Essential Pairings

Remember when Thrillist won our hearts by pairing Girl Scout Cookies with specific wines in 2015?  It was life-giving.

There are essential pairings in life that bring strength and comfort into the world. For Christians, it’s bread and red wine (or bread and Welch’s grape juice.)  For those celebrating Rosh Hashanah this week, it’s apples and honey.

I experience deep personal joy when the following are paired:

  • Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
  • Bacon and eggs
  • Yolanda Pierce and a microphone

During a recent flight, I read The Dinner Party by Stephie Grob Plante in the Southwest Magazine about a real non-profit that organizes dinner parties for strangers who have experienced loss.  This phrase grabbed me:

“Food and grief, one of the most consistent pairings in human history.”

God knows this is true.

Most likely, we have all experienced the”consistent pairing” of food and grief.   When my mother died, Mary Moreau – a woman I barely knew from church – brought a broccoli and chicken casserole.  When Rachel’s husband Mark was caught having an affair with Thelma in Chapter 13 of Heartburn, Rachel smashed a key lime pie in Mark’s face at a dinner party.  And in thanksgiving for Nora Ephron, a friend brought me a key lime pie – which we ate in its entirety – after a seminary boyfriend cheated on me.

Food and grief are one of the most consistent pairings in human history.

As the world around us is reeling from multiple hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and refugee crises, we whose first inclination would be to take food to those who grieve find ourselves – most likely – unable to pair these particular tragedies with pie or casseroles.  But there is another life-giving pairing that every single one of us can offer to our neighbors in need.

Please pair your compassion with a financial donation. I suggest Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for three big reasons:

  1. Most of the money goes to those in need (Only 12% goes to administrative costs.  Anywhere from 0-15% is the highest score in Charity Navigator.)
  2. PDA sticks around when most other relief organizations go home. (Example:  we are still assisting those impacted by Katrina and Sandy.)
  3. PDA organizes teams of volunteers who go in after the first responders finish their work.

You can donate $10 immediately by texting PDA to 20222.

You can donate more by going here.

Please do not send socks or used clothing.  Please do remember the essential pairing of prayer and money.  It’s almost as old a pairing as food and grief.

Image from Thrillist.



A Church Without Labels

“We have adopted the labels of our culture: liberal, conservative.  This only divides us.”  The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of the PCUSA at the meeting of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly 9-19-17


The Belhar Confession of my denomination states that unity is “both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ.” So why are we so divided as God’s people? On any given day in the Twitterverse, Christians are battering each other with mockery and aspersions.

I am often labeled as a follower of Jesus who is a member of a certain mainline denomination and a certain political party who grew up in a certain college town and now lives in a certain county in Illinois. But labeling me according to any of these factsdoesn’t describe who I fully am.

“Are you conservative or liberal?”

My favorite answer to this, personally, is “It depends.”  It depends on the topic. It depends on the stakes. It depends on the details. It depends who’s asking.

Please note that the Bible is an equal opportunity offender and there are verses which are wildly radical (when they were first spoken and now) and there are other verses which are rather conventional (when they were first spoken and now.)  There are passages which – read in context – seem to say one thing when they actually say something quite different.

The verses about women not speaking in church is a great example:  it seems to be a very conservative teaching when actually it presumes a very liberal message. A “Bible Church” pastor taught me that Paul presumes that women should be in a church gathering in the first place – which was a radical idea for the First Century.  And women were most likely told to wait and ask questions when they get home because 1) they have a lot of questions, never having been part of the temple lessons before and 2) it’s like watching the third Harry Potter movie with someone who never saw the first two.  They need to suck it up and ask their questions (“So is Sirius Black a good guy or a bad guy?) when they get home. The point was not silencing women.  The point was preventing disruptions in worship.

Am I liberal or conservative?  Radical or traditional?  Evangelical or Interfaith?  Yes.  Again, it depends what we are talking about, etc.

