Social Capital Saves Lives

We’ve thought that success is achieved by picking the superstars, the brightest
men, or occasionally women, in the room, and giving them all the resources and all the power.  And the result has been . . . aggression, dysfunction and waste.  If the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly need to find a better way to work and a richer way to live.
   Margaret Heffernan

Social Network Shelby McQuilkin

The initial title for my post today was “We Are Killing Ourselves & Each Other” but it sounded a bit too dark, don’t you think?  Still –  it’s true.

What’s also true is that we need each other.  For the love of God (and humanity) please listen to this or – if you prefer, read the transcript of Margaret Heffernan’s TED Talk about work – it’s here.

As we all know, another loner has taken the lives of innocent people along with his own.  These shooters are called “unknown” or “sullen and aloof” with “socialization delays.”  Sometimes teachers or counselors noticed them along the way and they expressed concern.  But it wasn’t enough.  They needed friends, mentors, unconditional love, treatment, protection, intervention, attention.

I have no wisdom for how to stop our national crisis.  My life’s work involves church and professional ministry, and in the throes of this work, I also know pastors and other church leaders who are profoundly lonely and broken.  We self-medicate.  We avoid conflict.  We keep our spiritual doubts to ourselves.

We need to make changes in the way we work.  We need to figure out how to create social capital.

Margaret Heffernan works with companies and this is what she says about making companies thrive:  “Social capital is what gives companies momentum. And social capital is what makes companies robust.

. . . Time is everything because social capital compounds with time. So teams that work together longer get better because it takes time to develop the trust you need for real candor and openness. And time is what builds value.

Many pastors have limited social capital.  Maybe we tried to make changes without first developing relationships.  Maybe we love the intellectual rigors of our profession, but we don’t love the relational piece. Maybe we didn’t show our people that we love them.  Maybe we don’t love them.  Maybe we are working solo in a tiny church with negligible support.  Maybe we are lonely as hell.

Our seminaries and denominational leaders would serve professional ministers better if we could teach/encourage/model how to build social capital.  Some of our more creative colleagues have ideas:

  • Multi-staff pastors invite neighboring solo pastors to join them for staff meetings, to do what people do at staff meetings – collaborate, bounce ideas off each other, check in.  Yes, neighboring pastors often meet occasionally in Clergy Associations, but what if there was a culture shift that created a broader understanding of “staff”?
  • Solo pastors in several churches become staff for each other, partnering across congregational and denominational lines.  (We need to get past the idea that Roman Catholics can’t do things with Methodists or Presbyterians cannot join Lutherans without the fear that one pastor won’t steal another pastor’s people.)
  • We need therapy groups/accountability groups/12-step groups for clergy in which we leave our shame and fear at the door.  (Note: there are untrustworthy clergy out there.  Sadly, we must be careful about what we share.)

Social capital saves lives.  This is true for loners with violence issues.  This is true for clergy with savior issues.  This is true for all of us.

Image is Social Networking by the gifted artist Shelby McQuilkin.  Please buy her art here.

Clergy Friends: Whatever Happened to Mira Sorvino?

Mira Sorvino OscarThere are clergy who accept the call to professional ministry because We Just Want To Serve.  We want to please God.  We want to follow Jesus.  And, if we are honest, maybe there’s also a little of this: We Like The Attention.

Of course, the days are over when being the local preacher brought immediate respect and name-recognition.  It used to be true that the calling of a new pastor was newsworthy, but today that’s simply not the case – unless you are the pastor of the tallest of tall steeple churches.  And even then, the average human being won’t care.

Nevertheless, many of us spend energy trying to get our names out there, possibly for the sake of the Gospel.  (Or more likely for our own sakes.) We want to be known.  We want to be desired as a theologian or a writer or a retreat leader.  We seek out doctoral degrees or more prominent positions.  Clearly, I’m speaking for myself here.  But maybe you can relate.

Some of us reach a point when we say, “I don’t have anything to prove anymore.” We don’t care if others are chosen.  We don’t mind if others win.  We got attention when we needed it more.

