Let’s Get Together & Fail at Something

So imagine that you and a group of friends feel a gnawing tug to try somethingEpic Fail new in your church community:

  • Bible study in the bakery
  • Steel drums in worship
  • Women’s retreat on a sailboat
  • VBS in a nature preserve
  • New church in the bowling alley

What would keep us from doing it?

  • No money?
  • No back up?
  • No guts?
  • No imagination?

This article asks a great question for churches: Are We Failing at Failing? I believe the answer would be a resounding Yes. We seem to be so afraid of failure that we don’t dare try something new, even if it would make disciples and love our neighbors.

Are we so paralyzed by fear of failure that we would continue to choose easy but stale over difficult but inspiring? Are our own congregations (ostensibly “Communities of Grace”) the first to savage us when our plans fizzle? Are we more afraid of displeasing church bullies than displeasing God?

In these days of financial strains for many of our congregations, the fear of “wasting money” is overwhelming. It’s not uncommon for higher judicatories to frown upon creative projects – even well thought-out and fiscally responsible projects – for fear of an epic fail.

Jesus, for one, was considered a human failure in the eyes of both his enemies and his followers, at least until something amazing happened on that first Easter. The Pentecostal coming of the Holy Spirit sealed the deal. And we who sang resurrection songs just a couple days ago have already forgotten that God works through unlikely people and situations.

Also God seems to be a big fan of risk. Sometimes the risks seem foolish, but occasionally they have an amazing impact in terms of making earth a bit like heaven.

What if we started pondering now – in this season of Easter – some new ministry that might be planted and nurtured when the season of Pentecost rolls around?Who’s up for a creative launch?

Image source.


Debriefing Easter Sunday

And now we rest.

Pastors, church musicians, and other congregational leaders find themselves with that shot-out-of-a-cannon feeling this morning – Easter Monday.  While regular people are overcoming a Peeps hangover or planting pansies, church people are discerning “what worked?” and “what didn’t work?”

Here are a couple questions to ask in the post-Resurrection Sunday Debrief:Memorial-Boston-bombing

  • Were questions asked that real people are asking?  I know a pastor whose Easter message – several years ago – asked the question: “Did Jesus really rise from the dead on a Wednesday instead of a Sunday?”  Honestly, who cares about that?  What about questions like:  “How do I find resurrection if my life feels inconsolably broken?”
  • Did you address the world beyond your congregation?  250 souls are still missing from the April 16 of a ferry accident in South Korean, most of whom were high school students.  On April 15, about 100 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from their school, and although most of them were freed on Wednesday, the experience has left them traumatized.
  • Did you address where resurrection is needed in your own neighborhood?  Are your police officers tracking down heroin traffickers in your town?  Are your school teachers working with students who experience tenuous home situations?  What are the unemployment figures for your suburb?
  • Was the church real?  Were life problems glossed over in favor of a “Happy Easter”?  Was everybody about smiles and candy without noticing the people for whom Easter is a difficult holiday?
  • Was the church more than merely friendly?  Did guests experience authentic hospitality during which they felt genuinely welcomed, and not just become they could add to the offering plate? Were announcements, liturgy, and Easter activities shared with an eye on those who have never been in church before?

Many of our congregations do not debrief at all.  Many others debrief on topics such as this:  “Did we have enough Easter Eggs for the hunt?”  “Was the sermon too long?”  “Were the lilies arranged well?”   While these questions might be helpful in terms of cursory issues, the bigger issues involve whether or not the broken were invited to find wholeness and the dead-inside glimpsed resurrection.   The bigger questions for the debrief involve whether or not our efforts revealed something transformational and holy, as opposed to something entertaining and self-serving.

Perhaps the biggest question:  Did we help people see Jesus?

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’  John 20:18

Image from our United Methodist sisters and brothers in Boston.


Jesus’ Resurrection Has Nothing to Do with Eggs, and Yet . . .

I passed by an Assemblies of God church yard yesterday (aka Holy Saturday)White House Eggs teeming with little ones in the frantic “search” for eggs.  Actually the eggs were strewn across the lawn and there wasn’t much searching involved. Instead it was Candy Mayhem as kids gathered eggs as if their lives depended on it.

Very few Christian communities ignore the egg and bunny rituals of Easter.  Never mind that fertility imagery smacks of Astarte and Ashtoreth rather than the God of Israel. But just try to remove the Annual Easter Egg Hunter (or the Bunny Brunch or the Easter Bonnet Fashion Show) from the church calendar and watch the fur fly.  Attendance is often higher at the Egg Hunt than Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services.

