One Way to Honor Veterans Today

My friend John Dale is an amazing U.S. Veteran.  He continues to serve vets through REBOOT Combat Recovery.  Check it out:

Of the 600+ graduates from their 12-week combat trauma healing courses, not one has died by suicide. A small donation of $22 a month (or one-time gift of $264) provides everything necessary for a military family to complete the course and heal from the wounds of war.

This is one thing we can do to honor our vets that has a positive impact on real people.  Please consider donating here today.

Thank you.

Brothers & Sisters in Christ: What’s Worth Protesting For or Against?

Missouri Protest

In our interview to serve a church in Our Nation’s Capital many years ago, HH and I – candidating as co-pastors – were asked if we would ever “march on the mall.”  One of us followed that question with another question:

Are you asking us if there is anything we would ever protest for or against?

Of course,” we answered.  “We hope we would stand up for what we believed was right.”  Suspicions were already high because I’d kept my own birth name. But as it turned out, the biggest “protest” we attended was an Earth Day Rally featuring James Taylor, Leonardo diCaprio, David Crosby, and Carole King and – honestly – we were there for the music, no matter how much we love the planet.

I’m far from being a brave marcher, unlike my colleagues getting arrested over protesting government budget cuts.

The situation at The University of Missouri is attracting both the ire and the respect of many people.  Two powerful university leaders – in fact the two highest ranking university leaders – have resigned after the football team and many others protested certain administrative actions and the lack of action.

Among the assorted actions protested: Failing to address issues of flagrant racism.

Just 116.5 miles from Ferguson, many people of Columbia, MO had had enough of  racial epithets shouted at Student Body President Payton Head, swastikas painted on a dorm wall, more racial epithets at a homecoming event.  But it was only when the football team refused to play – losing potentially a million dollars for the University – that leaders agreed to step down.

I’ve heard some say that “protests don’t achieve anything.”  Instead, we should be painting houses and feeding the hungry.  But think about it:  is there anything important enough that we would simply stand up in public and say:  “No more.”

This is risky, of course.  We risk offending somebody – maybe somebody in our family or somebody in our church.

But we are called to defend the weak and serve the disenfranchised.  Would we stand up for them for the sake of Christ?

Image from a Mizzou protest. The hashtag #ConcernedStudent1950 honors the year the University accepted its first African American student.

Brene Brown is Messing with My Brain

The middle is messy but it’s also where the magic happens.risingstrong

Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.

The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.  

Actually, the last quote comes from Jesus and the 20th President of the United States. The first two are from Brene Brown’s new book Rising Strong.

I find myself in The Messy Middle.

God calls each of us, I believe, but I do not believe that God necessarily has a specific call in mind every time we need to make a decision.  Am I called to serve First Church on the Hill or Christ Church in the Valley?  It could be that one of those choices is The One.  Or it could be that God could use me well in either setting.  The point is that I remain attuned to God in all things.

Are you called to fulfill your passion for painting?  Or are you called to develop a passion from the situation at hand – whatever that situation might be?  And then you’ll get to paint.

This article from The Washington Post speaks to the quandary of pursing one’s passion – that rather (misleading) American thing we tell our kids.  The German word for “passion” is leidenschaft which literally refers to resilience.  In Polish, the word is cierpienie which refers to suffering.  Called to suffer doesn’t sound nearly as much fun as called to follow our bliss, does it?

I’ve been called to serve two congregations of churches and one “mid-council” of a denomination.  I’ve been lucky.  It’s been clear.

So what if one’s calling is not so clear?  Questions to ask ourselves:

  • Can we talk ourselves into “feeling called”? (yes)
  • Is a call supposed to feel “right” or is it supposed to feel a little scary? (yes and yes)
  • How do we discern God’s will for us?  (your guess is as good as mine)

There is prayer.  There is the gut check.  There is the pros and cons list.  Long walks help.  Wise council  helps.  Reading Rising Strong helps except when it doesn’t.

In the final analysis, if there is such a thing as following a specific call, I wonder if “it doesn’t matter” is the answer.  God uses whatever choice we make.

It’s just that some choices are so much more efficient than others.  Making a choice that leads to 40 years of wandering in the wilderness sounds exhausting. And yet what if that messy middle – the wandering- is exactly the point?

On this glorious fall day, I’d love to hear about your call.  Does God feel near or far away?  Does your current purpose in life feel courageous or comfortable? Are we practicing what we value?  Or are we spending our days doing what’s fun, fast, and easy?   Discerning minds want to know.

