Are You More Afraid of God or of Your Congregation?

Maybe “afraid” is the wrong word.  We are called to be in awe of God and – frankly the power of a God who can lay the foundation of the earth and command the morning can be terrifying.

But you know what I’m talking about, Church People.  Many of our leaders are afraid of:

  • The Big Donor who threatens to leave if you aggravate him,
  • The Church Ladies who rule the kitchen (and the church parlor and the Sunday morning Bible study and the . . .)
  • The grandchildren of the beloved former pastor who won’t stop talking about how much better Church was back then,
  • The Cranky Person who complains about everything,
  • The Gossipy Person who holds court in the church parking lot,
  •  The Angry Person with the unibrow who disapproves of you,
  • The Judge-y Person who gives the stink eye to everybody wearing blue jeans or soccer shorts on Sunday mornings.
  • The Person who has run ___ for over twenty years who complains about doing it but won’t let anybody else do it.

Are we more interested in pleasing God or our congregations?

If we spend most of our time pleasing church members, our congregation is dying.  No exceptions.

Imagine this conversation instead:

  • How is this decision going to please God?
  • How is this purchase going to please God?
  • How is this new hire going to please God?
  • How is this mission project going to please God?

These are the discussions our church leaders need to be having.  Authentic ministry is about pleasing God which leads to spiritual growth, expanding the reign of God, and changing lives for good in the name of Jesus.

Sometimes the church people who claim to love the church most are actually the ones who are inadvertently killing it.  Please believe me when I say that congregations longing to please God are going to thrive – no matter what the size, location, or demographic.

My hope is that this conversation will happen in our churches in early 2019 – for the sake of the Gospel.  (Thanks for considering it.)

Image source.

Rethinking “Political Correctness”

You know how people dislike “political correctness”?  Or at least some people do.  [Note: Our current president was elected because some appreciated that he was never “politically correct.”]

So here’s the thing:

Imagine that you’re at a dinner party sitting around a table with several young female friends and the lighthearted topic is about having babies.  One person shares that she’s so fertile, she gets pregnant when her husband simply looks at her.  Another person comments on how wonderful it is to have a newborn.  You happen to know that one of the women present is having fertility issues and this is a tender topic for her.  You change the subject out of respect and care for her.

Imagine that you are on the board of an organization that’s planning a scholarship fundraiser for high school students and someone suggests having the event at The Plantation Club which 1) has no people of color as members and 2) is called The Plantation Club.  You suggest that celebrating at a place called The Plantation Club will make some people uncomfortable – especially the black and brown students.  Plantation = house with slaves, especially in the Southern United States.  It would be like having a Jewish School fundraiser at the historic home of a Nazi.

Imagine that you invite your new neighbors over and you forget to ask them if they have any food restrictions.  You cook up a feast of pork ribs and bacon-laced beans but when the neighbors come over, you learn that they are Muslim vegetarians.

Maybe it’s not always about political correctness.  Maybe it’s about hospitality.  The purpose of good manners is not to show off how poised and fancy we are; it’s about making others feel comfortable and welcomed.  It’s about putting other people at ease.

So, say “Merry Christmas” to your Christian friends and “Happy Hanukkah” to your Jewish friends and “Happy Holidays” if you aren’t sure.  If somebody tells you that using the word “Jew” as a verb is offensive, believe them.  If people tell you that “picnic” is what Christians used to call the gatherings at lynchings in the Jim Crow South when white folks would bring baskets of food to watch someone get tortured, don’t say, “We can’t say anything any more!”  Instead acknowledge that every day’s a school day and thank them for enlightening you.

Maybe political correctness is not about politics at all.  Maybe it’s simply about being human beings who treat other human beings with respect.

Image from 2017 story about Dairy Queen restaurants posting these signs last Christmas.  Again, this looks less like “political incorrectness” than hospitality and respect for country and those who serve.

Mom’s Greatest Hits

I was sitting in a beautiful church sanctuary over the weekend at the memorial service of C’s mother, and I said to A. sitting beside me, “This sanctuary is gorgeous. I don’t think I’ve ever been in here before.”  A. replied, “You were here for my wedding 30 years ago.”  Oh right.

My mother had just died weeks before A’s wedding and I was in a bit of a fog.  New baby.  No mother.  Broken heart.

I found myself tearing up during C’s mother’s eulogy because it was all so true and so real.  And it was so beautiful.  [Note: you definitely want an English major writing your eulogy and obituary. C is an excellent writer.]

