SPOTLIGHT: Haverhill Church Start Grows Beyond City Limits
It's been a wild ride thus far for Reverend Donna Spencer Collins and her church start Phoenix Rising UCC.
Birthed from the 2014 closure of First Haverhill, this new ministry followed a search and call process to hire a pastor who could carry out the vision of the remnant of the church. A small band of devotees from the legacy church envisioned a new church for a new Haverhill that would offer an authentic progressive ministry to all generations and to the marginalized within that community and chose Spencer Collins to lead their efforts.
The first years were spent faith-building and serving the community at local events, like blessing the animals and bikes, hosting a table at the North Shore Pride parade, sponsoring an LGBTQ picnic, singing the Star Spangled banner at 4th of July events, and even participating in a local firemen's chili cook-off.
The small group, who once gathered for worship once a month at an historic oak tree (that has since fallen), moved into a storefront in Haverhill in 2017 where the church started to plant roots, then got temporarily re-located a year later to a 3rd floor office space above an Italian restaurant in Lawrence while their building was undergoing construction. The new space however, proved to be a boon, with room to hold their 45 regular worshipers plus full band, coffee corner, and multi-media screens - as well as a food pantry, private area for support groups and counseling, nursery, arts and crafts activity and storage rooms, an office, and their "Cracked Pot Café" where they offer refreshments, movies, paint nights, and other casual events that are attended by up to 75 people.
If that's not enough, bible study and some pastor hours are still held at the café in Haverhill where they had gained several followers. And church members also are still active in some of the city's community events - like hosting a photo booth at a recent Kidsfest event in downtown Haverhill.
Facing the decision to return to Haverhill when construction is finished, renew the Lawrence lease, or 'have their church with no walls' be located in both places, has brought leadership at this church start to the realization that Phoenix Rising is becoming a church for all of Merrimack Valley.
When asked where she got her ideas and inspiration for all the ways she has connected with the community, Spencer Collins was hard-pressed to name any one item because it was a culmination of her life experiences. However she does credit the Massachusetts Conference for providing the education, opportunity, guidance, and support she has needed to help give her the training and confidence necessary to build a faithful following:
Involvement with so many Massachusetts Conference programs and task teams in the past, like the Evangelism and Vitality Commission, the Church Development Ministry Council, and even Disaster Relief, helped her network with the right people, gain knowledge, and find ideas.
The training she got from the Vitality Coaches helped give her patience and direction.
Super Saturday and Missions-to-Members workshops she attended provided her with ideas that she could make her own.
Additionally, the "Cracked Pot Café" was inspired by the 2017 Annual Meeting where the philosophy behind the ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi (repairing smashed pottery by using beautiful seams of gold) was explained while clay pots were being created on a wheel. Kintsugi, a powerful metaphor for life where nothing is ever truly broken and can be made stronger with the right materials, is one of Spencer Collins' mantra for the church as they purposely seek out "the broken" in the community and help them realize that "no matter how broken we are, God sews us back together with gold and makes us better than we were before."
Spencer Collins is also grateful for the New Ministry Community of Practice Clergy Group that she attends. She admits that sometimes it's 'pretty scary and intense' when trying to build a church. She finds the group draws strength from each other and can share their own unique experiences to help support one another.
Spencer Collins is a force on her own and it is her boldness, unique talents, hard work, resourcefulness, and willingness to step outside the church walls to support the unique needs of the community that has helped her gain 'Pastor Mama D' recognition throughout both Haverhill and Lawrence. It is also the dedication of her members to help lead some of the efforts that have helped bring in more people into the church. But she credits the Conference for giving her the tools and guidance she has needed throughout her journey thus far, and said:
"If the people involved in the Conference did not believe in me, or support me, I could never have moved forward."
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