Against My Religion

We have a multi-faith wedding happening at our home this summer andMap of Indiana religion is a consideration for sure.  At latest count, there will be Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists – in addition to many unbelievers of any stripe.

Among the self-identified faithful, there will be practicing and non-practicing adherents.  But we are making provisions for all practicing guests, as best we can.  No pork, for example.

In the joyful throes of wedding planning, I’ve also heard these comments:

We won’t be drinking wine, but it’s fine to serve it.”  (A lovely accommodation in light of the Muslim practice of no alcohol.)

I won’t be dancing.  It’s against my religion.”  (Fine, but I know other people in your faith tradition who dance.)

I have joked that it’s against my religion not to have a chilled cocktail about an hour before the wedding, but obviously that is more of a preference than a religious practice. . . .

Which brings me to Indiana.  Indiana business owners who object to same-sex couples, for example, now have a legal right to deny them services.  In other words, if I own a dry cleaning business, I can refuse to clean the shirts of gay people – married or not.  Or something like that.

It was against Jewish law in Jesus’ day to touch lepers and bleeding women, and yet he did it for the sake of the greater law of love.  If we believe the Bible, Jesus spoke against stoning an adulterer, socialized with Samaritans, and was okay with his followers picking grain on the Sabbath – all in violation of his religion’s law.

What would Jesus say to the bakery owner who refuses to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple for religious reasons? (“It’s against my religion for same-sex couples to marry.“) Or to the nursery school owner who refuses to allow a mixed-race child to attend that school – again for religious reasons.  (“It’s against my religion for races to intermarry.”)  Or the restaurant owner who refuses to rent the party room to a Hindu family for their daughter’s graduation.  (“It’s against my religion to do business with someone who worships multiple gods.“)

If I’m to understand Jesus correctly, I believe it’s against my religion to refuse to serve my neighbor.

Ideas Are Cheap, Action is Costly

bringing-ideas-to-lifeI was reading Relevant and came upon this article and it reminded me why I have an easy job compared to parish pastors. (Note:  I serve 96 congregations and worshiping fellowships in a Middle Judicatory.  It’s way more fun than it sounds.)

I am called to resource congregations and their leaders with ideas. But those leaders are the ones called to act on those ideas.

You want to know how to reorganize your governing board?  I have several ideas. Want to grow your congregational spiritually?  I have suggestions. What to shift your congregation’s culture?  I can prompt you.  Want to learn how to connect with the neighborhood?  Not a problem.

But the professional minister who decides to adopt one of my Big Ideas is the one who pitches the shift to an often skeptical audience, sweats the details, takes the heat, risks her job, places a target on his back.  Failure is almost guaranteed.

One of life’s realities is the belief that positive change will come without the excruciating work it takes to make those changes happen.  And yet . . .

Bringing life to transformational ideas is the call of the 21st Century Pastor.  I don’t know a single church that doesn’t need to make shifts in their outreach, organizational structure and culture.  But most of our pastors are not equipped to make these changes without ongoing coaching.

Our seminaries offer excellent academic training, but few teach change management for congregations.

So, this is a long-winded salute to the parish pastors out there who dare to introduce the kind of change that energizes disciples, models abundant living, nurtures spiritual community, and makes it all about God.  You are rock stars. You are the future of the church.  You fill me with joy.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Image source.

Who Are The Untouchables in Our Congregations?

You know who I’m talking about.
They are the bullies, the gossips, the haters.  They might be incompetent or simply ineffective.  They might be The Big Givers who inspire fear that “they will leave” if challenged.  They could be . . .

  • The former pastor’s widow who is beyond criticism.
  • The music director who is “beloved” and yet quite difficult.
  • The long-time volunteer who complains about how many years she “has had to do this job” but she won’t let anyone else do it.
  • The Elder Emeritus who blocks all change.
  • The nonagenarian who holds the congregation hostage with his Disapproval Face.
  • The Top Giver who threatens to “cut his pledge” if she doesn’t get her way.

They are seemingly untouchable no matter how cranky, obstinate, mopey, or cruel they might be.

Imagine what would happen if skilled leaders held these sisters and brothers accountable.  In Crucial Conversations, Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler write:

In the worst companies, poor performers are first ignored and then transferred. In good companies, bosses eventually deal with problems.  In the best companies, everyone holds everyone else accountable – regardless of level or position.”

