Measuring Our Impact

Many readers of this blog are in the non-profit world.  We are involved in Church, Interfaith Engagement, Refugee Resettlement, LGBTQ Civil Rights, Anti-Racism Education, Anti-Poverty Work, Gun Control, and other change-the-world efforts.  Non-profits are busy organizations with a lot going on.  Churches, in particular, are often so program-centered that it’s become our predominant culture, as if a full calendar equals an active and faithful congregation.

But what if being busy does not actually equal effectiveness?

I recommend The Stanford Social Innovation Review and specifically this article by Kathleen Kelly Janus is a reminder that outputs (busy programming/activity) is not the same as impact (actual transformation.) It’s important to assess our ministry in terms of results.  What difference are we making?  What measurable good is coming from our efforts?

One of the points that The Poor People’s Campaign: A Call for Moral Revival makes (and Liz Theoharis makes it in Always With Us: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor)  is that – if we are still providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, etc. – we need to ask ourselves: why there are still homeless and hungry people in our midst?  Do we believe that there will always be poor people?  And if so, why do we believe this?

  • Because Jesus said so?  (Note:  we are misreading the text if we think so.)
  • Because human beings perpetuate systems that keep people poor?

In all the busyness of our ministries and service, what actual impact are we making?  Are there fewer homeless neighbors?  Are there fewer hungry children? Are there more poor high school students going to college or learning trades?

Is our point that we are busily serving and we subsequently congratulate ourselves?  Or are we trying to shift systems in hopes of institutional change?

Kathleen Kelly Janus calls for us – as institutions – to measure our work in new ways.  Instead of merely taking attendance, we need to be more curious and creative:

  • Worry less about “impressive numbers” (e.g. “We served 1000 breakfasts to the poor last year!“) and assess individual relationships that move people towards having their own homes/kitchens.  Who are we connecting to available services?  How transient is our population?  Have we been serving the same people for five years?
  • Track “longer term outcomes” in the lives of those we serve.  Follow up on those who have “graduated” from our programs.  (Again, this is about relationships.)
  • Tell the truth about our programs.  We who want so much to do good and are dependent upon the donations of others need to be honest about what’s working and what is not working.

The institutional Church has enormous power to transform the world for good in the name of Jesus.  Or we can perpetuate busy-ness which is often about appearances more than transformation.

It’s a topic for our leaders to consider as we hope to do more effective ministry.


Image of student protesters outside the Florida State House which resulted in the first gun reform legislation in over twenty years this past week.  It’s a start.



It’s Okay If We Act Like We Don’t Know Each Other

I’ve always liked Secret Santas & Layaway Angels.

It’s one of the things I also love about ministry. There are countless opportunities to have a covert relationship with someone in terms of our prayer lives.
Consider the people you pray for who are known to you only by name (and maybe you don’t even know their names.)  E’s daughter, A’s mother, SBC and TBC’s future partners – these are all people on my prayer list even though I don’t know them.  My hope is that a day will come when I get to meet these people face to face, and I will smile because- unbeknownst to them – I’ve had a relationship with them for a while now. I’ve been talking to God about them.  On that fine day when I might see them face to face, I will be smiling.  It’s like reuniting with a long lost friend albeit one we’ve never met personally.
There is another aspect of ministry involving covert activities and the warm feelings are completely internal and confidential.  Some ministry results in avoiding eye to eye contact:
  • The older parishioner who regularly receives money from the clergy emergency fund to pay her utilities while no one else is aware that she is in financial distress.
  • The young woman who tearfully discloses that her father sexually abused her throughout her childhood.
  • The young man you met at NA.
  • The teenager you bailed out from jail.
  • The waitress you tipped a twenty dollar bill to after she shared that she was saving money to buy a cell phone.
Sometimes we act like we don’t know each other because it’s easier that way.  Sometimes shame keeps us from looking into the eyes of the ones who know the truth about us. But it’s ok.
God also knows.  And God and I are talking together in prayer, looking forward to your wholeness together.


Inclusion Rider

Does the leadership of your organization look like its members?

