Lovely Things You Can Do For Your Pastor

I often write about what we need to change in the church.  Yes, we get it wrong sweetlyscented-bouquet-of-flowers.365sometimes, but sometimes we get it right.  In my current work, I observe some lovely things that congregations have done for their pastors.  Here are some favorites:

  • A personnel committee member asked me “if it would be okay” to give their pastor a surprise $5000 bonus.  That would be a big yes. Even better:  add it to her continuing education budget so that she won’t have to pay taxes on it and then encourage her to take a class in Paris.
  • A personnel committee asked me if I might be on a conference call with all of them to share ways they can support their new pastor.  (You people are champions.)
  • A congregation who couldn’t afford a raise for their pastor added an additional week of paid vacation.
  • After a pastor’s mother passed away, the elders arranged for her and her family to go to a church family’s vacation home for an extra week of vacation.
  • A church that knows its pastor loves shoes gave her a gift certificate to a shoe factory outlet in the town where she was taking parishioners on a mission trip.
  • The parents of a young adult couple came to worship from out of town for the baptism of their grandchild and – after they returned home – they wrote a heartfelt letter to the pastor thanking him for being such a great spiritual leader for their “kids.”

It’s a very hectic week for most of our pastors.  Show them some love.

[Note:  Thanks SB]


(The Church) does not identify limited progress with the kingdom of God on earth . . . 

I Don't HateMy denomination is 91% white, which is an admission that will make some of my brothers and sisters feeling pretty good about ourselves (“People of color make up 9% of our denomination!“) and others of my brothers and sisters to be embarrassed that – in a nation in which white folks will be in the minority in a mere four years – our congregations do not look much like our country.  Chances are – however – that we who are white don’t think about it much.

This Holy Week – as we move through the paralyzing physical and spiritual pain of Jesus into resurrection – is the perfect time to consider our own paralysis before we celebrate that Christ is risen.

  • Are we overwhelmed with the notion of connecting with our neighbors – especially if they don’t look like us?
  • Are we anesthetized to the evils of systemic racism?
  • Do we congratulate ourselves when a person of color or two joins our church as if this proves we are not racist?

Yesterday and every day, I was/am struck by the need for deep story sharing. Larissa Kwong Abazia brilliantly addresses this here.  And then, shortly after reading Larissa’s article, I saw this article about a white police officer who was shot and killed by a 17 year old black man in South Carolina who then turned the gun on himself.  This is a familiar story that begs for details. Yes, a young officer is dead which is unspeakably heinous.  And yet it is also heinous that a black teenager would  run when two police officers tried to stop him “for a field interview” in the Nicholtown neighborhood in Greenville, SC.  He is identified as “confirmed and self-described gang member” in a neighborhood with a high crime rate in a lovely southern city.  The layer of issues here are complicated and difficult.

Imagine caring enough about the layers to uncover the stories behind these stories.  We seek them out not so that we can congratulate ourselves for reaching out.  We seek them out because we follow One whose story is not what it seems at first look.

Some saw Jesus as a rabble-rouser set on turning over the powers.  Some saw him as their rabbi.  Some were ashamed of him.  By Friday nobody was lining up to claim they knew him.  But the truth is that Jesus was the embodiment of love.

Call me crazy, but I believe that when we listen to each other’s stories we will find the same needs and hopes.  We want to be respected.  We want to be loved.

Loving The Other is not something to congratulate ourselves for doing.  It’s our life’s purpose in the name of Jesus (who was brown, by the way.)

The quote at the top is from the PCUSA’s Confession of 1967, 9.55.  The image is by Nyle Fort.

What Would You Be Willing to Do for Your Church?

It’s Holy Week and we remember what God was willing to do to crackrockroad580
open the cosmic reality that we are loved by our Creator to the death.

[What our clergy, educators, and musicians are willing to do this week is another story for another post.  Think: long hours and family sacrifices.  For those of us for whom spring break is always Holy Week, there will be no trip to Disney World.]