Every year, I pull out our family collection of White House Easter Eggs from our DC years and remember 1) that my dream job involves being the Coordinator of the White House Easter Egg Roll and 2) I loved this event with our kids.

Among the eggs our children received were one autographed by Barney Frank and another signed by Dan Burton.  In the 1990s – when our kids were young enough to roll Easter eggs on the White House lawn – Barney Frank represented the  4th District of Massachusetts and Dan Burton represented the 6th District of Indiana in the US House of Representatives.  They could not have been more different:

  • Frank is a liberal Democrat. Burton is a conservative Republican.
  • Frank is a Jewish atheist. Burton is a Christian.
  • Frank is gay. Burton is not.
  • As a member of Congress, Frank had a 100% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America.   Burton had a 100% rating from the National Right to Life Committee.
  • As a Congressman, Frank co-sponsored the “Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act.”  Burton had an A rating with the Gun Owners of America.

You get the picture.

So, here in my dining room, we have our Barney Frank egg and our Dan Burton egg, along with assorted others signed by everybody from Socks the cat to former Presidents.  But I love our Barney and Dan eggs the best because they remind me what resurrection is all about.

I doubt that Dan Burton and Barney Frank hang out together, but it’s possible that they could in an Easter World.  This is not to say that Easter is magic anymore than faith is magic.  (Note: Do yourselves a favor and listen to Brene explain faith right here.)

I believe in a God who can redeem the widest chasms between people who disagree, people who have hurt each other, people who hate each other.  We may not want to be redeemed, because it means that something has to die:  our dreams, our image of perfection, our stubbornness, our need to be right, our desire to please people.

But this is what Easter is all about.  It’s miraculous.  And in my house, the possibilities are evident in two eggs each held years ago by two very different people.  Jesus can even redeem the chasm between those guys.

Christ is risen.  Christ is risen indeed.

What If You Aren’t a Foot Person?

As I write this, I’m in need of a good pedicure. My purple Lenten nail polish is chipped. My heels are rough. It’s not pretty.

- I had a friend who never went barefoot although we spent many 4th of Julys at the beach. She also forbade flip flops in her presence.

- I know people who will get a pedi today on the off chance someone will try to wash their feet tonight.

- I know a church who kicked and screamed about including a foot washing on Maundy Thursday because it was “too Catholic” or “too embarrassing.” They finally allowed the washing of children’s feet because “they are too young to be self-conscious.”

What is it about feet?

Do feet themselves make us uncomfortable as a body part? Are they so easily hidden under socks that we neglect them and we are ashamed? Do we want to keep the horrible secret to ourselves that our feet sweat a lot or have warts?

Pretty feet don’t come naturally at a certain age and rubbing someone’s feet is an act of intimacy and humility. It would be less intimate to rub someone’s back or brush their hair, or even tell them they have spinach in their teeth.

Maybe we just don’t want someone to look at our feet, much less touch them. In public.

But this is what Jesus did. Take away the cultural differences, and I still find this extraordinary.

What Makes a Good Meeting?

But did they share their call stories?

But did they share their call stories?

Relational meetings are The Thing for those of us who seek a community organizing model of ministry.  We want to connect.  We want to understand each other.  We want to hear the stories of the Other.

But merely connecting is not enough for many of us.  We also want meetings during which Practical Things Get Done.

So, what makes a good meeting?

  • A gathering during which relationships have been enhanced? Or
  • A gathering during achieves tangible or measurable outcomes?

We probably want both, but one will dominate.

Consider a church board meeting of – say – 12 elders.  They have been elected to ensure that education, worship, mission, and financing happens in a congregation.  But they have also been charged with being spiritual leaders.

Sharing their own faith stories, personal challenges, joys, doubts and hopes enhances their ability to lead others.  It clarifies who they are to each other.  It’s important for bonding.

But there are also budgets to write and curricula to select and volunteers to equip.  Calendars require our attention.  Community and global issues need consideration.

The worst kind of meetings are those during which nothing gets done: neither relationship building nor practical accomplishments.

Which is dominant on the governing boards of your organization?

  • Relationships are nurtured.
  • Practical business is accomplished.
  • Nothing happens.

It’s a real question.  I’m curious.

Image source.  This is the famous photo of a meeting of 29 of the most famous scientists in the world in 1927.  

Scotland and The Next Church

muslim-tartanYou know those Presbyterian Churches who celebrate a “Kirkin-of-the-Tartan” each October in the United States to honor their Scottish roots? Actually that ‘tradition’ was created by Peter Marshall after World War 2. We Presbyterians in the United States are hardly Scottish anymore. Our congregations are comprised of every heritage and ethnicity on the planet.