I once moderated a congregational meeting during which someone bemoaned the “fact” that they were now required to “go find homosexuals” to ordain as elders according to their understanding of changes in the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA.)  They were mistaken.

My denomination’s constitution says that our leadership must “express the rich diversity of the congregation’s membership and shall guarantee participation and inclusiveness.”*  In other words, if there are no LGBTQ people in your congregation, then you do not have to elect an LGBTQ person to office – because there aren’t any.  And if you have no women in your congregation, you also do not have to ordain any women.

Sadly, however, I’ve known wonderful congregations with new immigrant members, former refugee members, unicorn members (adults under 30) and People of Color in predominantly White congregations who are never asked to serve in positions of leadership.

Take a look at your congregation.  Do your officers express the rich diversity of your church?

More often than not, our predominantly White leaders over the age of 60 look exactly like our congregations because our congregations are basically White people over 60.  This is a multi-faceted issue, but I wonder if our demographics perpetuate themselves because:

  • We do what we think “the young people” want without asking them.
  • We are the kind of church that makes us feel comfortable but we are an uncomfortable congregation for anyone outside that over-60 White demographic.
  • We have no idea how our brand of “hospitality” is actually offensive to those who are not yet with us.
  • We have become irrelevant to our communities.

A “rich congregation” doesn’t necessarily have a lot of money.  A truly rich congregation is about diversity, and I’m talking about all kinds of diversity from theological to gender to skin color to age.

Seeking diversity is fundamentally selfish – not because it’s about institutional survival or coolness quotient – although those are selfish reasons too.

Seeking diversity is selfish because we are poorer without it.  If everybody looks and thinks like we do, we are missing out on the voices of our neighbors.  We are missing out on what is really needed in our communities.  We are missing out on our own personal growth and a broadening of our perspectives.

My denomination requires representation of all kinds of leaders above the Session (i.e. the governing board.)  It’s our own in-house constitutional inclusion rider.  But there are many governing boards – not to mention event leaders, educational leaders, hospitality leaders, etc. who exclude certain kinds of people from holding important responsibilities.

It would be a good thing – as we look towards Easter and new life – to assess this in each of our churches.  Do our leaders look like the diversity of our members?  And if there is not much diversity, why is that?  Does our village/neighborhood/suburb look exactly like we do?  And if not, what are we doing to make connections?  (Nothing is not the right answer.)

*From the PCUSA Form of Government G-2.0301

Image of Frances McDormand two nights ago when she won the Academy Award for Best Actress.  She ended her speech with two words: Inclusion Rider.

Emmett, Ronnie, Brandon and Kevin

Heads up:  this post is for White people.

I don’t really have any Black friends.” 

Someone said to me recently and when I asked, “Why not?” she said that they live in different neighborhoods.  They go to different churches. She said that she rarely sees Black or Brown people in her professional circles.

“Do you want to change that?” I asked.  And she said yes but she doesn’t know how.

I don’t know how either except to invite her to get out more, to notice people who might be invisible to her, to educate herself on racism and White supremacy.

We (White people) can educate ourselves about race by reading a number of good books.  We can watch excellent documentaries like these.  And certainly we can befriend actual human beings of all skin colors.

But I also recommend watching Lena Waithe’s amazing show The Chi on Showtime.  It’s one of those special series that captures the drama, humor, love, beauty, ugliness of real life in a neighborhood on the South side of Chicago. What the writers do is amazing in terms of making us care about and even love the characters.  Among the ones I care about most are Emmett, Ronnie, Brandon and Kevin.  (I once tweeted Lena Waithe and asked her not to kill Kevin – ever – and the fact that she didn’t reply is worrysome.  Not that she and I are friends or anything, but please . . . not Kevin.)

My point is that authentic relationships are everything in the 21st Century Church and although television characters are obviously not real relationships, getting to know the fictional characters of The Chi might be a start. It offers a small slice of the intersectionality of race, violence and urban life.  It’s excellent.  It will make you care for people you don’t know yet.

Image of (from top right) the actors Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Alex Hibbert, Jason Mitchell, and Jacob Latimore who respectively play the roles of Ronnie, Kevin, Brandon, and Emmett on The Chi.

