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.

Is It Okay for Me to Wear Naots?

Naot OutletNaots are very cute and comfortable shoes made in Israel. The people who make Naots in the Kibbutz Neot Mordechai are surely good people who are simply trying to make a solid product and live their lives in peace.

But the soles of Naot shoes are made in Gush Etzion, just south of Bethlehem in the West Bank and Gush Etzion is considered illegally confiscated Palestinian land by most readings of international law.  Others say that the land was purchased by Jews long before the Jordanian invasion in 1948.

This is so complicated.

My point is this:  my denomination, the PCUSA, will be debating Middle East realities  at the 221st General Assembly in Detroit next week and this is why it matters – simplistically speaking:

  • Do we, as a denomination, support the Palestinians – some of whom are our Christian sisters and brothers – whose homes have been bulldozed and whose land has been taken?
  • Do we, as a denomination, divest our pension monies from businesses like Caterpillar whose tractors do the bulldozing?

Again, this is ridiculously simplistic but we Presbyterians are trying to do the right thing.

None of us are purists – let’s be clear about that.  While I might not wear Naots, I have owned a Hewlett Packard computer and HP is another company from which my denomination is considering divesting.

This has been very ugly.  And I have no good answers.

But I’ve come down to this:  I – myself – can choose to practice spending my own money as a personal spiritual discipline a la Julie Clawson.  Perhaps this is the wimp’s way out but it’s often the best we can do.  And none of us will ever be purists.  We just can’t do it.

If you can comment calmly, where are you on divestment?

Image source: The Naot Outlet in Israel.

Exclusive Geekdom


The General Assembly of my denomination will be meeting in Detroit this Saturday for a week and the FOMO is setting in . . . which is a little strange.

On the one hand, I am allergic to the meetings, the politics, the procedures, the vying for attention, the cool kids’ tables, and the denominational narcissism.  On the other hand, I have been known to watch the General Assembly life-streaming on vacation, coach candidates standing for Moderator, keep wall-sized photographs of Moderatorial candidates in my office, and try on the Moderatorial cross when no one was looking.  I know the trivial catch phrases of Moderatorial elections since the 80s.

I’m not going to GA this year, which is just fine – although I will regret missing the reunions, the after-plenary meet-ups, the election of good friends (I hope), and the debate on issues that will change our world – at least a little bit.  Instead I’ll be 1) holding down the fort at the office and 2) holding the rings of friends getting married.

We who love Church World forget that the very things we love about it (acronyms, Montreat, pithy speeches, inspiring worship, connections, politicking) make our World exclusive to others.  Most of the world doesn’t care about Frank Harrington’s gaffe when he stood for Moderator in 1992 or Cindy Bolbach’s signature quote in 2010 or the voting totals on the definition of marriage issue in 2012.  My heart is lifted when I read Gradye Parson’s welcome to the 221st General Assembly, but most of the world will not care.  Most people in the world do not know any Presbyterian followers of Jesus.  At least I think that’s probably true.

And yet we seek to be a church that transforms the world and models what it looks like to follow Jesus in every day situations and in global situations.  Many will say that denominations are ridiculous and exclusive.  But I continue to be grateful for my own, as I pray we fling open the doors to anyone who can connect to God through our corner of the Church.

Based on the Sermons of . . .

HollerAs we debrief last night’s Tony Awards this morning (loved The Music Man rap) I’m also looking ahead at the new season on Broadway. Plays are often “based on” the songs or books or lives of great and random people.

The 2014 season brings us Holler If Ya Hear Me based on the songs of Tupac Shakur.  In this article, August Wilson is quoted as saying, “There’s nothing contained in your life that’s not contained in that music. There’s love, honor, duty, betrayal, love of a people. There’s a whole universe in that music.” I’ve heard sermons like that. Sure most preachers have the habit of preaching virtually the same single message each week no matter what the season (“God loves us.” “Life can be different.” “Serve the least of these.”)

But occasionally there is a sermon so transformative, so absolutely inspiring that there is a whole universe in that message.

Clearly the Bible covers “love, honor, duty, betrayal, love of a people.” So why hasn’t someone written a play based on the sermons of MLK or some of the famous-ish preachers we all know? I’m not talking about satire or a cartoonish version of the Gospel. I’m not talking about the sermons of Joel Osteen.

Imagine hearing a message after which someone could say “There’s nothing contained in my life that’s not contained in that sermon.” Even better: imagine writing and then preaching that sermon.