For many churches who wring their hands over The Future Of Their Congregations, there is more fear than faith, more over-functioning than equipping others, more self-limitation than experimentation.

What would you – stressed out church person – be willing to do for your church?  If it meant that your congregation would surely thrive . . .

  • Would you, Pastor, be willing to step aside/retire early?
  • Would you give up control of the church check book or the files or the coffee pots or the flower vases or the education program?
  • Would you allow the endowments to be used to invest in the future (as opposed to using it to balance the budget)?
  • Would you risk calling a pastor who doesn’t look like you?
  • Would you be willing to open the doors to strangers who need to be fed/tutored/counseled/taught?
  • Would you be willing to give a new generation a chance?

This is the perfect week to consider what we would be willing to do for the sake of the Gospel.  It’s not about propping up the church as an institution.  It’s about being the church in a way that shows the world what God’s love looks like.

Sometimes we might be the rock blocking the tomb.  Or we could be the one to roll it out of the way to help resurrection happen.

What If We Measured Ministry According to Stories?

candleMy denomination still requires churches to submit statistical reports. Chances are that your denomination requires this too and if your congregation is non-denominational, somebody’s still keeping track of membership, worship attendance, and financial contributions.

This doesn’t always make sense in the 21st Century Church.  For one thing, statistics do not describe impact.  (And we are not making an impact we are missing the point of the Gospel.)

First Church on the Hill might have 1000 members on the rolls and an average of 400 in worship.  But they might have less impact than Little Church on the Corner with 100 on the rolls, 50 in worship, and a community dinner program where 200 gather every Friday night.

  • Imagine a church that has less than 50 on the membership rolls but they provide free vegetables to school children who live in an urban food desert.
  • Imagine a church with “only” 120 members who tutor 300 children after school every day.
  • Imagine a church with 150 members who have provided a free computer training program to over 1000 low income neighbors.

I know all those churches. They really exist and their impact far surpasses their statistical impressiveness – or lack thereof.

So how do we measure impact?  Increasingly, I measure impact (and – in turn – church vitality) through the stories that come out of that church.  I’m not talking about data stories – although that’s a really cool field.  You start with data and create a narrative that tells a story.

I’m talking about spiritual transformation stories.  You start with resurrection and track back to how that happened.

What story from your congregation’s ministry could you tell about . . .

  • The transformation of a community from brokenness to wholeness?
  • The shift from congregational anxiety to trust in God?
  • The movement from being a person who was paralyzed with grief to a person who could minister to someone paralyzed with grief?
  • The change from fear to faith?
  • The evolution of a person tormented by shame to a person who has forgiven herself?
  • The creation of a vibrant church from a dead church?
  • The movement from a racially segregated corner of the city to an authentically partnered people?

If we cannot tell these stories is it because we have no such stories to tell?  Or is it because we don’t know how to articulate them?

Statistics tell stories.  But we are more inspired by stories of impact and growth. And who doesn’t prefer to be inspired?


Good On Paper

look-good-on-paper-e1344115951450Some of us look great on paper.  Others of us look mediocre on paper, but we happen to be quite impressive in person.

This is where the face-to-face interview becomes important.  And search committees need to be ready to discern who looks good on paper and who is actually a good match for them.  It’s a bit crushing to 1) interview someone who is amazing and then that person doesn’t show up and/or 2) have a pastor but wish you didn’t.  Pastor Nominating Committees are sometimes not prepared to call the best pastor.

Among the questions I have been asked in interviews:

  • What would you do if your child threw a rock through the rose window?  (Note:  I was 27 years old, child free and single at the time.  My response:  “Call the insurance company?”  Apparently the former pastor’s young child had broken a stained glass window and the congregation didn’t think he had been properly disciplined . . . so this became an interview question.)
  • Is there any way you could be a homosexual?  (Note:  I was being interviewed with my male spouse and baby spit up on my shoulder.  #BestBeardEver)
  • Would you ever protest anything?  (Note:  I re-asked:  Are you asking if there is anything in the world worth protesting?  That would be a yes.)