Tiny (Fossil) Steps

Changing a congregation’s culture is exhausting.  But it’s not impossible.

In the 1990s when I was just getting started thinking about What The Church Could Be (and no longer is) I registered for an Easum and Bandy event at Cedar Ridge Community Church in Maryland – the church that Brian and Grace McLaren started in 1982.  I asked my friend and colleague AP what she knew about Easum and Bandy and she told me that the last time she’d taken a group to one of their events, she had to pull the car over on the way home because everybody was crying.

It happened to me too.  I took a group from my church to hear about The Emerging Church and had to pull over to tend to crying parishioners.  One person was kind of drooling.  “We could never do that.”

Culture changes are hard.  And if your congregation is predominantly comprised of people over the age of 60 who have been Christian for at least 40 years, and have been a member of that particular church for at least 20 years, your congregational culture is fossilized.  (This is known as George Bullard‘s 20-40-60 rule.)

Survival mode kicks in. We go to workshops.  We read experts.  We have those awesome Mountaintop Experiences at The Best Conference Ever.  We go home to introduce new ways of doing/thinking/being.  And one of the following happens:

  • Our people immediately offer reasons why We Can’t Do That.
  • Our people roll their eyes.
  • Our people threaten to withhold money.
  • Our people decide we are no longer their pastor and they turn against us.

It’s foolish to believe that we can turn a congregation’s fossilized culture into a festival of creativity in a single day/season/year/decade.  Such fools become frustrated and depressed.  (Note:  I have been one of those fools.)

Tiny steps are required.  Even fossils can take tiny steps if we move them. 

Before introducing The Big New Thing that will overturn 50-150 years of The-Way-We’ve-Always-Done-It, think small.  Think tiny even.

What are some tiny steps that we can make even in the company of fossilized church people?

  • Start every board meeting with a prayer for the church’s transformation.  Are you praying for “young families”?  “More money”?  Ask God to transform your congregation to look more like Jesus.  And then (this is the hard part) go around and ask each person at the table to share a time they’ve observed someone or something looking like Jesus since the last meeting.  If they can’t think of one, let them pass.  But make this a practice at every board meeting.  You might find that people become trained to look for Jesus out there.  A tiny step.
  • Walk the neighborhood two by two.  Ask your board to meet 30 minutes before the next meeting.  Divide them up into teams of two (or three) and send them out in as many directions as you have teams to walk – without speaking – in search of something out in the neighborhood to bring to the meeting to pray about/for: A playground where children play.  A parking space for a disabled person.  A boarded up building.  A mom pushing a baby in a stroller.  Kids playing soccer.  After 15-20 minutes of walking, gather back at the church building and then ask each board member share what they want to pray about based on what they noticed.  (Wild and crazy idea: have each person pray individually, one-by-one, about the things they saw.)  A tiny step.
  • Go on a mission tour of your own church building.  Start in the parking lot and enter through the door where most people enter. What happens in every corner of that building?  (“This is where non-perishable food is left to take to the shelter.”  “Here is where the choir stands during worship.”  “There is where bulletins are folded.”)  Stop and connect each room/corner/entranceway to ministry.  Discuss those corners of the building/yard where it’s hard to make a ministry connection and ask how we might make that connection.  “What can we do to make this classroom, office, hallway, closet about mission and ministry?”  Remind your people that the reason we have church buildings is to use them as tools for ministry.  Pray at the end of your tour that you will embrace sharing your building as a tool for ministry for the sake of God’s love. Then do this again six months later to note if there are any changes. A tiny step.

Even the most rigid leaders can take these simple steps.  The point is to get ourselves out of the way for fresh thinking.  It’s the first step to shifting a culture that can become a 21st Century Church.  We can do it.


Is 21st Century Life Making Us Sick?

Anybody out there feeling stressed out?

This article makes me wonder what the Church’s role will be if Andrew Sullivan’s premise is true:

Are Americans increasingly seeking opioids and other brain-numbing practices in order to avoid the life we find ourselves living?  In Sullivan’s words “This nation pioneered modern life. Now epic numbers of Americans are killing themselves with opioids to escape it.

