Doctor Draws Circle of Support from Her Church

            On Friday, the Reverend Amy Lignitz Harken enjoyed a virtual graduation ceremony after earning her doctorate in ministry from Hartford Seminary, then was flabbergasted by the cavalcade of cars swinging by the end of her parsonage driveway, pausing and shouting their congratulations.

            A serenade of sorts was in order, but the Mattapoisett Congregational Church parishioners’ sense of family and outpouring of support for their pastor was more than evident. Banners, balloons, a drone, and impromptu singing brought neighbors out of nearby houses to join in the commotion and wish their local clergywoman the best.

            “I had no idea. It was a huge surprise; it was a very big surprise,” said Lignitz Harken. “My husband (Bruce) had mentioned that after graduation – we had a virtual graduation on TV – there might be something at the end of the driveway at two o’clock. I thought that it was very nice…”

            Adorned with a hooded gown and a graduation cap she really liked, Lignitz Harken greeted and interacted with dozens of people whose cars began their parade from the Mattapoisett Park and Ride before heading north into their pastor’s neighborhood.

            Lignitz Harken has been pastor at Mattapoisett Congregational Church since March 2011. She had been ministering in the Kansas City area before moving east “to take this call”. Bruce Harken, her husband of 16 years, is a contractor and a member of the congregation’s leadership team.

            “We felt that this would be an opportunity to live a healthy lifestyle. It’s an outdoorsy type of the world… kayaking and things to do. I had a good feeling about the people on the search committee,” said Lignitz Harken, who felt she was given an ample opportunity to express her ideas. “There’s all kinds of churches and all kinds of ministers… it’s kind of a chemistry thing. This felt like the (right) chemistry… The church is looking for a good fit, and the minister is looking for a good fit, and ultimately you’ve got to put it God’s hands.”

            Ultimately, Lignitz Harken wanted to be in a place “where everybody is going to have a sense of fulfillment and purpose, where we grow together.”

            She went back to school for her own growth.

            “For me (the doctoral program) was not about getting letters before or after my name at all. It was about continuing my education. I love to learn and being in a classroom. It felt like a really good season for me to embark,” she said. “Hartford has a very strong interfaith dialogue and religious pluralism. A lot of freedom there to create your own program and it’s small… seemed like the right time of life to do it.”

            Lignitz Harken’s dissertation was on “circles, processes, and congregations,” an application of a long-standing communications method aimed at establishing common ground before identifying differences. The emphasis is on helpful, respectful, egalitarian communication.

            “That just seems like something churches could really use, especially churches of all stripes, and especially in this political climate that is so polarizing. It makes it difficult for people who love each other to have an open conversation,” said Lignitz Harken. “We don’t have trouble talking; we have trouble listening.”

            On the premise that at some basic level core values are the same, differences can be explored in a healthier manner.

            “In the circles process, the way it’s done people connect on deeper levels, basic human levels, they realize how much they have in common,” said Lignitz Harken. “Once you start seeing other people as other people and not the enemy,” it becomes possible to achieve a mutual understanding so critical and so rare in today’s world.

            Lignitz Harken explained how, in the circles format, one person speaks at a time and everyone else listens. “When you’re the speaker, you have an assurance that you’re not going to be judged… and know everyone in the circle will have the same experience. It encourages respectful listening,” she said.

            Applications might include problem-solving or planning, sharing of stories, or getting to know one another better.

            “There are circles that deal specifically with conflict, but learning to talk to each other openly and know you’re not being judged, that avoids conflict. It’s so simple, but it’s a remarkable way for people to talk to each other,” she said, alluding to her dissertation. “That was my hope, to create a circles program and use it in the Congregational Church here in Mattapoisett.

            “If we can lead with our curiosity, instead of encountering somebody with the question, ‘Do I like you or do I not like you?’ lead with, ‘Who are you? Tell me about yourself.’ Life is not a two-sided coin. It’s many-faceted, but it’s more than many-faceted, there are no limits. Things change and people change. People can change.”

            The program drew “pretty good participation,” positive reactions and positive application to all kinds of challenges within the congregation.

            “It was to keep exploring how the church can best be church,” said Lignitz Harken. “It’s a brave new world out there. If we can just talk to each other, we can figure it out together.

            “One of the really neat things about circles is it celebrates difference. It doesn’t mean you’re a threat to me. You’re a human being, you’re a child of God. Both of us have parents, we have children, we value family, we value home, we have so much in common.”

            Improving communication factored into the church’s ability to respond to the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

            “We were able to work very quickly to get a game plan and to really be of the same mind and make decisions quickly and collaboratively… I’m really proud of what we’ve done together,” said Lignitz Harken. “In terms of responding, we immediately set up a way to call on parishioners who would appreciate regular check-ins. We already had a team of people, and… that list grew exponentially and we had a lot of volunteers to be on that team.

            “If nothing else, this pandemic shows we are all in this thing together. We can oppose each other… or we can cooperate collaboratively for the betterment of everybody.”

            The church also built up what had been a small prayer ministry. Administrative assistant Tina Zantrofski started working out of her home, and Lignitz Harken started working out of the parsonage, “just to make all those adjustments very quickly,” said Lignitz Harken. “How are we going to worship, what kind of worship experience are we going to have?”

            The church also uses Facebook and YouTube. Sermons are posted on Facebook and ORCTV at 8:00 am Sunday and rebroadcast at 11:00 am Wednesdays.

            “Church Chairman Phil Jackson and I send out a letter that we write together, to update people on what the thinking is, trying to encourage people and let them know they’re not forgotten,” said Lignitz Harken. “There’s mission work going on, too, and we celebrate that. Our feeling is pretty universal that our primary concern is taking care of each other.”

            Even before Governor Baker rolled out a re-entry plan, the church had discussed ideas. But Lignitz Harken remains realistic, especially considering it’s church, not the parishioners’ place of employment.

            “The stakes are a lot different,” she said. “Houses of worship of all kinds are among the danger zones because you have so many people inside and a lot of (the buildings) are not well ventilated. We want to sing and be in physical contact with each other. That makes it difference.”

            Lignitz Harken’s stepson. Erik, 23, was about to start a new job in New York when the coronavirus detoured his path and instead made him a third resident at the Mattapoisett parsonage. Erik’s plight is not unique, nor are the challenges affecting Mattapoisett Congregational.

            “We’ve come a long way and we have further to go. The church is joyful and, just the way we’ve been able to respond to this challenge and in significant ways, I think it’s a testament to the church and the ministry of the church that we engage in together,” said Lignitz Harken. “We work together … we have a great staff. … leadership collaboratively help each other do our jobs.”

            Circles used to connote spinning one’s wheels, but Lignitz Harken’s education tells her that celebrating common belief and common experience can help people who otherwise might tend toward conflict find common ground and build on it.

            “A rising tide raises all boats,” she said. “We can all lift each other up. We don’t have to push somebody down in order to lift somebody up. The great thing about circles is we … have the wisdom ourselves. Nobody knows any congregation as well as the members there. We can lean on them.”

By Mick Colageo

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