Church Buildings For Sale

church for saleI have married couples in parks, historic mansions, gardens, and art galleries. But my heart leaped a bit when – while officiating at a wedding in a concert and party venue recently in Wilmington, NC – I read that the space used to be a Presbyterian Church.


Church buildings are sold for very good reasons. Sometimes congregations shrink and close. Sometimes they merge with other congregations.

As this article points out, the sale of church buildings reflects the demographic changes in our neighborhoods: churches become mosques, Lutheran church buildings become Pentecostal church buildings, Presbyterian church buildings become party and concert venues.

Church buildings make very cool homes, if you are willing to spend come serious coin. New York City is one of many cities finding new apartment opportunities in what used to be church spaces.

So what’s the future of church gathering spaces?

  • I love the idea of House Churches but it seems difficult to find one and wander in if you are new in town. And wandering into the private home of a stranger for church is only for the bravest and most extroverted among us.
  • I love awe-inspiring sanctuaries but my denomination and many others own massive buildings in not-so-great condition requiring millions of dollars to refurbish. Many of these congregations are comprised of tiny bands of worshipers who cannot afford the upkeep for these monstrosities much longer. Even historic buildings are not exempt from inevitable closings.
  • I love mixed-use church buildings with space for worship, secular classes, theatre, art, and – of course – a coffee shop. But the mix of non-profit and for-profit usage is going to be an issue in terms of tax status.

If I were starting a new church today, I’m not sure what I would do. But being in the Brooklyn Arts Center in Wilmington inspired me. What if . . .

  • We gathered for worship in a space that inspires but not necessarily with churchy architecture?
  • We shared space with spiritual activists in other disciplines like artists or musicians or yoga teachers and we used their space rather than the other way around?
  • We used a restored church building that would bring in funds as a rental venue for weddings and other parties?

It seems that – no matter what happens with our worship spaces in the future – the reality is that they will all be flexible. No more bolted down pews. No more private plaques. Minimal church stuff (hymnals, offering plates, name tags) to pull out and then put away every time the church gathers.

My dream church? Something that looks like this but has a schedule that reflects what’s needed every day of the week, every hour of the day in the neighborhood.

If you already know traditional churches that do this, I’m fairly certain that they won’t need to sell their buildings anytime soon.





Tweeting Personal Condolences & Other Pastoral Misteps

TWITTER 2Remember when someone broke up with Carrie Bradshaw by Post-It Note?  I was never a big Sex and The City fan, but this is a glaring example of how not to communicate regarding personal matters.

One of the issues of 21st Century ministry involves the temptation not just to phone it in but also not to tweet, Facebook, or email it in.   We might believe that we have too much administrivia in our lives to take the time to connect with people face to face, but for sticky or difficult conversations, it’s the least we can do.

How do we know what’s Post-It Note-appropriate and what’s Twitter-appropriate and what can only be discussed face-to-face?

Many of us believe that our mamas raised us right  and we know what to do and what not to do.  But as a person who works with pastors and other church leaders, believe me, we do not always get this right.  I talk with quite a few church committees who are concerned about pastors who mostly communicate using screens.

Gone are the days when pastors do Every Home Visitation.  But – more than ever- our culture longs for community and sometimes Facebook or Instagram just don’t cut it.  Meeting over coffee or something is always better.

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe social media makes us better connected than not. But one of the beauties of church is the eternal possibility of personal, messy, maddening, real relationships that feed our souls.

I once heard that churches and baseball parks are two of the only places left where random people sing publicly.  Along those same lines, I believe that church is becoming one of the only places where random people can share their joys and trials openly with people who will care for them as a whole community.  The rest of the world basically doesn’t want to hear about our troubles.  A good church will take our troubles on as their own.

To test out our communication chops:

You (the pastor, deacon, Stephen Minister) hear that Mr. Parishioner’s spouse just died in the hospital.  Your response is to:

A)  Drive to Mr. Parishioner’s house and place a Post-It Note on the front door saying, “I’m so sorry.”

B) Email Mr. Parishioner saying you are sorry.

C) Get in the car and drive to the hospital to be with Mr. Parishioner.

Answer: Always C  (unless the hospital is in another state or country and then call to say you will see Mr. Parishioner when he returns home.  And you are so sorry.  And you’ll be calling back later.)

Winifred the Elder is Very Upset about the fact that her daughter told her last night that she thinks of herself as male.  Winifred left you a voice mail sharing this news.  You:

A) Avoid Winifred like the plague.

B) Put out a “How would you handle this?” to all your Facebook friends.

C) Call Winifred and ask her how things are going.  Would she like to get together?  

Answer:  Again C.  Even if you are wholly unfamiliar with transgender issues, tell Winifred that you and the church will circle the wagons for her and her child. What do they need?  What do they not need?