If unity is a gift and an obligation – which I believe – then we could do a better job as the Church embracing this gift and fulfilling this obligation.  It’s easy to be the Church when everybody agrees with everyone else.  But we are called to be at table with those with whom we disagree.  God does God’s best work at those tables.

Image source.

Recognizing Our Own Super Powers

I loved watching Lena Waithe accept her Emmy Award Sunday night with these words:  “The things that make us different — those are our superpowers.”  You can watch a clip of the episode she wrote with Aziz Ansari here.  It’s worth it to watch the whole episode on Netflix.

This week I’ll be in Louisville for a week of meetings at our denominational Mother Ship.  Of all the things I love about professional ministry, I admit before you and God that the board meetings I’ll attend will engage in Church Things that make me tired: policies and procedures and budget line items.  These are important matters, to be sure.  But I find myself asking, “Did Jesus die for this?”  If we cannot offer a resounding “Yes!” then maybe we need to rethink our efforts and recognize our own (God given) super powers.

God has given us everything we need.

At the risk of sounding naive and simplistic, we are drenched in super powers by virtue of our baptism, our faith, and our calling.  God has got this.  And we have been given the responsibility and privilege of serving in God’s name.

Our super powers involve the ability to love our enemies and to rise after dying. The weak become strong and the last become first. We have the super power of being salt and light.

But we forget.

I for one have witnessed these super powers.  I’ve watched people like Lena Waithe who’ve suffered for being different, rise up to use their gifts to make the world more beautiful.  I have watched People of Color overcome the ugliest of humiliations only to stand up as pillars of integrity in the midst of evil.  I have seen people crushed by grief able to face the world again and experience joy.

I believe God grants us these super powers.  But we either don’t realize that we have them or we forget.  I look forward to focusing on my super powers this week and I hope you will too.  (Repeat after me while sitting in your own meetings:  Did Jesus die for this?  If not, why are you there?)

Image of Lena Waithe, the first black woman to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series last weekend.

21st Century Leadership: Collaborating Beyond the Usual Suspects

The days are gone when leaders can be Lone Rangers.  And the days are long gone when Pastors can possibly be good at everything  – cloistered in a theological library to craft sermons while simultaneously scheduling pastoral visits, preparing for classes for God’s children of every age, and ensuring that the lights are on and the bulletins are printed.  Even small rural congregations would be wise to recognize this.

Most of us have become more specialized professionally and it starts young. Suburban children go to science focus schools starting in kindergarten. They specialize in sports and musical instruments from a young age.  For whatever reason – time limits, peer pressure – we pick our thing and go with it.  There aren’t many Renaissance People these days.

We need specialists.  But most of all we need to collaborate with them.  This article explains what I’m talking about.

(Pixar is) “very intentional about wanting people who are artists and animators, and the coders, and the music people, and the screen writers to be constantly bumping into each other in random ways to spark ideas.”

What if we as church leaders invited people to share their expertise – whether it’s in agriculture or dentistry or law enforcement or graphic design – as we discern what our communities need in mission and ministry?  A great church staff includes authentic collaboration between the educators, musicians, administrators, and the pastoral leadership.  But we also need to collaborate with the banker, the guidance counselor, and the caterer for ideas and perspective.

The art of collaboration” blends conventional ideas with “spice” – that simple something that turns expectations upside down or stretches our plans in new directions.  Sometimes adding jalapeno to a cornbread recipe results in a miracle.  Adding a pop of color to a little black dress or a string to a finger painting makes all the difference.

Even the smallest congregation can expand it’s collaborative influences.  But it takes a leader – most likely the pastor – who will let go of the reins and invite new voices with a variety of specialties into the visioning.

Image of Clayton Moore as The Lone Ranger.

When I Say “Name a Force for Good” What Pops into Your Head?

Mother Teresa?  The Gates Foundation?  Doctors Without Borders?  The Rebel Alliance?

The Presbyterian Church USA? (Not kidding about this one, but my hunch is that your first thought was not church-related.)