Church Search Committees sometimes ask questions based on issues with the former pastor, fears, or not-well-considered generalities that might or might not shine light on political proclivities.  We can do better.

Some of my favorite interview questions between Search Committees and Candidates:

  • Share a time when you transformed your church.  (Note:  It’s also helpful for a Search Committee to share a time when the congregation was transformed.)
  • Describe a time when you were a resilient leader.  (Note:  I’d also like to hear church leaders share how the congregation was resilient.)
  • What books did you read last year?  (Note:  Ask if the congregation reads books together.  #OneCongregationOneBook)
  • What kind of things feed your soul?  
  • What sucks the life out of your soul?
  • What would your non-Christian friends say about you?

What questions would you add to discern who looks good on paper and who is actually a 21st Century leader?

Image source here.  Note:  Looking good on paper is not our goal.

It Hurts

deerThe church is hurting.  Yes, there are glorious triumphs and inspiring moments. But while some transformational ministry is going on, our congregations are experiencing both acute pain and chronic pain these days.

This article by Sarah Drummond was written about the shifts that Andover-Newton Theological School – the oldest seminary in the nation – is experiencing as they move to the campus of Yale Divinity School in the coming months.  These are Drummond’s words:

The Pain Chronicles (Picador, 2010), author, historian, and memoirist Melanie Thernstrom describes the phases of acute pain by using the illustration of a deer who has broken her leg.

  • First, the deer experiences a fast and sharp pain that communicates to her, Get away from what’s hurting you.
  • Second, she enters of phase of diffuse and duller pain that tells her not to make things worse by moving around.
  • Third, she goes through hormonal and cardiovascular changes that force her both to slow down and tend the wound while also preparing her to take off running, even through pain, if a threat emerges.
  • Fourth, she becomes sleepy, as her body knows it has to rest, and white blood cells rush to the wound’s location. The same internal chemical rush sends sharp pain if she touches the wound, so she knows not to. 
  • Finally, her brain’s hypothalamus suppresses all urges except for caring for the wound, as the brain privileges other needs and intentionally forgets about hunger and thirst.

Thernstrom goes on to make two observations about acute pain: she points out that humans are the only creatures who add a phase to this cycle, which involves analysis, asking, Why me? Only humans wonder what the pain might mean, immediately and in the future. Second, Thernstrom carefully distinguishes acute pain from chronic pain. Where the former plays an important evolutionary and adaptive purpose, the latter accomplishes nothing at all and is, in itself, an illness.

Drummond goes on to identify both the chronic and the acute pain in her seminary community.  We in congregational life experience these too.

Chronic Pain in the Church results from long term discomfort that tends to get managed rather than cured.  As the following realities set in, we come to accept that this pain will  – most likely – be with us for the rest of our existence on this earth:

  • “People don’t come like they used to.”  
  • “Our choir used to go on tour and now we can barely gather a dozen singers.”
  • “We used to have Sunday School full of children.”
  • “Our church once had a thousand members and now are pews are empty.”
  • “We can’t afford a full-time pastor.”

It hurts and it’s been hurting for a while now.  People (and institutions?) with chronic pain are more susceptible to anxiety and depression.  We feel sad because it feels like the best years are behind us.

Acute Pain in the Church results from a more immediate hurt. There is hope for the future.  The ministry will go on.  And yet it’s miserable when:

  • A beloved pastor leaves.
  • A pillar of the church passes away.
  • There’s a fire in the sanctuary.
  • The congregation leaves a familiar but dated building to erect a new structure.

Many of our congregations are in pain:  some in chronic pain that’s been part of their lives for a long time now.  And others are in acute pain that will feel better with time if they tend to the pain well.

One of the missions of our denominational structures is to assist congregations through chronic pain and/or acute pain.

Which kind of pain is your congregation experiencing these days and how will we treat it so that the story of Jesus is honored?

This is 60

Since my last post, I became a 60 year old woman.  birthday candles

It’s foolish to claim that all 60 year old women are this or that.  I don’t  assume that my life is anything like yours or your 60 year old loved one.

