Cancer and Congregations: Does Our Church Need Immunotherapy?

ImmunotherapySaturday, August 6, 2016 marks the day I outlive my dad.  I outlived my mom on April Fool’s Day 2011.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you will remember that my parents died young – both from cancer  – and so cancer has been my special enemy for quite some time now.  I am well-acquainted with the assorted tortures that chemotherapy inflicts on the human body. But this article by Andrew Pollock gives me great hope.

And of course it got me thinking about Church.

Neither Jesus nor Paul ever said anything about something being “a cancer” upon the church unless we count this verse.  The word γάγγραινα is often translated “gangrene” and it’s only found this one time in Scripture.  Some transliterations of Scripture call this “cancer.”

We who have loved the Church for more than a few years know well that certain behaviors in spiritual communities are akin to tumors (or gangrene):  gossip and power plays come to mind.  They can take over a system and destroy it.

There are times when we need to Confront That Tumor.  I have had moments in professional ministry when I’ve preached directly to God’s people about their blatant lack of hospitality.  There have been  times when I’ve confronted church leaders about their vicious behavior.  I’ve known pastors who have asked destructive  parishioners to change or leave because the damage they are inflicting is metastasizing.

But aren’t there more times when it’s the pastor’s job to build resilience and teach the community how to defend the church against bullies and haters?

The longer I find myself in professional ministry, the more I realize that we pastors have the exquisite responsibility to shepherd people towards becoming the people God created them to be.  

So back to immunotherapy.  The world is filled with demons, cancers, γάγγραινα, and random unkindnesses that seek to destroy us.  Or distract us.

Many of us spend too much time putting out fires and too little time equipping our people to be faithful followers of Jesus.  It’s easier to focus on the daily dramas instead of the Big Picture.  But – considering the great needs of the world, from the social justice issues in our particular neighborhoods to the global issues facing our planet – we can no longer spend the majority of our time on managing churches.  We need to bolster what helps make us spiritually and ecclesiastically strong.

How to do that?  (I don’t have that kind of time here.)  But basically, it is our task as spiritual leaders to help our people figure out who they are (and whose they are) in the realm of God.  It’s our task to identify and strengthen the spiritual gifts of our parishioners.  And it’s our task to remind them that we have been created to do great things in the name of the One who defeated and continues to defeat darkness.  Teaching each other how to experience light even in darkness is one of the holiest things we can do with our lives.

Image source here of a  T-lymphocyte (green) attacking a cancer cell (blue.)

The Ocean


I’m heading there for vacation and (hope to be) fairly radio silent.

May you also get some time away from the usual.

Certain Ways to Wreck Your Pastoral Search

As congregations seek new pastoral leadership, anxiety often reigns.  Not Faith over Fearknowing what’s going to happen in future leadership makes people nervous. But I love it when I hear a Pastor Nominating Committee say that they are thoroughly trusting God’s movement in the search process.

This is less prevalent than you’d imagine.  Without exception, I’ve found that – when a pastoral search results in a bad match – the bottom line is that the search was driven by fear rather than faith.

If you want to wreck your pastoral search:

  • Choose a new pastor because you are tired.  You’ve been looking for a while.  Maybe it’s been two years or more in the search process and either you haven’t found “the right pastor” or you thought you found the right pastor but she/he said no so you went with the next candidate although the there was no spark.
  • Create a timeline that has nothing to do with God.  Tell your congregation that “you expect to have a candidate by Easter” or “you plan to introduce your candidate on Christmas Eve.”  This is a terrible idea.  First, the major liturgical holidays are – more than usual – all about Jesus.  Christmas Eve is about Jesus.  Easter is about Jesus.  The 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time is also about Jesus, but it’s a better time to share the good news that your search committee has discerned who your next pastor will be.
  • Consider everything but what God wants.  Maybe a candidate has a stellar resume.  Maybe he has perfect hair and lovely wife and young children.  Maybe she reminds you of a beloved former pastor. Maybe he looks like he should be your pastor.  Here’s the thing:  God might be moving you to choose the bald guy or the 50-something woman or the person with no head of staff experience.  Pay attention.
  • Choose a pastor based on gender.  I know search committees who interview women but they have no intention of calling a woman. Maybe they already have a female associate pastor and they can’t possibly have two female pastors (although notice how many times there have been two or more male pastors on staff at the same time for generations.)  Maybe the last pastor was a woman and you don’t want to call two women in a row. The thing is that God calls the right person to serve regardless of gender.
  • Choose a pastor based on age.  If your search committee is determined to call a “young pastor” you could miss the 60 year old who could cast the right vision.  If your search committee is determined to call a “seasoned pastor” you could miss the 33 year old who is preternaturally wise and perfect for the next season of your congregation’s life.

