All This Talk of Church Decline Is Making Jesus Cry

Or at least I believe it makes Jesus cry. 

I write this from a Big Church Meeting in Puerto Rico – which sounds lovely except that I haven’t gone outside yet.  (This probably also brings my Savior to tears but that’s for another post.)

Today, a wise theologian said something like this:

When a huge tree falls, damage from the fall results but new growth begins under & around the fallen tree.

And then another wise theologian said this:

When we talk about church decline we’re only talking about white church decline. New non-white congregations are actually growing.

There is a cycle of life and it includes birth, growth, and death.  And resurrection and then new life.  I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ is not dying.  It’s pregnant (i.e. it just feels like we’re going to die.)  Another of my favorite theologians often says that.  As well, the Church of Jesus Christ is becoming browner and more diverse in every way.  I believe this and every kind of growth gives Jesus great joy.

Note:  Each of the theologians I linked in this post is a member of RevGalBlogPals.  And each of them make Jesus smile on a regular basis.

Do Poor People Deserve a Great Pastor?

Obviously the answer is a big yes.  

But as we in the United States know – at least in most Protestant Churches – the pastor is paid according to the financial contributions of members.  If the members are wealthy, they can afford to pay one or more pastors a higher salary. If the members are unemployed, on fixed incomes, or living paycheck to paycheck, they cannot afford to pay their pastor a high salary.

Rich pastors do not work harder than poor pastors, no matter what you might have heard.  All people are in need of pastoral support because all of us are spiritually broken.  But while all churches in all neighborhoods are comprised of people struggling with everything from addiction to family conflict, pastors serving in the poorest neighborhoods have additional issues within their congregations. And there are fewer resources for serving the children and adults of that community.  The daily financial insecurity can feel unrelenting.

As you read this today, I will be in Puerto Rico where the Presbyterian Church is strong in spite of a devastating financial debt crisis.  This letter from four of us in PCUSA leadership to the President and Congressional Leaders states that:

Puerto Rico’s unsustainable debt, which is more than two-thirds the amount of its GDP, cannot possibly be repaid simply by using spending cuts and tax increases.

We are asking our national leaders to consider forgiving debts and supporting our neighbors to the south.  They are citizens of the USA.  They are an essential part of our culture and God’s Church.

Every once in a while throughout my denomination, someone will suggest pay equality for clergy and – every time – it doesn’t go anywhere.  Those of us who have served in prosperous communities are usually not willing to give up our healthier paychecks.

Several decades ago, I remember hearing about the first PCUSA pastor to be paid a six figure salary . He was the senior pastor of a large urban congregation and I remember wondering – as I served my tiny church where most people were eligible for food stamps – if he worked as hard as I worked.  It’s difficult to measure this kind of thing if we take into account cost of living, years of experience, etc.

But this is an issue that deserves consideration as we rethink what the Church looks like in the 21st Century.  If we truly care for the poor, will we make ministry to the poor possible?  Will we ever encourage our most gifted pastors to serve in our poorest neighborhoods?

Image of the artist’s mother by Puerto Rican painter Rafael Tufino (1922-2008)

You have the right NEXTChurch Takeaway: Rodger Explains It All

I am a sheltered Church Person.  Although I am well aware that much of the world doesn’t believe in God, it still jolts me when someone says she/he doesn’t have the slightest interest in The Eternal.  Frankly, I think we all secretly seek something Holy.

Last week at NEXTChurch, Rodger Nishioka spoke about what the 21st Century Church needs to know about human experience and the meaning of life.  The Next Church absolutely must offer opportunities for:

  • Transcendence
  • Relationships
  • Incarnation

Everybody – even those who do not believe they care about Holy Things – are seeking something Bigger.  Although individual experiences inform our life’s purpose, the community around us is necessary to affirm and correct our interpretation of life experience.  And we human beings have the capacity (thanks be to God) to experience God in our deepest souls and become Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

The Church has a unique role to be something like a Tour Guide.  We human beings experience things – some wondrous and some heinous – and what we experience means something. Or it can mean something. God uses everything.

This is not merely about theories. An ancient story is ours today.