According to the stats as a 60 year old woman in the United States of America:

  • I have a 3.46% chance of having breast cancer in the next ten years.
  • My life expectancy is 84.3 years old.
  • I am most likely to die via cancer, heart disease, or unintentional injuries.

At this point in my own blessed and privileged life, here are my own stats:

  • I have outlived my mother by five years.
  • I have survived a little bout of gynecological cancer.  No symptoms for 15 years now.
  • I have been married to HH for almost 29 years.  [Note:  Best decision of my life.  It impacted everything else.]
  • I have raised three kids with HH who lived to adulthood, for whom we were wealthy enough to provide a home in a good public school district, braces, annual vacations, and college educations (with the help of grants and loans.)  We had good health insurance which allowed them to have regular medical and dental check ups.  We had the money to cover car insurance for three teenage drivers.
  • I have been ordained as a professional minister for almost 32 years during which I’ve enjoyed a remarkably satisfying work life.
  • I’ve recovered from seven surgeries – mostly orthopedic as a failed gymnast/clumsy person.
  • I regained my sense of smell after losing it for over 40 years.
  • I’ve traveled to 14 countries and lived in some of the greatest cities in the world.
  • I’ve owned a library card in five towns/cities.
  • I’ve written this blog for 10 & 1/2 years.
  • I’ve voted in five states.
  • I’ve never seen Rocky.

So what’s next?  In the next decade I would love:

  • Not to die, although I am hyper-aware of the possibility.
  • For our kids to be happy, working in jobs that feed their souls, and continue to want to make the world on earth as it is in heaven.
  • To get out of the way.
  • To see a female person of color as president of the United States.
  • To write that book.

So much to look forward to.

Where Do We Begin?

Years ago, some church leaders and I went to an Easum and Bandy event in a yellow brick roadneighboring suburb and I had to pull over the car on the way home because everybody was crying.

  • The changes our church needed to make in order to revitalize itself would take years.
  • The level of energy required seemed monumental.
  • The subsequent push back anticipated back home felt overwhelming.

Actually one of us was not crying.  The whole event and even the subsequent conversation about the challenges filled me with energy.  I loved it.

A chunk of my time is spent these days talking with church groups about helping congregations make the shift to a 21st Century Church culture and sometimes it feels overwhelming to those who gather.

Where do we begin? This questions comes from faithful church people.  They are my people.

They still do all the things they’ve always done:  gathering on Sunday mornings, sitting in pews, singing hymns, serving in great and small ways. But – for some reason – it’s not working anymore, or at least it’s not working the way it used to work.  “People don’t come anymore.” They sometimes feel like the way they’ve been the church is all wrong, or they are being judged for the way they’ve worshiped all these years.

They’ve been faithful.  The world has simply changed in even more ways that we realize.  I love figuring out how those changes are impacting how we might be the future church.

Where do we begin?  It depends.  But here are three things any church could do in the next month.

  • If your church building gets a lot of foot traffic, set up coffee on a random morning and give it out for free.  Do not give people a flyer about your church. Just the coffee and a hearty “Good Morning.”
  • If your church is in a small town or suburb, invite the mayor out to coffee and ask what your church could do to serve the community. Do not make this about proselytizing or “getting new members.”  This is about learning how your church might serve.
  • Sit down with your leaders and a church calendar and have a conversation about why you do what you do. Write down every possible answer – even the awkward ones.  Why do you have a flower guild? (i.e. to make the sanctuary beautiful, to feature Mrs. Smith’s gardening gifts, to appease someone.)  Why do you have a fish fry every Friday?  (i.e. because Mr. Jones loves the fish fry, because it’s a money-maker, because it gets the neighbors into our building.)

Culture shifts take time, and they are exhausting and infuriating. People will threaten to leave.  People will leave.  It’s okay.

And it’s also okay – in fact it’s holy – if your people decide that they cannot change and it’s time to close.  Consider all the congregations that have closed since the resurrection.

