Totally Worth It Tuesday

It’s a Tuesday in August and the world needs your help.  Here is a simple tool to transform the planet today: Prayer.

Not original in concept, but here’s an original way to do it simply and powerfully.

Download this is a must-have app created by Christopher Lim.  It’s free.  It’s ingenious.  It’s called Ceaseless.

It’s an easy discipline for praying for three people in your phone contact list each day.

“We are already praying for over 137,000 friends.  By joining, you can help us personally pray for everyone on earth.”

I met Chris Lim last week at a conference and he is onto something life-changing.  Download this thing.

Totally worth it.

Chris Lim is the founder of Theo Tech.

Leaving Out the Scary Parts

Hiding Eyes During Scary PartsI often cover my eyes during the scary parts of movies.  I always cover my eyes during the gory parts. Thank goodness I have HH to tell me when I can open my eyes again.

We who live in the United States of America often leave out the scary parts of our history.  We almost always leave out the gory parts.

Talk of being “the greatest country in the world” is heard more frequently during the Olympics and election season.  National holidays – especially the ones honoring veterans and those who’ve died during military service  – move us to cheer.  USA!  USA!

I love my country.  But we are not the greatest in every way.  Some nations offer better health care.  Others offer better education.  We are – disturbingly – first in prisons.  And then there is the systemic racism.

As much as some of us want to leave out the scary parts of our nation’s history, it’s essential that we own it, that we not leave out the scary parts.  My family – historically – owned slaves and I was always told that my ancestors were, themselves, poor and that they treated slaves well.  Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t.  The myth of happy slaves is just that.  An enslaved person is an enslaved person – even if they are “well fed.”

The Church has some unspeakably scary parts too.  We in the Western Church are corporately responsible for perpetuating slavery, for turning our backs on racial-ethnic minorities, for shaming the divorced and remarried, for condemning LGBTQ people – sometimes to the point of taking their own lives or contributing to violence against them.  This is part of our history.  It’s scary for many reasons including the fact that it shines a light on who we have been and who we are now.

Lord, have mercy.  Christ have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.

The world, our nation, our church, and the totality of human history all involve both the glorious and the excruciating, both good and evil.  When we turn away from the scary parts we allow them to continue.  We cannot fight what we do not acknowledge.

And so, as hard as it is, let’s not look away at the sight of evil.  We need to know what we are up against.

Note:  The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a great read that includes some scary parts.  I strongly recommend it.

Trusted Brands (Spoiler Alert: Denominations are Not on the List)

brands

The most trusted brands in the United States, according to a 2015 study of 38,000 people are Coca Cola (for soft drinks), Kellogg’s (for breakfast cereal), Campbell’s (for canned soup), and General Electric (for “bringing good things to life“?)

Christian denominations have brands too.  Some involve tag lines like . . .

  • The United Church of Christ: “God is Still Speaking”
  • The United Methodist Church:  “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church:  “God’s Work.  Our Hands.”

My denomination and many others have no official tag-line but we certainly have unofficial branding/free association descriptors:

  • The Presbyterian Church USA:  Elders.  Decent and orderly.  Really smart.  (I added that one for fun.)
  • The Episcopal Church: Henry VIII’s divorces.  Good liturgy.  Rich.  (I also added that one for fun.)
  • Southern Baptists:  Bible Belt. Teetotalers. Baptism by immersion.
  • Roman Catholic:  Smells and bells.  The Pope.  Stuff we read about in the newspapers that could be said about many denominations.
  • Greek Orthodox:  Smells and bells.  The Patriarch.  Different Christmas and Easter from other Christians.

Sadly our brand as  The Church is not considered very trustworthy. There are many reasons why this is true – many of them involving child abuse, financial abuse, hypocrisy, and a tendency not to resemble Jesus on most days.