Addiction rates are overwhelming – from alcohol to heroin to fentanyl.  Many of us are addicted to nicotine, shopping, and our cell phones.  Post traumatic stress issues are the daily burden of everyone from military veterans to gun violence victims to children who have endured multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

Just as medical students are being trained to ask their patients about their childhood experiences, I wonder if seminarians will soon be trained in asking parishioners the same questions in hopes of discerning the best way to offer spiritual care.  In deepening relationships with parishioners, will we be looking for evidence of childhood  . . .

  • Physical abuse?
  • Sexual abuse?
  • Emotional abuse?
  • Physical neglect?
  • Emotional neglect?
  • Household violence?
  • Substance misuse in the home?
  • Household mental illness?
  • Parental separation or divorce?
  • Incarcerated household member?

Clergy and other church leaders are usually not equipped to handle serious health issues.  We sing about a balm in Gilead that can heal the sin sick soul.  But we don’t generally know much about maladies of the body or mind.  And yet our congregations suffer with all the above.

How will we partner with nurses, doctors, social workers, teachers, and law enforcement officers?  The point is that 21st Century ministry indeed requires such partnerships.  The sooner we consider ourselves to be on the same team, the sooner we will serve our communities more effectively.

Jesus promised abundant life  while plenty of thieves still try to steal away our lives.  21st Century ministry is no joke. No longer is it enough to plan worship, visit parishioners in hospitals, and lead a Bible study.

We need emotionally intelligent, energetic, imaginative souls willing to love even those who are not very loveable because that’s who Jesus loves.  And I find this exciting actually.

It means that we in professional ministry are increasingly dependent upon the Holy Spirit to help us figure it out.  It’s a crazy world and we can’t save it ourselves.

Image of Papaver Somniferum which is the source of opium.

Taking Versus Leading Continuing Education

Church Leaders: when was the last time you took continuing education without having a leadership position?

As I prepare to return home after the National Gathering of NEXTChurch in Baltimore, I feel replete with so much good information now crammed into my head. Next comes the fun part: processing what I’ve absorbed.

  • Worship ideas
  • Church development ideas
  • Mid-council ideas
  • Relational ideas

My brain is stuffed full of them, not to mention the unspeakably joyous feeling of being with both birth/marriage family and chosen family.  Sharing stories and updates is soul-enlarging.

I was asked to co-lead a workshop at NEXT because of my role in the denomination.  And while that was a satisfying experience, what was more satisfying and life-giving was hearing from so many amazing people whose wisdom I need to hear again and again.

Sometimes we reach a point when we don’t want to play/participate if we can’t be in charge.  At this point in my life, I have been blessed to be the leader many times in a variety of venues.  And that’s a great honor and privilege.  But I have come to love attending events when I am not in charge.  There is so much I have to learn and I love that.

Some (many?) of our congregations resemble Zombie Land.  The living dead roam the halls of our church buildings perpetuating programs that are also dead – although we don’t realize it.  There is no evangelical spark in their voices.  There is no excitement about resurrection in their faces.

These congregations tend to have leaders who either

  • get no study leave funds or time (because they are part-time with no benefits) or
  • they do not take their study leave to learn new things or
  • they spend their study leave looking inward – preparing worship or strategic plans for the next year without any beyond-the-walls influence.

I have colleagues who do not take advantage of continuing education unless they are in charge and while I agree that preparing to teach something is itself a great education, we really need to step out on a ledge and allow ourselves – even our erudite, brilliant, super-experienced selves – to learn from people who are younger, browner, and closer to the secular world than we are.  (I’m talking to you, Baby Boomer sibs.)

NEXTChurch consistently offers an array of brilliant material in the form of worship experiences, workshops, talks, blog posts, publications, and conversations.  And they are not the only ones.  Wild Goose and The White Privilege Conference are two other events where I’ve been stretched and inspired by people beyond my usual circle of influencers.

What if we – clergy types and especially stuck clergy types – intentionally chose a continuing education event in the coming months that made us a bit uncomfortable and less rigid?  What if we registered for an event that pulled and pushed us spiritually?