Know Your Cuts of Meat?

Meat Not MeatRemember when David Letterman played the audience participation game called
Know Your Cuts of Meat?   I was impressed when somebody could actually distinguish a Blade Roast from a Tip Roast.

But this post is not about meat.

Important note:  People are not cuts of meat.  Nevertheless, we sometimes treat new people as if they were.  I remember a friend telling me that the first time she visited a certain church and took a seat with her husband and two children, it was as if somebody yelled “Fresh meat!”  One woman asked her after worship if she’d like to teach Sunday School.  Someone asked her husband if he’d like to join the choir.  No thank you.

Our community, however, is comprised of many pieces and knowing as many of those pieces as possible is essential for a thriving ministry.

We could call it Know Your Constituents.  Any congregation serious about ministry inside and outside its walls should be able to identify the segments of people around them:

  • The Neighborhood – Do we know how many students receive free lunch at the school closest to our church building?  Do we know the unemployment rate for our county?  Are we aware that there is a high rate of domestic violence or heroin addiction in our town?  Do we know the names of the people who deliver our mail, patrol our parking lot, or supply our paper?
  • The Staff – Do we know that our office administrator has a law degree?  Do we know that our organist speaks French?  Do we know that our associate pastor grew up in Alaska?  Have we read our colleagues’ resumes so that we can appreciate their experience and background?
  • The Leadership – Have we met our elders for lunch near their workplaces?  Do we know that the Clerk of Session keynoted a national convention last summer?  Have we gotten to know our Deacons well enough to know that one is the retired head of the school board and another lived as a homeless person for two years?

The days are long gone (like 100 years ago) when the pastor was the smartest person in the room.  If we do not know our constituents, we risk underestimating them or making assumptions about who they are and what they know or don’t know.  I remember a new pastor who became so frustrated with his officers that – in the heat of a personnel conflict – he said, “If you don’t cooperate on this, I might consider hiring a lawyer.”  What he didn’t know was that almost everybody around the table was a lawyer.

We need to know our constituents.  Yes, this seems hugely obvious.  But many of us do not take the time or make the effort to know our people – both in the congregation and out in the neighborhood.  And when we don’t, it almost feels like we are treating them as less than fully human.  We see them so superficially that we don’t honor who they are.

Our people – friends and strangers – are assets that can teach us all kinds of things.  Pastors who get this are like gold.

Double Life

All of us lead a double life.  People would be shocked to know our secrets. Post SecretHeck, sometimes we don’t even acknowledge them to ourselves.

It’s hard to get this sad story about the Fox Lake, IL police sergeant out of my mind today.

  • What we thought happened:  The officer called in to report that he was in pursuit of three suspicious people only to be shot and killed (ostensibly by them.)
  • What actually happened: He killed himself in “a carefully staged suicide.”
  • What we thought happened:  He had been a huge supporter of a Police Explorer program that taught youth and young adults about law enforcement.
  • What actually happened:  He had been stealing money from the Police Explorer program for many years.

He adored his wife, he adored his kids, he adored his police Explorers,” a longtime friend said to the press.

I believe this part is true.  I believed his loved his family and the Explorers.  But he also had a shadow side that – tragically – will forever trump the eulogy delivered on his burial day.

Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

But it takes spiritual maturity and intentional reflection not to live a double life. I’m especially talking here to myself and to all my clergy friends, teacher friends, law enforcement friends, and government friends.  When we lead double lives PEOPLE ALMOST ALWAYS FIND OUT.  That sexual affair with somebody else’s partner, that grand mal of a lie we whispered, that cash we pocketed year after year.  And when our double lives are revealed, the layers of damage are thick with impact.

I can’t imagine how devastated that police officer’s spouse and kids are feeling today.  And those students whom he were mentored.  And the colleagues who had presented him with a posthumous Medal of Honor.  And the thousands of fellow officers who lined up along the funeral route in September.

When we were growing up, we always knew he was a hero, but now the whole nation knows him as a hero,” the officer’s brother said at the funeral. Sigh.

But this is all of us, folks.  All of us have stuff we’d rather not bring out into the light.  And yet, we have to try because the darker the secret, the harder it is to be free.

Images from Post Secret.

Q: How Many of Our Congregations are in Transition?

A: All of them.  


