he considered opening the workshop by pretending to be on his phone and ignoring workshop participants. “When I do pastoral care,” he joked, “I like to have my laptop and phone with me so I can do three things at once.”
“The pace of life,” he said, “is part of the struggle.”
He and other church educators are working to come out on the right side of the scarcity vs. abundance debate. “The church was the place that believed God would provide [wandering people] food in the middle of the desert,” he said, “yet we live in a world that acts like scarcity is the problem.”
For many churches, money pressures are only part of any perceived scarcity. Cunningham employed the German term “Zeitkrankheit,” translated as time sickness, to indicate how “time governs us, and it rules us.” Church families “are programmed to the nth degree,” and yet churches “continue to say, ‘We have to do more,’” Cunningham said. “This time sickness is real, and it’s something most of our churches experience.”
The church “has time, and we have the ability to wait. The church is one of the longest-lasting institutions in the world. It’s almost as if God is with us,” he said with a grin. “God has been there all along.”
Cunningham included a poem from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote this verse in his book “Hearts on Fire”:
“Only God could say what this new spirit
Gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
That his hand is leading you,
And accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
In suspense and incomplete.”
“Waiting can be difficult,” Cunningham said. “But there is the moment when Sarah laughs. When [she and Abraham] trusted God, things went better.”
“There is a burning bush in your church,” Cunningham said. “I suspect if you came to this conference as someone committed to faith formation and are committed to transforming lives, you’re someone who already knows that. God is opening doors. If you don’t see them yet, I hope you’ll wait.”
“As educators from churches big and small which speak multiple languages or only one, I pray the burning bush is in you already, and you’ll have the courage to change the world you live in,” Cunningham said. “Christ goes with you as you do it.”
Watch pcusa.org for additional reporting on APCE’s Annual Event.
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