Or maybe we will always feel like we have something to prove – to somebody else or to ourselves.  Or to God?

So I was thinking about Mira Sorvino who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress when she was 28 years old.   Sweet.  And then she did other remarkable things, only not necessarily in the movies.

Yes, she was amazing in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, but that was 18 years ago.  Since winning the Oscar, Mira Sorvino has “starred in lower-budget and independent films” according to Wikipedia.  As well, she’s raising four kids with her spouse and there’s an entomological process found in the sunburst diving beetle named “mirasorvone” after she played an entomologist in the movie Mimic.  

This is an honor comparable to calling the exegetical process of depatriarchalizing scripture tribling perhaps.  So that’s pretty impressive.  But again, only the dorkiest among entomologists or theologians would understand.

Ms. Sorvino also identifies as a devout Christian and her life’s ministry includes work to end human trafficking.  I imagine that God finds this work more impressive than having a beetle’s defensive mechanism named after her.  Or acting in 40+ movies.

This week I’m retreating with new clergy, some of whom are the age that Mira Sorvino was when she won an Oscar.  Being Ordained as a PCUSA Pastor Winning an Oscar.  It’s the beginning of professional service in the church, not the pinnacle of professional acting in the movies.

And yet, there’s pressure in both places.  If we win early, there’s the pressure to keep winning.  If we are just starting out “with the whole world in front of us” there’s the pressure to become someone who is successful/worthy/known.  At least this is true for the privileged among us with options.

What is “enough” as a professional minister (or as a professional journalist or teacher or dentist or caterer or farmer?)  And how do we measure our worth?  Is most of our work behind the scenes (and are we cool with that?)  For clergy, most of what we do best will never be known to the masses or share-able on social media:

That time a sermon moved someone to make a tough choice (and we never even heard about it for decades.)  That time we sat with a woman we barely knew in the ER after her husband’s accident.  That time we said just the right thing in a prayer to soothe a desperate soul.  That time we helped a woman escape from her abusive husband.  That time we organized a moving day for a disabled friend.  That time we listened to a widow as she told us (for the tenth time) the story about how she met her husband.  That time we convinced a well-heeled member to fund a project for refugees over coffee.  That time we . . .

It’s a huge sign of spiritual growth when we realize and accept that we only have to prove something to God. And God’s actually fine with us making an attempt.

Image of my sister in Christ Mira Sorvino that time she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Mighty Aphrodite in 1995.

Clergy with Abandonment Issues

Don't Go

Sitting in a planning meeting yesterday, I referred to Clergy with Abandonment Issues and everybody nodded.  It’s something many of us deal with and it manifests itself in different forms:

  • Transience  – In many of our urban areas and especially with certain age groups, nobody stays in the same place for very long.  I’ve lived in places where people connect with the church in January and move to Topeka by August.  Ugh.
  • The Dones are Jumping Ship – As pastors, we try to equip leaders to serve and build community.  They volunteer to take on key roles.  We love them.  And then they realize they just aren’t connecting with God anymore and they drop out.  It hurts.
  • Everybody’s Dying – There are seasons when Everybody Seems to Be Dying.  Eighty-Somethings pass away after long, wonderful lives.  Thirty-something die – shockingly – in accidents.  Kids lose their lives when childhood diseases strike them.  It’s agony.
  • People Up and Vanish – There’s not even a Post-It note of an explanation.  Great people become part of the congregation.  They connect.  They are wonderful.  And then they disappear.  Did they secretly hate the church?  Did they die in a fiery crash?  Are they mocking you in a Starbucks somewhere?   Insecurities Abound.
  • Too Embarrassed to Face You Again – Someone – perhaps a new church person or a long-time church person discloses a Very Difficult Truth.   Addiction.  Adultery.  Incest.  Manslaughter.  Embezzlement.  And they cannot face you again post-confession.  Sigh.