Note to congregations and boards:  please be as generous as possible with Continuing Education funds for your leaders.  You need to give them at least $1000 to attend an out-of-town conference.  It would be better to give them $2000.  If you want to reward staff members for an excellent job, add to their continuing education line item.  (If you give them a raise, they pay taxes on it, although raises are good too.)

The old Church is dying.  We won’t know what the new Church looks like without being nudged to consider the possibilities.  Also Pastors:  you don’t have to be in charge.  Just sit and learn.

Image of the Rev. Billy Michael Honor, the first preacher at NEXTChurch National Gathering 2018.

Where We Live

Although my home will always be wherever my HH lives, I will have an additional home in Charlotte, NC later this spring because of this.  When we moved to Chicagoland in 2011, this is what we looked for in our domicile:

  • Proximity to commuter train station so we could get into the city easily.  (Check.)
  • Walkability to restaurants, library, coffee shop.  (Check)
  • Not too big since we are empty nesters, but big enough so that everybody gets space when the kids visit. (Check)
  • A yard for Scout (who died a few months later) and future dogs (Hello Spense.)

Just like when we moved into our Northern Virginia neighborhood, we were clueless about many real estate things.  It never occured to us that – when we moved into that Virginia neighborhood with an 8 month old – we would live there for 22 years.  We never considered how good or bad the schools were or how important off-street parking would be.  (We were lucky on both counts.) We moved into a house we could afford in a very expensive part of the world.

I told the Nominating Committe in Charlotte that I was interested in two things as I looked for an apartment there:

  • Walkability to restaurants, library, coffee shop.
  • Diversity.  I want a neighborhood that looks like my family and friends.

Where I choose to live will impact the assumptions people make about me.  If I move into a prosperous all-White neighborhood, people will see me one way.  If I move into a downtown enclave of glassy high rise buildings, people will see me another way.  If I move into a “dangerous neighborhood” – you can interpret that anyway you wish – I will be seen in still another way.

Our dwelling places impact our well-being and communicate our priorities.  People make judgments about us based on our zip codes and square footage. 

I choose my Charlotte apartment – literally – after meeting a guy in the lobby who was also moving in whose family was similar to mine.  He showed me photos of his parents in India and his fiancee in New Jersey.  I showed him pictures of FBC’s wedding and our family vacations.  I wanted him to be my neighbor.  And he will be.

I’m at NEXTChurch this week in Baltimore and the keynoter yesterday was David P. Leong who wrote Race & Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation.  He asked the question:

How have you located your life? Residentially? Socially? Vocationally?

And what does where we live say about who we are or who we hope to be?  I don’t ask this to make a judgment call that people who choose to live among the poor are necessarily holier or people who choose to live in the most expensive neighborhoods are necessarily successful.

The truth is that many people have limited choices in terms of where they can live.  There are still countless neighborhoods that do not welcome people of color.  The poor have almost no choice about where they live.

Assuming that we are People of Faith and that we consider inclusion and community-building to be part of our spiritual practice, what are we doing to serve a world that is longing for authentic relationships? If we hope to remedy community isolation, we must be intentional about including all our neighbors.

But we will be forever segregated – especially racially  – as long as we exclude certain people from our tables, our school systems, our churches.  David Leong put it this way:

(As Christians) We must not only believe that integration is right; but that it’s also good.  It’s one thing to believe in reconciliation but it’s another thing to do it every day.

To paraphrase the message of The Confessing Church in the 1930s: “Not to speak up about integration is to speak.  Not to act against racism is to act.” 

Where we live impacts the way we live.  And it also impacts how serious we are about racial reconciliation.

Dr. David P. Leong‘s book is available here.


It used to be true that an agitator was necessary to clean dirty laundry in a washing machine.  Today High Efficiency Washers are considered better at cleaning while using less water.  And yet machines with agitators have shorter cycles and cost less.  It’s matter of personal choice in terms of whether one uses a washing machine with or without an agitator.

But this is not a post about appliances.