Let’s face it. Even the word “preaching” prompts rolled eyes and sagging shoulders. Preachers are considered by both the secular and sacred world to be dry and inconsequential.  And yet, we have the privilege and responsibility to speak to universal truths (and most of us clergy are actually paid to do this.) Imagine doing it with the possibility in mind that someone might one day write a fabulous play based on our words.


fallen-9000-6[6]While there are several D-Day stories on television this week (all roads lead to Tom Brokaw) there are few references on social media today, as far as I’ve seen.  I wonder if it has to do with the fact that people young enough to connect via social media do not know much about D-Day.

I count myself among those who recognize “Normandy” and “Omaha Beach” and “Saving Private Ryan” but I don’t know 6-6-44 like I know 9-11-01.  My heart doesn’t physically tense up when I think about that day.

“That day” was 70 years ago and it was not just a day.  The battles continued for months. British Chaplain Leslie Skinner wrote 72 days into the fighting:

Place absolute shambles. Infantry dead and some Germans lying around. Horrible mess. Fearful job picking up bits and pieces and re-assembling for identification and putting in blankets for burial.”

Fearful job.  Bits and pieces.  Re-assembling.

This is what chaplains and pastors and all followers of Jesus still do if we are doing it well.  Ministry is not always pretty.  If we are doing it well, we regularly sit in @%^! with people and it can be terrifying.  We seek hope alongside them and they with us. Resurrection often takes on the form of re-assembling bits and pieces of life.

On June 6, 1944, the Allies failed to complete all their goals.  There would be more horror and more loss, and yet it was the beginning of a new chapter that would bring peace.  This is the best we can hope for sometimes:  peace in the (sometimes distant?) future.

I don’t know how to honor those who fought 70 years ago today except in this way:  Ponder who in your life needs to be liberated – from depression, addiction, misfortune, loneliness, paralysis, cruelty, misunderstanding, deep grief.  And be there.  That’s often the best we can do.

And a profound thanks to those who were there in the thick of things 70 years ago today.

Image is called The Fallen by Andy Moss and Jamie Wardley.

Letting Go of Impression Management

I know a church that sets an excellent first impression.pleasantville

The lawn is perfectly trimmed and the sidewalks are swept. The church sign welcomes Everybody. The doors are painted with fresh red paint and the columns are clean and white.

The hope is that people will be attracted to this church and Come On In! The mindset is that “if we look like we care for our building, people will want to be a part of this community.” The message is that Tidy Church Building & Grounds = Healthy Congregation.

We all know that first impressions don’t tell the whole story. Second and third and hundredth impressions don’t tell the whole story either. In fact, some of us are excellent at Impression Management.  And we can work feverishly to keep impressions up for a long time.

2011 article in Forbes declares that: “Most people will judge you within the first second of meeting you and their opinion will most likely never change.”   This might be true for political campaigns and job interviews.  It could even be true for most social occasions.  But it shouldn’t be true for church.

The 21st Century Church must be real first and foremost.  Maybe you know congregations who:

  • Hide conflicts, skeletons, and leaky roofs from prospective pastors for fear of scaring good candidates away.
  • Banish troublesome members in hopes of keeping everything pretty.
  • Reward The Perfect Families in their midst with attention and leadership opportunities while treating others as if they are invisible.

There’s no spiritual community on the planet without some measure of dirt, disease, and discombobulation.  We might all appear to be wholesome and prosperous but the truth is that we are kind of a mess.  That’s the point of church, if you ask me:  we gather as misfits and hot messes and find redemption and resurrection in spite of it all.  And then we offer that to others.

I would like to say that thriving churches are authentic churches, but many thriving churches (if thriving = mega-numbers) lose members when relationships become deeper and pleasant first impressions are no longer manageable.  All of us with long church connections know people who came through our doors seeking perfection and Pleasantville only to find imperfection and a unpleasant church underbelly.  And then they left.

I love what Nadia says to people when they begin to connect with her congregation:   I’m glad you love it here, but like at some point, I will disappoint you or the church will let you down. Please decide on this side of that happening if, after it happens, you will still stick around. Because if you leave, you will miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness. And it’s too beautiful to miss. Don’t miss it.

More than most, Nadia doesn’t do impression management.

I’m all about being intentional and noticing what about our body language might repulse someone, as Forbes recommends.  But real people need real church. And it’s just too exhausting to try to manage appearances.


In Search of the Spiritually Confident Congregation

20140603-173819.jpgA healthy church is a spiritually confident church. We trust in God to direct us, gift us, stick with us, and occasionally kick us in the pants.