The Church doesn’t have a fabulous reputation even though people of faith joining together have displayed a power to be a force for good like no other organization.  Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh congregations throughout the United States have made a difference that has changed lives for the better.

But my context is the Church.  I believe that – as a follower of Jesus – we are called to transform the world for good in Jesus’ name.  The problem is that many congregations exist primarily for other reasons:

  • To be landlords for other organizations.
  • To be social clubs for weekly get-togethers.
  • To perpetuate an institution.
  • To promote certain individuals or pet projects.

These are Great Times for the Church if we happen to be focussed on transforming the world for good in the name of Jesus Christ.

But these are bleak times if our congregations are focussed primarily on targeting new members, getting rent from tenants, offering comfortable gatherings for friends, surviving as an institution survival or fending off grimaces from the church matriarch/patriarch. Those churches will continue to struggle.

Nevertheless – in spite of diminished church participation throughout the country – congregations are essential in serving the needs of the world.

Note that I’m talking about congregations.  Not individuals.

Why can’t we just “be good people” out there on our own – individually buying Tom’s Shoes and collecting unperishable items for homeless shelters?  We can certainly do these things.  But together we can do more.

This article – which is a must read – reminds us why collective efforts are essential if we are serious about Changing the World.  We have just witnessed in the past week through flooding, burning, shaking, and fleeing that there is much work to do to bring restoration and healing.  God uses even tragedies to teach us.

“Floods are invitations to recreate the world. That only happens successfully when strong individuals are willing to yoke themselves to collective institutions.”

My hope is that – as the world continues to struggle with disasters of every kind – we will recognize that we need faith communities:

  • To fuel ourselves to meet the realities of life (through worship)
  • To equip ourselves with tools for ministry (through education)
  • To pool resources for funding important projects (through financial stewarship)
  • To reach out into the world as a true Force for Good (through mission)

We have been blessed with immeasurable opportunities to serve our neighbors. We do it better collectively because there are more resources, more hands, more perspectives.  And subsequently there is more impact.

I imagine a time when I ask, “What pops into your head when I say ‘Name a Force for Good’?” and you say:  “The Church.”


Mosaic of (clockwise from top left) Mother Teresa, Melinda and Bill Gates, a team of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance volunteers, and Doctors Without Borders workers.

The Most Important Committee in a Church is . . .

… The Nominating Committee because their discernment of future leaders can make or break a congregation’s future.  But this post isn’t about Nominating Committees.  It’s about Personnel.

A very close second Most Important Committee in the Church is the Personnel Committee – that group of faithful volunteers who oversee the performance, calculate the salary and benefits, and ensure the evaluation of the church staff. (Note: The Personnel Committee of a Mid-Council or Higher Council of the Church is just as important.)

A Healthy Personnel Committee leads to A Healthy Staff which leads to A Healthy Congregation.

A Dysfunctional Personnel Committee leads to A Frustrated Staff which leads to A Stuck Congregation. We cannot afford to have dysfunctional Personnel Committees in the 21st Century Church.

Although it’s unscientific, this is what I’ve noticed through the years of serving the Church:

  • The Personnel Committee often has no idea what the staff actually does. Yes, there are job descriptions, but job descriptions rarely capture the detailed work lives of a Church or Church-Related Staff.
  • Human Resource Professionals can be helpful on a Personnel Committee, but they sometimes want to run a Church Staff/Church-Related Staff “like the real world.”  While I appreciate reality as much as the next person, shouldn’t we in the Church aspire to create an atmosphere that “looks like Church” rather than looking like a bank or a factory or even The United Way? God calls the Church to be different from the world. (Note:  this doesn’t mean that we don’t hold people accountable. God deserves our very best work. But our goal is also to treat people with more dignity and grace than the average secular employer.)
  • Sometimes people volunteer to be on the Personnel Committee because they don’t like the Pastor and this is one way to wield power over her.
  • Sometimes people are chosen to serve on the Personnel Committee by the Pastor because they will be “Yes People” making it easier for the Pastor to do what he wants to do with minimal oversight.
  • Sometimes Personnel Committees focus only on the negative (what needs to be improved) with little focus on the positive (what’s going well.)
  • Sometimes the Personnel Committee forgets to enjoy the staff. Working together to create the best staff possible for the sake of the Gospel should be fun and inspiring.  This is never the case if the only time staff sees the Personnel Committee is when something’s wrong.

