By the Rev. Alissa Bertsch Johnson | Photo by Kathy Sawtells, cover illustration courtesy of Wikipedia
On Oct. 22, while preaching on Moses leading the Israelites to the Red Sea, I had an anxiety attack.
I had all the classic signs: tight chest, shaky hands, tears welling. Rather than try to pretend I was fine, I named what I was experiencing to my congregation as I took a moment to collect myself and identify what had set me off. Turns out, it was the threat of change.
You see immediately after worship, a significant change would take place – a change that had been initiated back in the Fall of 2015 when we had come to realize something: God was sending people to be a part of Cheney UMC and we literally had no space for them. We had pews that sat 75 people and had yet to worship under 90 since I had been there. We were in desperate need of a plan to figure out how we could welcome all the folks God was sending us. Our Associate Pastor, Pat Sleeth, who has expertise in the area of long-range planning, started us on a year and a half journey of praying, listening, and dreaming; of gathering for town hall meetings, taking surveys to determine our congregational gifts and needs, and commissioning ad hoc teams to present ideas. In August, after all that holy work, we made the decision (among many others) to move from pews to chairs.
So here I was in full panic on the very Sunday that the pews would be unbolted from the floor and donated to the Union Gospel Mission. Attempting to continue, I had come to the part where the Israelites find themselves trapped between the Red Sea and Pharaoh; thinking they are facing near death, they panic.
Now, there have been many times when the Holy Spirit has provided the right message when I need it – but that Sunday will forever stand in my memory. While we were not facing certain death at Cheney, it did feel like a Red Sea moment – we couldn’t turn back but the way forward wasn’t totally certain. Who knew if this big change would actually work? What if we’re making the wrong decision? What if we’ve led our church into giving up a tradition of 137 years of pew-sitting, and it fails?!
But the Spirit was with us as I came to the part where Moses speaks to the panicked Israelites saying, “Do not be afraid – God is about to save you.” When he turns to God himself, God tells Moses, “Just keep the people moving forward.” Hearing those words, my anxiety disappeared.
I learned a big lesson that day: when facing change, take a deep breath, give God your fear, and keep the people moving forward. If we are to grow in our ministry to the world, change is inevitable and we can either panic when facing it; or remind ourselves that God has always been with us when we have faced an uncertain future. After worship, the people of Cheney UMC moved forward, the pews came out, and a new chapter began.
Praise be to God!
Visit www.cheneyumc.org to learn more about its ministries in Cheney, Wash.
The Rev. Alissa Bertch Johnson serves as lead pastor of Cheney UMC.