Ministry Where There Is No Starbucks – or even a McDonald’s

Remember Lemmon, S.D.?Schaghticoke

Kathleen Norris wrote about Lemmon in her 1993 memoir Dakota.  I remember reading that McDonald’s wouldn’t even open a store in Lemmon. (The closest McDonald’s 20+ years later is still an hour and a half away.)

These days, Lemmon is better known for being the real location of the grizzly bear attack featured in Revenant.  A grizzly bear.  The one who tried to kill Leo DiCaprio.

According to the statistical reports in my denomination, the PCUSA church in Lemmon, SD has about 40 in worship and is yoked with another church, both being served by a temporary supply pastor from another denomination.  This is rather typical for many of our rural congregations – and even for some of our suburban and urban congregations.

Last week, this article sparked my fancy.  I’ve been reading articles about the populations shifts from rural America to urban America.  People increasingly live in cities now and many rural towns are dying and I won’t go into all the reasons for this, but you probably have a good idea.

My first parish out of seminary was in a village of less than 700.  The closest grocery store was ten miles away, although there were two small convenience stores along Main Street.  It was lonely for a 20-something single clergywoman.

Most seminary graduates want to live in or near cities. Most seasoned pastors want to live in cities or close by suburbs.  It makes total sense.   It’s easier to make friends, find work for their spouses, date if you don’t have a spouse.  Life feels less like it’s happening in a goldfish bowl.

So what will happen to our rural congregations in the next generation?  Can tiny towns with few jobs and dwindling – or non-existent – endowments afford a professional pastor?  Will pastors choose to serve in rural areas if it means that their lives will be limited in terms of opportunities for their families?

Yes, our churches can also be served by lay people in some denominations and by ruling elders (who are not lay people) in my denomination.  Maybe we will return to circuit riders.

But I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  How many of you – gentle readers – are pastors of rural congregations?  How many of you are members of rural congregations?  How many of you have even been to a rural congregation?

Those in the smallest communities in our land obviously need and deserve spiritual community.  What will that look like in 2020 and beyond?

Image of “downtown” Schaghticoke, NY where I first served in professional ministry after seminary.

When Was Your Church The Greatest?

making church great again

We all know that at least one presidential candidate wants to get back to that time when America was its greatest, but it’s unclear when that was exactly.

Margot Sanger-Katz wrote this for The NY Times Tuesday asking “When was America greatest?”  2000+ United States citizens were surveyed and their answers to this question varied widely.

The years most voted “the greatest” were 1955, 1960, 1970, 1985, 2000, 2008, and 2015.  But what was “great” for some people was not so great for everyone:

  • 1955 – No wars, Baby boom (But Claudette Colvin was arrested on March 2 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white woman in Montgomery, Alabama.  She was handcuffed, kicked and harassed on the way to jail.  She was 15 years old.  And this was legal.)
  • 1960 –  Hawaii joined the USA!  Cassius Clay won the Olympic gold medal in boxing. (But four African America students were arrested for sitting at a “white lunch counter” in Greensboro.  And it was ugly.  Jim Crow laws would still be in effect for five more years.)
  • 1970 – 18 year olds get the vote! Earth Day is established.  (But at a protest on the campus of Kent State University, the National Guard shot 67 rounds of gunfire in 13 seconds, killing four students.)
  • 1985 – Ronald Reagan is President! (But AIDS killed 5636 people in the U.S.)
  • 2000 – The unemployment rate drops to a low of 3.8%, the lowest since December 1969.  (But the USS Cole was bombed by Al-Qaeda suicide bombers killing 17 in Yemen.)
  • 2008 – Obama is elected president.  Ice is discovered on Mars. (But the worst financial crisis since the 1930s peaks.)
  • 2015 – Lowest violent crime rate since 1995.  (But three young Muslim students were killed by a neighbor in Chapel Hill, NC. Freddie Gray was killed while in police custody in Baltimore.  Nine people are killed during a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, SC by a white supremacist.  Sandra Bland died in police custody after her arrest for a traffic violation in Texas.)