But if you are ready to become a 21st Century Church, there are many ways to begin.

Image of Dorothy’s first steps on a long but fruitful journey.

March Madness Reading List

We are on the cusp of a season within a season that simultaneously The Secret Game by Scott Ellsworthbrings many of us deep spiritual satisfaction and crushing existential crises.

For many of us,  March Madness will inform our Lenten Journey in profound ways.  These are tales of struggle and grit. Myths will be crushed. Hopes will be dashed.  People who never cared before will  – suddenly – care deeply about Ducks and Hawkeyes, Musketeers and Jayhawks.

We must ready ourselves.  We must prepare for bracket selections and hoops hoopla.  We must pay tribute to The Greats of Basketball Past.

Here are four books that will fortify our knowledge, whip up our school spirit, and stir up feelings of acrimony which only Jesus can heal:

  • The Secret Game – A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketballs’s Lost Triumph by Scott Ellsworth  This is my favorite on this list.  Jim Crow laws prohibited African America college teams from playing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Invitational (NIT) Tournaments.  But on March 12, 1944, a secret game was played in Durham, NC between the white Duke University medical school team and the black North Carolina Central University team.  This book is extraordinary because the characters and their back stories are extraordinary.  Love.  This.  Book.
  • To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever by Will Blythe.  The Blythes sat behind the Edmistons in church throughout my childhood and I happened to see Dr. Blythe the Sunday before he passed away. “It’s nice to see the Edmistons today like old times,” he said to me and my sister when we were visiting that church years ago.   Yes, this is a basketball book but it’s also about a son’s love for his father.  And it captures my childhood and my feelings about another university down the road from my hometown.
  • The Legend’s Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry by John Feinstein.  Those were the days.  Two of those legendary coaches have passed away, and Feinstein is clearly a Duke fan, but this new book is a pretty great read if you are an Atlantic Coast Conference fan (pre-expanding the ACC to include universities nowhere near the Atlantic Ocean.)
  • (And recently suggested by my neighbor:) Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons from a Hardwood Warrior.  PK Phil Jackson clarifies what some of us intuitively know:  that there are spiritual aspects to the great game of basketball.  Good leadership lessons in here too.

Read and be inspired!  It will be here before we know it.

Was It Actually Super?

Super TuesdayNow that Super Tuesday is behind us, politicians and pundits will spend today discussing how super it actually was and for whom.

There are certain adjectives we use in church which may or may not be precise or even honest.  Some worship services include “special music” which may or may not be all that special.  (Translation: a trumpet or harp might be added to the organ music.  It’s special in that it’s not usually featured.)

Adjectives we often hear in the 21st Century to describe Church:

  • Intentional as in Intentional Community – Translation:  Relationships happen not because they just happen but deliberately and mindfully.
  • Missional as in Missional Outreach – Translation: Instead of sending checks and relating to mission projects from a distance, we build relationships with our mission partners side by side.
  • Authentic as in Authentic Relationships – Translation: The days are gone when we pretend that being a Christian = Having a Perfect-ish Life.  We pray for and with each other about real life.
  • Inclusive as in Inclusive Congregation – Translation: People you wouldn’t necessarily think would be welcomed are not only welcomed for worship but they are also welcomed in leadership. Note:  watch out for this one.  Who’s included in some congregations might differ from who’s included in others.

We need to be careful about our adjectives.  I self-identify as an evangelical Christian in that I believe that Jesus is my Savior and following Jesus is the best way to live my life.  But many others who call themselves evangelical would not include me in their fold.

I once sat on a plane beside a man who noticed my reading material.  (It was Bruggemann’s Cadences of Home.)  He asked me if I was a Christian and I said yes, and then he told me he went to a Bible-believing church.  “What a coincidence,” I said.  “I‘m part of a Bible-believing church too.  It’s called the Presbyterian Church.”  I didn’t mention that I was the pastor.

Was Super Tuesday really all that super?  For the love of God, I pray that we will look back one day and decide it was.