We can have academic chops.  We can know dates and charts and the latest, greatest organizational theories.  But if we cannot model, teach, and encourage transcendence, authentic relationships and incarnational ministry, we will never be a 21st Century Church.

There’s a lot of transition happening in The Church these days.  As congregations call new pastors and and Mid-Councils (as we call them in my PCUSA denomination) call new leaders, understanding what Rodger Nishioka spoke about last week will make the difference between a thriving community and one that continues to go round and round in circles.

  • Are we pointing to Something bigger than ourselves? (Yes, please.)
  • Are we choosing relationships before reorganization? (It doesn’t matter how impressive our theories are if we cannot treat each other with authentic compassion and respect.)
  • Are we embodying the Spirit of God in all we do?  (Is this about us or about expanding the reign of God?)

Strategies are cold.  Restructuring is impersonal.  But God is calling us to be something different.  It’s more fulfilling (albeit way harder) to be who we were created to be together.  We call this Church.

Image of a group from Wheaton College (Norton, MA) touring South Africa.  Note:  The future Church will be lead by our neighbors in the Southern Hemisphere from Africa, Asia, and South America.

 

 

NEXTChurch Takeaway: Interfaith Relationships

“Interfaith work is not an extracurricular activity.”  Tim Hart-Andersen addressing the NEXTChurch 2017 national gathering

I think I joined the Daughters of Abraham book group in DC because I wanted to broaden my knowledge on Judaism and Islam. It would make me smarter and better informed.  I would get to read novels by authors I never would have read before.

I didn’t realize I would also make friends.  They were real friends who were not offended when I asked simple questions about their practices.  Why did Barika wear hijab but Aminah didn’t? Why did Karen keep a kosher kitchen but Rachel didn’t?  

Yes, I got smarter.  I became better informed.  I even became a better follower of Jesus.  But I also made real friends.

When Tim Hart-Andersen spoke on the opening day at NEXT, he shared video clips from worship in the church he serves in Minneapolis which included dialogue sermons with a rabbi and an imam who happen to be his friends.  They have traveled to the Holy Land together.  They talk about things that matter.

I’m not one to say that all religions are the same.  There are clear differences in our theology and practices – even within a single faith.  But it is essential in the 21st Century Church that we who claim to follow Jesus work with people of other faiths and not just because it will make us smarter and better informed.

It’s a matter of life and death.  It’s a matter of faith.

There are 917 identified hate groups in the U.S. at this moment. Hate crimes are up 20% in 2016, especially against Jews and Muslims. In Chicago, police report “22 hate crimes in the three months following November’s election, including 13 during the first five weeks of 2017 — more than triple the number recorded in the first five weeks of last year.”

Remember when the Irish were discriminated against in 19th Century America? Today some of us are proudly wearing green and eating soda bread.  God-willing/Inshallah/B’ezrat HaShem we will celebrate our Muslim and Jewish neighbors with equal enthusiasm in the future (although a Muslim man was kicked off a Southwest flight last fall for saying inshallah into a phone.)

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

It’s harder to hate people when we can enjoy a cup of coffee together or when we understand that they love God by praying prostrate or keeping kosher or wearing hijab.

Ignorance hurts innocent people. Sometimes ignorance kills people.  We need to follow Jesus’ lead.  Reread the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.

NEXTChurch Takeaway: Redirect

“It’s time for a major redirect.”  Dr. Paul Roberts at closing worship of NEXTChurch 2017 in Kansas City

A friend shared with me recently that her spouse had gone to the doctor with breathing issues.  He’s a smoker.

Doctor:  Just keep doing what you’re doing.  Keep smoking.  

Patient:  Really?

Doctor:  Yes.  Just keep doing what you’re doing.  Also – you’ll be back here in a year needing an oxygen tank.  

Imagine hearing  that we don’t need to change a thing and all will be well.  Whew. That was easy.

But it’s not the truth.  We’ll need an oxygen tank this time next year.

Things have got to change – not just what we know needs to change and not just what we want to change.  Even those things we do not want to change must change.  Yikes.

I’m just back from the NEXTChurch national conference and as ideas float around in my brain and stir my soul, I’ll be reflecting back in a couple of posts.  I look forward to the stirrings of others who attended and others who push back/ask questions/introduce further ideas.