I love it when a Search Committee introduces their candidate and it’s not what what anyone expected, but it’s the candidate that God has chosen.  My friends, in these days now more than ever, we are utterly dependent upon The Spirit to direct us as we seek new leaders.   Please remember this as you call your next pastor.

People Who Look Like Us

LegosGreat news: One of the newest LEGO sets features The Women of NASA.  Many of us know astronauts Sally Ride and Mae Jemison, but now we can also build vast LEGO worlds with computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, Hubble Telescope designer Nancy Grace Roman, and mathematician Katherine Johnson. And more inspiring still is that these five women portray the diversity of humanity.  They are brown, black, and white with every color of hair.  Three wear glasses. They are different ages. Their accessories are rockets and labs and control panels.

This is huge.

As children play with these LEGOS, they will subtly learn that this is what scientists can look like.  They can be women with long or short hair, light or dark skin, wearing lab coats or astronaut uniforms.

I never saw a female pastor until I was in seminary.  The fact that I even applied to seminary is rather extraordinary and I remember telling family members that I didn’t plan to be a pastor (because women can’t do that, right?) but maybe I’d be a hospital chaplain or a missionary because I’d heard of women who did those things.

President Obama tells a story in his autobiography about reading the Sears Christmas catalog as a child in Indonesia and first noticing that all the models (and Santa Claus) were white. Today, many American children have no memory of life without an African American President.

And as for church, most Christian denominations allow both men and women to be leaders.  Some allow LGBTQ people to be leaders. Some  of our congregations are led by people from a variety of races and ethnicities.

When we see people who look like us out in the world doing great things, we more quickly understand that we can do those things too. We can be astronauts or presidents or pastors. Our imaginations are less limited. We have mentors who teach us not only by their words. They teach us by their very existence.

I write these words still profoundly moved that the four highest elected offices in my denomination now include a Hispanic gay man, an African American man, a (young) African American woman, and me. I wonder who is watching us and coming to realize that they too could lead.

As we read books to our children, create presentations for our workshops, and select individuals to take leadership positions in classrooms and offices, let’s take note of the images portrays in those books, slides, and faces. Are we providing images that feature the diversity around us for the sake of reminding children and adults alike that they belong?  If LEGO can do it, we all can.

Read about LEGO Women of NASA here.


What’s the Difference between the Youth Triennium and a Political Convention? (Spoiler Alert: A Couple Things)

If I build stadium seating, with flashing lights and pounding drums, and broadcast my message across the world, but do not increase love for the stranger, the outcast, the helpless, my worship is ego-driven vapor, exercises in excess that leave the heart empty, and our people more alone.  From the closing liturgy for the 2016 Presbyterian Youth Triennium last Friday

Political Campaign and Triennium[Note:  This is not intended to a politically partisan post.  As a follower of Jesus, I have concerns about last week’s political convention and as a follower of Jesus, I have concerns about this week’s political convention.]

What’s the Difference between the Presbyterian Youth Triennium and an American Political Convention?   The Youth Triennium was held in Indiana last week and one party’s convention was held last week in Ohio.  The other party’s convention will be held this week in Pennsylvania.

Both of last week’s events featured people who were whipped up in the frenzy of the moment. Both featured people wearing funny hats. Both events were held in huge venues with screens and spotlights and balloons and confetti.  Both events included inspiring speakers and rousing music.  Both events prompted religious fervor.