30 years before, we scheduled FBC’s baptism just after Thanksgiving, and everybody gathered to celebrate at my and HH’s home in NY.  I was cooking for a crowd.  I can’t remember if it was my sister or my brother who said it, but when I set out all the food, one of them said out loud, “What is this?  Mom’s greatest hits?

I had prepared Mom’s Greatest Hits for Sunday dinner after FBC’s baptism.  I thought it might be a comfort and we all needed comforting.  My Mom was gone.  And I was a new Mom.  It’s what I needed to do.

On the other end of life from infancy – if we are particularly blessed – a good memorial service is like a taste of heaven.  A good memorial service makes us want to be a better person, inspired by a life well-lived. We leave with new energy and a spring in our steps and hearts full of gratitude for what was.

We were gifted Saturday with some of the Greatest Hits from the life of C”s lovely mother: stories of her childhood and college years, stories as a young married lady and as a young mom, stories about how she used her God-given gifts to make others feel loved and welcomed.

The world would be better if everybody’s Greatest Hits were like this.

Today we find ourselves two weeks from Christmas when there will be joy and happy surprises and also anxiety and pain.  We have the power to be our best for the sake of others so that their anxiety and pain will be minimized.  We have the power to embrace the best of life as a thank you to the One who made us.  We have the opportunity to re-set our priorities one more time.

I love the final words of my friend’s eulogy for her mother:

Go to the party.  Take the trip.  Eat the chocolate. 

Thanking God today that this advice was among the Greatest Hits of C’s Mom.

Image of my mother’s recipe for Cherrio Pie which doesn’t include Cheerios.  Notes in her handwriting.  Still miss her.

This post written in loving memory of JWL (1929-2018)

Hello Church Personnel Committees: Holiday Edition

The holidays are a terrible time to learn that you are being laid off. But Re-Organizing = Personnel Changes, whether we are re-organizing to save money or to staff for a new way of being the Church.

Reading about the plight of 14,000 General Motors employees who recently learned that the automobiles they’ve been building will no longer be built is painful, especially when the news was announced openly in the press prior to telling those employees.  Ouch.

Even in non-profits and especially in church settings – we do not always treat our paid employees in a way that resembles gentle Jesus meek and mild.

It’s important to treat God’s people with respect – especially if we hope to be who we say we are as People of Faith.  Here are a couple of tips that reflect healthy leadership when the church is reorganizing:

  • Tell employees personally that they are being laid off before announcing it publicly via email or Big Meeting. (For the love of God.)
  • Tell staff members personally if someone on the staff is retiring or leaving before announcing it publicly via email or a Big Meeting. (It helps makes the staff feel like they are more than “the hired help” or an afterthought.)
  • Include staff in discussions about re-organizing the church prior to making big decisions. Although they might disagree with the plans, they won’t be caught off guard and they might have some helpful insights. (From the for profit world: “one of the biggest and most fundamental mistakes companies make is failing to engage people, or at least forgetting to do so early enough in the process.“)

Simple actions that help our colleagues feel appreciated and respected – even when we need to reorganize.  A really good article from the business world is Reorganization Without Tears by McKinsey and Company (2016).

Bonus tip for Church Personnel Committees:  honor your staff this Christmas.  They will be working especially hard.

Depressed in December

December is rough for people missing loved ones – especially if this is the first year.  The truth is that the 31st year is no joke either.

Situational depression is real especially in times of unemployment, underemployment, grief, loss, regret.

But mental illness is something different.  When you have no energy to take care of yourself.  When you self-medicate for the sake of getting through the day or night.  When you work very hard to keep up appearances, do your job, plug along even though it’s exhausting.

Most of the people I know who live with depression deal with more than situational sadness.  It’s a chemical issue that requires professional shepherding.

Shepherds are a part of the Christmas story and it’s interesting that people who were not considered particularly respectable would play such an essential role in an event that changed human history – whether you believe in Jesus or not.  They are part of the narrative that’s repeated often in December.

We need shepherds.  We need someone to wrangle us back into the fold and protect us from wolves when we wander.  Whether we are situationally grieving or certifiably depressed, we need shepherds.

Can you be somebody’s shepherd in these weeks before and during and after Christmas?

Image of Pete Davidson who has talked openly about his own mental illness.

That Time We All Got Knives in Our Stockings

We are a serious stocking stuffer family. 

Much of what we find in our stockings is random (e.g.  a name tag from the summer I worked at the Pizza Hut in Nags Head, make-your-own lip gloss kit, Billy Graham refrigerator magnet) but fun practical items can be found in there too.  One year we all got knives.

