Why I’ll Never Write Our TV Show

KBPreviously on Church . . .

It’s been my dream to write Church – The TV Show (most likely broadcast on cable due to language and content) but it’s increasingly clear to me that I will never be able to get very far with it.

Where I am so far:  Pitch written.  First season charted out.

Why I can’t go farther:

  • I cannot possible create story lines better than real life.  And I can’t share real life because of confidentiality. . . and for fear of lawsuits for those who believe I’m writing about them even when I’m not.
  • I have hoped this would be a project that would make watchers say, “I could be part of a church like that.”  But instead, I fear that too many will say, “Why would anyone put up with that?”


Most of us in professional ministry Have Stories.  Riotous, colorful, outrageous, true stories.

Mine include cancer in unspeakable body parts, jaw-dropping misconduct, national secrets, epic romance, splashy worship, shameful racism, Lucille Ball-esque pratfalls, and unspeakably beautiful deathbed moments.  Reports are out that Amy Poehler’s next show is church-centered.  Because she is a genius, it will be funny and amazing.  But it will not really be about Church as most of us know Church.

Maybe some of us should just create an oral project and hit the road with it.  Or maybe we should pitch to  The Moth the idea of spending a whole weekend telling amazing church stories.  My first one would be “The Call Story in GYN Stirrups.” Some of you already know this story.

It’s a shame if we can’t share with people what Real Church is all about.  Yes, it’s infuriating and shameful and ridiculous.  But it’s also breathtaking and transformational and gorgeous.  And the stories are rarely told.

This post is offered in memory of KB – my co-writer for Church.  We shared episode ideas for over a decade and many of us miss her terribly.

Gen Y Pastors Starting New Churches

My post brain-candy reflections from a Strategic Leadership classJay West
have me wondering about the next generation of New Church Planters
. According to Pew, most Gen Y-ers (ages 18-33)  can be characterized this way:

  • More connected to friends than traditional political or religious institutions
  • More in debt but hopeful about their financial futures
  • Less likely to be married, often because of financial concerns
  • More racially diverse

And although 16% of Gen Y-ers are outliers (and these characteristics do not describe them) the other 84% of this generation – according to Professor Rich Honack – are known for:

  • Being less career motivated than their Gen X siblings and Boomer parents
  • Serving an average of 1 1/2 years on each of their first four jobs after college
  • Being globally connected
  • Being short-term planners with no long-term vision
  • Oversharing
  • Inventing Gap Years
  • Being disinterested in having a driver’s license or a mortgage
  • Being financially at-risk (42% live with their parents for financial reasons)

Again, this does not describe all Gen Y’ers, of course, but sociologists seem to believe they’ve tracked some commonalities among most of them.

So here’s my question:  How will Gen Y-ers impact the establishment of new worshipping communities in the coming years?

Note:  words like “establishment” and “worshipping communities” are not often typed beside words like “Generation Y.”  But as I work with students preparing for professional ministry, many of them are interested in – and perhaps called to – starting new congregations.   What will that look like?

  • Will Gen Y pastors want to leave after 1 ½ years on the job?
  • Will the transience of twenty-somethings allow a new church to become stable?
  • Will Gen Y-led congregations always struggle financially?
  • Will older generations want to be part of such a different kind of church?

I find these questions more exciting than anxiety-inducing but they mostly speak to the changing landscape of our churches.  What are your thoughts about Gen Y-ers in spiritual leadership?  What do you look forward to as batons are passed?

Image of artist Justin West who – at age 23 – is considered one of the most talented in his generation.

No Budget People Allowed?

Social Justic QuiltI’m taking a Nonprofit Strategic Leadership class this week, and one of the Big Take Aways from yesterday’s teaching:  Don’t Invite the Budget People to Strategic Planning Meetings.

Some of my best friends are budget people, but I get this.

Think of all the congregational committee meetings you’ve attended during which this conversation has happened:

Church Leader #1:  If we don’t make our nursery safe and clean, young families will not want to leave their children there during worship.

Church Leader #2:  We can’t afford to replace the carpet and paint in there.

Church Leader #3:  We need to reach out to the immigrants who’ve just moved into the neighborhood.

Church Leader #4:  We don’t have the money to support any new programs.

In the words of Professor Rich Honack:  Strategy says “Do it or die.”  Budget says, “We can’t do that.”

Honack suggests that – when a nonprofit organization is engaged in strategic planning – we should leave the budget people outside.  It’s not that we don’t want to be fiscally responsible.  It’s just that funding our ministry is not where we start.  We cast a vision first and then we figure out how to pay for it.

All you pastors in the throes of Stewardship Season: what do you think about this?

Image from an art project by a group of Presbyterians interested in social justice.

The Price of Failing to Innovate

Every day is about innovation.”  Shahid Khan at Chicago Ideas Week 10-18-14

Las Meninas Velazquez and Picasso

I’ve been doing a 21st Century Church road show for about ten years now – asking church leaders such questions as:

  • Why does your church exist?
  • If your church vanished who would notice/care?
  • What does your congregation worship more than God?

