Imagine Amy Schumer in Your Church

amy-schumer_0Amy Schumer is one of my former parishioners.  Not the Amy Schumer. But I’ve known and loved more than a few parishioners who remind me of Ms. Schumer. They confided in me that they were having sex with multiple guys.  They drank too much.  They occasionally used controlled substances.  A couple of them were having serious or not-so-serious relationships with married men.  Some wrestled with the theological ramifications of their actions.  Some did not.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about church people.  Before you lecture me on my lost opportunity to inform these parishioners that they were on a fast track to hell, let me just say that these were all real people trying to figure out their lives.  The most lecture-y I got was about health.  (“Please tell me you are using birth control.“)  But I indeed asked questions about where God was in all this.  You might be surprised how close some of these parishioners (male and female) felt to God while having a perfectly enjoyable time trying to figure out which of three friends with benefits they liked the best.

I am personally not like Amy Schumer in most ways.  I’m a serial monogamist for one thing.  But I’m also trying to get past the idol that is virginity.  I’m trying to serve a church in which people are shamed for enjoying human sexuality, which God invented by the way.  I know too many people who have been theologically wounded because of erroneous information about “what the Bible says” about sex.  I believe in fidelity.  I believe in treating people respectfully.  I believe we must treat ourselves with respect.

The truth is that we are all broken.  Even Amy Schumer (playing Trainwreck Amy) confessed that she was broken.  We make choices that damage ourselves and each other.  We are selfish.  We live in a world that will smash our dreams and challenge our core goodness, and use people for selfish purposes.

But what would you do if Amy Schumer was a member of your congregation?  Call her out during worship as a “prayer concern”? Excommunicate her?  Feel generally mortified when you see her sitting there in the pews when you realize how painfully inapplicable to daily life your sermon is? Wonder how somebody like Amy is hearing the Prayer of Confession or the Call for the Offering?

Amy Schumer probably won’t show up in most of our churches.  But every once in a while, she might wander in after a particularly rough break up.  She might join a pious love interest on a dare.  She might show up with her parents.  Or maybe she is already there, looking appropriately Presbyterian but having a secret life involving guys named Fabio and Saber.

The bottom line is that everybody needs authentic love.  Everyone deserves to be known and treasured.  We are our best selves when we have experienced unconditional love and respond in kind.  How do people know what the love of God looks like unless we show them  – preferably outside the walls of a church building?

Brave Church

God Makes Us Brave

Brave churches are particularly faithful churches, if you ask me.  They make bold choices.  They favor holiness over appearances.  Their modus operandi is counterintuitive.  How brave is your congregation?

  • Your church staff currently consists of two Associate Pastors who are clergywomen, and the best candidate for Senior Pastor is also a clergywoman.  Does your Search Committee  a) select the male candidate who is not be best candidate but he ensures gender balance, b) select the clergywoman because – in spite of all efforts to call someone to create some gender diversity – it’s clear that the Holy Spirit is moving you to call her, or c) keep seeking “the right man” for the job.
  • The sanctuary is clearly too large for the current congregation and all indications show a trend towards an even smaller worshiping community in the next decade. Does your congregation a) keep the same historical configuration because that’s how the architect planned it, b) reconfigure the sanctuary to accommodate current needs, or c) create a task force to discern whether or not the church needs a new pastor.
  • A local business concern approaches your church leaders about buying the church property with an offer to rebuild church space on the property along with mixed income apartments.  Do your leaders a) have a good laugh and then head to the trustees’ meeting, b) pray and talk together about the possibilities of partnering with the mixed income apartment people, or c) rally the troops to stand against big business.

Brave churches take risks, make mistakes, choose the unlikely, and consider all potentialities.  It’s possible to be safe for so long that our congregation reaches a point of no return.  The hopes for bold ministry are replaced with survival tactics.

Look around our communities and identify the brave churches.  They are out there.  They are the ones who are open to the ridiculously refreshing Spirit. Please tell me that your church is one of the brave ones.

Who Are the Heroes?

Chattanooga Victims

With the tragedy of the Chattanooga shooting, new faces are now counted among the heroes.  Ohio Governor John Kasich tweeted:  “Ohio has lost another hero. Prayers for Randall Smith of Paulding Co & his family.”