Nothing about knives says “Happy Birthday Baby Jesus” but people need knives and these had colorful handles and sharp blades.   The young people in the family were trying to equip their own kitchens and the older people in the family had misplaced all their knives.

Why do I share this?  Because the Advent season – those days before we celebrate the birth of Jesus – is about preparing to receive not what we want but what we need.  Some people strongly believe that Christmas is about getting what we want.  But I believe that Christmas is more about becoming aware of what we need, and what we need is certainly more enduring than knives.

Every day, we are confronted by so much pain and anger and frustration – at least if we are paying attention.  (Read the comment on my blog post yesterday about “points of disaster.”)  There are desperately broken people everywhere and not just in Mexico Beach, FL, Paradise, CA, and Anchorage, AK.  They are also in places that never make the news.  Despair is on the rise.  Peace on earth is hard to find.

And so we give gifts that some people want and some people don’t want and some people need and some people don’t need.  Whether or not you believe that knives make excellent stocking stuffers, what we all need this Christmas is what the Messiah was expected to bring to the long-suffering Israelites and to us all:

  • Forgiveness
  • Grace
  • Peace
  • Abundant Life
  • Spiritual Gifts We Cannot Begin to Imagine

These things are harder to receive than most other gifts.  Prosperity Gospel Preachers might tell us that tangible wealth is one of the gifts God promises to the faithful, but Jesus is not Santa.  Spiritual maturity has nothing to do with money – unless we are talking about giving it away.

What do we deeply need this Christmas?  What will change our lives in terms of our sense of spiritual peace? It’s something to think about as we countdown to December 25th.

A Kinder, Gentler Advent?

Just to be clear, Jesus did not receive the death penalty for chucking little children under his chin.  Nor was he executed for being a sweet-smelling baby lying in a manger.  He was crucified for sedition and hated for breaking boundaries and disrupting norms.  And for being God’s Word in human skin.

The news that President George H.W. Bush died late Friday night was not a surprise but it was a jolt – a reminder of gentler days when Presidents wrote thank you notes and showed authentic devotion to their family and to other people’s families.  We, the American people, found comfort in having a President who so clearly treasured his spouse and expressed gratitude for the grace and privilege of his life.  I personally appreciated his words about being a thousand points of light and being a kinder, gentler nation.

Yes, we can be points of light especially in these Advent days when The Light is coming.  Yes, we can be kinder and gentler (recognizing that even President Bush was not always that way.)

Our nation is craving Light these days.  We have become meaner and coarser and it’s ugly.  The Advent of Jesus, according to the scriptures is not exactly gentle:

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Luke 21:25-26

Ugh.  And all we wanted were holly wreaths and sugar plums.

It’s radical to be kind when someone is throwing tear gas canisters at you.  It’s unnaturally holy to be gentle when a nation once aspiring to be a shining city on a hill (a term that came from the Bible before John Winthrop and then John F. Kennedy and then Ronald Reagan quoted it) now turns away refugees fleeing for their lives.

How do we balance kinder/gentler with responsible/firmer?  We look to Jesus.  Jesus turned over tables in the temple for the sake of justice towards the poor – not because he was cranky about getting bad reviews.  He was arrested for the sake of being as God has called us to be.

I pray for a kinder, gentler nation that feeds the hungry, heals the sick, houses the homeless, and welcomes the stranger.  This is not radical stuff.  Except that Jesus was killed for doing it because it challenged the empire.

Is it possible to challenge the empire while being kind and gentle?  (Yes.  But we will suffer for it and it might just kill us.)

Image of President and Mrs. Bush and Millie, Christmas 1987.

This is Why (the Poor) Can’t Have Nice Things

I remember talking with a homeless man in Chicago a few years ago on Michigan Avenue.  He was wearing the clothes you might expect to see on a poor person: dirty jeans, holey sweater, knit cap.  But he was wearing clean, unscuffed New Balance sneakers.

My first thought was that his shoes didn’t look like the shoes of a desperate person.  When he saw me staring at the shoes, he said, “Somebody gave these to me yesterday” and I wondered aloud if wearing new shoes makes him less likely to get donations from people.

Yeah, sometimes I sell things people give me.  I need good shoes, but if I’m wearing good shoes, people don’t believe I’m really homeless.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez experienced a version of this herself standing in The United States Capitol earlier this month:

Eddie Scarry, formerly a blogger for the gossip site FishbowlDC and currently a writer for the conservative Washington Examiner, posted a picture of Ocasio-Cortez, taken from behind, seemingly without her knowledge, as she walked through a hallway wearing a tailored black jacket and carrying a coat. He accompanied it with a note that doubled as a caption: “Hill staffer sent me this pic of Ocasio-Cortez they took just now. I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”  Source.