Yes, there are congregations that remain the same for decades.  Nobody comes or goes much – even if we pray that they would.  But in the 21st Century, we pastors will need to brace ourselves for more good-byes than we were expecting.  It’s a real thing for clergy.  Sometimes we must simply grieve for those who have left us and the congregations we serve.  It’s part of the job.

GIF intended to soothe our pain.


Syrian Christian Priest Francois MuradI am struck by the fact that the New York Times didn’t cover the death of Phyllis Tickle last week.  The Church World (including denominational people, non-denominational people, the  Emerging Church crowd, assorted religious writing fans) noted the loss of Phyllis last week across social media and beyond.

The Times considered the deaths of Ali Salem, Jeremy Tarcher, and Leon Root obit-worthy, but the author of 38 books – many of which altered our ministry considerably – was not.

Why?  Because Church World is not the same as Secular World.

Most people in the universe do not care about the things Phyllis researched.  I’ve heard many people laud Nadia Bolz Weber for hitting #8 on the New York Times Bestsellers list two weekends ago. (A progressive Christian is embraced by the world!)

All of us appreciate being “known” in some way.   Some clergy become well-known – but only in very limited circles.  Some churches become well-known for both laudable and nefarious reasons.

I preached in Cincinnati yesterday to (mostly) strangers and it made me feel good when someone said he read my blog.  That’s really nice.  But honestly, most of the world will never care and that’s just fine.  Why are we doing what we do anyway – whether that’s helping people, serving the poor, writing books, preaching sermons, teaching classes, or picking up trash on the side of the road?

For followers of Jesus, we do it – ultimately – because it’s the best way to use our gifts to God’s glory, right?  Most of the world will not read our obits and that’s okay.

Image of Franciscan Priest Fr. Francois Murad who was murdered in Syria in 2013.  His obituary wasn’t in the New York Times either.

Considering Our Options

When I say “White Privilege” what’s your immediate response?


I’ve found that we white people often become defensive at the term, immediately noting that we haven’t always had it easy ourselves.  Maybe we’ve struggled financially or emotionally or physically. (What’s so privileged about that?) Maybe our ancestors never bought and sold slaves.  Maybe we’ve always lived in racially integrated communities where bigotry is unheard of and bluebirds sing and the air smells like cinnamon rolls, but this doesn’t mean our lives are privileged or anything.

Last week, I was in Philadelphia at a meeting, and on my way to join someone for breakfast, I found myself navigating my way to a bagel shop in a cute neighborhood.  And it occurred to me that I could eat at any of the restaurants I was strolling by:  the cute diner, the upscale cafe, the Starbucks, the other Starbucks, the fancy bread store.  I had so many options.

It occurred to me that privilege is about options.  I can live in any neighborhood in Chicagoland – except maybe the ones with million dollar houses.  But if I had millions of dollars I could literally live anywhere.  Not true for people of certain races and nationalities and religions – if they had a million dollars.

I could move to a place with good schools and/or good school choices.  I can select pretty much any doctor or dentist I want.  I can choose a coat from LL Bean or the thrift shop.  I have quite a few clothing options in my closet.

My options include any of the four pairs of black shoes lined up in there.

I have vacation options – and not merely because I can afford a vacation financially.  I can choose a Bed and Breakfast with my husband, even though that B&B might not welcome gay couples or brown couples or Arabic-speaking couples.

You get the picture.  Privilege = Options.

If ever we don’t believe there’s such a thing as White Privilege or Heterosexual Privilege or American Privilege or English-speaking Privilege or Christian Privilege – we need to count our options.  Chances are that we have lots of them.

Hello and Goodbye

Francis and PhyllisAs you read this, Pope Francis has said “hello” to Our Nation’s Capital and Phyllis Tickle has said good-bye to us all.  Over breakfast, HH and I say good-bye to friends we’ve come to love in Chicagoland who are moving south.  And there are good-byes and hellos in the office.

People come and people go in our lives.  This is a really, really good thing.  That’s all I have to say about that today.