The same is true for healthy congregations and their senior/solo pastors. Imagine:

  • Leaders with the spiritual confidence to refute gossip as soon as they hear it.
  • Parishioners with the integrity to stand up to bullies the very moment of bullydom.
  • Pastors who hold volunteers accountable and set term limits for the health of the organization.
  • Volunteers who happily mentor their replacements so that they serve in a position no more than 3 years, and then pass the baton.
  • Important conversations that happen regularly and while they might heat up, they never explode.
  • Congregations of people who share a common purpose and refuse to make it about any one person (unless we count Jesus.)
  • Parishioners resilient enough to welcome constructive criticism for the sake of being a more faithful church.

Who are The Untouchables in our congregations?  And who will have the courage and faith to ask them if they realize that they are hurting the very church they say they love?

And what do we do when an untouchable church member threatens to leave?As you wishSometimes the best thing we can do is to quote Westley in The Princess Bride.

Mixed Marriage? Broken Family? Or Something Else?

There is one body and one Spirit, just as we were called to the one hope in our calling. Ephesians 4:4

heartbreak_medIn a church I once served outside Our Nation’s Capital –  where elections impacted personal employment as well as national policy –  some of our ushers added an additional responsibility to their duties on Sunday mornings during election season:  they counted the bumper stickers in the church parking lot.  If the GOP bumper stickers seriously outnumbered the Democratic bumper stickers – it was time to include more progressive images and ideas in sermons and prayers.  If the Democratic bumper stickers seriously outnumbered the Republican bumper stickers, it was time to mention historically conservative examples.

Call me a fence sitter, but I believe that Scripture is an equal opportunity offender.  And we are called to be a Church that looks like the kingdom of God, with a rainbow of all races and ethnicities, political proclivities and ages, education levels, physical/mental abilities, and socioeconomic classes.

And speaking of rainbows . . .

I am fairly certain that I offended some of my friends and family last week when I joyously touted that enough Presbyteries had voted in favor of changing the definition of marriage in my denomination, the PCUSA.  The new definition is:

Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the wellbeing of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.

These are fighting words – heartbreaking words – to some people I love.  They are also words that make many of my sisters and brothers weep with joy.  For a long, long time, faithful followers of Jesus who are also LBGTQ have waited for the rest of the church to experience an Acts of the Apostles moment:

  • Remember when God made food clean that had once been considered profane?
  • Remember when the Council of Jerusalem debated whether or not the uncircumcised could be saved?  There was “no small dissension” about this issue and “they parted company” over the issue.
  • Remember that in the discussion about whether or not being uncircumcised was okay, it was not okay to “fornicate”?

Being able to marry the person you love – if we are concerned about fornication – seems to be a good and holy thing.

Yes, we can argue about these issues (and God knows we have.)  We can stay together as a church in spite of mixed perspectives on the interpretation of Scripture.  We could “break up” (again) as a Church.  Or we could do something completely different – although I don’t know what that might be.

I believe that God continues to speak.  (Thank you United Church of Christ friends.)  And I believe that sometimes it’s a good thing to break up the family. And I also believe that God still calls us to wrestle angels.

And I believe it’s imperative to be a good sport – whether we are talking about March Madness or denominational policy-making.  May God have mercy upon us.  May God continue to speak.

Image source unknown.

One Mother, One Daughter, Two Midwives, & a Big Sister

“The stories we tell our children shape what they believe to be possible—which is why at Passover, we must tell the stories of the women who played a crucial role in the Exodus narrative.”

Nikki Lugo tattoo 2014Passover is a couple weeks away, but The Notorious RBG and Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt have given us food for thought as Jews and Christians move from slavery to freedom,  from darkness to light, from death to life.

Just as Shonda Rhimes said here, it’s essential to see ourselves in stories.  If we read and watch stories that show People Like Us, we are inspired to step up and be who God created us to be.

(Note:  It’s an underrated miracle when, for example, a young black girl becomes a brain surgeon even when she has never in her life seen a black female doctor until she herself goes to medical school.  I am humbled to have been part of that miracle too.  I never heard a woman preach until I went to seminary.)

It’s much easier to step up into our calling if there is a story that teaches our daughters that they can carry forward the traditions of the women who went before them.  We easily forget that a brave woman gave birth to Moses, assisted by two wily midwives.  We downplay the fact that without a daughter of privilege and a daughter of slavery teaming up, there would be no exodus out of Egypt.