What makes a person a “hero”?  Some people in the world consider the shooter to be a hero.  Some of us call all military victims heroes, whether they died protecting a village of children or joining the military in general and having the terrible misfortune to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I believe we all have our heroic moments.  We choose to stand up for the child in danger, to challenge gossipers, to protest when we see injustice done, to volunteer to defend our country, to spend our free time tending to under served people.

Because this is a churchy blog, I’m thinking about congregational heroes.  We are sorely in need of heroes in every realm of human life.  But our churches- as we move from being clubby institutions to spiritual communities to the glory of God – will not thrive without heroes among us.  I talking about you . . .

Being a hero is not the same as being a victim or a doormat or a martyr.  Being a hero is about being our best selves, especially when we could be lazy, disengaged, or selfish.  Imagine what this day would be like if we each acted heroically at least once in the next 24 hours.  Imagine if we made the world about something higher, holier, more Christ-like.

It would be pretty great.

Image of the five victims of the Chattanooga shooting in hopes we will pray for their families today. From top left clockwise:  David Wyatt, Squire K. Wells, Thomas Sullivan, Carson Holmquist, and Randall Smith.

What Lasts After Church

Vacation offers the opportunity to ponder.  I’m so grateful for the chance bandaids of different colorsto read on planes and share ideas with some people in Nashville this week.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like vacation to you, but stay with me.  Vacation = Time to Think.  So many are anxious and deeply concerned about the cultural asteroid that’s hitting Christendom and other institutions these days, but I am struck by something different.

In 2007, the church I was serving started a new community.  This new congregation was not meant to be a feeder into the traditional worshiping community.  It was not meant to “attract members” or be a new Presbyterian Presence.  It was simply a community of broken people interested in grappling with the issues of faith and life.  We were exceptionally good at Grappling.

The church officially ended/closed/stop meeting on Sunday nights in about 2012 or 2013.  But what’s interesting is that the community still exists and the connections remain deep.  The Holy Grounds community now lives in Beirut and Minneapolis, Davis and Pittsburgh, DC and Chiang Rai, Madison and Seattle, Dayton and Ann Arbor. But we are still community.  We meet in airports and on social media. We attend each others’ weddings and visit while traveling cross-country.  We still pray for and with each other.

How did that happen with a “church” that existed for less than six years?

  • It wasn’t about hard boundaries and conquest  to use Alpesh Bhatt‘s terminology (aka “targeting new members.”) It was about relationships.
  • It wasn’t about hierarchy.  It was about decentralized decision-making and collaboration.
  • It wasn’t about transactions.  It was about conversations.
  • It wasn’t about numbers.  It was about intangibles.

As many of us work with congregations in crises, it’s clear that some of those congregations will “go down with the ship.”  They will refuse to make the hard changes.  Their churches will close.  And they will blame their denominations or people like me who work for the middle governing bodies of denominations.

But it will be okay.  Because what lasts after “the church has closed” are the relationships, the fruits of grappling, the grace in the face of imperfection, the memories of a community that loved the broken and the whole alike.

This is a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.  It lasts beyond institutional existence. As 50, 75, 100, 200 year old congregations close in the months and years to come, my hope is that some semblance of their grappling together about the meaning of life and their God-given purpose will live on and be resurrected in something new and different.

Image source.  Bandaids for all kinds of hurt people in thanksgiving for BR & AD.

Vacation Check-In

This is not me.

This is not me.

As a self-acknowledged Sabbath-challenged individual, and in hopes of encouraging any sisters and brothers who might also be relaxation-impaired, I’m checking in.  It seems clear that reading a work-related book can in fact be energizing and gardening can be work. It depends.

Vacation Fails:

  • Read The Triple-Soy Decaf-Latte Era: How Business and Organization are Fundamentally Transforming by Alpesh Bhatt (Actually I loved this book like candy.  And I read it outside on a beach towel.)
  • Ran two different Home Depot Errands.  (But now our toilet seat has no crack in it.  This beats a summer drink with a little umbrella if you ask me.)
  • Shopped for clothes.  Hate. This. So. Much.