  • Anxiety about Pretty Much Everything
  • Broken Pipes
  • Change in Pastor’s Family
  • Death of Church Pillar
  • Exponential Growth
  • Flood Recovery
  • Gossip Recovery
  • Haters Won’t Leave
  • Isolationists Won’t Connect
  • Jailed Former Pastor
  • Kids Suddenly Everywhere
  • Lawsuit against Church
  • Malfeasance
  • No Money
  • Outmoded Communications
  • Pastoral Change
  • Quarrelsome Leaders
  • Retiring Pastor
  • Sexual Misconduct
  • Theological Conflicts
  • Unintentional Interim Pastor
  • Victim Complex
  • Worship Style Conflicts
  • Xenophobia
  • Youth Group Crisis
  • Zero Dollars Left in Endowment

If one or more of those situations applies to your congregation, you are in transition.

Transitional ministry training is essential for all 21st Century Church Leaders because all of us are in the thick of it.  Here’s where you can learn more.

Rob Wolcott opened a lecture recently with these words: “Today is the slowest pace of change we will experience in our lives.”  Yep.

Complaining about change us so yesterday.  Tomorrow is about re-tooling ourselves for a new way of being the Church and thriving in it.  Let’s do this.

Brain Science & Leadership

Yesterday, I wrote that I’d like to have a deeper knowledge of brain science so IThe Brain by Katharine Dowson (2005) can be more like Leonardo da Vinci.  Or something like that.

As I write this from St. Louis  – where I’m diving deeply into transitional ministry education – it’s interesting how often brain science is mentioned.

Sisters and brothers, did you know that:

  • Our brains work in an “open loop system” which means that if I sense that you might threaten me, my prefrontal cortex will semi-shut down?  In other words, when we feel safe, our brains open up to be more creative.  (Thank you Rabbi S.M.)  This means it’s hard to be creative in a congregation of people who don’t trust each other.
  • Research suggests that negative emotions are like Velcro and positive emotions are like Teflon?  In other words, constructive criticism sticks to us and compliments slide off us faster than a fried egg glides off a polytetrafluoroethylene skillet .  (Thank you Ivey Business Journal.) This means it’s hard to forget that parishioner’s comment about your “disappointing sermon.”  But we easily forget the parishioner’s comment about how much the funeral homily meant to them.


I’m telling you: this stuff is fascinating.

Positive emotions bring out the best in people and so consider what it does to someone’s brain when he/she lives in constant fear, deprivation, and anxiety.  Or – in Church World – when parishioners believe that their heritage is being taken away or their spiritual practices are being challenged or their sacred assumptions are being crushed.

We. Need. More. Emotionally. Intelligent. Leaders.  

Emotional intelligence is a better predictor of pastoral success than straight As on a seminary transcript.  Emotionally intelligent people better manage their stress, diffuse anxiety, and promote a climate of optimism and adaptability which makes people feel more innovative.  It’s science, people.

Note:  while I’m learning this week, I covet your suggestions for further brain science and leadership studies.  (Thanks.)

Image source.

Don’t Be a Fachidiot

LeonardoWhat would you say is your area of expertise?  Are you an amazing teacher?  An excellent gardener?  A stellar clarinet player? Maybe you are deeply good at several things.

Personally, I’m a pretty good preacher, church whisperer, mediator, teacher and consultant.  Notice how all those things fall into one basic category though: Church World.

I need to get out more:  out of the office, out of the non-profit management section of the book store, out of the sanctuary, out of the meeting room.

I’m working on it.  Possibilities:  I would like to know everything about brain science and perfect coffee-making.  I would like to learn how to make my own donuts.

Robert C. Wolcott of Northwestern University teaches Innovative Leadership and he says that the best 21st Century leaders live in multiple worlds with two or more areas of ‘deep knowledge.’  Ronald Burt of the University of Chicago says that it doesn’t matter what those two areas are, just so they are different:  piano and baseball, orthopedics and pastry-making.  When we have two areas of expertise, they inform each other and we learn how to speak other “languages.” It makes everything more interesting.

At the risk of getting into a political argument (that’s not my intention) I was reading this and learned the German word “fachidiot” which means a person who is brilliant in a narrow field but ignorant in pretty much everything else.  Let’s not be like that.  Innovative people are not fachidiots.

Think about Leonardo Da Vinci – the original Renaissance Man – who had deep knowledge in the fields of portrait painting, human anatomy, engineering, and birds.  He invented musical instruments.  The man was clearly a polymath.

Contemporary examples of people with at least two areas of deep knowledge include Condoleezza Rice (international diplomacy, piano), Matthew Putman (physicist, jazz composer, poet), and Brian May (astrophysicist, guitarist from Queen.)  We can’t be as amazing as those folks, but broadening our horizons transforms more than our own lives.

