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.



Yikes. There are Too Few Jobs

IBM_Selectric_typeballHappy July – the real beginning of summer if you ask me – especially if you had kids in school into early June and you’re still recovering from the spring rush of activities.  Summer feels like an Independence Day through Labor Day season, and with leisure and labor in mind . . .

I hope everyone will read this article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic: A World Without Work.  The bottom line is that – nationally – there are simply fewer jobs.  

“In 1964, the nation’s most valuable company, AT&T was worth $267 billion in today’s dollars and employed 758,611 people.  Today’s telecommunications giant, Google, is worth $370 billion but has only about 55,000 employees – less than a tenth the size of AT&T’s workforce in its heyday.”

In 1964, there were 10,949 pastors serving churches in the largest branch of Presbyterianism in the United States according to this report.  In 2014 there were 20,383 teaching elders in our denomination – almost twice as many clergy. But there are less “jobs” – fewer churches, fewer multi-staff churches.  Associate Pastor positions are increasingly rare while Specialized (non-parish) Ministry positions are more common.  Increasingly we are ordaining candidates to positions as chaplains, seminary professors, counselors, and community organizers both because our understanding of professional ministry is expanding and because there are fewer congregational positions.

It’s possible that in church and church-related positions, as in the secular world, we are going to “run out of jobs.” The economic historian Robert Skidelsky notes that technological industries require fewer workers because they are more “labor efficient.”  It’s not that we are more “labor efficient” in the ecclesiastical world, but due to shifts in church participation, there will most likely be fewer congregations financially able to afford one or more seminary-trained, professional ministers in the future.

Is this terrible news for people seeking jobs/calls?  Not necessarily – although it’s bound to freak us out a bit.

Imagine a wholly different way of life that’s less about work.  The Atlantic article points out that colleges used to be where we learned culture but now college is increasingly where we learn job skills.  “We used to teach people to be free” said historian Benjamin Hunnicutt.  “Now we teach them to work.”  And work is about money in our current culture.

Yes, we will always have bills to pay (and sadly the debts our generations carry are going to be increasingly painful to handle in the future.)  But we are moving towards some interesting changes in our working world.

The impact upon professional ministry?

  • The closing of some of our seminaries (because we don’t need as many trained clergy.)
  • The expansion of a gig economy for pastors (in which pastors serve as consultants, coaches, spiritual directors – patching together several gigs to create a career.)
  • The expansion of tent-making (although for some people carrying more than one job, it seems unsustainable physically and emotionally.)
  • The incorporation of spiritual practices in traditionally secular work (e.g. nurses with pastoral care chops, accountants who promote philanthropic activities, artisan bakers/furniture makers/mechanics who work with their hands as a devotional act).

These shifts could mark the beginning of a new burst of spiritual awakening.  I hope I get to see it (without freaking out.)

Image of an IBM Selectric Typewriter Ball (circa 1961)

Crafting Souls in the Days of ISIS and The Council of Conservative Citizens

plensa_1I don’t do “crafts.”  I don’t knit,  decoupage, sculpt, or re-cane chairs and I don’t want to.

But crafting is on my mind as I read about “Makerspaces” popping up around the country.  Check out The Idea Foundry in Columbus, Ohio where people create beautiful things in community in a former shoe factory.  Or The Church of Craft with “parishes” in fifteen cities.  Their spiritual practices involve showing love by making things.

We talk about spiritual nurture in our traditional churches, but what if we were clearer about crafting souls?

Nefarious groups throughout the world craft souls for destruction.  ISIS seeks out lonely disconnected people with false promises of love and community. The organization that influenced the young man who assassinated nine souls in Charleston indoctrinates weak, fearful people with erroneous statistics and incendiary stories.

Mommy, why does God let Jews live?”  Todd Blodgett reported hearing a 5 or 6 year old ask this of her mother after attending an Aryan Nation/KKK meeting when he was an undercover officer with the FBI.  We teach our children all kinds of things – intentionally or unintentionally.  What if we, in the church, committed to crafting souls with a wholly different message?