But these events could not have been more different.  One allowed hate and darkness to overshadow love and light.  The other lifted 5000 lights into the sky and asked participants to take that light out into the world.

One – in our Land of Liberty – vilified those whose opinions and beliefs differ from theirs within the realm of patriotism.  And the other addressed the diversity of opinions and beliefs within the realm of Christian orthodoxy.

One event included calls to “lock her up” and to “execute her”  (speaking of Hillary Clinton) to the point that I was almost expecting people to start shouting, “Crucify her!  Crucify her!”  The other event called people to go out into the world and make disciples.

One event included a speech declaring that the candidate could single-handedly fix the problems of the world.  The other event included a sermon by Steve Wilde that declared that “God has always chosen to work and act through unimpressive and inadequate people—normal, insecure and slightly freaked out people like you and like me.”  Steve was joined by other preachers who shared similar messages that proclaimed that we cannot actually make a difference alone.

I could go on and on but you get my drift here.  And my point is that it will also be equally as disappointing if this week’s political convention espouses a similar message of demonization and darkness and cosmic self-sufficiency.

Friends, our world is a hot mess and yet there is light.  I saw it brilliantly shining last week  at Triennium as I’ve seen it throughout my life, and I pray you have seen it in your lives too.

There is light in the world when oppressed people are protected and treasured. There is light in the world when enslaved people are set free whether that slavery is a result of human trafficking or addiction or the lie that we are not included in God’s love and mercy.  There is light in the world when 5000 high school students commit to going out into the world to make it better in God’s name. There is hope in the world when adults give up their vacation time to chaperone youth events or volunteer for mission trips.  There is hope in the world when life looks impossibly dark and someone chooses to sit with us in that darkness.

Every day I see goodness.  And the beauty about being one of the Co-Moderators of the PCUSA is that I increasingly witness goodness in remote corners and among strangers who become friends.

I am not naive. I know that political conventions are not overtly spiritual events. And yet . . .

We are called, my friends, to go out and bring light and life into the world.  We are not called to villify each other and build temples to ourselves.  We were born to bring hope.

Images from the Republican National Convention (top) and the 2016 Presbyterian Youth Triennium (bottom)

Who Ya Gonna Call?

The new Ghostbusters are women.  And they get the job done.  Mosaic on diversity

When the team of Ray, Egon, Winston, and Peter Venkman  was replaced by Erin, Abby, Jillian, and Patty some people scoffed.  Some didn’t care.  Some were inspired.  Sort of like what happens when non-traditional clergy replace “traditonal clergy” – and by that I mean women and people of color replacing white males.  Some people scoff.  Some don’t care.  Some are inspired.

I loved this article from The Atlantic and hope you’ll read every word.

The Eclipse of White Christian America is the title of the article.  What word jumps out at you in that title?  Which part makes you anxious?  For many of my people, they see “eclipse of Christian America.”  For me, the word “white” leaps out.

I hear over and over again that

  • People don’t go to church like they used to.
  • Young families won’t commit to church.
  • 20 and 30-somethings are not interested in church

But the issue here – for me – is not about age.  It’s about race and ethnicity.  Some pastor search committees in predominantly white churches  want a “young minister.”  There are lots of young pastors out there but they may not be white. Some congregations want lots of new members, but they don’t want new members who don’t look like themselves.

There are still lots of Protestant Christians in the United States. Increasingly they will not be white as demographic shifts continue.

So . . . who will Pastor Nominating Committees call in the future?  Many of our PNCs want to call a pastor with “classic looks” – code for a white guy in a tie perhaps.  But I hope they call the very best pastor – who doesn’t necessarily look like them.  The next pastor should always offer something that looks like the church of the future.

(Note:  Looks often deceive.  Find out what your candidates know about missional church, entrepreneurial church, conflict management, time management and emotional intelligence – because they will get tired – and cultural fluency.)

Image is a mosaic of some of the best pastors I know in my denomination.

