Roles

The best advice I’ve ever received from a professional coach is about roles. If roles are clear and balanced and understood, organizations thrive.

(Not these rolls, but these are pictured to offer comfort.)

In Church World, conflicts distract us from doing real ministry, and those conflicts are often about roles. For example:

  • The Clerk of Session (or President of the Governing Board or the Moderator of the Deacons) is not the Assistant Pastor. When there is confusion about authority, conflict ensues.
  • The Pastor is not the janitor. Yes, the Pastor might wipe up spilled coffee, but God has not called the Pastor to spend the day washing windows or sweeping the sanctuary.
  • The Organist is not in charge of worship. Depending on your denomination’s polity, the organist/musician/worship leader might be part of the team, but the lead pastor’s role is to craft the message of the day.
  • The Preschool Director is not the Treasurer. It’s inappropriate for the Preschool Director to sign checks for supplies and payroll.
  • The Pastor is not God. This means: 1) The Pastor is not called to lord over God’s people and 2) The Pastor is imperfect.

As we all know, when there’s a vacuum, someone often steps in to fulfill a role and unhealthy habits result. We’ve all experienced this: the church administrator who kind of wants to be the pastor and relishes in “knowing everything” or the long time elder who refuses to relinquish power even to the new pastor.

I feel a little ridiculous even writing about this because Jesus didn’t die for any of these conflicts. Too many of our congregations are wrapped up in power plays or personality disputes and the world find new reasons to ignore the Gospel.

There is too much work to do for us to waste our time doing someone else’s ministry.

Self-Care, Not Self-Control

Then the devil left Jesus, and suddenly angels came and fed him. Matthew 4:11

Although the Greek word for “fed” can also mean “waited on” or “served” I like to wonder about what the angels might have fed Jesus after a long 40 days of fasting. Is where we get the term “angel food” and if so, was Jesus fed cake? I like to think so.

Almost every clergy ordination or installation I attend includes words about self-care:

  • Church: make sure your pastor takes their sabbath and all their vacation.
  • Pastor: make sure you take your sabbath and all your vacation.

And there are words about the importance of family time and exercise and rest and seeing a therapist. Clergy also take boundary training which often covers self-care and definitely covers self-control (i.e. don’t date parishioners, don’t embezzle money, don’t misappropriate funds, don’t choke people who get on your last nerve.)

Last week, in the it’s-a-new-year-so-let’s-start-new-habits department, The Washington Post – knowing that people want to be healthy and are also lazy – offered six “easy” tips for healthier living and this line struck me: Approach food as self-care, not self-control.

We can look at food as something to we need to withhold from ourselves or something to make us feel better temporarily or something to reward ourselves. Or we can look at food as fuel to have the energy to do what needs to be done.

NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure I believe that sometimes a brownie is the perfect fuel. 10 brownies gunk up the system, but a single perfect brownie is most definitely self-care.

The nutritionist featured in the WaPo article says:

Rather than getting caught up in diet culture’s moral language of atonement and tight regulations, you look inward to tap into what feels good in your body, considering not just your nutritional needs, but also your sense of pleasure, comfort and satisfaction.

Like practicing other spiritual disciplines, this nutritionist suggests that we practice “gentle nutrition” which sounds like a spiritual discipline to me. If we want to have the energy to be the people God created us to be, if we want to guard against everybody’s Big Enemy (cancer), if we want to enrich our lives, if we want to spice things up, then consider practicing eating as self-care.

I am not always a thoughtful eater. Sometimes I grab a yogurt for dinner. But I like the idea of eating as a spiritual discipline, and – as a late bloomer – I’ve been slow to pick up on this thing that probably everyone else knows.

Imagine being fed by angels. Is what’s going our mouths what angels would be feeding us?

“What’s Best for Me & Mine?” said Jesus never.

I have a Bible Challenge today for any of you willing to play: Please name a time when Jesus preached individualism.

Anyone who has heard or preached a sermon series on The Ten Commandments can attest that those commandments are about relationships with God and the greater community. Anyone who has read the words of Jesus might remember that he talked about:

This interview with Dr. Katharine Hayhoe – a climate scientist who self-identifies as an evangelical Christian is excellent in terms of her thoughts about religious faith, individualism, and climate change.