That sort of thing. The power point slides get tweaked with every presentation, but it’s basically the same message, and invariably, people come away feeling either overwhelmed (“We can never change like that“) or self-satisfied (“That’s exactly what I’ve been talking about but nobody else in my church gets it“) or energized (“Yes! This is what we’ve been looking for.“)

Every congregation and denominational and religious institution these days seems to be in the throes of Reorganizing or Transforming.  So here’s my own small idea for how Presbyteries/Associations/Dioceses should reorganize and transform themselves:

  • Offer a broad plan in which each congregation is assessed in terms of their spiritual, financial, and transformational health.  There are lots of organizations that can do this for us and denominations should pay for it – except for a minimal fee from each congregation to ensure buy in.  If a church selects not to participate, we close them.
  • Provide skilled/healthy/spiritually energetic coaches who will walk with each congregation as they move towards innovations according to the needs noted in their assessment. (Note:  The next steps might include closing the church which is often a healthy and wise choice.  Remember that all churches planted by the apostle Paul have closed.)
  • Re-assess spiritual health and transformational successes after three years, again, with Middle Judicatories assisting congregations as they call new, more innovative pastors and train church members in new, more innovative leadership for a 21st Century Church.

For much too long, we have been leading our congregations using methods learned in seminaries for a different culture.  The results have been crushing.

The price of failing to innovate for the 21st Century is exorbitant, but we can do better.  God has called to much higher things.  Who’s with me?

Image is two versions of Las Meninas – first by Velasquez in 1656 and then an innovative version by Picasso in 1957.

The Nathan Effect

The truth will make you free, (but first it will make you miserable.)David Nathan by Chagall

None of us likes to be told that we need to change something that we do not believe we need to change.  It’s torture, actually, hearing that something we are doing is wrong. The shame can be excruciating.

So . . . imagine that you are a pastor who believes that you are a pretty good preacher only to have your personnel committee tell you that you need to take a preaching class.  Ouch.

Imagine that you consider yourself an approachable person who is easy to talk with, but a person you trust shares privately that – actually – there are quite a few folks who find you “too busy” or “too disinterested” or “too sarcastic” or “too cranky” to come to you for pastoral care.   Ugh.

Imagine that you see yourself as a strong administrator after many years of professional ministry, but your staff shares that they are frustrated at the ineffectiveness of your administrative duties.  Really?

We will not take seriously or believe people we do not trust if/when they bravely share that there is Something we need to alter to improve our skills.  We like to believe that we are good at what we do, that we know what we are doing, and that we are aware of our strengths and our growing edges.  But what if the truth is that we are not as good as we think we are or we could use some coaching or we overestimate our gifts and minimize our weaknesses?  Our congregations suffer – that’s what.

Everybody needs a Nathan – someone whom we trust who can speak the truth to us.  Yes, it hurts.  But we need to hear it.  Our community depends upon it.

Image is David and Nathan by Marc Chagall.

Ideas Are Good

Chicago Ideas Week 2014Fortified by consuming five kinds of meat yesterday due to Chicago Ideas Week and Course Horse festivities (goat, chicken, pastrami, lobster, and salmon) I’m inspired by ideas about death, food, entrepreneurship and more. Because I’m (quite literally) weighed down, my own ideas this morning will be short and sweet:

Communities willing to try new ideas with fearlessness are thriving communities.

This is a fresh idea: Placing a cross covered with blackboard paint outside the front doors of the church building the week before All Saints’ Sunday and inviting people to write the names of people they miss.

This is a rehash: Doing what we do every year on All Saints’ Sunday and a) light candles, b) read names, or c) ignore All Saints’ Sunday altogether.

This is a fresh idea: Doing a Story Corps project with your congregation during Advent this December by inviting them to share memories from Advents and Christmases past.

This is a rehash: Doing Advent and Christmas The. Way. We’ve. Always. Done. It. whether we like it or not, whether it’s spiritually transformational or not.

The ideas above come from two of my brilliant colleagues who share their faithfulness by being fearless:

  • They do not fear “failure.” If it doesn’t work, we don’t do it again. Not a problem.
  • They do not fear upsetting those who Never Want Anything To Change because it reminds them of their childhood (even though new people neither know nor care about the decades-old customs.)
  • They do not fear being intentional about connecting faith and customs. Many of us keep doing the same things over and over again without asking how our faith is deepening, how our discipleship is expanding, how our service is increasing.

Ideas are good, especially when they come from inspiration outside the walls of our church buildings. We can all become better followers of Jesus by learning from the interesting people that haven’t passed through our doors. Check out the ideas of these engaging people I’ve learned from this week: Jennifer Brokaw, Rebecca Soffer, Mitchell Davis, Marty Stewart, and Ranjana Bhargava. Tonight: Peter Thiel.