Image by Lisle Gwynn Garrity of her rendition of Walls and Wells, the theme for NEXTChurch 2017 in Kansas City.

 

 

What If We Replaced The Wall with a Dome?

Consider the years 2011, 2016, 2023, and 2041.

2011 – Births in the United States included 50% minorities

2016 – Incoming kindergarden class was 50% minorities (because those babies turned 5)

2023 – Children in the U.S. will be 50% minorities (because those kindergarders keep growing)

2042 – Minority population of the U.S. will be the majority (because the children born in 2011 are now adults and  having their own children.

Soong-Chan Rah, the evangelical pastor and professor, offered a rousing look into the future at the NEXTChurch conference today and my favorite part of his address was this:

“The browning of America isn’t about immigration. It’s about birth rate. We could put a hermetically sealed dome over US & the US would still be brown in the not-so-distant future.”

In other words, we could keep everybody out of the United States except those living here right now, and still be a majority brown population in 2042.  So why are we spending money on a wall between the United States and Mexico?

Imagine using the 15 to 25 billion dollars the wall is expected to cost us to forgive student loans or paying reparations to the descendents of slaves. Both of those investments would benefit our country by bolstering the ability of people to buy homes and educate their own children.  It would be a life-giving choice as opposed to choosing fear and bigotry.

So what can we in the Church do now to prepare for this shift in our demographics?

  1. Rejoice.  A nation of immigrants from Asia, Africa, South America, as well as Europe only enriches our culture.  We are called, as followers of Jesus, to make disciples of all nations. This is an answer to our prayers.
  2. Look at how we worship, choose leaders, reach out into the community, and train our officers and then notice who’s being left out.
  3. Have uncomfortable conversations in congregations and beyond on race.  These books will spark those conversations.
  4. Sponsor a refugee family.  Love them and learn from them.
  5. Partner with a church that is different from our own.  For the very brave, partner with a mosque or synagogue. Eat together.  Share each other’s stories.
  6. Expect God to use all this for good – if we will live in faith rather than fear.

These are hopeful, holy days.  They are also anxious days.  Let’s keep them from being wall-building days, for the love of God.

Image from Under the Dome television show by Stephen King.

I’m Talking to You, Baby Boomers

A few years ago, I was talking with a 60-something pastor and our conversation went something like this:

Pastor:  I’m pretty tired but I can’t retire yet.  I still have a mortgage.

Me:  How’s the energy level in your congregation?

Pastor:  It’s hard to get anyone to do anything.  But I can hang on. Preach old sermons.  Do the basics. I’ve done some calculations and there’s enough money in the endowment for me to retire about the time I celebrate my 72nd birthday.

Me:

What I wanted to say was “Get behind me Satan.”  How dare we stay in a pastoral position – with little or no energy – long enough to drain a congregation’s endowment?

That’s an extreme example.  But we can all name pastors who waited too long to retire.  Their congregations suffered from a lack of energy and imagination, if not intelligence and love too.  For some of those congregations, by the time the pastor retired, they had reached a point of no return in terms of their capacity to be The Church.

We can also name pastors who retired with a great deal of energy and creativity.  I know superb pastors who reinvented themselves through the years and took imaginative risks up to the last day of their tenure.  I call them Seasoned Allies and I want to be like them.  (Note: Today is my 61st birthday which also happens to be National Napping Day – almost like the cosmos is suggesting I slow down.)

Retirement is looming for the majority of our PCUSA pastors and we 50/60-somethings are called to leave a strong and healthy Church for the next generations of leaders and followers.

I’m in Kansas City for the NEXT Church National Conference this week.  And I’m leading a workshop today called Seasoned Allies.  This will be an opportunity for Baby Boomer pastors to discuss how we might make way for younger leaders to take the helm. 

If you are, yourself, a Boomer, I’d love to hear your thoughts on your own retirement expectations.  If you identify as Generation X or Millennial, I’d love for you to share what you’d like Boomers to know.  Thanks. I’ll report back.

Sleep is a Spiritual Gift

At this I awoke and looked, and my sleep was pleasant to me. Jeremiah 31:26

I believe that sleep is a spiritual gift, especially if we define spiritual gifts as those God-given endowments bestowed upon us to help fulfill the mission of the Church. (Definition found here.)