As Spring begins today, it’s a lovely time to prepare for a new Exodus.  Who are we mentoring?  Who is watching us and how are we encouraging them to be who God has called them to be?  Who needs a fresh vision to escape some 21st Century version of slavery?

Image is a tattoo created by Nikki Lugo after RBG’s 35 page dissent against the 2014 Supreme Court ruling  that Hobby Lobby could deny contraception coverage to employees as part of the company’s health insurance plan.

What’s Next for the Church? (Shonda is Helpful)

Human Rights Campaign Los Angeles Gala 2015I write this after the NEXTChurch National Conference in Chicago (which I attended) and the White Privilege Conference in Louisville (which I didn’t attend.) Whatever the Spirit leads God’s people to be and do in the coming years, it will be surely be more racially and ethnically diverse. At least in the United States, people with white skin will no longer be the majority by 2043. On July 1, 2012, non-white births first outnumbered white births according to the US Census Bureau.

So, this is a thing.

This is the new normal (or maybe the old normal depending on who you are and where you live.)

Shonda Rhimes has created several popular televisions shows, all of which include characters who are as diverse as any on television: white, black, brown, olive, LGBTQ, straight, old, young. She doesn’t do it to be politically correct. She does it to show what normal looks like.

What Shonda Rhimes said on March 15, 2015 at the Human Rights Campaign Gala in LA should be required reading:

I really hate the word “diversity”. It suggests something…other. As if it is something…special. Or rare.


As if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV.

I have a different word: NORMALIZING.

I’m normalizing TV.

I am making TV look like the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal WAY more than 50% of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary. I am making the world of television look NORMAL.

You can read her entire speech here and I hope you will.

I have a couple of random thoughts:

  • My denomination is predominantly white. This is not a shocking news flash. Either we are okay with this or we are not.
  • My denomination is full of church people who are faithful and good and yet we are also racist – either softly or hard-core.
  • We white people are offended when somebody refers to “white privilege.” We take offense. We feel attacked.
  • We assume that television characters and magazine models and textbook illustrations will look like us.
  • We white people generally fail to notice that security officers do not follow us around in nice stores assuming we might steal something, that police are not called when we are walking in nice neighborhoods assuming we don’t live there, that teachers do not assume our children are in gangs.

Genuinely getting to know each other melts assumptions. And when we hear stories of exclusion, there is going to be some confessing to do when we realize that we were the ones who excluded other people. There will be pain to acknowledge.

On March 17, 2015, my denomination officially made marriage “between two people, traditionally a man and a woman” the law of our denominational land. This is our new normal, not because we are trying to “mock God” or “change God’s Word” but because Scripture is a living Word. But we have excluded faithful people who were created to love in ways that are – perhaps – not like we were created. We have excluded some of God’s children who deserve to be included.

Many of my brothers and sisters will disagree with this understanding of Scripture. In a Bible that has – through the ages – been used to support slavery, forbid interracial marriage, and force women to stay in abusive situations, Acts 10 helps us understand what is indeed the Next Church. What we have often called unclean, our Creator has made clean.

By God’s grace, diversity is not only our future. It’s the way things are now. And it’s a good and holy thing. But we have a lot of work to do.

Image of Shonda Rhimes. And really, read her whole speech at the 2015 Human Rights Campaign Gala last weekend.

Is It Faithful to Be Corporate?

The national gathering of NEXT Church is here in Chicago next week and PCUSA Headquarters PCUSAleaders from all over will be in town to talk about the new ways God is calling us to be The Church. My hope is that the results will be more impactful than mere talk.

I had a bad attitude about NEXT Church when it started because it felt uncomfortably corporate. In other words, there were those of us who had been talking and writing about shifts in 21st C. church for a while but we were serving small steeple congregations without a lot of prestige in the greater denomination. At least in the beginning of NEXT Church, the organizers were from the largest congregations in the denomination who began to agree that some adaptation was needed in the way we are The Church together. Personally speaking, it felt like church transformation wasn’t taken seriously until the big churches started to take it seriously.

So next week, we meet in one of the largest Presbyterian church buildings in the U.S.A. with folks from small, medium-sized, and large (corporate-sized) congregations, along with seminarians, new church planters, and specialized ministers.