Wondering About The Dones: Pastor Edition

Leaving ChurchYou’ve heard of The Dones – those who once served on boards, taught classes, volunteered to usher, and sang in the choir – who have now left the Church.  They were the faithful ones, the leaders.  And many of them have left.

I’m told that many of The Dones left in order to save their faith.  They learned stories of grace but didn’t experience grace.  They were invited to share their brokenness, but then their brokenness was held against them.  Even their children noticed that the lessons taught in Sunday School were not always lived out by their brothers and sisters in Christ.

What I’ve read less about are those who are Done because their church life was less about their relationship with God and more about their relationship with the pastor, their church friends, the pipe organ, whatever.

I’ve lost count of how many fresh faced Christians were elected to serve as elders and deacons but they bolted from the Church after witnessing what goes on behind the curtain.  Maybe they imagined that being a church officer would be comparable to initiation into The Holy of Holies – an opportunity to tap into a wellspring of spiritual peace and contentment.  But what they actually experienced was not quite like that.

With this in mind, what’s also a bit troubling is that  many of us pastors are also Done (or would like to be.)   This happens for the same reasons as the Dones who loved the Tiffany Windows more than they loved Jesus.  We pastors are often spiritually challenged people, but we didn’t start out that way.

Maybe we spend so much time planning worship, that we never actually worship. Maybe we easily lead others in prayer but spend little time talking with God ourselves.  Maybe we busy ourselves with Church Stuff but forget the point of it all. (Note:  The point of it all is not to perpetuate an institution.)

Attention Parishioners:  you deserve a spiritual leader who has an authentic relationship with God.  Please check in with your pastor about this.   Just like you, your pastor needs a Sabbath and uninterrupted vacation time and study leave.  If your pastor reaches the point that she is Done, we’ve all failed as a congregation.

Imagine a church that nurtures our relationship with God so well that we don’t want to miss an opportunity to get together with those folks.  Imagine a church that cares more about our spiritual lives than how much money we pledge or how many committees we’ll join.  Imagine a church that enfolds people without suffocating them, that doesn’t freak out when life is messy, that craves figuring things out together.

I’ll never be done with that kind of church.

Image source.

Are We Putting Our Small Churches Out of Business?

(And is that ever a good thing?)tiny church

Throughout all denominations in the U.S. there seem to be two tracks of churches (and yes, this is a very simplistic description):

  • There are the large congregations with multiple paid staff members and lots of programs.
  • There are the small congregations with little or no paid staff and few – if any – programs.

Some would consider a “large church” to have over 500 members.  Others would say – if you have 150 members – you are “large.”   Some would consider a “small church to have 50 members or less.  Others would say – if you have 150 members – you are “small.”

If you ask me, size doesn’t always matter in that I’ve been a part of both large churches (with 200-500 in worship) and small churches (20-50 in worship) which both exemplify the joy of Christ and the beauty of community service.  I’ve also worshiped with  large and small congregations who are dying and – sadly – it’s obvious to everyone but the congregation.

Dying large churches have some time on their side.  They could shift their culture and make their ministry about Jesus (if it hasn’t been about Jesus), about serving others (if it’s been about serving themselves), and about healthy discipleship (if their leaders have been unhealthy.)  But shifting a church culture is not for sissies and most of us will not expend the energy.

Dying small churches have less time and less money.  They are especially impacted when their denominations increase their institutional costs.  For example:

  • Most denominational congregations require a fee per member to be paid to the denomination to cover regional and national administrative support.  Many of our denominations will be raising those fees in 2016.
  • Denominations generally require a minimum salary for pastors in addition to pension and medical benefits dues.  Both dues and minimum salary requirements are increasing.

Can our small churches afford to stay open?  Can they afford even a part-time paid pastor?  Do they need a pastor?