When was the U.S. the greatest?  It depends who you talk to.

And when were the greatest years for your church?  Again, it depends.

  • When the Sunday School was bursting at the seams?
  • When stay-at-home moms were so plentiful that there was never a problem finding volunteers?
  • When the titans of industry built magnificent sanctuaries?
  • When the choir toured in Europe?
  • When Mainline churches enjoyed political and cultural power?
  • When non-denominational mega churches grew in power?
  • When evangelists got TV shows?
  • When denominations built hospitals and schools?
  • When denominations spoke up against injustice – even injustice perpetuated by national and international powers?
  • When men were pastors and women were pastors’ wives?
  • When everybody dressed in their Sunday best?

I guest preached in a gorgeous sanctuary a few years ago and as we waited for the prelude to end, I found myself staring up at the glorious Tiffany windows and the gold leaf painted dome.  “What are you looking at?” the liturgist said.  “I‘m just marveling that someone would love Jesus so much that they would give the money to create this amazing space.”

Oh, it wasn’t like that at all,” the liturgist continued.  “Those two windows were bought by (a wealthy industrialist) and then (another wealthy industrialist) donated four windows to show that he was richer than the other guy.”


I can’t help but think that – actually – the greatest years for the church were in the First Century CE:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. Acts 2:44-47

I can’t help but think that – if we focused on ministry that looked more like ministry in the First Century – the church would indeed be greater.  What do you think?

If Rachel Ray Was a Pastor . . .


Rachael cooksYesterday, Rachael Ray – the celebrity cook – was confused with Rachel Roy – the fashion designer who allegedly was the subject of Beyonce’s Lemonade released over the weekend. For several hours it was ugly.  And then Twitter hilarity ensued. (“Stop coming for poor Rachael Ray. She just wants to make brunch.”)

As #RachaelRay trended on Twitter, many suggested that this would be an excellent time for her to drop a lemon-centric cookbook.

Media specialists call this a crisitunity.

Pastors need to learn how to do this: take a crisis and use it for something positive to the glory of God.  Consider the crises that churches face:

  • Sanctuary floods/burns down/get’s blown away in a tornado.
  • Church staff member disappears/lands in jail/joins the circus.
  • Protesters march outside church building (for reasons that embarrass rather than make Mom proud.)

What’s a Pastor to do?  Hiding is not a an option.

Kellie Anderson-Picallo – who knows something about crisitunities –  taught my preaching group last week some helpful tips:

  1. Don’t be a victim.  Talk about the positive aspects of – even – a difficult situation:  The religious community is pulling together. This is a great time to remind people that we are a people of faith. We are grateful for the support of our neighbors.  
  2. Use appropriate humor.  Try my new lemonade recipe.
  3. Now is the perfect time to reorganize/rebuild. We always wanted to install screens in the sanctuary and now we can (since we have to rebuild it anyway.)

So, again:  Rachael (with an “ae”) – it’s time to get your Honey Vanilla Lemonade Recipe out there.  And churches:  if you are facing a crisis, make your own lemonade.

Yolanda is Still Gone

I read yesterday that Yolanda Denise King, oldest daughter of Dr. Martin Luther Yolanda KingKing, Jr had died.  I frankly thought she was already gone, but then I realized that King had two daughters.  Could they both have passed at such young ages?  Was I confusing Yolanda for Bernice?  Ugh.

Actually Yolanda passed away in 2007.  Her sister Bernice is alive and well.  With the losses of everybody from Prince and David Bowie to Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Harper Lee, maybe we’ve become skittish.  Who’s next?  (Note:  Percy Sledge died on April 14, 2015.)

I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but the truth is that I can’t keep up.  Also, I am the kind of person who keeps people in my phone contacts list long after they’ve breathed their last breath. Cindy Bolbach is still on my speed dial.  It makes me happy to see her on my phone.

I also find that honoring deaths can make our own lives more meaningful.  Bear with me here.

