Jimmy Fallon Schools Us on Leadership

Slate-night-jimmy-fallon-50everal people have written about what we can learn about leadership from Jimmy Fallon.  Check out this recent article by Eric Clayton and this 2014 article by MaryAnn McKibben Dana.

Sadly, many of our congregations are diminished by poor leadership and those leaders aren’t particularly interested in (or aware that they need) ongoing leadership training.  So, here’s the thing: if our leaders aren’t going to take classes or get coaching or read helpful articles, then maybe we’d be willing to pick up some pointers from late night TV.

So let’s make this easy:  People love Jimmy Fallon.  He is both crush-worthy and supremely likeable.

But he can also teach us how to increase our capacity to lead.

1- He lifts up his team.  Steve Higgins is “so great.”  He regularly asks us to “give it up for The Roots.”  Even if there are issues on a church staff, it’s crucial for a pastor to back up her/his leaders.  Have fun with them.  Appreciate them. Back. Them. Up.

2- He writes “Thank You” notes.  There are so many people who contribute to the life of our community.  Strong leaders are appreciative for both the grand and the trivial.

3- He invites people known for one thing to try new things.  Emma Stone lip syncs.  Don Cheadle sings R&B.  Daniel Radcliffe raps.  Imagine if we invited the long-time treasurer or an experienced Bible study leader to try something new and fun?

What if each of us adopted these three simple practices this Lent?  And if Jimmy Fallon inspires you, consider taking a class, reading a book, or subscribing to some articles.  We are called to lead to God’s glory and we can do better.

Parts of Speech

AdjectivesAn adjective is a describing word.  A noun is a naming word.

No, this is not a child’s grammar lesson.  But sometimes we need an ecclesiological refresher.

Rob Bell wrote a while back that “Christian” is a poor adjective.  I would call it a misleading adjective.  Examples:  Christian Phone Book, Christian Hair Salon, Christian Band, Christian Author.

Christian” is a much better noun.  (Note:  Not necessarily referring to Christian Grey here.)

At our staff retreat yesterday, some of us came to the conclusion that “Church” is an excellent adjective.  Examples:  Church Building.  Church Staff.  Church Meeting.  Church Playground.

Church as a noun can be confusing.  This is a church.  This is a church building. “Going to church” could mean heading to a Bible study at Starbucks or heading to a food pantry to stock shelves.  But usually it means we are going to the building where our congregation gathers on Sundays.

One of the marks of a 21st Century Church is that the people do not merely “go” to church.  They are the church.  They are the church in Starbucks, in the food pantry, in the car, and in the office.

And now a note for Presbyterians (or any denomination without a bishop):  the word “Presbytery” is an excellent adjective, but a crazy-making noun.

Is Transparency Good for the Church?

Yes. Transparent Church

It used to be true that sharing certain realities of life was frowned upon even (especially?) in a spiritual community. It was usually kept quiet, for example, that:

  • The pastor ever struggled with doubt.
  • The most generous financial contributors were not always The Rich Ones.
  • The church staff didn’t always get along.
  • The perfect-looking family sitting next to you on the pew for 10 years had dealt with all manner of crises.

Our culture has changed and today healthy churches do not keep such things quiet. This article covers why transparency is good for business. Transparency is also very good for spiritual communities.

In fact, as people seek community today, we are increasingly attracted to:

  • Leaders who are real. The healthiest pastors have strong emotional intelligence and excellent boundaries, but they also share their personal struggles in pastoral ways. “The Perfect Pastor” or the pastor who tries to convey that her family is perfect does the congregation no favors. It’s a community killer.
  • Finances that are managed openly and effectively. There are thousands of charities that would love to have our money. Congregations with transparent accounting procedures instill trust and confidence. When salaries and benefits are published, we better understand our sense of fairness, justice, and commitment. (Is our secretary earning a livable wage? Does the Senior Pastor earn three times what the Associate Pastor earns, and if so, why?)
  • Rules that make sense. Do we say we are a welcoming congregation but our rules tell a different story? Do we hold up a vision of tolerance but we have written or unwritten rules against certain people holding office?
  • Open opportunities to serve. Nobody joins a church to serve on a committee with endless meetings, strange processes, and cliquish leadership. When there is a secret inner circle that makes all decisions, the congregation is negatively impacted.
  • A clear and transformational purpose. People want to make a difference in the thick of our busy lives. We do not have time to waste on institutional administrivia.