Creativity takes time.  We don’t craft souls by plopping them in front of televisions or dropping them off at Sunday School (so somebody will teach them “good values.”) It happens slowly, lovingly sculpting and shaping souls.  It happens over trusted conversations during walks and around the kitchen table. Crafting souls is more about teaching love than indoctrinating for power and control – although love is the greatest power and a soul controlled by love can do the miraculous.

When SBC was in kindergarten, we took two young friends to a movie and before the movie started, there were a series of slides shown before the previews.  You know those slides:  some advertisements, some announcements.  A Red Cross slide popped up showing a Black firefighter carrying a White child out of a burning building.  One of SBC’s little friends asked me, “Why is that man trying to steal that girl?”

Me:  He’s not stealing her.  He’s saving her from the burning building.

SBC’s Little Friend:  No.  That Black man is trying to take her.  

Me:  No.  He’s saving her life.

As I argued with our young guest, my first thought was “Who is teaching this kid racism?”  My second thought was that I didn’t want SBC playing with her anymore.  But actually, I might have been one of the few people “crafting her soul” for love.

That sounds really obnoxious, doesn’t it?  It makes me sound like my way is the loving way, the only way.  The truth is that we indeed mold our children.  But do we have the right to craft the souls of other people beyond our own circle of families and friends?  I think we do.  I believe, in fact, that this is our calling as followers of Jesus.

Crafting souls is not about indoctrination and hit-and-run evangelizing.  It’s about demonstrating what the love of God looks like.  Sometimes it looks like climbing a flagpole and sometimes it looks like correcting a child lovingly.

Questions to ask as we assess the efficacy of soul crafting in our congregations:

  • Do we offer the educational equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to our children (i.e. quick and easy with very little nutrients)?
  • Do we adopt the trendy practices of other churches without thinking it through (i.e. explaining why we are doing it beyond the fact that it’s supposed to be the next new thing?)
  • Is worship comparable to sitting in front of the television seeking entertainment with little investment or participation?
  • Has church become just one more thing to do each week, like laundry or filling up the gas tank?
  • When was the last time we listened to our neighbor in the pew tell us about her life beyond the most cursory comments?
  • Are we spending a lot of time “in church” volunteering/working and yet that time is making us feel exhausted instead of spiritually fed?

What if we shifted our perspective to see our church lives as being about allowing our own souls to be crafted so that we might be equipped to be spiritual artisans ourselves?

Image is one of Jaume Plensa’s public art projects in Millennium Park, Chicago.

Sorry. Not Sorry. (A Post for Women in Churches)

About a year ago, Pantene Shampoo’s “Not Sorry” ad hit the airwaves and several periodicals picked up the story:  Fast Company.  The Washington Post.  Time.  Just this past Tuesday, it came up again in The New York Times.  Why do women apologize so much?

I’m wondering about this for women of faith:  Do church ladies also apologize too much? Do clergywomen apologize too much?

Apologizing is not about confession. This is not about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev admitting his guilt yesterday.

Maybe “sorry” has simply become another way of saying “excuse me”  – although I have been known to say, “I’m sorry” when somebody stepped on my foot or pushed me accidentally on the train.

Are we more or less likely to say “I’m sorry” in spiritual communities?

Female-on-female hostility exists in many of our congregations and there’s plenty of Biblical precedent for women treating each other harshly.  Today – like always – female parishioners are much more likely to give clergywomen a hard time for countless complicated reasons.

But I don’t see women apologizing to each other over coffee hour misunderstandings or church meeting conflicts.  I can’t remember a time when a parishioner who disrespected her female pastor in a way she would never have disrespected her male pastor apologized.  (Maybe it’s assumed that clergywomen, by virtue of our office, are supposed to forgive and forget, even without acknowledgment of any wrongdoing.)

I wonder if spiritual communities really are different:

  • Do clergywomen say “I’m sorry” less often on the job because We Are Called, and jumping through so many hoops to get to that pulpit has made us confident?
  • Do we women who are active in spiritual communities acknowledge that we (humanly) lose our tempers, over-function, or gossip occasionally and then we gladly apologize to each other?
  • Are we less likely to apologize to each other because confession and forgiveness are assumed?  Or maybe we just don’t like conflict?

What’s been your experience – no matter what your gender – about saying “Sorry” in our congregations or doing ministry of any kind?  Just wondering.