Image from Chicago Ideas Week 2014.

Who You Gonna Call?

ghostbusters3I’ve been reading through the annual reports of our presbytery’s pastors, and one of the questions we ask  is:  Who is your pastor?

It’s extraordinarily interesting.  Sometimes it’s the Executive Presbyter. Sometimes it’s a pastoral colleague. Sometimes it’s a spiritual director or an interfaith colleague or a friend from seminary. But everyone needs a pastor – someone we can call in times of crisis, spiritual drought, and life transitions.

This holds true for everyone.  Everyone needs a spiritual caregiver.

One of my goals as a parish pastor was to ensure that every person had at least three persons to call.  As the pastor, I would probably be one of them.  But if I wasn’t available, it was important that everybody had at least two others who could tend to their spiritual needs.

This is also true on the Presbytery/Middle Judicatory level.  My hope is that – if I’m not available to answer the questions, offer a reference, or explain a process to church people – there are at least two other knowledgeable people who can be called.  This is what “equipping the saints” looks like.

May we all be on the call list.

Image from Ghostbusters.  Word on the street is that the Ghostbusters III movie will feature female ghostbusters.  I suggest Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, and Kristen Schaal.

Weather Report

Rainy DayLet’s talk about the weather.  As we all know, it’s easier than talking about feelings and fears.

A friend and elder, many years ago, suggested that we open board meetings by sharing our “internal weather.” Brilliant.

This is much healthier than – for example – an elder coming into a meeting after being fired that day and  – without anyone knowing how his day had gone – taking it out on the person making the financial report.  Without necessarily sharing the details (because many of us are very private), elders on that Session would start meetings – each taking his or her turn – offering that things were “sunny” or “stormy” or “a front was coming in.”  One person shared that she was in the throes of a tsunami and this was helpful information when it came time for her to make a report and she became a bit weepy.

Church people do not need to talk about making changes.  All of us already know that our churches need to change for a new time and culture. It’s just exhausting to deal with those changes.

But what if we couched our conversations about change using weather analogies?  For example, it would be interesting to ask church leaders what the weather is like for their congregations right now.  Is there a drought?  Are things clear and breezy?  Is heavy accumulation a problem?  Are we in a fog?

It feels easier to get conversations started this way as we consider how we need to prepare for the day.  Will we need a shovel?

Image source.

Why Does Calling a Pastor Take So Long?

21st Century Pastors MosaicIn denominations without bishops, we find our own pastors via denominational opportunities lists.  (Please correct me, Bishops, if I’m wrong about this.) Essentially, bishops assist congregations in finding/assign congregations new pastors to the point that it’s possible to have one pastor leave this Sunday and have a new pastors arriving the next Sunday.

As for Presbyterians, we often take A Long Time.  It honestly doesn’t have to be this way and there are avenues for calling a pastor faster.  But these are some of the situations that elongate the process.  Take note Pastor Search Committees:

  • The church refuses to consider clergywomen.  This is especially true for Asian-American and African-American congregations.  I know many exquisitely gifted women of color who are not considered in the pastoral searches of Asian-American and African-Congregations, and so they seek calls in multi-cultural congregations.
  • The church wastes time looking for someone who looks like their ideal pastor on paper and/or in photos.  I often watch Search Committees spend a year or so looking for Pulpit Candy (thank you SC) only to realize that those pastors are not what they need at all.
  • The church is not equipped to find a 21st Century Pastor.  Especially for congregations who haven’t sought a new pastor in 20 years, they don’t know that Things Have Changed.  Pastors of thriving congregations today are not only solid preachers, teachers, and worship leaders.  They are also gifted in teaching pastoral skills to their leaders.  They are acquainted with terms like agility, resilience, emergent, missional ministry, and positive deviance. Many congregations need to assess cultural changes and have some Come to Jesus conversations about their future before seeking their next pastor.

What else slows down the process as far as you have noticed?

Note:  it doesn’t have to be like this.  It doesn’t have to take so long to call the right spiritual leader, but congregations have to be willing to be coached by people who want them to thrive and grow.

Life, Death, Ebola. And Church.

Ebola PreventionIn light of the tragic Ebola outbreak in West Africa and beyond, we are learning some essential facts about this virus:  Those who have died from Ebola are more contagious than those living with Ebola.

Burial practices are sacred and long-standing but people will literally die if they don’t change.

What has happened for generations:  Loved ones gather around the body and family members of the same gender wash the dead body thoroughly before wrapping it in a burial cloth and then placing the body into a village grave.

What must happen now in order to save lives:  Officials in haz mat suits take the body which is then either cremated or buried in a cemetery devoted to Ebola victims away from the home village.

Imagine the spiritual upheaval – not only from the rampant death in communities, but also from the inability to continue practicing an important custom of their faith.

So here is my terrible metaphorical connection:  What would we in the church alter about our practices and customs if we realized that they were killing us? (Because some of them are.)

Image by Abbas Dulleh