A church staffer is so frustrated that she wants to quit her job.  She has had it.  You:

A) Send her a long defensive email stating your side of the situation.

B) Contact the Personnel Chairperson to complain about the situation.

C) Call the staff member and invite her to meet and talk things out.

Answer:  C.

You get the picture.  Snap Chat away.  Use email for simple messages.  Text even simpler messages.  But let’s get up from behind our screens and talk face to face with our people.  Pastoral care is not only an art; it’s a privilege that deserves our attention.

How Do We Respond When Parishioners Say They Don’t Want Politics in Church?

Do politics belong in church?  Social Justice Protests

If we see Jesus as the living Word of God and a model for the best way to live our lives on earth, then followers of Jesus have to respond with a big “Yes.”  To call Jesus “Lord” and “King” in 1st Century Palestine was considered politically dangerous because it challenged Caesar and Herod who claimed those titles as their own.  To call yourself a royal name was considered treasonous.

Ken Bailey – among others – teaches that many women were named Mary in those days as a political protest against Herod the Great who had had his wife Mariamne killed.  Jesus’ own mother was a living symbol of political protest.

So what do we do if political, business, military, and other leaders are taking actions that we believe to be against the way God calls us to live?  At what point do we speak up as followers of Jesus if we believe that injustices are being done (often in our names)?

It seems that many of us don’t like politics in church when those politics do not align with our own.  Good people often disagree on issues.  We see them from different perspectives.  We come with different information and personal experiences.

But if we cannot grapple together as a church, when can we do it?

The General Assembly of my denomination made some controversial decisions a couple weeks ago and our congregations are just now starting to talk about them.  Some are saying they will leave the church because of those decisions.  Others are saying that they have renewed confidence in the church because of those same decisions.

If you’ve never been to a General Assembly, it’s possible that your impressions are that a throng of rabble rousers get together, take provocative actions, and then go home not caring about the consequences of their decisions.  But in reality, people from all over the country – an equal number of teaching elders (clergy) and ruling elders (non-clergy) actually study, debate, and pray about all manner of issues.  They painstakingly discern and then prayerfully vote.  Sometimes they vote against what we think they should do.  Sometimes they vote in accordance with what we think they should do.

So how do we respond when people in our congregations say they don’t want politics in church?  We could cower and keep our distance.  We could avoid all conflict.  Or we could use these splendid opportunities to talk and pray together, to listen to each other, to learn from each other.

Imagine that.


Hobby Lobby & The No Good, Very Bad Adjective – in Five Points

Christian Phone BookSCOTUS’ ruling yesterday in favor of Hobby Lobby moved many people of faith to declare their intention to never again buy their scrap-booking supplies at the national craft chain. And then there are other people of faith who will intentionally spend their money at Hobby Lobby when they haven’t before.

We people of faith often make our purchasing decisions according to what we privately support/don’t support in hopes of making a small difference. For example:

  • I shop at Costco because they are good to their employees in terms of minimum salaries and benefits. As a follower of Jesus, I believe that this is the way businesses should treat their workers.
  • I buy Aveda products because they have a good environmental record. As a follower of Jesus, I believe that we are called to be good stewards of the earth.
  • I eat Ben and Jerry’s ice cream because their economic policies were developed to keep the pay ratio between the highest salaried executive and lowest earning worker to be no greater than 5 to 1. As a follower of Jesus, I believe that he said more about greed than most other things and I want to reward business leaders who are not greedy.

Nevertheless, the truth is that:

  • Costco is routinely criticized for packaging their items in environmentally-unfriendly paper and plastic, and their big box stores with big box items require a car/personal 18-wheeler to get the stuff home. There are no bike racks outside Costco for a reason.
  • Aveda is now owned by Estee Lauder which refuses to refrain from using cancer-causing ingredients from their products according to this article.
  • Ben and Jerry’s is now owned by Unilever and their salary guidelines currently resemble most other corporate models.

My own denomination – which also does not invest in tobacco and alcohol companies for spiritual reasons – famously voted recently at General Assembly to divest funds from Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions because of the products they make which are used in Israel-Palestine for “non-peaceful pursuits.” As a follower of Jesus, I believe that – while Israelis are understandably concerned about their security – Palestinians are mistreated to the point that it looks like apartheid to many.

On the other hand, my denomination continues to invest in Coca-Cola which has been accused of human rights violations in Columbia and other nations.

My point is that no one is pure.

We may try to follow Jesus in our buying patterns and in our daily consumption, but the world is complicated and we can’t possibly keep up with all policies and corporate purchases.

Secondly, followers of Jesus disagree.