I do my best work when I am rested.  I do my worst work when I’m exhausted.

A couple of fun facts about sleep:

  • Ambien is the 4th most prescribed psychiatric drug in the U.S.  (Yes it’s considered a psychiatric drug to be taken only short-term according to this.)
  • Infants spend about half their sleep time in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep while adults spend only about 20% of our sleep time in REM sleep.
  • Non-REM but almost-REM sleep is the time when our body reboots, our heart rates slows, our muscles and bones repair themselves.
  • 40% of adults in the U.S. have difficulties sleeping,

I almost never have trouble sleeping.  The night my father phoned to tell us that Mom was going to die, I went right to sleep.

Like I said, sleep is a spiritual gift.

More than one pastor has told me that by the time their weekly Sabbath rolls around, he/she is so exhausted from the unrelenting duties of professional ministry that the whole day is spent sleeping.  (Note:  this could also be a sign of depression.)  After leaving a congregation I served for over 20 years, I moved halfway across the country and slept for three months.  Seriously, every part of me was utterly wiped out.

What can we do to promote deep, nourishing rest so that we can arise fresh each day to do ministry?

What helps people sleep?  A clear conscience?  A caffeine-free diet?  One of those sleep number beds?

One particularly disruptive sleep-killer is fear:  fear that something horrible will happen while we snooze (like rats will eat me) or fear that we forgot to do something that day or fear that we will not survive this _____.

There are 49 words for “fear” in the Hebrew Bible and 15 words for “fear” in the Greek Bible.  I can name something to fear for every letter in the alphabet.

But God wants us to sleep as if the world can spin without us. Because it will.

Image source.

Concrete

  • 20th Century ministry often involved Strategic Planning.
  • 21st Century ministry often involves Visioning.

The world has changed.  And some (most?) congregations want quick fixes even when we know intellectually that cultural shifting is neither swift nor easy. We will never return to the 1950s Church no matter how much we try to get back there.  Never going to happen.

So we brainstorm.  We envision.  We imagine.  We study.  We read what the pros say.  We listen to what the consultants say.  We make a plan.  Or we don’t.

The bravest among us try lots of things and see what sticks.  The bravest among us embrace failure.  The bravest among us take the innovation leap.

It’s time to be brave.

How many of us have gone through visioning programs and then put the final report on the shelf?  How many of us have spent serious money to work with consultants only to find our people too tired or too scared to execute the consultants’ suggestions?

Concrete – made of gravel, ash, sand, and industrial waste – is ugly and unbendable.  Sometimes it crumbles.  It can be crushed.

But a little concrete in our visioning is necessary.  We need to take solid steps forward – even if we also take a few steps backwards.  We need to act upon our vision for the Church or else we will find ourselves stuck naval gazing or worse – hang wringing.

There is no single game plan for implementing a vision.  But we indeed start with something – a vision  – and then do something  – concrete. Even concrete can shift and be reconfigured, so don’t worry that we are creating something immovable.

Consider Jesus who did many concrete things.

 

Tiny House Dreaming

HH and I live in a mansion compared to how most people in the world live.  All our grown kids and dogs fit when they are visiting.  But compared to our neighbors, it’s a medium sized house.

We raised our family in a one bathroom home and it worked out just fine.  We
now have a lavish 1.5 bathroom home which feels luxurious.  And the biggest plus about our current home is a humongous backyard where we’ve thrown one wedding and could accomodate at least four Tiny Houses – or six if we were willing to give up more green space.

And this brings me to my Tiny House Dreams.  Retirement is closer than it used to be and so I find myself pondering how I might like to live post-professional ministry.  At this point, my dreams involve:

  • Walkability and/or public transportation.  (I do not plan driving past my 80th birthday – which is a wildly radical thing to say considering I’ve not imagined I could live that long until recently.)
  • High coziness quotient.  Comfy space.
  • Super efficient.  Less furniture and more built in cabinets/book shelves.
  • A place for guests/potential grandchildren and their parents.  And dog(s).

I have no idea where this dream life might happen geographically.  But this is what I ponder and it’s really fun.

Where and how will you live in – say – ten years?  What’s your dream?

Image of my new favorite Tiny House.