Southern Accents

I have a Southern accent that becomes even more Southern when I talk with my Reynolds Price and Eudora Welty by Jill Krementzpeople in North and South Carolina.  My Southern accent doesn’t mean I’m unintelligent although that’s often the stereotype.

It doesn’t help when Southerners indeed say unintelligent things, but Southerners haven’t cornered the market on stupidity, and ignorant things, unfortunately, come out of the mouths of people from every corner of the earth.

Some of my favorite Southern voices are/were these:

For the record, all of these people are or were brilliant.

As our nation debates the meaning of the Confederate flag once again this week, I am saddened to hear people with Southern accents say foolish things.  I can almost hear the rest of the world whisper “redneck” under their collective breaths.

I remember too many times when people with Southern accents have been mocked because “Southern” = “stupid” for many.   I also remember the White Boston police officer with the strong southside accent tell two Black friends that they were not allowed in a certain neighborhood after dark (although that’s where they lived.)   And I remember my former parishioner with the upstate NY accent tell his hospital roommate that “we don’t allow Black people in our church so don’t bother visiting.”  And I remember my White neighbor with the Midwestern accent ask me why I would ever drive through Harvey, IL when I could take a “safer” route.

People say ignorant things in every accent.  The hope is not that we learn how to speak in a more neutral accent like newscasters.  The hope is that we learn to speak with more wisdom and tolerance.  The hope is not that we speak louder. The hope is that we listen better.

Image of Reynolds Price and Eudora Welty who had Southern accents.  Source.

Friends Who Are Going to Hell (Or Not)

Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness?  What agreement does Christ have with Beliar*? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God;  2 Corinthians 6:14-16a

Nine Circles of Hell by BotticelliIt’s old news, of course, that fewer people are claiming any religious affiliation. Friends might be “historically Lutheran” or Roman Catholic-ish, but – unless we church people are extremely parochial or sheltered – many of our classmates, work colleagues, and neighbors do not share our faith.

Imagine being a follower of Christ with few, if any, Christian friends.  If you were raised on 2 Corinthians 6 like I was, you know full well that being “mismatched with unbelievers” is frowned upon, not only in terms of dating and marriage but also in terms of basic friendships, because we could be negatively influenced by such “friends.”

The problem with having no non-Christian friends is that we lose all perspective. We forget that not everybody talks about “being unevenly yoked” or “being a stumbling block.”  Most people in the world have no idea what a narthex or a chancel might be.  They increasingly don’t know the words to the hymns and praise songs that – we believe – “everybody knows.”  They have heard of Noah and the Good Samaritan but they don’t know the stories.  They heard that the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin but they would be hard pressed to find those verses in the Bible.  (Note:  most self-identifying Christians would also be hard pressed to find those verses much less have any exegetical analysis of those verses.)

I believe that – if we have no non-Christian friends – it’s almost impossible to follow Jesus.  I’m not talking about the neighbor down the street who doesn’t seem to go to church but we wave to each other when walking our dogs.  That person is not my friend; that person is a stranger who lives in my neighborhood.

I’m talking about people who are born-again agnostics and people who are pretty sure that there is no god.  I’m talking about the devout Muslim guy across the street  who comes over for cookouts or the Jewish colleague with whom we carpool and talk about our kids.  Having non-Christian friends keeps us honest. It reminds us that there are some people out there who follow the way of Jesus although they wouldn’t see it that way.  It’s just that they might remarkably kind. They make sacrifices for strangers and – except for that whole “they don’t go to church” part – you would probably want them to raise your kids if you dropped dead because they are among the best human beings you know.

The best evangelists are the ones who live out their faith in the worst possible situations.  Nadine Collier is one of those people.  So are the other relatives of the nine Charleston victims who spoke words of forgiveness less than three days after Dylann Roof killed their precious people.

We who were raised on the notion that conversion was our life’s work if we wanted to get into heaven need to remember that this was in fact not the way of Jesus.  His friends included people who were not considered “the faithful.”  He just loved them.  He showed them what the love of God looks like.

We may find that our non-Christian friends love us better than we love them. And we may even be surprised who lands in heaven.

Imagine of Botticelli’s Map of Hell (late 15th Century)

*Beliar is a word for Satan.