Social media contributes to transparency, but it can also isolate us. Oversharing how very perfect everything is – and especially oversharing someone else’s issues – is not what I’m talking about here. Social media that reaches out trying to connect (sharing prayer concerns, for example) creates intimacy.

Neil Patel of Fast Company writes, “As people become more transparent with one another, their relationships deepen. And who is responsible for leading that move towards transparency? It’s the leadership of the business. Transparency has to start at the top.”

Attention Pastoral Leaders and Denominational Staffers: Transparency starts with us. It keeps us honest. It infuses trust. It creates community and makes us better.

Do we ourselves trust that God is leading us? Do we seek to be faithful followers of the way of Jesus? If so, we can afford to be transparent in our ministry.

Image of the Transparent Church located in Limburg, Belgium and designed by Arnout Van Vaerenbergh.

Not All Churches Are Broken (But Some Are)

toppled-steepleIn reviewing some of the comments made about this post, it’s clear that many congregations are anxious. And this is why so many pastors are indeed expected to “bring in the young families.”

Aging buildings, declining attendance, and budget deficits add to the anxiety.  And so these church leaders often contact denominational leaders or consultants for some coaching on How To Transition. They may not like it, but they realize that shifts must be made to be a thriving congregation in the 21st Century.

And then there are the churches with no energy or no capacity to make these shifts.  What do we do with those congregations?

One of my brilliant colleagues and I sometimes discuss this and we have (especially he has)  come up with a few ideas. These ideas would not work in every denomination or situation, of course.  In the PCUSA (my denomination) we tend not to close churches unless the congregation itself wants to close.

But what if . . . 

  • The church cannot afford even a part-time pastor? (Translation:  They hire someone to preach on Sunday but no one necessarily provides pastoral care, educational support, administrative guidance, vision casting, or missional leadership.)
  • The church leaders are landlords rather than spiritual leaders? (Translation:  They rent out their church building space to all kinds of organizations to cover their basic costs.)
  • The church is isolated and isolating.  (Translation:  They do not reach out to partner congregations, their denominational resources, or anyone else for assistance.)

Yes, there are congregations who exist to survive long enough for their own funerals.  Honestly, some have said these very words to me.  And are we – as denominations – being faithful if we perpetuate a survival model of ministry?

My own denomination has had congregation choose to close with great faithfulness.  They have realized that their congregation’s ministry is over but – if their church closes – the resources left behind can serve future congregations.  This, my friends, is resurrection.  And that’s what we who try to follow Jesus are about.

What if – denominational policies allowing – we closed congregations that:

  1. Have been served only by a supply preacher each Sunday for at least the past two years?
  2. Funded over 50% of their budget from resources apart from congregational giving?
  3. Do not effectively manage their finances as displayed in the lack of a regular review of their books?
  4. Have no ministry relationships with anyone outside their congregation.  (Note:  Writing checks to an organization ≠ a relationship.)

God deserves our best.  We who gather in Christ’s name are called to love our neighbors as ourselves and to make disciples of all nations.  All of us can do better and most of us try.  But when we cannot try any longer, it’s a holy thing to let go.

Image from a church building we see on vacation every summer.  Yes, every summer for the past six years.

Kids and Babies

We love kids and babies.  Bright cross

Twice in the life of this blog, posts have gone viral much to my surprise.  Both of those posts have been about kids and/or babies.  We love kids and babies.   And we in spiritual communities want and need them.

But there’s something we need even more than children in our congregations. We need to be clear on why we exist as a church.

I regularly ask congregational leaders why their church exists.  The answers include something like these:

  • This church has been important to my family for generations.
  • We have a meaningful history.
  • The Presbytery believed that a Presbyterian presence was needed in this part of town.
  • We need to preserve our traditions.
  • Our building has architectural significance.

God didn’t call us to be the church for the purpose of perpetuating institutions, serving individual families, creating attractive edifices, or establishing certain brands of theology.  God calls us to make disciples, to reach out to broken people in the name of Jesus, to love our neighbors, to be equipped to minister in the image of Christ, to be spiritually formed in community.

I believe that congregations that do these things, that are these things will thrive. Are we interested in being this kind of church?

Image source is unknown.

When Churches Want a Pastor Who Can “Bring In Young Families” . . .

. . . please consider sharing this post.Children in church 1

Almost every church I’ve ever known has wanted to Attract Young Families.  The reasoning behind this includes the following:

  • If we don’t regenerate, everyone will eventually get old and die.
  • It’s energizing to have young people around.
  • Younger members can do the work that older members can’t/won’t do anymore.
  • Older members tend to be on fixed incomes and younger working members are needed for their pledges.
  • Young families (i.e. mom, dad, and kids) remind us of church when we were (or wish we were) part of young families.