The Green family who own and run Hobby Lobby are Assemblies of God Christians. They give millions of dollars away to organizations that support their theology and this is their right and their calling. But other Christians disagree with them. And this is also our right and our calling.

Thirdly, there is no such thing as a Christian business. In many communities in the United States, there are Christian Yellow Pages which list Christian Florists, Christian Dentists, Christian Manicurists, and Christian Housepainters. Presumbly there are no Christian Bartenders or Christian Marijuana Farmers (in Colorado) included. But in real life there actually are Christian Bartenders and Christian Marijuana Farmers and Christian Planned Parenthood Nurses and Christian Weapons Dealers.

My fourth point: we all fall short of the glory of God.

My fifth point: “Christian” is a terrible adjective. To say that Hobby Lobby is a Christian company is confusing and unhelpful in terms of sharing the gospel.

My hope is that we will allow each other the personal freedom to express our faith the way we choose.

Image from “The Christian Business Phone Book.”

Continuing Education as a Disruptive Activity

Wild Goose 2014Clergy – at least in my denomination – are essentially required to take continuing education.  Some of us take preaching classes or attend conferences on everything from church redevelopment to spiritual direction.  Some take a week at a lake and write sermon outlines for the coming liturgical season.

It’s kind of a great gig.

But what if we chose something that so stretched our sensibilities that we returned to regular life a bit jostled?  Imagine continuing education as something that disrupted our usual Way of Thinking.

As you read this, HH and I are headed to the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC.  It’s been described as a Progressive Christian Woodstock, but mostly it’s four days of pushing and pulling and music and really good food and interesting conversations and stretching my old school Presbyterian mindset.  I. Love. It.

Before we can grow as a spiritual community – especially those of us who are connected to denominations that have Historical Significance – we need to broaden our vision.  I’m a fan of experiencing Continuing Ed that makes us a little uncomfortable.  How about you?

Faithfulness is Disruptive

My denomination has been disrupted and we don’t yet know the consequences. disruptive-innovation

Last week – as documented on the front page of the New York Times, our General Assembly approved (rather overwhelmingly) an overture to change the definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” Also approved (barely) was a vote to divest denominational investments from three corporations that supply Israel with equipment used in the occupation of Palestinian territory.

Some people are very upset.

In throes of hate mail, calls for congregations to leave the denomination, and general anxiety among many faithful Presbyterians, an usher welcomed me into worship yesterday, and upon learning that I work for the Presbytery of Chicago, he shared that he might leave the church and that he was tired of “the church being led by children who interfere in issues they have no business talking about.” Good to meet you too.

In the meantime, HH and I received a text from our 20-something FBC sharing that he was proud of the Presbyterians and that lots of his friends were talking positively about the denomination of his baptism. Believe me, this was a first.

Disruptive innovation is a concept in technological development in which – initially – results/performance/growth might be lower, but eventually there is prosperity as traditional parameters change. Check it out here.

After years of prayerful conversations, studies, debates, and even General Assembly voting, GA 211 finally made a disruptive decision: to change the definition of marriage to include GLBTQ couples and to stand with oppressed Palestinians – both Christian and Muslim. Some people will leave the church. Some will send hate mail. Many will misrepresent what happened in Detroit.

But innovation is disruptive. And faithfulness is even more disruptive. Thanks to all the commissioners who worked so tirelessly last week in Detroit.


Thinking About What Is Beautiful and What Is Not

This or ThisSome of us – sisters and brothers in Christ – lift up Philippians 4:8 as a life verse: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Generally speaking, we focus on what is beautiful and wholesome. We post uplifting images and stories. We live comfortably and securely and we want that for others.

Others of us – devoted sisters and brothers in Christ – lift up Matthew 25:37-40 as a life verse: ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” Generally speaking, we focus on social injustices. We post provocative images and stories. We live uncomfortably if only because the realities of the world weigh heavily on us to the point of trying to do something beyond writing a check for the offering plate.

These are ridiculously extreme descriptions, but you get what I mean.

What I’m talking about here is not necessarily a political divide. There were followers of Jesus at this Romney retreat meeting here to discuss American leadership last week and there were followers of Jesus at this Democratic leadership retreat meeting here last winter. There are Christians living in gated communities separated from danger and unpleasantness, and there are Christians living in intentional communities in the inner city in the thick of danger and unpleasantness.

How do we reconcile living the beautiful life with living in an ugly world.

Someone posted on Facebook yesterday – with the now famous photograph of children being held by our own government – these words:

“If you are a Christian and this doesn’t anger you, then you need to repent. Jesus was a refugee. His followers were law-breakers. If protecting the borders or ‘American culture’ are more important to you than compassion to children and aliens, then you need to admit that Jesus’ opinion means less to you than the opinion of Rush Limbaugh.”