Nevertheless, the land of The Mother Church, intrigues me, if for no other reason than JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter books there.

I don’t pretend to know all the ins and outs of the Scottish Independence movement, but what I do know is that – just as the culture of Scotland has changed, the Church of Scotland has changed dramatically. Or at least it needs to change.

- While the national church of Scotland is Presbyterian, only 9% of the current Scottish population pledges allegiance to the Kirk. The Church of Scotland is not an established church and citizens are free to choose their own personal faith.

- Only 53.8% of the population of Scotland self-identifies as Christian, according to the 2011 census. This is down from over 65% ten years before.

- The newest registered tartan in accordance with the Scottish Register of Tartans Act of 2008 is The Islamic Tartan, established officially as Tartan #10644. This is not your grandfather’s Hunting Stewart.

We who love history and we who (try to) love Jesus even more than history find ourselves in conflict with some of our brothers and sisters. Imagine trying to convince long-time members with names like Campbell and McDonald to cease and desist on the whole Scottish rites business for the sake of members with zero connection to Scotland. I’m thinking about all those with last names like Okoro and Kang and Bishara and Saaed and Golovkin and Babaighian and Estevez who sit on our boards and in our pews.

The Rt Rev Lorna Hood, Moderator of the Church of Scotland, has stated that the Church is neutral on Scottish independence. She is trying to steer the conversation away from money and towards social justice. (Thank you, sister.) And we U.S. Presbyterians would do well to follow her lead.

The U.S. considers Church and State issues on a regular basis, and it’s often more about money than social justice. No wonder people reject the institutional church.

But a new time is coming when pastors might lose our tax free housing allowance and pastors might lose our ability to be agents of the state in terms of officiating at weddings. These things don’t freak me out. How about you?

Image of models wearing the Muslim Tartan. I’m pretty certain there is no ‘kirkin-o-the-tartan’ in their local mosque.

There’s a Half-Naked Slave in My Living Room

Mount Nebo ChapelI love this mosaic on the floor of the baptistry under the North Hall of the Memorial of Moses on Mount Nebo (Khirbet el-Mukhayyet) in Jordan.  In fact, I love it so much that I have a coffee table with a reproduction of part of the mosaic on a table in our living room.  I love the animal images.  I love the handy work.  I really love Jordan and hope to visit again.  I love the human figures.

But as I was looking at it again, recently, it occurred to me that one of the figures is a slave.  My white guilt sensibilities went into freak-out mode.  There is a slave image in our living room.

Lord have mercy.  Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

The slave figure is half-clothed and has darker skin than the fully-dressed lighter skinned figure.  Okay, maybe Elias, Soelus, and Kaiomus – the men credited with creating this mosaic between 530 BCE and 1 CE – did not intend for this figure to portray a slave, but it sure looks like it as I stare and re-stare at the mosaic I’ve loved for many years.

Ever since 12 Years a Slave won the Oscar, I’ve been reading more about slavery in this country.  (Here’s a good read by the great John Hope Franklin.)  Although slaves in the United States were clothed in sturdy-ish work clothes, they came to the States naked, according to research done for the movie.  Slaves in ancient Mesopotamia and in other cultures and ages worked in servitude wearing few or no clothing.

Remember Dobby the House Elf in Harry Potter?  Dobby became free only when he was given clothes by his master.

And this got me thinking about this:

So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (Galatians 4:7)

And this:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. (Colossians 3:12)

And I realized that we who are not slaves get to pick our own clothes. Our clothing can be Louboutins or flip flops, Ann Taylor or Italian tailored. Salvation Army or Goodwill.  None of that really matters.  What matters are the human characteristics we choose to wear each day.

These are the things a pastor ponders while driving randomly in a car on Palm Sunday.

Now, what am I going to do with this mosaic?  Is it okay to have the image of an ancient slave in my living room? Discuss.

The image is from The Moses Memorial, built over ancient archaeological ruins near Madaba, Jordan.  Go.





Good News for Liberal Arts Majors


Three good guys got new jobs this week. Two of them are related to me.

HH and I are the parents of a Film Major, a Linguistics Major, and an Urban Design Major. Yep. They will probably never get signing bonuses. Some would say they are destined to work at Starbucks forever.

But by grace and determination, our two college graduates have landed jobs in their Liberal Arts fields. TBC is still pondering her future but she has options.

Thanks be to the God who made some of us love words more than numbers and art more than technology – although increasingly there are ties all around.