When I hear about lives well lived, it makes me want to live a better life too. When I hear about lives that were cut short too early, it makes me want to help give their deaths meaning.  I believe God uses everything – even death.

It’s still Eastertide and resurrection manifests itself in many ways.  Yolanda is still gone.  But it’s also possible that she’s still with us if we live as God created us to live.

Image of Yolanda Denise King (1955-2007). 

Say This, Not That

Old LettersAfter two extraordinary days with Kellie Anderson-Picallo, my head is full of things – among them: words.  What words do we say that make eyes glaze over? What phrases sound tired? I’m not talking about “snap!” or “you go, girl.”  I’m talking about words and phrases that no longer reflect who we are and where we are going as God’s people.  (Unless they do which means we are toast.)

A couple of stories:

Twice in job interviews, I’ve asked committee members to tell me about their church/institution.  It went like this . . .

Me:  Tell me about your church.

PNC:  We are the richest, smartest, most successful people in (the city).

Me:  Wow.  So why do you need Jesus?

PNC:  (crickets)

Me:  Tell me about your institution.

INC:  We are the first in the nation with a rich history that parallels our nation’s history.  Many of our historical leaders were also founding fathers of our country.

Me:  Wow.  What’s your vision for the future?

INC:  (crickets)

So, here’s the thing:  I love that you love your organization and it’s cultural place in the community.

But I don’t really care where you’ve been as much as I care where you are going. I don’t need to know how smart/successful you’ve been in the past as much as I want to know why you exist now.  It’s not that I don’t care about the past.  But I care more about the future.

In my own denomination, there are certain words and phrases that we use and those in the room chuckle as if to say, “Yes, we certainly are that thing.”  In stead of building solidarity, those terms make me feel dated and tired.  Among the perennial favorites:

  • Connectional Church – First of all, we are not all that connectional. Our congregations are often lone rangers most concerned with their own projects/budgets/people.  Congregations are suspicious of Presbyteries and denominational structures in general.  And for that matter, the whole world is connected digitally, so what’s so new/different about being “connectional”?  (Note:  thank you KA-P)
  • God’s Frozen Chosen – This is embarrassing.  Yes, it’s cold in Scotland, but authentic warmth is priceless in a cold world.  God always chooses stirring/moving/changing – rather than freezing –  if you ask me.
  • Decently and in Order – You know this verse is about speaking in tongues and women being silent, right?  We Presbyterians are all about being decent and orderly until we aren’t.  Sometimes tables need to be turned over in the temple because God is not pleased. Jesus was a bit of an agitator.  Be like Jesus.

For all the times we Presbyterians will hear the words I listed above, my hope is that we will hear more often these questions:

  • How are we are creating a new ecosystem of spiritual vitality and why?
  • How are we investing in the future and why?
  • What innovative ministries are we trying and why?
  • Where is Jesus in all this and why?

Image is from Architectural Artifacts in Chicago where a space has been repurposed as a warehouse/museum/event venue.  There is old stuff there that can be transformed into something new.

The Year Our Preaching Group Didn’t Share Sermons

Churches bring people to the pulpit; Media brings pulpit to the people.*Jesus with ear phones

For 17 years, my preaching group has gathered annually to share resources and sermons in order to assist each other in the relentless responsibility of preaching. Through the years we have shared:

  • lectionary-based sermons
  • sermons for national holidays
  • sermons on life transitions (singleness, divorce, giving birth, infertility, etc.)
  • sermons for interfaith services
  • sermons on “shame stories” from the Bible (our Brene Brown year)
  • sermons for special services (Longest Night, weddings, funerals, etc.)

This year, we brought no sermons to share.  

When colleagues talk about retiring or “leaving church” I sometimes hear them rue the loss of weekly preaching.  Granted, some pastors hate to preach and it’s not their gift.  But many of us LOVE to preach:  the research, the stories, the crafting, the delivery, the pulpit.  We love it.  It is our terror, our power, our moment.