There are a few things wrong with this reasoning, including the fact that “attracting” people in general feels manipulative – as if people are “targets” to be used for our own purposes.  Yuck.

Let’s be honest about the “why.  Are we saying that we want these rare and valuable Young Families for what they can give to us?

What if  – instead – the “why” of this demographic quest was about feeding souls and sharing authentic community?  I always hoped – as a young mom – that church would provide adults that could help me nurture my children.  I always wanted to know that – if my kids couldn’t come to me or HH with a problem – they would have other trustworthy adults to whom they could go (and they did.)

Young families are great.  Old families are great.  Families made up of child-free couples are great.  Families of single people are great.  Imagine if every church simply wanted A Pastor Who Could Bring In Broken People.  Now that’s a church.

Also, the days are gone when Young Families were present in worship every Sunday.  The statistics are in about how the definition of “regular worship” has changed since the 1950s.  (“Regular” used to mean weekly.  Now it means once or twice a month.)

Instead of seeking a Pastor who can bring in those vaunted Young Families, we need to call a Pastor who knows how to shift congregational culture.  The culture in which we live and move and have our being has changed, but we are killing ourselves trying to maintain a dated congregational culture.

News flash:  Most pastors will fail at “Bringing in Young Families.” Families of every kind are drawn to communities that are in touch with real life.  For example, check out Carey Nieuwhof’s recent post about why even committed Christians do not worship as regularly as they did in previous decades.  At least two of his “10 Reasons” specifically impact cultural changes connected to Young Families.

So how can we be the kind of congregation that welcomes Young Families for more than their energy and wallets?  We can:

  1. Be real.  Deal with real issues in sermons, classes, retreats, conversations, prayers.
  2. Listen to parents’ concerns.  Listen to children’s concerns.
  3. Ask how we can pray for them.  And then pray for them.
  4. Allow/encourage messiness.  Noses will run and squirming will ensue.  There might be running.  There will definitely be noise.
  5. Check our personal Stink Eye Quotient.  Do we grimace when a baby cries?  Do we frown when the kids are wearing soccer uniforms?
  6. Refrain from expecting everyone to be the church like we have always been the church.
  7. Help parents, grandparents, and all adults become equipped to minister to children and youth.  How can we learn to offer such loving hospitality to the younger people in our midst that they will always experience church as home?
  8. Do not use children as cute props.  Yes they say the darndest things during children’s stories, but they are not there to entertain us.
  9. Give parents a break.  Really.  Help struggling parents get coats and hats on their kids.  Hold an umbrella.  Assist in wiping spills.
  10. Give parents a break administratively.  Make it easy to participate. Minimize the unnecessary.

It’s also okay not to have Young Families in our congregations depending on the context.  Some neighborhoods have very few young ones living nearby.  But there are still people who crave some Good News.

I want a Pastor who can minister to whomever lives in the neighborhood in the thick of these cruel and beautiful times.

Image is a popular one that shows up in lots of random blog posts.

Think Fast: “I Would Give Up My Life for _______.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25

Lenten Cross[Note:  Thanks to my brilliant colleague BC for the insights that contributed to this post.]

Losing is different from giving.

My parents lost their lives to cancer.  I have lost exactly two (expensive) fobs to get into the Presbytery Office building.  I have lost my mind on at least one occasion.

Kayla Mueller gave her life for Syrian victims.  She didn’t lose her life.  She gave it.  Yes, technically a building fell on her after a bombing or maybe someone personally killed her.  Either way, she chose to give up her life in a global way for the sake of the suffering in Syria.

Deah Barakat gave up his time to offer free dental care to Syrian refugees.  (But then someone took his life, which is different from losing or giving, but that’s for another post.)

Many of my my colleagues have given their lives for the institutional church. (Or we think we have.)

A fine preacher pointed out last Sunday that Jesus said we can save our lives by losing them, but then she wondered if he wasn’t really talking about giving rather than losing.

Nerd alert:  The Greek for for “will lose” is ἀπολέσει which means something like “utterly perish” or “cause to be lost.”  In other words, Jesus isn’t talking about “losing” as in losing our keys.  Jesus is talking about an action more akin to giving up something or allowing something to die.

Jesus didn’t lose his life for the sake of love.  Jesus gave his life for the sake of love.  Huge difference.