FBC moved to NYC last summer in hopes that if he could make it there, he could make it anywhere. SBC moved to NYC two summers ago in hopes of breaking into a very tough field. We are beyond grateful to report that they have new jobs. In their fields. With benefits. And paid vacations.

A third good guy – a theatre major – got a new job this week too. All is well in my own small little world.

Please tell me you already know what the image is. If not.

What About An Associate Pastor for Neighborhood Ministries?

How do we plant new churches? Or a better question: how do we make lawndale-Murals-4disciples and love our neighbors in 2014?

For Mainline Denominations, the options have been:

  • The Parachute Drop Model – Stick an energetic pastor into a new subdivision and watch the people come join in droves. Effectiveness in 2014: not so much.
  • The Established-Church-Sending-People-to-Start-Something-On-The-Other-End-of-the-County Model – Church members who live more than 10 miles away agree to break off and start something new in an under-churched corner of town or in a neighboring county. Effectiveness in 2014: meh.
  • The Immigrant Start-Up Meeting in an Established Church’s Building – Two congregations partner to share space and maybe even staff. Effective in 2014: excellent IF the established church does not interpret “partnership” to mean “owner-tenant relationship to help us pay our bills.”

But we don’t need any more traditional, established churches with buildings and stuff – at least for now.

We need communities of faith for those who are spiritually curious, who would never “go to church” in a traditional setting.

We need established churches to call Neighborhood Pastors. Here’s my Big Plan to shift the paradigm:

  • For churches who can afford to call an additional associate pastor, encourage them to call a “Neighborhood Pastor” who serves only outside the church building. Seriously. No church office. No responsibilities to preach on Sunday from a pulpit (unless he/she is interpreting what a Neighborhood Ministry is all about.) Okay, she/he could come into the church building for staff meetings.
  • The Neighborhood Pastor would offer God Talk on Tap events in local bars, communion in parks, and clandestine prayer in coffee shops. That kind of thing.
  • The Neighborhood Pastor would befriend and talk with school guidance counselors, police officers, fire fighters, political officials, community health clinic staffers, etc. to figure out a) what the neighborhood needs and b) how we can pray for community leaders.
  • The Neighborhood Pastor would report back to the Established Church to discern what breaks God’s heart in the community and then act accordingly offering support, educational classes, and other ministries through the Established Congregation.
  • There would be no assumption that the spiritually curious folks who might gather would eventually join the Established Church – unless they decide to make that choice themselves.

This is a huge paradigm shifter because the Lead Pastor and Leaders of the Established Church would have to answer all those questions from members like:

  • Why are we paying for an Associate Pastor who’s not serving us and our needs? (Answer with another question: Does our church exist for us or for those who are not with us?)
  • What if these people never “join” and help contribute financially? (Answer with another question: Do you contribute financially to this church because it’s personally transactional? You make a pledge and then you get to have your wedding or funeral here? Or do you support the ministry of your church to make disciples and love neighbors?)
  • What if this so-called Neighborhood Pastor takes people away from our pews? (Answer with another question: Would you rather have people leave the church and go nowhere? Or leave something traditional to go to a different community where they could connect with Jesus in a new way?)

Thoughts? So many of our churches are (perhaps unconsciously) about perpetuating our institutions. Can you think of any Established Churches ready to make their ministry primarily about the neighborhood?


Image is a street mural in the neighborhood of Lawndale, Chicago.

Do Experienced Pastors Need Coaches?

Yes. Yes, we do.Coach Smith

Young pastors are encouraged to partner with mentors as they begin professional ministry.

But most of our churches are staffed by pastors over the age of 50. I’m talking about all churches from Roman Catholic to Baptist to non-denominational congregations. And we over-50 pastors feel shocked, offended, and threatened when The Personnel Committee recommends that we take a preaching course or get leadership training.

But everybody needs a coach. Everybody.

Yesterday was Equal Pay Day and many clergy women of every age could use coaching in salary negotiation.  As well . . .

  • Former Associate Pastors often need coaching on managing as a solo Pastor or Head of Staff.
  • Most professional ministers need coaching on how to supervise and evaluate a staff.
  • Tired preachers need coaching on fresh ways to present The Word.
  • Pastors on the spectrum need to be coached on social skills that build community.

If our work is really about making disciples and loving our neighbors (and not about us and defending our own egos) then even the biggest deal pastor in the tallest steeple church will realize that we all need to be better at what we do.  Get a coach.  Be a coach.  Partner with somebody who is very different and coach each other.

Image of a great coach. My last nod to March Madness – at least for 2014.