Our congregations are in dire need of innovators who know how to make changes – not for change’s sake – but in order to become the Church we were created to be in these whirlwind times.  We need to speak multiple cultural languages.

One of the reasons many our congregations are struggling is because we are only informed by Church World.  We have forgotten that we are called out into the glorious world of quantum physics and Moroccan history and bonsai cultivation and Thai cooking and landscape architecture and . . .

It’s okay that we can’t be like Leonardo da Vinci, or even Condi Rice.  But our lives and our communities will be enhanced if we become experts at something that feeds our souls (outside the office.)

Image is a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.  It’s okay that we can’t be like him.

In Search of Everyday Badassery

640_barack_obama_soccer_gettyMy friend Landon reminded me this week that – when President Obama welcomed the World Cup winning U.S. Women’s Soccer Team to the White House Tuesday – he said,  “This team taught all America’s children that ‘playing like a girl’ means you’re a badass…

I grew up in the South and Southern ladies do not say words like “badass” nor are we encouraged to aspire to such behavior.  And yet, I have also worked in professional ministry for a long time and I’ve found that everyday badassery is extremely helpful when dealing with the rigors of serving the people of God.

The Urban Dictionary defines badassery as “Engaging in seemingly impossible activities and achieving success in a manner that renders all onlookers completely awestruck.”  Yes, please.

And I say this believing that no badassery is possible without divine help. Seriously – God blessed Abby Wambach and company with some heavenly skills.

The truth is that the people of God – clergy and non-clergy alike – can be mean, conniving, selfish, and every other colorful but flawed characteristic.  We see the very best and the very worst of people each day. (And sometimes we are those very best and very worst people.)

I saw this yesterday (thank you Bec Cranford-Smith) about pastoral depression, the incidence of friendless pastors, etc. and – clearly – we pastors need to hone our badassery skills.   Yes, professional ministry is lonely.  Yes, we are often Sabbath-challenged.  Yes, people believe they can treat us like doormats because they assume we will not confront them on it.

But this is not our calling.  We are called to be awesome – for the sake of something greater than ourselves.

We are called to overcome injustice, choose faith over fear, and be kind – even to those who don’t deserve it.  We are called to everyday badassery in the name of One whose leadership was based on self-sacrifice that leads to transformation and strength based on utter integrity.

Landon privately challenged me and Rocky Supinger to consider the call to badassery this week, and I appreciate Rocky’s particular nod to clergywomen.    But guys – do not disappoint us.  We need to see “seemingly impossible activities that render us awestruck” from you too.  For the love of God, show us  your best selves.

Image source.


21st Century Preaching: The Storyteller’s Voice?

Story SlamIt used to be true that seminaries taught students to develop our Preaching Voice.  They were not talking about a preacher’s poetic or hermeneutical style. They were talking about one’s literal voice.

Some seminaries went as far as teaching how to gaze upward, hold hands firmly in the air, make a Power Stance, and – in some cases – eliminate all traces of “distracting accents.”  It was not unusual for someone to speak one way in a pulpit and another way in regular conversation.


Maybe this still happens in some 21st Century seminaries.  But while fewer people are interested in listening to traditional sermons (according to assorted church attendance studies), live storytelling slams and radio shows are booming in popularity.  I, for one, listen to This American Life, StoryCorps, Radiolab, and The Moth podcasts faithfully every week, and I’m not the only one.

They have become the sermons that inform my life and stir me spiritually.

Ira Glass – called “the most influential speaker” here utters kind of a nasally, imperfect sound.  The great Sarah Vowell has a playful voice with which she speaks hugely informative and entertaining tales about U.S. history.   They do not sound like polished (insert certain famous-ish seminary name here) graduates, but I could listen to either of them all day.

This excellent article speaks to why 20th Century Preaching is not as well-received in these days of “slangy approachability” and “confessional tones.”

So imagine this:  a trained professional pastor (if we must have one) sets up a real person’s story with The Story from scripture.  If I’m the preacher, I read from one of Paul’s letters or a Minor Prophet’s warnings or a poetic Wisdom piece or one of Jesus’ parables.  And then someone tells “a true story told live” in The Moth‘s parlance.

I’m in.  How about you?

Ira Glass says it best:  “Any story hits you harder if the person delivering it doesn’t sound like a news robot but, in fact, sounds like a real person having the reactions a real person would.”  Amen.

PS – Ira Glass?  Sarah Vowell?  Yes.  I am a stereotype.