What makes a great Church Personnel Committee?

  1. Agreement on Why The Church Exists and a culture of working side by side to make the Church’s Mission flourish.  The Church doesn’t exist to prop up the Pastor, perpetuate an institution, or ensure that the floor is always clean and the flower arrangements are always fresh. Jesus didn’t die for any of those things.
  2. Authentic relationships based on trust and the reality that Church isn’t about us.  If we trust each other, we can say pretty much anything (even hard-to-hear-things) and it’s not nearly as threatening.  Because we are serving something greater than ourselves and it’s about That.
  3. Excellent communication.  If the Personnel Committee says it will deliver New Position Descriptions by the end of the month, that’s what happens.  If there is a problem, staff members are told immediately – not seven months later during an annual review.  If expectations or roles are changing, staff should be told directly.
  4. Authentic appreciation.  If there is no money for even a Cost of Living Adjustment this year, offer something else:  an extra day or two paid vacation, a gift card, a kind word.  “You are really doing a great job. Thank you.” goes a long way.
  5. Show up.  If you are on a Personnel Committee, know your Church Staff.  Say “hi” when you are in the office.  Take concerns seriously. This is someone’s life you are dealing with.

Even if your congregation seems too small to have a Personnel Committee, it’s healthy and possible to have a small team (3 people) who can work together to ensure that those servants who are doing the professional work of the Church can thrive.

A special note to Mid-Councils:  offering support for congregational Personnel Committees is well worth the effort.  Our churches need information on how to create and keep a healthy Personnel Committee because our pastors and church staffs deserve it.  It makes ministry go well.

When things are not going well, personnel responsibilities Take. So. Much. Time.(Nobody tells us this in seminary.)  But it doesn’t have to be this way.


Lower image is the (blurry) sign on my office door wherever I’m serving:  It’s not about you; it’s about growing the kingdom of God.  I need to remind myself.

Edie Windsor and Me

It was the fall of 2000 when I got a phone call from M asking me to drive her to the hospital.  Her longtime housemate E had been taken there in the night by ambulance and M didn’t drive. She asked if I could pick her up and take her to sit by E for the day. Later that afternoon, I went up to see E myself and take M home. But before I left, I talked with the attending physician and nurse to give them M’s phone number on a neon green Post-It to place in E’s file.

Me (the pastor):  It’s very important for you (the medical staff) to call M if anything should change with E in the night.  I will bring M here every morning. She is E’s next of kin.

Nurse:  Are they sisters? 

Me:  No.  Her sisters live in South Carolina.  But E and M have lived together since the war.  She is like her sister.

This is what I knew about both E and M: They had moved to Washington, DC after the attack on Pearl Harbor to serve their country in federal service.  One had grown up in South Carolina. One had grown up in Oklahoma.

They met while living in a boarding house in the 1940s with several other young women.  They joined a local Presbyterian Church together.  Eventually, they moved to Northern Virginia to a one bedroom apartment (they were so frugal!) and while E remained a member of the church in DC, M wanted to join a congregation closer to their new home.  Both of them were among the first women ordained to the office of Ruling Elder in their respective congregations.  They were active teachers and Bible study leaders. Both of them gave sacrificially to the Church.

On the morning of October 30, I went to pick up M to take her over to see E and – because E had not been doing well – I went up to the room with M.

The room was empty.  E had died in the night.  No one had phoned M and the body had already been taken to the morgue.  Because M was “not related” to E, she was not allowed in the morgue to say good-bye.