The biggest struggle I have is that in the Bible, Jesus says to his disciples, “You should be recognized as my disciples by your love for others,” and today when you look at people who self-identify as Christians in the United States, love for others is not one of the top characteristics you see. Christianity is much more closely linked with political ideology and identity, with judgmentalism, partisanship, science denial, rejection of responsibility for the poorest and most vulnerable who we, as Christians, are to care for. 

People who self-identify as Christians seem to be leading the way in pushing “personal liberties” as in

  • The right to live unvaccinated (in spite of the threat to neighbors, and especially to physically vulnerable people)
  • The right to forego masks and social distancing (in spite of the highly contagious Omicron variant)
  • The right to carry guns anywhere and everywhere (in spite the high stats on gun deaths in the U.S.)
  • The right to refuse to serve people (e.g. no cakes for gay weddings)

Although many believers call themselves Christian Libertarians, I agree with those who say that libertarians affirm the absolute sovereignty of the self, while orthodox Christians believe in the absolute sovereignty of God.

Amen.

God calls us into community. And while I agree that each of us has a personal relationship with our Maker, I also believe that we are called to serve each other sacrificially in the image of Christ.

I wonder – as Dr. Hayhoe suggests – if we have abandoned all sound theology. She says:

There was a really interesting recent article about the landscape of evangelicalism in the United States, and it said that about 10 years ago if you asked people, “Do you consider yourself to be evangelical?” and they said yes, and then you asked, “Do you go to church?” about 30 percent would say no. But nowadays something like 40 percent of people who self-identify as evangelicals don’t go to church. They go to the church of Facebook or Fox News or whatever media outlet they get their information from. So their statement of faith is written primarily by political ideology and only a distant second by theology.

We, in the Church, have a responsibility to teach Biblical theology. Yes, Christians will disagree with our interpretations. But at least we will be starting from the same source – the Gospels and other scripture – rather than cable news commentators who might not even believe themselves what they are promoting.

Tell me your politics, life goals, and basic philosophy of life are informed by Holy Scripture, and we can have a conversation. We can’t talk if I’m coming from the teachings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and you are coming from somebody’s treatise on government conspiracies, even if you call yourself a Christian.

Jesus never said that the purpose of life is to serve ourselves and our own. Quite the opposite. And this impacts the way we teach children, the way we run businesses, and the way we vote. On this anniversary of a terrible day in U.S. History, let’s remember that what purportedly happens in the name of God or faith or freedom is often about none of those things.

Image source.

Reclaiming Our Time in 2022

I’ll let you in on a little secret:

I was supposed to be returning from a 10 day Civil Rights Tour bus trip today but it was canceled due to that pesky Omicron Variant and so I haven’t had a scheduled meeting on my calendar for TEN DAYS.

[You can purchase Mykal Kilgore’s music on your favorite streaming service.]

I’ve worked over the past ten days. There have been phone calls and emails, but generally, I took it slowly.

And as I always do when beginning a new year, a new call, or a new day, I say to myself, “This is a golden opportunity to reclaim my time.” When Maxine Waters made this statement a mantra in 2017, I’ve been trying to be like Maxine.

I dislike talking on the phone although I do it for hours every day. I was raised to be a proper Southern lady and so although I can be direct, it’s now how I was raised. Example:

Church Person: Thank you for helping with this (after 15 minutes of discerning the issue and what to do about it.)

Direct Me: Glad I could help. Bye.

Southern Lady Me: Glad I could help. How was your Christmas? (And off we go for another 20 minutes.)

The thing is: I want to hear about their Christmas. I want to know how their son’s COVID situation is going. I want to hear about their new puppy. But as we are talking, two other people have called and I need to get to those calls too.

We all go through this.

As I’ve written before, I once taught an adult church class called The Meaning of Life and one of the things we covered was about how we spend our time. I love that time is a commodity that we spend.

At the end of each Meaning of Life class, we’d share The Most Important Thing We Did Yesterday. Among the comments were things like:

  • Reading a bedtime story to my preschooler.
  • Stopping to talk to my neighbor who was unloading groceries.
  • Listening to my administrative assistant sharing about her spouse’s medical tests.

These people included high level government workers and business executives who spent their days doing Important Things. But most of them agreed that time spent building relationships was most important.

All of us engage in phone conversations that could have taken three minutes but they took twenty. All of us attend meetings or webinars or conference calls when ten minutes of business took sixty minutes of our time.