Everything depends on whether or not congregations are willing to allow their church to be wholly and completely about God’s mission.  Here’s what I know about church:

  • If our leaders are dysfunctional, self-centered, tired, and spiritually immature, the church will and should close.  Please close sooner than later, and give all your money to a congregation with vision and energy.  It doesn’t matter if you got married in that building long ago or your children went to Sunday School there.  It doesn’t matter if the windows were given by your grandfather or your mother was the organist for fifty years.  Please remember that congregations have seasons and sometimes the most faithful thing to do is close – especially if your church has been more about you and your family than God and God’s family.
  • If our leaders are healthy, mission-focused, energized, and spiritually curious, the church will be fine.  Yes, you might struggle financially, but you get it.  Ministry is not about the building.  It’s about transforming souls and loving broken people.

Increasingly our struggling congregations will (and should) close over the next ten years.  This is not a terrible thing.  It can be a very faithful thing.

Maybe – for the sake of offering a living wage for our pastors and paying the real costs of their medical insurance – we really do need to increase denominational fees and requirements.  It’s not that we want to put struggling churches out of business.   It’s that we want our congregations – of every size – to take seriously our commission to make disciples.  Call me crazy, but if we are indeed doing that, our churches  – of every size – will be just fine.

For the Love of God, Grab a Crayon

AWCMost of us agree that:

  • God’s children of every age need quiet reflection time
  • We love God by being in relationships with God and others
  • Many of God’s children are visual people
  • Many of our resources for children’s ministry fall short

My friend and colleague Adam Walker Cleaveland is creating some wonderful resources for children based on both the narrative and common lectionaries. Who knew he could draw?  (He can.)

Check out his images here at Illustrated Children’s Ministry – Adam’s new venture.  Yes, this is a shameless commercial, but I share it because these are really good resources – upbeat, racially diverse, Biblically sound, and fun.  It’s one of the ways that Adam loves God.

We are constantly seeking effective ways to help children connect with the stories of our Creator and this is an excellent addition to our tool box.  And maybe it will inspire you to pick up a box of crayons too.

Layers of Goodness

Layers of Goodness

I’m still pondering my previous post about truth-telling.  It seems that the resulting comments were about at least two different things:

  • Sometimes we tell the truth about ourselves and people reject us.
  • Sometimes the truth about ourselves is uncovered by someone else and people reject us.

The truth ultimately sets us free but – depending on how it came to light – it could also make us miserable.  Maybe it makes us more miserable if we weren’t the ones who revealed it.

Also, there are secrets (“I take an antidepressant every morning“) and there are secrets (“I‘m still married but sneakily enjoying benefits with someone else.”)

Healing seems to have something to do with how readily we acknowledge what impact our truth has on the other people in our lives.  Sometimes our truth even impacts strangers.

We forget about The Layers of consequences.

Personal example: A  pastor friend was caught in a years-long relationship with someone who was not his wife.  Obviously he deeply hurt his spouse, his kids, his parents, his congregation, and his colleagues.  But there were further layers he didn’t acknowledge very well:  he hurt me (who officiated at his wedding) and the couples he’d guided through pre-marital counseling (whom he’d reminded firmly what Jesus said about divorce) and the lectures he gave to anyone who would listen (about the “fact” that LBGTQ relationships were unbiblical.)  His extra-marital relationship might still be continuing to this day had he not been caught.  And yet he wants to move on without acknowledging that the layers of hurt were deep.  A conversation between the two of us  about the breach in our relationship would have been appreciated but – again – he has “healed and moved on.”


Our actions – especially our not-our-best-selves actions – create many layers of hurt.  Until we come to grips with this truth, wholeness is elusive.

In the same way, though, our gracious/generous/loving/hospitable actions create layers of goodness.  If an insurance company gets this  we can probably get it too.  People are watching us.

Even in post-Christendom, people watch clergy. And they notice when we are cranky and impatient and mean, especially when we don’t think anyone is paying attention.

Yes, we are – ourselves – broken and ridiculous.  But that’s my point:  we need to tell the truth about ourselves, try to do better next time, and seek wholeness. Repentance creates delicious, beautiful layers of goodness.