Vacation Successes:

  • Saw a movie in an actual movie theatre.
  • Got a pedicure.
  • Made teriyaki turkey burgers involving more than ten ingredients. (Actually this felt like work but they were delicious.)

True confessions: spending some of this vacation at a conference.

Adventures: The Best

AdventuresThere was a time  when I answered the ubiquitous question asked of all children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” by saying I wanted to be an adventurer.  My second grade birthday party was an Explorer Party and we “discovered” a cabin in the woods behind our house and made a fort out there.

Today, children seem to have fewer adventurers because we protect them from everything.  Listen to this, young parents.

Imagine your seven year old today explaining that she went to an Explorer Party in the woods, climbed on the roof of a crumbling cabin,  and crawled around looking for left-behind treasure. And then on the way back through the woods, “a nice neighbor” came over and walked the kids home. Not exactly the typical party with Frozen cake.

The truth is that having adventures is a privilege.  There are many “nice neighbors” who are in fact not nice.  In some neighborhoods, their stray bullets will kill you.  In some places, adventures are not child’s play; adventures are what you do to live. But that’s another post.

Now that my kids are twenty-somethings, they share more of their childhood adventures without the fear of getting into trouble:  the time the deck was set on fire, the time they filmed a movie in the crawl space of a friend’s house, the time they played Nerf war in the church sanctuary at midnight.

I need more of this in my life today.  Yes, I have adventures still but they tend to revolve around work.  (e.g. The time I drove a homeless lady around all day before realizing that she was rich.)  I like adventures in restaurants.  (e.g. Alligator stew is delicious.)  I like road trips with HH (happy birthday Big Guy.) But I need more active adventures:  hiking where I don’t know the path well, dropping everything on a random Tuesday and wandering in an unfamiliar neighborhood.  Seeing inconveniences – like car trouble in the middle of nowhere – as an adventure rather than a burden.

I’m off today and next week I’m having adventures on vacation.  I may or may not report back for a few days.

Image source.

Exhaustion: The Worst

Exhaustion (2010)You know that moment, all you ordinarily perky humans out there.

You go with the flow.  You let the haters’ comments slide off your back. You answer the ridiculous questions, accept the offensive comments, repeat the explanation you’ve already shared several times.  But then it hits:  you are really exhausted. You’ve hit your limit.  You might just snap at the next person who asks for something.  Or burst into tears.  Or throw up.

That was me at about 4:05 yesterday afternoon.  And so I went home. I was done.

Sabbath is tomorrow and vacation is next week, but what I also need is an adventure apart from work adventures.  (And believe me – I have those.) Tomorrow’s post will be Adventures:  The Best.

Image source.

The Difficult Truth About Creating the Future Church

McKenzie JesusIs it possible to support something that doesn’t fuel our self-interest?

Many of us donate money to organizations to which we have a personal connection.  Your brother died of AIDS?  Maybe you give money to AMFAR. Your mom died of breast cancer?  You volunteer for Komen. Your church offers great programs for your kids AND your grandfather donated the pew cushions? You make a regular pledge to First Presbyterian Church of My Hometown.

We all do this.   We live according to our own self-interests.

Maybe it’s the way we’re wired or maybe it’s how we were raised, but we tend to support what benefits us and our own.  Is this the original sin?  Maybe.  But it’s so universally accepted that shifting this way of giving may seem impossible.

Nevertheless . . .

  • Imagine that the church you love is dying. And you and the rest of the congregation choose to close that beloved church and donate all proceeds to a new church with lots of energy, a clear purpose, a contagious spirit, and absolutely no personal connection to anybody in the congregation.
  • Imagine that a neighboring congregation is ministering to an under served community of people who do not look, speak, or act like you. And you volunteer to take a sabbatical from your own spiritual community to serve that other church for one year so that they might increase their capacity for ministry.
  • Imagine that Haiti needs a hospital.  Or Malawi needs a school.  Or the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago needs tutors.  And you have no intention of publicizing your good deeds or padding your resume. You just want to serve – perhaps without anybody knowing about it.