M sat in the chair beside the empty bed. and took out a pen and paper and started writing.  She didn’t cry.  She didn’t speak.  She just wrote.  I found out later that she was writing a final letter to E.

She folded the letter and placed it into her purse.  And then she looked at me and said, “Losing E is like losing part of my body.”  Her voice was cracking.  “Do you know what I’m telling you?  Do you understand what I’m saying?

I think so,” I said.  It had never occurred to me that E and M were a couple.  But when E’s obituary was published, there was no mention of M.

E and M had been together for 57 years.  M died – most likely of a broken heart – several months later. 

When Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer married in Toronto in 2007 because they could not marry in the United States, little did they know that – after Thea’s death – Edie would win a Supreme Court case that advanced the case for marriage equality.

Edie joined Thea on the other side yesterday and it reminded me of that heartbreaking morning in 2000 when M tried to explain to me who E was to her.

She was not E’s sister.  She was not merely E’s best friend.

That morning with M changed my ministry forever, and Edie Windsor’s tenacity changed the lives of countless others seven years later and beyond. I have no idea what happens in the next life, but it’s my deepest hope that we are reunited with those we loved in this life.

But while we are living this life, we deserve to have our covenant relationships respected and valued, no matter who we are, no matter who we love.  Today many of us thank God for the life of Edith, and for E and M and so many others who have gone before them.

Image of Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer.  Source here.

The Voices in Our Heads

Hearing voices is not necessarily a mental health issue but it can certainly do a number on our wellbeing.  You know when those brain tapes of hurtful comments from our parents, our exes, or our nemeses play over over and over again?  It’s not helpful.

Why don’t our brains replay happy tapes over and over again? Most of us have heard at least one person in our lives express words of delight about us:  “You look wonderful!” “You did an amazing job!”  But we toss those aside and only remember the ones that we secretly believe could be true:  “You are worthless.”  “Nobody wants you.”  Ugh.  Crazy-making.

Those voices have enormous power to perpetuate lies, crush souls, and weaken resolve. They fuel depression and destroy self-confidence.

So, here’s a case for practicing spiritual exercises:

When we recognize our value as human beings, the ugly voices quiet and there is space for God’s Voice – that Voice that still says:

Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God;

You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.

I could go on and on with these comforting messages from Scripture but that’s for another time.

Vincent Van Gogh famously said, “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint’ then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”  But what if you really can’t paint – at least like Vincent Van Gogh?

The quick answer is that anybody can paint, but not everyone has a special gift in painting.

In my faith tradition we believe that the Voice of God speaks through our spiritual community and affirms that we have gifts in teaching, preaching, praying, counseling, shepherding, administrating, etc.  It’s also true that sometimes the community has gotten it wrong. Best examples:

  • Women who have been called to professional ministry but are told that it couldn’t possibly be God’s will because “women can’t be spiritual leaders.”  (Note: this is not true.)
  • LGBTQ people who have been called to professional ministry – as well as a full, valued, much-beloved life in general – even though they are told it couldn’t possibly be God’s will.  (Note: this is not true either.)

Sometimes the Church gets it wrong.  God calls us to Pay Attention because – even if we believe that women or trans people or whomever (i.e. “lesser people”) are outside the realm of God’s calling it’s essential to notice whom God called throughout Scripture: broken people, unclean people, tax collectors, eunichs, – oh, and lots of women.

But that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about the voices out in the world – and then subsequently in our heads  – that tell us we are unworthy and unacceptable.  Hurtful words feel like kicks to the gut, especially when no one steps up to offer support. We were born to love each other in community but sometimes we speak words to each other that destroy that community.  We even do this in Church.

Speaking the truth is good.  Speaking the truth in love is best. Speaking words that bolster ourselves while destroying someone else is evil.

Let’s not do that.  Let’s not be a voice for destruction that will land in somebody’s psyche for years to come.  And let’s not let those voices of destruction set up camp in our own psyche either.

What voices are you hearing in your head today?  I hope they are dipped in authentic beauty and delight because you are totally worth it.