So what do we do about our trust issue?  This article sparked my attention yesterday.  It’s about for profit business brands but maybe we in Church World can learn something from it.  According to its author, Jason Demers:

  1. “Corporate brands are faceless.”  When our denominations look and feel like corporations to the average parishioner, it’s easy to blame bureaucracies for congregational problems.  As a person who is newly awash in the work of my denomination’s corporate headquarters, I can honestly say that there are many, many people who work at my denomination’s headquarters who are among the most dedicated, faithful, and creative people I know.  They do amazing things and offer enormous gifts.  The average person in the congregation has no idea who they are or what they do or what I do – for that matter – in a “mid-council judicatory.”  This doesn’t sound like anything Jesus died for.  And how can we possibly trust a distant entity about whom we know nothing personally – in a spiritual community that values personal relationships?
  2. “Advertising is seen as manipulative.”  When we see people as “targets” whom we hope will become “members” we deserve to be distrusted.  We exist as the Church to show the love of God that we have experienced to human beings.  We do not exist to perpetuate an institution.  Unless we actually do exist to perpetuate an institution. Yuck.
  3. “Brands have an agenda.”  We churches want to make ourselves sound friendly, welcoming, purposeful, fun, and enriching whether we are or not.  Why?  See #2.  Are we trying to get people into the door?  Or are we trying to serve them because that’s what God has told us to do?
  4. “Brands offer little in the way of validation.”  If we really want people to connect with us, a pithy tag line or a nice church sign isn’t going to do it.  Word of mouth is a much more meaningful way to connect with people.  I visit a church because someone has invited me personally.  They tell me that they’ve found authentic community there or they’ve found a way to serve the neighbors or they’ve met Jesus or they’ve found meaning for their lives.
  5. “Money is on the line.”  Church friends: how many times have you heard someone say that “the church just wants my money”? People do give money  – when they can – to organizations and projects that are valuable to us.  I give financially to things that add to my quality of life (NPR) but I also give to things that serve the common good.  I am happy to pay for taxes for good schools even though I no longer have kids in school because I want all kids to have an excellent education.  I give to congregations who make a difference in their neighborhoods.  I do not give to congregations who serve only themselves and I hope you don’t either.

Trust issues are among our biggest challenges for the 21st Century Church.  But trust is nurtured when we are real.

When we share our own real brokenness, when we recognize that maybe we are not really as friendly as we think we are (but we are honestly open to figuring out how to be more hospitable), when we truly serve the community not to “get new members” but simply to follow Jesus . . . that’s when we begin to deserve the trust of strangers and friends alike.

What if we simply tried to better resemble the way of Jesus?

 

Paying For It

Oh yes, it's freeJon Oliver recently shared a pithy and brilliant bit about journalism that you can see here. Among other things, he talks about our increasing hesitation to pay for newspapers or news services.  If we can get our news from Twitter or Huffington Post for free, why pay for a Washington Post or NY Times subscription?  The video explains exactly why.

I’m writing this from my denomination’s conference on evangelism, new church plants and church redevelopment, and there is a lot of talk about creative spiritual communities.  Often these new ideas involve community gardens or supper groups or Bible studies in cafes and bars.  Church folks are out in the communities giving free bottles of water at farmers’ markets or handing out snow cones in parks.  They are offering free community suppers.  They are serving coffee at bus stops.

With new forms of being the church come new forms for funding them. Or not.

Decades ago, churches financed their ministry by renting their pews.  The Smith Family rented the third pew.  The Jones Family rented the fourth pew.  And the free pews were in the balcony.

Later, churches adopted the pledge system.  Family units tithed ten percent of their income to the ministry of their congregation or – more likely – they pledged a smaller percentage of their income.  According to the  Congregational Life Survey, church people contributed an average of $1,500 a year to their congregations in 2009. The average was lower in Roman Catholic congregations— about $727 a year — and among mainline Protestant churches the average was higher — about $1,627 a year.  Online giving and automatic bank transfers have made it easier for members to make donations.

One of the issues with new worshiping communities that meet in gyms for “Cross Training” (get it?) or in yoga studios for group spiritual direction or in bars for Bible Studies involves paying for it – at least if the community wants a paid leader.  New church plants often encourage fluidity in participation.  And even in established congregations, participation is often fluid anyway, resulting in less regular financial giving.

We get what we pay for.

Actually many parishioners or participants receive more than they pay for.  When HH and I were co-pastors sharing a single full time position, the church received more than one pastor.  Many pastors who work for part-time pay work full time in reality.  And many of us – in this culture of receiving many services for free  – assume that others will cover church expenses.  Or we simply cannot afford to contribute much in light of our personal financial debts.

But we pay for the things we value.