Let’s reclaim our time in 2022. Let’s ask ourselves as we talk on the phone or meet on Zoom or sit at a real table in a real conference room:

  • Are we sharing information that needs to be shared?
  • Are relationships being fostered?
  • Is the topic moving us towards actual results which look like the Reign of God? (That’s a big one.) In other words, is what we are talking about resulting in Big Picture growth and service to people beyond ourselves that would be pleasing to our Maker? Note: if you live and work in Secular World as a follower of Jesus, you can ask this question too. You are called to ministry in the world. How is God working through your classroom, bank, office, factory?

Reclaiming my time will be one of my spiritual disciplines in 2022. So please know that – while last night’s meatloaf debacle might have been semi-traumatic for you, I might cut you off before you can share every detail.

And you have permission to do the same to me. I am mostly writing this post to myself.

(You wouldn’t believe what happened regarding the random hoodie I found on our coat rack today. Oh my gosh, where did it come from? I guess I’ll wash it? It reminds me of the time when . . . )

(Let’s Not Have) A Year of Magical Thinking in 2022

 “It occurs to me that we allow ourselves to imagine only such messages as we need to survive.” Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking

HH called to me from the front porch – years ago – as I was out front walking to the car. “Mom’s on the phone!” he said, and I yelled back “Which one?” meaning his or mine. And because he knows it would be okay in terms of my own sense of humor, he said, “Oh yours. It wasn’t easy getting a connection, but it’s your mom on the phone.”

My mother had died ten years before. But even ten years later, I would sometimes forget.

A Comforting Sunday Morning in Mayberry, 1965

There are countless varieties of magical thinking and most of them involve some form of grief:

  • If I ignore those bills, they will disappear.
  • If we don’t talk about that tumor, everything will be fine.
  • If I pretend my spouse and I are getting along, maybe we’ll start to get along.

It’s beyond avoidance. It’s about mourning.

Magical thinking happens in church all the time:

  • If we can just call a pastor like _____ our church will grow again.
  • If we install a pipe organ, people will come back.
  • If we get back to what the Bible teaches, our church will recover from decades of decline.*

* Fun fact: “Biblical Values” include visiting the imprisoned and feeding the poor and crossing boundaries and touching untouchables. If we complain about politics in church but forget that Jesus was crucified for sedition, we need to find a new Bible study.

What will the post-COVID Church look like? Will there be a post-COVID? Will there be a Church? These are the questions I hear every day. People are writing books about it. There are webinars. I’m clearly writing a blog post about it.

Although I don’t have answers, I hope we don’t continue to dwell in the land of magical thinking, believing that if we can just ignore reality or overlook unpleasantness or perk up, everything will magically become what our best memories of church are.

Ted Koppel went to Mt. Airy, NC last fall to report about our American fondness for Mayberry on the Andy Griffith Show. Andy was born in Mt. Airy – the ostensible basis for Mayberry – and these days the town welcomes many tourists who visit to experience a taste of “the good old days.”

Remember those days? When everybody went to church and got hair cuts at Floyd’s and met friends at The Snappy Lunch? You can watch the Koppel segment here.

As one interviewee said, “It’s good clean comedy. It has morals, values. You don’t see that much on TV today.” Mayberry was indeed magical. The crime was tame. The town alcoholic was a lovable teddy bear. The sheriff was kind and gentle. Opie’s wild oats were inconsequential. One episode features a casserole disaster.

When Koppel interviewed Black residents of Mt. Airy, they recalled not being allowed to eat at The Snappy Lunch (or whatever the diner was really called) because of the color of their skin. And the crime and domestic issues were a bit more serious in real life.

Absolutely – it’s soothing to spend time watching comfort television. Sometimes it casts a spell.

But God doesn’t do magic tricks. Jesus performed miracles – not magic. Notice how – even in his miracles – he partnered with regular humans to make things happen for good.

From the people who believe that they need to “take America back” to Mayberry, to the church people who miss civil religion, to the faithful who confuse being devoted to tradition with being devoted to God, we need do step away from magical thinking and participate in the real work of being the Church.

The beauty of COVID is that we’ve been forced to make necessary shifts from online giving to technological upgrades. The worry is that too many of us still believe in magic: that all will magically return to normal, that everyone will “come back” and that we won’t have to lift a finger. Nope. That’s magical thinking if I’ve every heard it.

Does this make you tired? (Because it makes me tired.) Keep in mind that Jesus will always have a Church and the Spirit will continue to call us to be that Church. That’s not magical thinking. That’s faith.

