Leading after the Storm: Post–Hurricane Irene, churches seek support

Date Posted: 
Tuesday, October 14, 2014

By Rob MacKay

It was the seventh-costliest weather event in United States’ history, with damage estimates exceeding $15 billion and at least 56 deaths. 2011’s Hurricane Irene began as a well-defined tropical wave off western Africa’s coast and grew as it crossed the Atlantic Ocean, smacking into Puerto Rico before veering north.

On August 28, 2011, Hurricane Irene hit New York State’s Hudson River Valley. It was downgraded to a tropical storm but brought severe wind and torrential rain. Communities in the Catskill Mountains were devastated as 14 inches of rainwater brought record-breaking flooding, with waters rushing at 50,000 cubic feet per second. Residents said Prattsville, New York, looked like it had sustained a bombing attack. Houses, streets, bridges, sewer systems, and cars were gone or destroyed.

In the aftermath, churches in Prattsville and other towns struggled to deal with damage to their facilities and help congregants and neighbors get back on their feet. Many members of Reformed Dutch Church in Prattsville lost houses and property. And five feet of water had swept through the church itself, a historic building dating back to the early 1800s. Mud and debris remained, though the baptismal font was swept away. (It was found eight weeks later on the banks of the local reservoir.) The fellowship hall had to be torn down, and the parsonage sustained severe damage too.

When it was time to rebuild, there were almost as many spiritual needs as financial and construction challenges. So in fall of 2013, a leadership team from Prattsville—along with pastors and leaders from other congregations in Albany Synod—began Ridder Church Renewal, the Reformed Church in America’s intensive, two-year course of action that includes leadership development for pastors and other church leaders. The process includes five three-day retreats, regular assignments, and accountability measures aimed at helping each team discover and pursue God’s plan for their church. Then team members get emotional support as they carry out these plans.

“When Hurricane Irene devastated our town, church, and home, we were heartbroken and had thoughts of just quitting and moving away,” says Rebecca Town, who copastors Reformed Dutch Church with her husband, Greg. “But it turned out that the flooding and destruction provided us with a new beginning, a beginning that Ridder Church Renewal is helping us to live into in healthy ways.”

“It’s the process of authentically being able to delve into who we are,” says Greg. “This is a time to think big, pray big, and think about what God wants.”

One example: the Towns consulted with the consistory and decided not to replace the sanctuary pews, which had been ruined. Instead they plan to use moveable chairs and tables so the sanctuary will be a multi-purpose space, perfect for community events. Currently they are trying this arrangement in their chapel, a transformed living room in the parsonage. “One week we might all face the pulpit, another week we might all sit around tables, another week around the Table, often facing each other,” Becky says. “This is a huge change in worship set-up. Ridder has helped us navigate big changes, try new things, celebrate the successes, and move ahead when it doesn’t work out.”

Greg has noticed that this new set-up has revolutionized the mindset of the parishioners. “People started thinking about church as people, not space,” he says. “It’s broken down a lot of walls as to who we are as a body of Christ. People feel more comfortable being themselves.”

Also with help from Ridder, the group decided to put money into restoring the parsonage, which is landmarked. They also opted to prioritize bringing back an organ, as the original is out of commission. It’s expensive, but everybody is on board. In fact, the church’s oldest member recently died, and had stipulated that all memorial gifts go to an organ-purchase fund.

“The Ridder Church Renewal process is equipping us with tools and courage to practice our faith,” says Rebecca. “We might not always get it right, but when we fail we now are gaining the resiliency to try again.” Greg adds that he’s benefitting from Ridder in his work, marriage, children, and life.

Thirty-five miles up Schoharie Creek, Schoharie Reformed Church is in a similar situation. A third of the congregation sustained major damage to their homes from Irene. And at the church, every structure on the property had to be gutted, and entirely new plumbing and electrical systems had to be installed. The two-ton organ survived, but was covered in mud, and two brand new furnaces were destroyed before they had even been fired up. The sanctuary currently has plastic sheeting hanging from the ceiling to the floor, the walls are stripped bare back to the brick, and the floor is uneven, exposing what used to be 1800s recessed aisles.

Schoharie Reformed also turned to Ridder Church Renewal. Copastors Michael and Sherri Meyer-Veen are participating, along with two consistory members and two other members from the church.

One of Ridder’s immediate benefits was a general deflation of stress levels, Sherri says. After the storm, tension levels were high, and patience was wearing thin, she says, but then leadership team members realized that this was also an opportunity for spiritual growth.

“While it has been less than six months since the team began its work, team members are more calm, more self-aware leaders,” she says.

This attitude, in turn, has had a filter-down effect on congregational life. The majority of the Ridder time has been spent on interpersonal learning and reflection as team members try to put what they are learning into action.

Schoharie’s Ridder leadership team meets every other week, and members work on individual homework assignments between meetings. The team also gives testimony on some Sunday mornings and writes a monthly article in the church newsletter. They are now leading the consistory through a book they’d studied together, The Leader’s Journey, by Jim Herrington, Trisha Taylor, and Robert Creech.

“Yes, we continue to worship in a construction zone,” says Sherri. “It’s been a long road, but all of the team members are extremely enthusiastic about the Ridder process and the transformation they have already seen in their lives.”

Rob MacKay is a freelance writer and a member of Sunnyside Reformed Church in Queens, New York.

Interested in Ridder Church Renewal for your congregation? Email leadership@rca.org for details.

Pray for congregations and pastors in the RCA as they seek God’s face for spiritual renewal.

Volunteers are still needed to help with Hurricane Irene repairs in Schoharie. Email volunteer@rca.org for details.

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