Image source.




When Money Drives Our Decisions

We make a lot of decisions based on money. We purchase half price shoes when we might have done without, if the shoes had cost full price.  Some of us select jobs based on salary.  Money drives our choices about everything from the cars we drive to the colleges we attend.

People sell drugs, stolen goods, and their bodies for money.  Some people sell Amway.

There’s nothing wrong with money.  It’s an important tool that affords both survival and resplendence.  It’s the love of money that Scripture teaches is the root of all evil.

As I continue my self-education about slavery in this country I love, I’m increasingly aware of what white people were willing to do for money as the United States was becoming established.  My ancestors – and perhaps yours – were even willing to enslave innocent human beings, treat them like personal property, and take everything away from them – all while calling themselves Christian.

It’s not enough to say that we in the South sacrificed our souls in order to keep the farm – and in some cases to become millionaires off of tobacco, sugar, and cotton.  The North was also complicit.

According to Edward E. Baptist in The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

“A majority of northern Unionists opposed emancipation.  Perhaps white Americans’ battles with each other were, on one level, not driven by a contest over ideals, but over the best way to keep the stream of cotton and financial revenues flowing: keep slavery within its current borders, or allow it to consume still more geographic frontiers.”

Yes there were people in both the North and the South against slavery.  But most of our ancestors already settled in the United States by 1861 benefited from the free labor of enslaved Africans or people of African descent.

It’s my ongoing hope that we will talk about this in Church.  Slavery in the United States is not only our original sin; it continues to perpetuate injustice and the (predominantly White) Church is called to speak out about that.  The predominantly Black Church has been talking about it for 200 years.

What are we willing to do for money?  Cheat on our taxes?  Overcharge for goods and services during natural disasters?  Traffic human beings?

We who call ourselves White must face the terrible truth that many of our ancestors were willing to hold other human beings captive against their will for the sake of money.  It means we have some humble work to do.


Image of a book I enthusiastically suggest:    The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist (2014)

Who Are You When You Are Not a Pastor?

Note: This post is specifically for pastors, but you can insert your own occupation if you don’t happen to be a professional minister. (Reformed theological reminder of the day:  all baptized Christians are ministers. A few of us are called into professional ministry.)

One of my favorite people told me last week that the purpose of a Pastor’s Sabbatical is to figure out who you are when you are not a Pastor. The truth is that:

  • Most pastors don’t get a Sabbatical at all.
  • Some get a Sabbatical but use it to outline future sermons, write a book or take classes to enhance their pastoral effectiveness.
  • Most congregations do not understand why a pastor might need to take a Sabbatical for the purpose of refreshing her soul or nourishing his spirit set apart from clergy responsibilities.  The Lilly Foundation makes it possible to convince skeptical congregations.

My identity for the past 33 years has been as a Pastor.  I was “Pastor Jan” for 27 years as a congregational minister. And my ministry has continued in Mid-Council work for the past six years.  Church World is my life and my focus. It’s hard for me to read a novel or magazine article, or to listen to a podcast without having a sermon idea pop into my head.  While this might sound annoying, it’s actually an interesting intellectual exercise.  I outline sermons in my head all the time that will never be preached.

Church World can also become an obsession and an idol.  Who am I when I’m not a Pastor?  Sometimes it’s hard to say.

I was a Pastor before I was a spouse or a mother or a blogger. I wonder what it’s like for my retired colleagues who are no longer anyone’s pastor after 40+ years in professional ministry.  My hope is that they have a strong identity in something new that stirs their deepest joy.  Bee-keeping. Dancing. Weaving. Golfing. Poetry Writing.

Here’s a real question to those of you who are in active professional ministry today as a parish Pastor or a Chaplain or a Seminary Professor/Administrator:  Who are you when you are not a Pastor?

As for me, I am a baker, an (unenthusiastic) gardener, an explorer, a traveler, an art lover, and a friend. What about you?

Image of me and TBC on my 2009 Sabbatical in Petra.