Bernice King tweeted this over the weekend about her father, Martin Luther King Jr.:

People were offended by him speaking truth to power, calling attention to and engaging nonviolence to end racism, war and poverty. In fact, his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ was in response to clergy who called him an “outside agitator.”

I overheard a person I love refer to some people as “agitators” recently expressed as a wretched epithet.  I was so surprised that I did not speak up to challenge him. What I wish I’d said:

  • “Actually Jesus was an agitator.”
  • “Actually I’m an agitator too.”

Since when is it not okay to be an agitator?

The answer lies in where we are politically.  This is one of political polarities of our time.

  • For political progressives, the MSD students in Parkland are the best kind of agitators.  They are calling for peaceful – albeit angry – protests. (I would be angry if someone shot up my high school too. Anger is fundamentally about hurt.) They are not merely “talking the talk.” They are working to register voters, change laws, and speak up about injustice. Our fallen soldiers from the Revolutionary War on died for the right to protest. This is what democracy looks like.
  • For political conservatives, the MSD students in Parkland are the worst kind of agitators.  They stand up even to members of Congress in ways that strike some adults as being disrespectful.  They are not “grieving appropriately.”  They are being used as pawns by The Left.  They might even be paid crisis actors.

Jesus was an agitator.  He was not executed for chucking little lambs under his chin.  He was killed for sedition.

This is not to say that Jesus picked fights, used his power to draw attention to himself or acted like a bully.  On the contrary, Jesus stood up for the poor and the powerless against the bullies.  When the temple was turned into the opposite of what God intended, Jesus was not a bystander who kept the peace.  This story appears inallfourGospels – which means we are supposed to pay special attention.

I find myself frustrated at my siblings in Christ who decry “agitators” and I wonder:

  • Is there any injustice that they would speak up against in a public way?
  • Is there any cause for which they would miss a day of school or work?
  • If your child or your child’s friends were killed in school by a shooter with an assault weapon, what would they do to make the world safer for other children and their friends?

Protesting is not everyone’s go-to response regarding injustice.  And it is certainly not going to help if all we do is protest without next steps.  The purpose of protesting in favor of or against something is to rally people and inspire them to instill real change.

Real change happens when we vote and our votes are counted.  Real change happens when we use our personal power to persuade organizations to divest or invest in a particular organization or cause.  (Exhibit A)

Biblical justice is political.  Jesus is the Bible’s Exhibit A.

Image of (L to R) Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students Cameron Kasky, Emma Gonzales, David Hogg, and Delaney Tarr

They’ll Never Apologize (But It Will Be OK)

Another Kate Bowler reference:

When Terry Gross interviewed Kate Bowler for Fresh Air earlier this month, she asked a question about the long process between experiencing her first physical pains and her receiving a diagnosis of  advanced colon cancer.  Bowler had been in pain for a long time and kept calling her doctor for help, but it wasn’t until she herself demanded a CT scan that a huge tumor was discovered.  Terry Gross asked this:

Did that doctor ever, at the very least, apologize to you? Did you ever consider suing? Like, I would just be so angry.

For the record, the doctor never apologized and probably never will.

In my years of ministry – and especially as one of the Co-Moderators of my denomination, I’ve heard stories of people who have been hurt by the church they love.  Sometimes the hurt involved heinous misconduct against them.  And sometimes the hurt involved mere offenses to their souls.  Sometimes there was a cursory “my bad” or a general acknowledgement that something wasn’t handled well.  But more times than not,  there is no satisfying apology.

But it will be okay.  It has to be okay.

The world is not fair and people will take advantage of the innocent, ignore the the suffering, betray the friend, and gaslight the unsuspecting.  Unfounded rumors will be believed.  Dishonest people in power will prevail in spite of the truth.

God knows what happened.  God knows what’s real.  And while it may not be comforting to hear that “God knows” there is some relief in that faith.

Part of spiritual maturity – as frustrating as this is – involves trusting God to work it out.  It’s possible for bodies and souls to find peace without justice.  It’s sweeter when justice reigns.  But I’ve come to the conclusion that – at least for now – justice doesn’t often reign in this life. Nevertheless we keep striving towards justice.

There is an Easter.  Just not yet.