At the risk of stirring up the 99%, I’d like to speak a supportive word about The Corporate Church. “Corporate” is an interesting word:

  • Mainline Christians often include corporate prayers spoken in unison in our liturgies.
  • The PCUSA is a rich denomination – financially – because many of the corporate business leaders have been Presbyterian historically.

And yet “corporate” is a dirty word for many of us. Some second career clergy friends were once “corporate” before hearing God’s call to professional ministry, and we who didn’t take that path look upon them with both respect and admiration. We respect that they’ve given up six figure salaries for clergy wages and we admire their prowess in financial management skills – something we English majors lack.

I recently heard a business school professor – who is also a follower of Jesus – speak about being a Christian in the corporate world, and because of her position, I don’t want to reveal her name or school, so I’ll call her DCL (Devout Corporate Leader.) She believes in markets. She believes that creating wealth also creates jobs and opportunities for the poor. She also believes that we can create businesses that serve people well. Numbers are her friend.

The 21st Century Church – as I’ve been known to say – must be less about numbers (attendance and cash) than about relationships (spiritual growth and community impact.) But numbers can be our friends too if they are more about impact than ego.

DCL believes that the goal of management training is to create low ego/high impact leaders. Do we want Big Numbers so that we can brag about the size of our congregation. (1000s of members = “I am a big deal“) or do we want Big Numbers because it means that more people are experiencing transformation in the name of Jesus? (1000s of members = “We are profoundly changing the community to be more on earth as it is in heaven.”)

It’s really okay to “be corporate” if we are low ego/high impact leaders. In fact this is one of the huge shifts we need to be making. Big Steeple Churches that are all about the pastors’ and members’ egos are a quick decade away from closing if they do not become about making disciples and transforming the community for good. And small congregations can make a tremendous missional impact if we stop feeling shameful about being smaller in numbers than we were in 1962. Who cares if we have 50 or 500 in worship, if we are reaching broken people and bringing hope?

Corporate doesn’t have to mean cold and commercial. For the church it can mean unified and communal. Together we can do more. But it can’t be about ego.

Image of the corporate headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Louisville, KY.

Magazines for the Ages

As you read this, I am easing into my sixtieth year.  magazine mosaic

I read Seventeen magazine when I was 14 and AARP when I was 45, so maybe age-specific magazines don’t necessary reach their intended ages.   I remember loving Good Housekeeping as a teenager when I had no house to keep. Today Seventeen magazine strikes me as terrifying.   I vaguely remember when it was about hair styles and clothes, but it seems icky now.

The older I get, the more it seems that statements about age are not necessarily about age.  I wrote a post a while back that felt hurtful to some readers.  I didn’t mean for that to happen.  Honestly, it’s true that many 60-something pastors need to retire, but it’s not as much about age as it’s about energy.  I spent last week with my preaching group which includes a few 60-somethings.  But they are still energetic, ready to learn new things, and willing to try new ways to be the church.

It’s not about age.  It’s about energy.  The truth is that we get tired as we age. The pastor who was ordained at 27 and serves the institutional church until she is 67 potentially preaches through The Common Lectionary (Years A, B, & C) over thirteen times.  How many new things can we preach afresh about John the Baptist?

I know 40-something pastors who basically phone it in.  They need to move on. And it’s possible to be a 50-something pastor who also needs to hang up the clergy stole for now.  Maybe – after many years in professional ministry – many of us just need a sabbatical.  We become cynical after spending countless hours in meetings that achieve nothing transformational.  We become pessimistic, perhaps, after giving our lives to “grow the church” only to find that our culture is changing and – no matter what we do, it seems – our congregations are only growing smaller.  It’s disheartening to admire creative colleagues who turn out to be misconduct pastors.

And yet . . .

the Spirit continues to infuse dry bones and lead the old to dream dreams while our sons and daughters prophesy.  God speaks through secular periodicals and nature and random comments made by a stranger on the street.  I’m feeling pretty energized today.  I hope you are too.

God Still Creates Cool Stuff

Having a sense of wonder is not just for children.  God still creates cool stuff and the more we learn about it, the more our ministry is enhanced.
Scientific American Mosaic

Just as Jesus used nature created by God to explain things – seeds, sheep,
lilies – we can find countless images in science to help us interpret Scripture. Preachers love sermon illustrations.  There are hundreds of them here.