It’s Not About Getting Younger Members

This report made me sigh.  (Quick recap:  The PCUSA is one of the two oldestYAADs with Jan and Denise religious groups in the country.)

Here’s what not to do in response to this information:

  • Run out and hire the first pastor we can find with a tattoo.
  • Install screens in the sanctuary.
  • Replace the organist with a drummer and a couple guitar players.
  • Become Buddhist (because their average member is twenty years younger than “ours.”)

It doesn’t matter that all the kids love Hamilton (and the real Alexander Hamilton was educated by a Presbyterian on St. Croix and influenced by Presbyterians in NY.)

It doesn’t matter that hundreds of youth and young adults will be converging on Purdue University this week for the Presbyterian Youth Triennium and it will change their lives.

What does matter:

  • We say that “we want kids” and “we want young adults” but sometimes we don’t act like it.
  • We want “young families” for the wrong reasons.  Please re-read this post.
  • We are addicted to a certain way of being the church that is less about the gospel and more about our own comfort levels.

What also matters is that my (old) denomination offers the kind of spiritual community – in terms of The Big Picture – that would be appealing to people in younger demographics if we could live out these principles in real life:

  • The majority of millennials support marriage equality in the United States.  (Note:  The PCUSA is one of a handful of denominations that support same sex unions and ordains LGBTQ clergy.)
  • The majority of young adults support Black Lives Matter.   The births of multiracial children is increasing in the United States.  In 2015, there were more 24 year olds than any other age group, but for white Americans, the average age was 55.   In other words, it’s time for faith communities to address the realities of racial/ethnic shifts in this country and – for the love of God – the realities of systemic racism.  (Note:  The PCUSA not only just added a creed to our Book of Confessions that declares it is a sin to separate people based on race and color.  But it’s also true that the four leading officers of our denomination include a Latino man, an African American man, an African American woman, and me.)
  • Young adults want to make a difference in their communities. According to this Pew study, the majority of Millennials and Gen Xers volunteered in the past twelve months in greater percentages than Boomers or members of the Silent generation. While slacktivism is popular (e.g. buying TOMS shoes, signing internet petitions) there are many young adults more interested – and aware of the need – to make more impactful contributions. (Note:  PCUSA World Mission is known for sticking around after the sexiness of doing good wears off in many troubled corners of the world.  For example, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance stuck around to help Katrina victims after most agencies left and, subsequently, we are the only group of our kind recognized in the Katrina museum in New Orleans.)

I believe that diverse and theologically progressive congregations have much to offer people – of every age – seeking a spiritual community that wants to change the world for good in the name of Jesus.  And yet our churches doing amazing things could do a better job translating who we are and what we are about.

Perhaps we – in every church –  could stop repelling people with our in-house squabbles.  Perhaps we who have remained in traditional congregations could get out more and notice more clearly the needs of our communities – rather than perpetuating  pet projects that offer little impact.

I can almost hear you saying, “Jan’s been a General Assembly co-moderator for less than a month and she’s already drinking the Kool-Aid.”  But the truth is that there are many congregations faithfully doing what matters to younger generations whether the younger generations are present to notice or not.  How can we connect with people of all ages in ways that make sense for a the future Church?

Image from the 222nd General Assembly in Portland, Oregon.


In Search of: A Wonderful, Bountiful, Not Bad, Pretty Good Day

AlexanderRemember Alexander? He’s not the only one who suffers bad days.  (This post was inspired by this article.  I feel for him.)

Sometimes our days are filled with First World annoyances.  And sometimes people experience unspeakable horror.  Unspeakable horror seems to be winning.

There is always more to do than we get done in a given day, and we can respond to this cosmic reality in several ways:

  • Lie awake in bed regretting our time management decisions.
  • Work more.  Rest less.
  • Assess the good witnessed/achieved/experienced that day and give thanks.

My work schedule varies every day.  I have a list of things to do, and my day might or might not turn out the way I planned.  Maybe your days are like this as well.

But there is good each day.  I – for one – can’t survive without daily assessing what I witnessed or achieved or experienced that was life-giving and redemptive.