If she has struggled financially as a young adult living in the Bronx and working as a bartender, how could she possibly afford such nice clothes . . . unless she is lying to the American people?

Our culture condemns the poor.  If the poor look indigent, they are blamed for being lazy/addicted.  If the poor look presentable and/or are wearing appropriate clothing, they are accused of being con artists.  They can’t win.

A homeless person on the side of the road wearing a good parka and boots makes us wonder, “If they can’t afford an apartment, how can they afford clothes from LL Bean?”  Easy – thank God.  Maybe a Good Samaritan outfitted them because it’s really cold.  Maybe they picked up the outer wear at a church clothing closet.  Maybe they used to have an apartment with a closet full of nice things but now they live in a car because they lost their job and then their home.  It makes sense to keep the warm jacket and boots from your former closet if you are going to spend hours on the streets.

Like all things, serving the poor involves authentic relationships.  If there are homeless people regularly seen in our neighborhoods or small towns, why not strike up a relationship with them?  Only then will we find out that a church was handing out new boots one Saturday or a retailer gave out last season’s jackets.  Only then will we get to know what our poor neighbors need next:  a meal? a haircut? a bus pass?

It’s hard enough to struggle financially in this country.  It’s already shameful to have debt and hardship in a land of plenty.  But we can offer dignity by befriending people who struggle financially whether they live on the streets or in their cars or in a shelter or in a home on the brink of foreclosure.

Who is the poorest person you know by name?  It’s a serious question:  who is it?  What’s that person’s name?

The beginning of dignity is knowing someone by name and then being willing to know their story.

Image source.

Why I Don’t Want to Quit Facebook (Yet)

I could quit and probably should because the company is seriously ticking me off.  But I’m still on because:

  • I use FB for work.
  • I link it to this blog.
  • I like family photos even when they are also on Instagram.
  • Birthdays.
  • My feed now has minimal political commentary.  Thanks be to God.

I might take down my account nevertheless.  Have you made this decision or are you considering it?

Church World: Top Ten Things Not to Do

Every institution seems to be in transition these days and transition is hard.  There are no recipes, no how-to videos, no saviors.*  At the risk of offending well-meaning Church People, here are The Top Ten Things that will not help your congregation grow:

  1. An electronic church sign.  They’re expensive and they scream “Please Notice Us.”  And not in a good way.  Social media is free.  Use it.
  2. Screens in the sanctuary.  If screens will help people participate better – great.  But if we install screens “because the young people like them” we are missing the point.
  3. Drums/Tambourines/Guitars in Worship – again – if done for the sake of “attracting the young people.”  It’s not about the instruments.  It’s about the relationships.
  4. Powdered creamer for coffee time.  If you add cream to your coffee, you know why.  Make an effort.  Offer half and half.  And almond milk.  And fresh lemon for tea drinkers.
  5. Yellow Pages Advertisements.  For the love . . .
  6. Manuals of Operations Longer than Ten Pages.  It’s easier to come up with no-coffee-in-the-sanctuary policy than it is to talk about the spiritual maturity of the congregation.  Don’t distract yourselves with regulations.
  7. Visitor Parking Spaces.  No.  Most visitors do not want to stand up and identify themselves in worship either.
  8. Personalized Fine China.  If you already have this in your church kitchen, enjoy.  But if you are thinking it would be cool to order fine china with the name of the church imprinted on them, just don’t.  I know one church that voted to close rather than merge with another congregation “because of the china.”
  9. Historical Rooms.  Some congregations have multiple spaces dedicated to the rich past of their church.  But this implies that the past is at least as important as the future of a spiritual community.  I love history.  But there are hundreds of tourist sites in Europe that used to be churches.
  10. No Trespassing Signs.  Your insurance company wants these on the playground.  Cranky (get-off-my-church-lawn) Members want these in the parking lot.  Also not to be confused with Jesus:  “Play at Your Own Risk.”  “Church Members and Guests Only.”  “Thou Shalt Not Use Our Bathrooms.”  

What makes a Church thrive?  Authentic community.  Serious discipleship. Radical hospitality. Making a personal effort to love people who might not love you in return. Addressing what breaks God’s heart in the neighborhood in the name of Jesus.

This is obviously old news for the last Wednesday before Advent, but as congregations are making plans for 2019, it’s worth repeating.

*Okay, there actually is a capital S Savior.

Image from Amazon.  You can buy this on Amazon but I hope you won’t.