Some of us are moved to the point of trying to Do Something (from writing our members of Congress to serving undocumented people in our own neighborhoods.) And some of us look away and post another picture of happy children.

How do we as followers of Jesus indeed follow Jesus in light of what is not true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent or worthy of praise in this world?

If God has blessed us with abundant life, what are we doing in response to this blessing? How is it possible that we sit and admire what is beautiful without a concern about what is not?

Image includes the time stamped May 27, 2014 which – if true – shows a Texas holding station for unaccompanied immigrant children.


If I Hang Out at Your Church, Will I Actually Meet People Who Are Like Jesus?

Some People Following Jesus by Gary BuntMy favorite tweet of the day yesterday via Erin Dunigan:

“If I hang out at your church will I actually meet people who are like Jesus?  Or will I just hear about him? @MLabberton #GA211″

Mark Labberton nailed it.

Among the comments I’ve actually heard in the past month in Church World:

  • The congregation thinks I don’t spend enough time doing my job now because I have a baby.
  • We don’t want a pastor who won’t wear a robe.
  • Someone told my daughter her skirt was too short for worship.
  • Her sermon was not very sophisticated.
  • All our pastor does is read his email all day.
  • We don’t have enough money to keep the church going past October.
  • Only 4 kids are registered for Vacation Bible School.
  • That woman is evil.

Imagine walking into a church building and seeing people who remind you of Jesus.  What would that look like?

Image source.

What Trust Looks Like in Church World

CJ_triple_trapeze_MayA colleague told me yesterday that she’s seeking a new call in professional ministry which will almost certainly not be in the town where she currently lives. She put her condo on the market – trusting that a sale, a closing, and a call (not necessarily in that order) would follow. The whole situation instilled zero anxiety in her deepest parts.

Read this again: She put her home for sale without knowing where she’s going next. This is trust.

She trusts that God will indeed call her to her next position. She trusts that cosmic timing with work out. She doesn’t believe that God performs magic tricks (If I leap off this mountain, God will catch me) but she does believe that God works in the world in mysterious ways.

As the 221st General Assembly of my denomination discusses difficult issues this week in Detroit, as I counsel pastors whose elders are anxious, as I listen to Search Committees who wonder about the efficacy of our Church Leadership Connection system, as I hear complaints about the worthiness of our Presbytery Office, it’s clear that we don’t trust each other, much less God.

Trust doesn’t come easily. It involves connecting relationally and expecting the best from each other. (The second season of OITNB has messed with my mind in terms of absorbing a don’t-trust-anyone attitude, at least until I recover from the season finale.) But I am a trusting person most of the time.

People of faith are – by definition – people who trust.

  • For some of us it’s easy because people in our lives have been trustworthy for the most part.
  • But for others of us who’ve experienced unrelenting disappointment, bitter betrayal, and long term deception, it’s a miracle we can trust the sun to come up.

But in pondering the events of this week in Detroit and throughout our spiritual communities, trust seems to look something like this:

  • Fearlessness in spite of the risks. We trust that everything will ultimately be okay because of forces bigger than ourselves.
  • Confidence in The Other. We trust when we feel safe, even after we’ve made mistakes/bad choices.
  • Understanding that the world is not about me. We trust that there’s a bigger picture and a higher purpose.
  • Collaboration occurs even between people who disagree. We trust that colleagues will listen to us – which is not the same as waiting for their turn to talk.
  • Positive results trump “winning.” We trust that participants in group processes will refrain from being belligerent and combative.

Do you trust your pastor? Do you trust your church friends? Do you trust your Presbytery or Association or Diocese or Conference? Do you trust your denomination?

Why or why not?

Image source.

What’s Your Blue Sky Proposal?

“My blue-sky proposal: teach America’s kids to read by making them read Awesome-Blue-Sky-poetry.”  William Logan wrote this here.

For our families, our jobs, our classrooms we sometimes propose ideas for the future.

Sometimes these proposals are attempts at making peace between factions.  Sometimes we imagine the best case scenario for a difficult situation.  But every once in a while we lift up our highest dreams and hopes and Great Visions:  our Blue Sky Proposal in the words of writer William Logan.

If all skies were blue and all options were open what would be your Blue Sky Proposal for changing the world?  We might articulate it this way:

(What you want to do) by (idea for doing it) as in . . .

  • Teaching kids to read by making them learn poetry.

Here are a couple of mine related to my church work (from simple to harrowing):

  • Teaching ruling elders to be spiritual leaders by requiring them to be available for individual, confidential prayer after worship each Sunday to anyone who needs private prayer.
  • Teaching ruling elders to be spiritual leaders by having them relinquish all committee work.
  • Helping congregations become unstuck by eliminating all committees for one calendar year.

I’d love to hear your Blue Sky Proposals too.