As churches change, sermons are changing too.  Among the innovations that are making Harry Emerson Fosdick whirl in his grave are these:

  • Dialogue sermons
  • Video sermons
  • Question-Answer sermons
  • Theatrical sermons
  • Sung sermons

Note:  some of these ideas might sound laughable, but three points and a poem sounds fairly laughable to others.

Back to my preaching group:  This year we invited Kellie Anderson Picallo to teach us about media savvy pastors and The 90 Second Sermon.  Do yourselves a favor and check out Kellie’s work.  Many of us (I’ll admit I’m one) have worked with her on media training and it has cracked open so many fresh ideas for sharing the message we want to get out there.

For preachers, that’s the point.  We want to share messages of inspiration and resurrection and hope in hopeless days.  If Pew is right and our parishioners are worshiping only once or twice a month, how can we reach them the rest of the time?

The day has come when my preaching colleagues are called to do more than merely share sermons with each other.  We are called to figure out how to share God’s message beyond the pulpit.

*Quote by Kellie Anderson Picallo

Would It Surprise You in 2016?

I have a friend – a first generation clergywomen – who is in her 80s now and she The-Clergy-Collection-April-2011 (2)is a fascinating resource for learning what it was like for a woman in professional ministry in the 1950s and 60s.  In my denomination, women could be ordained in 1956, but there weren’t many who sought ordination in those days.  My friend is one who did.

She tells me that – after her ordination in her late 20s until about age 45 – there was not a single church meeting, not a single Presbytery Assembly, not a single committee meeting when she was not propositioned in some overt or subtle way by her male colleagues.

As one of her colleagues crassly put it, “If you are here,  we get to  have you.

That was in the 1950s and 1960s.

Flash forward to 2016:  Harvard alumni Charles Storey of the exclusive Porcellian Club stated last week to The Harvard Crimson that “Forcing single gender organizations to accept members of the opposite sex could potentially increase, not decrease the potential for sexual misconduct.”  If women are here, we are tempted to have them.


I’ve been informally asking young clergywomen if men still make inappropriate comments to them and I hear a resounding yes:

  • “You look beautiful today.”
  • “I like a woman in panty hose.”
  • “You should wear skirts more often.”

I would love to hear from young clergymen if they ever hear women say to them:

  • “You look handsome today.”
  • “I like a man in a robe/suit.”
  • “You should wear jeans more often.”

As a single clergywoman years ago, it was a bit shocking what men said to me. Keep in mind that I am a clergywoman.  And the comments are coming from clergymen or male church members.  Are they just being awkward?  Or are they wielding power as if to say:  “I don’t care how gifted you are in ministry; if you are here, you are an object for my benefit.”

I am going to give church guys the benefit of the doubt and assume for a moment that they just don’t know what to say to their pastor.  Here are some ideas:

  • “That sermon really made me think.”
  • “You led a great class today.”
  • “Thank you for your leadership.”

Many things have changed in the past 60 years.  But many things have not changed.  How about for you?

If I Were the Queen of All Things

I often ask people, “If you were the Queen of All Things/King of All Things . . .Roundtable in Montreat 2016 and then the end of that sentence depends on what we are talking about.  What would be your life dream?  How would you spend the next year?

If I were the Queen of All Things . . .

  • Everybody on the planet would get good food, shelter, an education and health care.  (Note the good.  Healthy food.  Safe shelter.  Top notch education.  Quality health care.)
  • Everybody would get a sabbatical at least once in their lives.
  • Everybody would get a birthday video like the one I got in March.
  • Everybody would have some one to make them soup when they felt terrible.
  • Everybody would have a cohort of colleagues like my preaching group.

For the 17th year, we are meeting to share resources, wisdom, vulnerability, stories, sorrows, frustrations, and joy.  We’ve been to Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, Georgia, California, Tennessee, New York, Florida, Virginia, and Scotland together, and more than ever, I believe that everybody deserves this kind of group of friends and colleagues.

If I were the QOAT, it would happen.  But I’m not.  So let’s get out there and make good things happen for people.




What’s Your Race Story?