  • Who was loved?
  • Who was heard?
  • What was appreciated?
  • How was God honored?

And then we try again tomorrow.

Whether we try to follow the way of Jesus or not, we can all be kinder to each other. We can do the right thing, even if no one is watching.  We can give someone else a really good day.

Image from Judith Viorst’s book.  Illustration by Ray Cruz.

Beyond “Thoughts & Prayers”: How About Some Orientation?

I have always loved orientation days.  compass

As I write this, I’m on the cusp of my latest orientation:  GA Co-Moderator Orientation with Denise in Louisville today and tomorrow.  Look out, people.  We are getting new PCUSA email addresses.

Information brings power.  I like knowing where the restrooms are located.  I like knowing what’s expected of me.  I like having access to calendars and phone numbers.

As we still reel from Dallas and Minneapolis and Baton Rouge, I – like many – are frustrated by merely offering our “thoughts and prayers” for victims and their families.  As many preachers noted last Sunday, the Good Samaritan did more than offer “thoughts and prayers” to the beaten man on the side of the road.

I’m wondering if we need to be – or to seek out – orientation counselors.  Please note:  this is not an opportunity to offer mansplanations to “those people.” Please, no.

We live in a world in which we are exposed to people and places that are unfamiliar to us, especially if we are able to travel or go away to school or take a new job on the other side of the country.  [Note: if you travel or go to college or move to a new place and do not meet anyone who is not like you, you’ve missed a God-given opportunity.]

Or maybe our only contact with people who are Not Like Us is through media where each of us – on any given day – can find ourselves at a march in Dallas or a parking lot in Baton Rouge or a campaign rally in Portsmouth, NH. These opportunities to visit unfamiliar places and explore new worlds and meet new people require some effort though.

Now more than ever, we need effective orientation.  What seems confusing to us might become understandable if we learn about the history behind the culture.  What makes us judge-y when we watch news reports might be understandable if we knew the norms and customs of the hometown crowd.

We live in a world full of unfair judgments and destructive mythologies and it’s killing us – sometimes literally.

We’ve “heard things” about (a person, race, ethnicity, religion, gender) but we actually don’t know what we’re talking about until we have firsthand conversations and personal experiences.  There’s quite a bit of misinformation out there about human beings with whom we share a planet who might look/worship/speak differently from the way we look/worship/speak.  Imagine allowing ourselves to be oriented according to what the-already-oriented can teach us or show us.

Imagine serving as someone else’s Orientation Counselor  – not like the know-it-all OCs who lord over their experience, but like the ones who help you carry your mini-fridge up three flights of stairs.

How can I help?” is a good question, especially if we mean it.  It’s so much more than saying, “You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”



Everybody Should Get This

green-mountainsI’m headed back to real life today after a couple days celebrating HH’s 60th birthday in Vermont.  It was lovely.  We ate really good food.  We experienced God’s nature in technicolor.  We stared into space with few immediate worries. We worshiped with a church on Sunday that addressed important spiritual issues and nobody got angry/shot/banished.

At dinner last night, my sweet HH said, “Everybody should get this.”  He is right.

Everybody should get a vacation.  Everybody should get at least one standing ovation in life.  Everybody should get dessert after a great meal.  Everybody should get his birthday celebrated or her election honored.  Everybody should get to go to a peaceful protest without being shot at.  Everybody should get to drive in the wee hours – if we wish – without being shot at.  Everybody should get to play in a public playground without being shot at.  Everybody should get to make a living without getting shot at.

My heart is filled with gratitude.  I have married a generous person who loves me.  I have enough money to take a vacation.  I have healthy children who are happy and interesting.  I work with fantastic people.  I live in a house with air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter.  I have a cell phone, a laptop, a double-wide fridge, an extra bathroom, and a team of people who mow my big yard.  I am an enormously privileged human being.

Everybody should get this.  I reject the notion that – for me to “have this”  – some people are doomed to the poverty class.  This is not true.

Everybody should be treasured and well fed and rested and honored.  We are in big trouble, cosmically, if we don’t get this.