I very much value the work of smart, professional journalists and so I pay for it. It’s worth every penny to me to read the reports of  Frank Bruni and Nick Kristoff and marvel over the photos of Doug Mills.  I pay for Netflix because I very much appreciate the stories of Jenji Kohan  and Beau Willimon.  I pledge to my local NPR station because . . . NPR.

I value the work of the congregations I serve and I share with them what I can especially when I notice that they are doing God’s work well.  Sometimes our church giving is transactional because of what we receive in return.  But sometimes all we receive in return is that amazing feeling that we have participated in something holy and beautiful.

If you appreciate your spiritual community, I hope you participate in paying for it because it’s our calling to make disciples and promote social justice and offer a haven of healing for the neighborhood.  Our leaders deserve to be paid well.  It costs money to be the church if for no other reason than the fact that caring for each other has a price and sometimes it’s a monetary price.

As Jon Oliver said, “The longer that we get something for free, the less willing we are to pay for it.”  But I hope we’ll consider paying for it, especially if it’s church.

Here are some great uses of your money that transform the world for good in the name of Jesus Christ.  Thank you.

Hospitality is Inconvenient

woman-tantrumHH and I were out eating breakfast yesterday and a family in the next booth had one of those moments that every family has if you have kids:  the random tantrum.

Parents become mortified sometimes to the extreme.  [There was a popular restaurant in Chapel Hill that my parents never entered again after I threw a fit during a rare dinner out at the age of three.  Decades later, they were still afraid they’d be recognized.]

The tantrum we witnessed yesterday didn’t involve a toddler.  The child was not even a child.  He was probably a teenager or a young adult.  And he was probably autistic and really upset about something that nobody else was experiencing.

The restaurant staff was perfect.

They asked if they could help.  They offered more water and coffee.  And when the family decided it was best to leave, the staff was stink-eye free.

Hospitality is often inconvenient. This is especially frustrating in a world where people are supremely annoyed by highway detours and when we actually do mind your dust.  My first reaction is displeasure when my favorite bakery is closed the week I’d hoped to take morning buns to the office, when I should be happy that the bakery owners understand downtime.

It’s easy to offer genuine hospitality when everybody’s saying please and thank you.  It’s not so easy when people don’t wait their turn or they smell bad or they take more than their share.  It’s not so easy when you are trying to make people feel comfortable and one family’s screaming child is making everyone uncomfortable.

Entertaining angels is easy when they act like angels.  But when they act like they struggle with demons, we hesitate.  Imagine a church that offers hospitality even to the children of God who make everybody uncomfortable.

 

 

 

Love People. Use Things.

“In America the quirk was that people were things.” The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

People are not things.  Colson Whitehead’s novel about  escaping from slavery reminds us that beingBe the Light “owned” by another human being was unspeakably miserable in spite of what many of us (white people) were taught.  Stories of benevolent slave owners were part of my upbringing along with myths that people were kept as slaves for their own good. Seriously, this has been the narrative for generations.

People are not things.  While politicians might say anything to win our votes, we are more than our ballots.  We are more than our polled comments.  We are human beings who deserve leaders who serve a cause bigger than themselves for the sake of the whole.

This week I am in St. Pete’s, FL at the national conference on evangelism and church growth.  Starting new churches, much less serving established congregations, is not for the fainthearted.  There are countless cultural and personal reasons why people are not as active in spiritual communities as they used to be.

People are not things.  They are not numbers to bolster our sense of success. They are not financial pledges.  They are not “targets for evangelism.”  We are human beings who crave community and healing and forgiveness.  And we deserve leaders who understand that we are created in God’s image.  Every one of us – even the cranky and mean ones.

Congregations flourish when we love people and use things.  Congregations die when we use people and love things.

And so we begin the Go Disciple Live Conference this week.  How can we be the light in a world that uses people?

Note:  I heartily recommend The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.  And the image comes from the PCUSA Go Disciple Live Conference featuring keynoters Casey Wait Fitzgerald, Ralph Watkins, and Mike Breen.

Cancer and Congregations: Does Our Church Need Immunotherapy?

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

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

And of course it got me thinking about Church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ocean

emerald-isle

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

May you also get some time away from the usual.

Certain Ways to Wreck Your Pastoral Search

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

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

If you want to wreck your pastoral search:

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

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

People Who Look Like Us

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

This is huge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read about LEGO Women of NASA here.