The Case for Denominational Giving

I remember telling friends – when I first started a denominational position after 27 years as a parish pastor – that they might throw up a little in their mouths when they hear about my new ministry. I was not A Denominational Person. I was all about the local congregation. My “connectional denomination” sometimes didn’t feel very connected.

But then a couple things happened along the way and it looks like I gulped down every drop of Kool Aid. Maybe I did. And . . .

I still believe that the local congregation is best suited to addressing what breaks God’s heart in the neighborhood and creating spiritual community. And yet I also believe that a connectional denomination makes that happen more efficiently if – a big if the denomination is focused on the message and ministry of Jesus.

Before Christmas, our Presbytery staff became aware of a need in one of our smallest congregations. The small congregation had been meeting virtually but they wanted to “come back” to in-person worship for Christmas Eve for the first time in over a year. When they did an extensive clean up of their sanctuary to prepare, it was discovered that they needed thousands of dollars for some construction repairs. There would be no in-person gathering without those repairs.

At the suggestion of a colleague, I phoned another pastor in the Presbytery and shared the situation and – without creating a committee, without setting up a series of hoops to jump through – he agreed that his congregation could cover the cost of the repair needs for the other congregation.

This is why denominations exist.

Because of our denomination – people are fed, doctor bills are paid, bail is covered, affordable housing is constructed, children are tutored, and God’s will is done in ways that would never happen without a lot of congregations working together. Because of our denomination there are countless opportunities to learn, worship, serve, and create community that could never happen in isolation.

Andrew Kukla wrote this recently on a PCUSA Leaders page on Facebook about making contributions to denominations. He was talking about per capita giving. (Thanks Andrew.)

I was one of those get rid of per capita people. As a “discipleship over membership” person (once upon a time – I mean, I still am, just more nuanced than that ) I used to dislike the per capita thing… in my mind in those days it forced the counting of membership which I considered a category of dubious import (and with any narrow definition it still is).

“Per capita” is the boring word that means – in my denomination – the price your church pays per each member for the privilege of being on the rolls of a congregation in our denomination. In these days when membership of all kinds is dramatically less important than it was decades ago, please remember that “membership” is not about having your name in a directory or perpetuating an institution.

For followers of Jesus, it’s about making a public statement about what we believe and how we pledge to live out what we believe. It’s about publically being part of a community committed to making earth more like heaven in the name of Jesus. That’s my definition at least.

Being part of a denomination is saying “yes” to global ministry alongside local ministry. Thriving denominations rebuild schools damaged in war and create medical facilities in underserved rural areas and stick around long after The Red Cross and FEMA leave disaster sites. No single congregation can manage the breadth of this ministry.

Being part of a denomination involves participating in the “gift of being a part of a larger community than just our community of faith” – in the words of Andrew Kukla. Yes, being part of a denomination is a gift.

If you like giving gifts:

Consider whatever it costs to be a member of your congregation in your denomination. Let’s say it’s $50 per member.

What if today you sent a check to your congregation for the purpose of being part of The Wider Church for $50 as a New Year gift of hope for what God can do. Or consider giving $50 in the name of a member who has nurtured your faith. Or give $50 in the name of someone who cannot share that gift right now. Or give $50 in the name of a youth member who is important to you. Or give $10. Or $100.

It’s like secret Santa for those of us who know that Christmas is about more than Santa.

You might be rolling your eyes about now thinking, “Of course Jan wants to support our denomination because that’s how she gets paid.” This is true and if you don’t believe that our Presbytery staff is worth what we are paid in terms of keeping all the parts of ministry moving, then please don’t contribute to the ministry of our Presbytery. But if you see that God’s will is being carried out in terms of the bigger picture, I hope you’ll embrace the gift of being part of a connectional Church.

We could also call it supporting The Church Universal. (It’s really hard to be The Church Universal alone.)

Happy New Year and I’m excited about what God will be doing in 2022.

Image is a mosaic of some of the ministries of our congregations in Charlotte Presbytery.