Sarai Schnucker Rice wrote a good article here about the qualities a church needs to be “good at.” I understand this to mean: becoming a healthy congregation that a healthy pastor will want to serve.

(That’s not exactly how SSR put it, but imagine the extraordinary things that can happen when a spiritually confident pastor is matched with a spiritually confident congregation.)

Most of us clergy try to be the kind of pastor that a church will want to call – especially in this current state of things when there are more pastors looking for positions than there are positions. Ambitious pastors take certification courses. We attend conferences. We get the word out to our connections that we are looking. But just as pastors need to be the kind of pastors congregations will want to interview, congregations need to be the kind that pastors will want to serve.

Mistake #1 when churches are looking for a pastor: The attitude that “our church is awesome and who would not want to be our pastor?”

Mistake #2 when churches are looking for a pastor: The attitude that “our church doesn’t have much to offer so who would want to be our pastor?”

Some of our congregations seem to be confident mostly in themselves, their history, their numbers. Or they are not confident at all. Imagine congregations that are spiritually confident.  They know God Is With Them.  They sense the Spirit working through them.

What does “a good church” look like? I’ve listed SSR’s points and added questions that we might ask ourselves, in hopes of being the kind of church that we are called to be.

A Church Should Be Competent in:

  1. Discernment/DecisivenessDo we pray together for God’s guidance when tough decisions need to be made? Do we make our decisions clearly, respectfully, and in a timely way?
  2. Self-Awareness Do we understand who we are in 2014? Do we know what our neighborhood needs? Have we noticed who’s sitting in the pews and who’s not sitting in the pews?
  3. Organizing ItselfDo we communicate information well to everyone? Do we have solid policies and procedures that people actually follow?
  4. ResilienceDo we happily try new things, fearless that a failed program will not kill us nor will the paradoxes of life paralyze us?
  5. ExpressivenessDo people talk with each other confidently about Real Life? Do they joyously articulate their faith using art, music, storytelling, financial giving, and mission projects?
  6. Public FaithfulnessDo we talk about how excited we are about what our church is doing to make the community look more like The Kingdom of God? Do we love our spiritual community so much that we often mention it in random conversations with neighbors and friends?
  7. StrategyDoes our church see trends in the neighborhood? Are we aware of demographic shifts in our school system, real estate market, crime rates, and unemployment statistics? Do we align our ministry accordingly?
  8. ClarityCan most members articulate our church’s core purpose?
  9. Community-Building (“SSR calls this a congregational orientation”) Do members warmly welcome strangers and guests? Do we forgive each other well? Do we refrain from gossip and blaming? Do we see each other with the eyes of Christ?

A spiritually gifted pastor can help a congregation make these shifts. But if a congregation has no interest or energy to be competent in these areas, even a rock star pastor cannot succeed.

But what if our congregations saw their challenges through the lens of a spiritually confident community of faith?

As we countdown to Pentecost Sunday, this is the perfect time to prepare for the Spirit of God to Change Everything. I’m quite confident that this can happen.

Image source.

My “When Life is Sucky” File

20140601-155919.jpgEverybody needs one.

In my previous life, I called it my “Why I Do What I Do” file. It’s the collection of emails and letters I read when I need to remember my purpose in life.

Now that my life includes an expanded glimpse into Church World, I renamed the file “When Life is Sucky” in 2011. (Church World is occasionally often difficult.) The file includes no “You are the greatest!” messages. Mostly the notes say something like “You probably don’t realize that you helped me, but you helped me” messages. I’d rather receive one of these emails than a dozen of the “You are the best pastor ever” messages. Some of my favorites include

  • A thank you from the parents of a twenty-something church member who was grateful that our church had been there for their daughter after college.
  • An appreciation for saying in a pastoral prayer on Mothers’ Day that some mothers are terrible.
  • A note from Session members that our Presbytery had helped them navigate a critical situation.

Notes like these are basically not about personalities or happiness or individual achievement. They are more about being and doing what we were created to be and do.

So, faithful readers, my hope on this 2nd day of June in the year of our LORD 2014 is that we would consider:

  • Asking ourselves who has made life meaningful for us?  Who helped something click for us?  Who unwittingly said or did the perfect thing at just the right moment for us?
  • Sending that person a thank you.

And maybe someone will send a similar note of thanks to you, and then we can add it to our “Life Is Not Sucky” file. We not only need one of these files; we need to add to the files of others.  Because – actually – life is pretty great.  We just need reminders.

Image is from a precious letter in my files that removes random suckiness from any given day.