Storytelling is a tool for changing the world.  Or corrupting the world.Jan with doll circa 1959

Pretty much everything is about stories: sermons, country-western songs, paintings, therapy, romantic relationships.  All depend upon stories.

David Hunt and Susan Naimark led the workshop this morning on our race
stories.  What stories do we remember from our earliest memories?  And what don’t we remember?

  • I remember that a woman with dark skin named Thelma took care of me and my little brothers while our parents worked.  I sometimes went with my dad to drive Thelma home and I remember that she didn’t live in a very nice house.  I was about four years old.
  • I remember Inez who lived down the road from my cousins on the farm, and she took care of them while their parents worked.  We thought she was part of our family and my sister thought her name was “Aunt Ez.”  I remember when someone referred to Inez’ children that I wondered who took care of them while she took care of us.
  • I remember having a doll with dark skin.  She was a rag doll and not a fashion doll.

All these memories gave me the impression that people with dark skin were poor.  This is how biases happen.

What I don’t remember:

  • I don’t remember wondering why there were no children who didn’t look like me in my classes until about the sixth grade.
  • I don’t remember wondering why I never had a teacher of color until the eighth grade.  (Thank you Cecilia Barnes.)
  • I don’t remember why everybody in my neighborhood, in magazines, in book illustrations, on television looked like me and not like my doll or Cecilia Barnes.

There are stories that we are told or stories we have experienced from our youngest days that are so deeply ingrained in us that we don’t even realize that they’re there.  They have influenced how we see ourselves and others.

I met a woman this morning who shared how she felt being the only Korean girl in her class in school.  People called her names and made assumptions about her.  I talked with another woman who is the daughter of a blonde German woman and a dark-skinned Indian man.  Among the Germans, she was called a n@^&#. Among the Indians, she was called a white pig.  Like most of our parents, her parents told her to ignore the comments of others.  We rarely if ever had conversations about race.

It would be so fascinating to talk about our earliest memories about race in our own lives.  What did we grow up believing about people with dark skin or light skin, people from Ireland or Mexico or Ghana or India or Korea?  And who told us those stories?  And are they even true stories?

Somewhere along the way, many of us in the United States have been told that all black men are dangerous and all native Americans are alcoholics and all Asian Americans are really smart and all white people are rich/stupid/entitled/greedy/whatever.  The reality is that my white skin has granted me special privileges for 60 years.  Why is that?

How can we use our stories to advocate for change?  Sometimes these stories are horribly painful.  Exhibit A from The New York Times today.  But if we know them, face them, and try to redeem them, maybe we can break through our own biases and see the world as God created it (and us) to be.

For more information about The White Privilege Conference, check this out.

What’s Great About Being White

White Privilege Make up LineMy first workshop today at #PHLWPC17 was called “Laughing Out White (Superiority)” with Jackie Battalora.  Obviously humor dilutes tensions and speaks truth in ways that we might not hear it otherwise. There are things Chris Rock can say about being black or Margaret Cho can say about being Asian that I cannot say.  But I can speak about my white experience.

We were asked to write a (funny) list about What’s Great About Being White.  None of us are comedians, but some of these are funny.

WHAT’S GREAT ABOUT BEING WHITE (with gratitude to our workshop groups):

  1. You’re the same color as Santa.
  2. And Jesus.*
  3. Nobody randomly touches our hair.
  4. You can play any ethnicity in the movies.
  5. It took ten times to arrest Winona Ryder for shoplifting.
  6. Because your family always went to camp and not just between the years of 1941 and 1945.
  7. You can drive a Lexus through any neighborhood and not be pulled over.
  8. You have so many makeup choices.  (See image)

My particular group reflected on the number of makeup choices white people have.  So, is this funny in any way to you?  Or does it sound like the post of an angry white lady?  As I sit through these talks, I feel more sad and overwhelmed.  We can do better, America.

*Actually Jesus’ complexion was most likely similar the complexions of these people.

Image of our workshop group’s imaginary White Privilege Line of makeup.