Late Bloomer

Whenever I post my Discoveries of the Year on the last day of December, I’m reminded that I’m a late bloomer. I list things that many have already heard about/read/saw/figured out long ago. With that in mind, here we go:

My Favorite Discoveries of 2021:

  1. Yancey Strickler and his book This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World taught me about B Companies and got my All-Church-All-The-Time brain sparking some new ministry ideas regarding money and partnerships and the future of The Church.
  2. Jennifer Senior wrote my favorite ever essay about grief which is also about memories and time and 9-11. She is one of the reasons why The Atlantic is the best magazine out there.
  3. Jason Sudeikis is a genius. Who knew this when he was Track Suit Dancing Guy on What Up With That? Seriously. Did you have any idea?
  4. Amanda Gorman. I have no words to describe her words.
  5. Michelle Zauner wrote one of the best books of 2021 especially if you are a sucker for dead mother reflections. She is also a musician.

It was also a good year to reread bell hooks and Joan Didian and Hans Kung. It was a good year to thank the people for whom Covid was not a time of cozy work-from-home scenarios with sourdough starter. It was a good year for giving money away to churches – large and small – who thrived in the midst of disruption. It was a good year if we stuck together and appreciated each other.

May 2022 be a better year.

Image of a camelia cutting in front of the last days of our 2021 Christmas tree.

The Reign of God is Like . . .

The Common Market.

On any given night in any season, there is a crowd outside at The Common Market down the street from where I live. HH and I aren’t really cool enough to live in this neighborhood, but we feel at home on this street mainly because of The Common Market. It feels like what I imagine The Reign of God is like.

You can get a sandwich, locally roasted coffee, a craft beer or a PBR and sit with friends and strangers on the patio. You can choose a bottle from The Wall of Saki or stocking stuffers that remind me of Toy Joy in Austin. (I’m talking about the old Toy Joy on Guadalupe in the building lined with plastic nuns on the roof.)  

You might meet bankers or dishwashers, firefighters or college students. There are people on dates and friends meeting after work and strangers sharing a table. It’s the kind of place I can leave my dog with someone while I run in to grab some crackers.

Especially on these Advent nights, I think of shepherds and angels as I pass by walking the dog. I think of Lydia and Timothy and Tamar and Esther. They are all there in the Common Market. The lowly and the powerful. The sober and the not-so-sober.

Some might pass by and never consider stepping closer. It sometimes looks dangerous on that patio and yet the community watches out for each other to the point that it feels like the safest place in the world.

The reign of God is like a mustard seed, a pearl, and yeast. It’s like a hidden treasure and it’s like the City of God. It’s at hand and it’s not yet.

May this last week of Advent from The Longest Night to the Birth of Christ in a humble cave offer a glimpse of the Reign of God for you and those you love this week.

Sometimes it’s not what we expect. In fact, it’s usually nothing like what we expect.

Remembering

I believe that if we were really Pro-Life these children would be in high school now. We can do better.

Ruining Advent

I was once asked to preach for a Christmas Eve service for pastor with a stomach virus. (What are you going to do if you’re a pastor with a stomach virus on December 24th? You find someone who can preach in your place.) I’ve never forgotten that night and not because of the other pastor’s stomach virus.

After the homily, we were going to celebrate communion, so the elders stood there waiting in front of the communion table to take the trays of bread and wine. And they looked extraordinarily stressed out.

Are we standing in the right place?” one of them whispered to me looking terrified. Her lip was literally trembling.

They (the elders) seemed to be standing in the appropriate place but they all looked like they were lining up for execution. They were terrified that they were doing Christmas Eve wrong.

Turns out their pastor (the one with the stomach virus) regularly berated parishioners for everything from “standing in the wrong place” to lighting candles “the wrong way.”

This makes baby Jesus weep.

Since when do people believe they are not doing worship “right”? Actually, our worship can indeed be wrongheaded (i.e. we make it about us and not God) but I’m pretty sure God doesn’t care where we stand or how we light the candles.

This is the season of children’s pageants that perennially include mishaps – if not shepherds dressed like Spiderman. This is the season where a Christmas Eve candle is likely to drip wax on the carpet or the office staff doesn’t print enough bulletins or the pastor gets a stomach virus.

This is the season when we prepare for the God we need rather than the God we think we want. This is the season when we remember that the birth of the Messiah was first announced to the lowly rather than the mighty in circumstances more familiar to a homeless child than a prince.

We can’t mess up – unless we choose to make Advent about us rather than about God with us. So many parts of religious life are about things that are supposed to nourish us (prayer, scripture, service) but we have conflated what God wants with what we want – a pretty holiday season with everybody lined up in proper order.

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings. Hosea 6:6

It’s about love. It’s about knowing God.

No matter what anyone says, the only way we can “ruin Advent” is to make Advent about something else. May your Advent days be full of love.