So, this makes “giving up something for Lent” different too.

I get the spiritual discipline of loving something so much (chocolate, coffee, bacon) that refraining from it for 40 days might remind us of Jesus’ sacrifice. But give me a break.

Jesus doesn’t much care if we give up our favorite food.  Jesus cares if we give up our lives.  And I’m not just talking about who or what we’d take a bullet for.

I’m talking about who or what we’d give up our personal dreams/goals/habits for.  Giving our lives for what Jesus gave his life for seems like our only choice, if we hope to be serious disciples.

This sounds much preachier than I expected.  But Lent is serious business.  And I confess that I’m pretty terrible at it.

Image source here.

Beyond Lemonade

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Genesis 50:20

Children in Dental Clinic Reyhanli, Turkey

This quote is from the Bible story about Joseph, the son of Jacob meeting his brothers for the first time after they’d (tried to) ruin his life. In spite of the fact that his brothers sold him into slavery, lied to their father that he’d died, etc. God used this tragedy for good.

I have long stopped believing that God’s finger is on every trigger and every steering wheel. People hurt people because we make choices (except in those situations when mental illness takes those choices from us.)

It’s yet to be seen whether or not Craig Hicks was officially insane when he executed Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha in their own home. But what has happened in the aftermath can only be described as holy:

  • While UNC School of Dentistry student Deah Barakat’s goal was to raise $20,000 for a mission trip to Turkey this summer to offer free dental care to Syrian refugee children, over $400,000 has been raised at this writing. You can make your donation here.
  • A school clinic for refugee kids has opened in Reyhanli, Turkey named for Deah Barakat – less than three days after his death.
  • Another clinic will be opening in Jordan in his memory.
  • And another clinic will offer dental care to the homeless in Raleigh, NC bearing the names of all three victims.

This is not much of a Mardi Gras-ish post today, is it? But – on the cusp of Lent – we are reminded that our God brings life even out of death.

Image of Syrian refugee children in Reyhanly, Turkey at the opening of their new dental clinic.

Speaking Up on Presidents’ Day

In the wake of last week’s tragedy in my home town of Chapel Hill, at least onelichtenstein-george-washington person tweeted:  

I need to hear from my president.  The shootings occurred on Tuesday and – to be fair – the world didn’t know much about the victims until Wednesday.  But President Obama didn’t talk about it until Friday.

We don’t elect the President of the United States to be our spiritual leader.  And yet there are moments – Ferguson, Sandy Hook, Katrina, 9-11 – when we expect our highest government leader to speak of lofty things.  Sometimes I want my President to declare/remind us in the wake of unnecessary violence that This Is Not Who We Are as human beings.

Yes, individuals can be broken, dark, mistaken, insane, and randomly evil.  But that is not who were were created to be.

The President of the United States’ task is not to pastor the people in times of tragedy.  We elect the President “to execute the Office . . .”  and “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”    But sometimes we need to hear a prophetic or comforting word.

As a follower of Jesus, my faith teaches me (Hello Incarnation) that we are called to stand with those who suffer.  Kayla Mueller was apparently trying to live out her faith in this way.  Some have called her foolish, but she was trying to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a place of terror.

As a pastor, I have answered this vow four times now:

Will you be a faithful minister, proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith, and caring for people? Will you be active in government and discipline, serving in the governing bodies of the church; and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?

My hope is that all my clergy friends are off today for Presidents’ Day because we need the break before Lent begins.  But, just as we remember what Presidents do, it’s a good day to remember what pastoral leaders do.

Years ago, during a particular difficult issue in the congregation I was serving, the leaders were discussing how to move forward.  I remember one elder saying, “All I know is that I want my pastor back.”  I had been so entrenched in the administrative matters at hand that I had not been free to be the pastor I’d been called to be.

We clergy have been called to speak – as well as to be the hands and feet of Jesus. I’m grateful for pastors who speak up.  There is a great deal to speak about.  It’s our calling and our responsibility.

Sometimes we want to hear from our President.  And many people no longer want to hear from a Preacher.  And yet, this is a huge piece of our calling:  to speak up – if not with our voices then at least with our actions.

Image is George Washington by Roy Lichtenstein (1963)

For the Love of God

Chapel Hill Victims
Please stop what you are doing right now and make a donation for Syrian Dental Relief – offering free dental care to Syrian refugees in Turkey – in memory of Deah Shaddy Barakat, age 23; his wife of less than two months Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.

That’s all I have to say today.