God uses everything to point to what’s True and 21st Century preachers can also find illustrations in science that will enhance our interpretation.  Did you know that there are “tongue experts” (James 3:6-10) and provocative studies about ashes (Genesis 3:16)?  Spiritual practices as well as bad habits can be understood by considering how our brains work.  And remembering that Abram was 75 years old when called to leave Haram is enhanced by knowing that indeed some of our elders are more nimble than younger generations.

Some of us are big fans of this website (although I’m uncomfortable spelling out the word.)  God created an unspeakably interesting world and for the sake of the Gospel, let’s read about it.

Image is a mosaic of Scientific American magazine covers.

Secular Magazines Are Our Friends: Fast Company

Fast Company MosaicClergy, seminarians, and other church leaders often look to denominational resources, churchy blogs (like this one) and theological periodicals for inspiration. I’m not suggesting that we don’t read those offerings.

But just as it’s important to get out of the Church Bubble in our recreational endeavors (take a Thai cooking class!), it is essential to broaden our reading horizons professionally.

Secular magazines are an excellent resource for figuring out fresh ideas for congregational leadership, and – with the NEXT Church National Gathering around the corner for me and my PCUSA colleagues – this week’s posts will focus on secular magazines we should be reading as we consider what the Next Church might look like.

I love Fast Company magazine.  It’s dense with ideas, filled with recommendations for further reading and research, and decidedly not churchy. But many articles, graphs, and lists speak provocatively to Church World.

The annual issue featuring The World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies is currently on the racks and while their “20 Lessons of Innovation for 2015″ do not completely resonate with management of religious non-profit organizations, many of these lessons actually apply well.

Those lessons – by Editor Robert Safian – include these:

1. “Inspiration needs execution.”  What drives me crazy in Church World is that congregations hire consultants or participate in denominational programs but then Nothing Happens.  A report sits on a bookshelf.  A new mission plan is considered, but no execution occurs.  I believe that – after the consultation – every congregation needs ongoing coaching to prompt real action.  We need to be held accountable.  How are we moving towards the vision?  Who is tending to the necessary details?  We need congregational coaches.

2. “Tomorrow is too slow.”  Remember what Jesus said about not knowing the day God will show up?  We in the church move as if God will never show up. Call me impatient, but there is an urgency about serving those who are hungry or broken or lonely.  Let’s do this!

3. ” . . . But great ideas may need time.”  We can’t change congregational culture, heal from misconduct, or figure out who God is calling us to be without serious discernment and prayer.  One leader cannot carry the vision alone.  We need buy-in from the whole community, or at least from a substantial part of the community.  This takes time.

4. “Innovative cultures are rewarding.”  Fast Company is talking about financial rewards here.  But I’m thinking about spiritual rewards, emotional rewards, and cosmic rewards.  Imagine a culture in which lives are being changed for good and neighborhoods are thriving.  Yes, please.

5. “Failure does have a price.”  Some efforts fall short.  Some are expensive.  Sometimes “performance” doesn’t align with “aspirations.”  Some congregations ruthlessly punish and shame those who fail after trying something new.  Yes, there is a risk.  But show me a congregation that doesn’t try new ways of being the church and I’ll show you a dying congregation.

6. “Millennials are making waves.”  Show some love to  Millennials.  “This demographic cohort is often caricatured,” says Safian, but they are smart and interesting and super capable.  Point them to leadership positions.

7. “Values are valued.” “Next gen customers appreciate enterprises with soul,” writes Safian.  Amen.

8. “Bold ideas are global.”  How are we connecting with sisters and brothers in other parts of the world?  I’m not talking about sending them checks.  I’m talking about relationships.

9. “Every company is a tech company.”  Or in our context: Every spiritual community is a tech community.  We connect digitally.  Apps improve our lives. We don’t use social media to be trendy.  We use it to connect.

10. “World-changing ideas are bubbling.”  Do we imagine partnering with others (maybe even inter-faith partnerships!) to serve trafficking victims, refugees, people with PTSD, or basic hunger?  There are some cool organizations that would love to partner with us.

This post could be much longer as I could share so much Good Stuff from Fast Company magazine.  I read it so you don’t have to.  But if you want more . . .

Image of assorted Fast Company covers.