We have churches that need to close.  They no longer serve anyone but themselves, and even that service is barely satisfying much less life-changing.   They exist for themselves.  They vie for personal power.  (“I’m in charge of the kitchen fund and you can’t have any money for new spoons unless you come through me.”)  These are the churches that need to leave a legacy of giving all they have left to the church down the street that exists to make disciples and love their neighbors.  They need to close and share anything they have left over for the church that’s fueled by the power of the Spirit.

The sad thing is that I don’t know of many (any?) churches willing to accept this difficult truth:  the future church is not about us.  It’s about expanding the reign of God.  (But we really wish it could be about us.)

Image is Jesus for the Millenium by Janet McKenzie (1999)

That Time I Crushed the Enthusiasm of a Nice Man in Church

I was talking with a group of church folks about why their Church Flyercongregation had dwindled down to a handful.  On a good Sunday, there are twelve people in worship.

Are we not friendly enough?  Are “kids today” just not interested in God?  Do we need to install a spotlight in front of the building to shine on our church sign?

Then one very nice man said: 

“Look at these flyers we made to hand out at the community fireworks on The Fourth of July.”

He was the kind of person who volunteers to clean out the gutters of the church building so they don’t have to pay for a professional.  And he showed me the kind of flyer that so many churches share at community events with worship information featuring a photo of the church building.

This isn’t going to work,” I said  – which turned his enthusiasm into defensiveness.  I definitely could have said something less direct, but these are urgent times, especially for a congregation with less than 20 members.  I tried to say it with a pastoral voice.  But clearly this wasn’t the response the nice man was expecting.

It was as if he had been saying, “We are trying.  We are trying to reach out. We are trying to grow.  Look – we even made the effort to create flyers to hand out to strangers.

But then came the kicker:

Me:  Why do you want new people to come join your church?

Nice Man:  Because we need them to help us pay the bills.

Me:  But that’s not a very appealing invitation, is it?

What I wanted to say next:

  • Your congregation has reached a point of no return.  
  • People are not going to come join your church because of flyers.
  • Our culture has changed, but your congregation hasn’t made comparable changes.

But I didn’t say these things.  These are nice people.  It was enough to say that their flyer wasn’t going to work.

Making “improvements” in our ministry – whether we are talking about flyers or a new church sign, or even a new pastor – is not enough to turn our congregations around.  It’s too late and a culture is too entrenched for many of our congregations.  The most faithful and certainly the boldest thing that they can do is decide to close joyfully, sharing whatever resources they have with congregations that are energized for missional ministry.  This would create something that merely making “improvements” cannot possibly achieve:  a legacy of resurrection.

This is not a grievous decision.  It’s a gracious and generous decision.  But – sadly – when I say it out loud, it crushes some very nice people.

ISO Transition Experts

Blooming in Transition

Imagine you are a church whose pastor has just moved on/retired after over ten years of ministry (much less 30 years of ministry.) You need a transition plan.

What you don’t need is:

  • A quick search for a “permanent” new pastor to relieve every anxiety about instability and slowed momentum.
  • A place holder who has a lovely persona but no skills at shifting an organization into a new reality.
  • An aversion to taking a long hard look at who you are and where you are going as a spiritual community (today, not 20 years ago.)

What need as a person trying to serve congregations is a multitude of angels  transitional pastors who:

  • Are skilled in calming anxieties, shifting paradigms, and being a 21st Century cultural tourguide.
  • Are less about finding a job during retirement/unemployment times and more about being called to this kind of ministry.
  • Are seasoned enough to know how to deal with Church World (e.g. rogue personnel committees, piled up administrivia) but with the energy to Work Very Hard with people in transition.
  • Can see clearly in cloudy times and able to guide a congregation through the fog to clarity.

This is essentially a recruiting post for my PCUSA colleagues across the globe.

Please –

  • if you have been ordained for at least five years and have proven yourself effective in parish ministry,
  • if occasional job insecurity doesn’t freak you out,
  • if you like systems work and can love people without making it about you . . .

 – consider becoming a Transitional Pastor (also called an Interim Pastor although that job title seems to freak out congregations, probably because they’ve endured lame Interims in the past.)

If you want me to coach you or convince you or beg you, please send me an email and we’ll talk.  Increasingly – since Every Church Is In Transition – every spiritual community needs excellent transitional ministry.

I am in search of this.