Things Fall Apart: A Spiritual Practice

In the Chinua Achebe novel Things Fall Apart, the hero Okonkwo lives a comfortable life as the head of his clan in Nigeria until several catastrophic occurences threaten his way of life, and . . . everything. To say that things fall apart is an understatement.

My clergywomen’s group met last week and a common theme for each of us – all pastors in a variety of settings – is that Things Are Falling Apart. We’ve been a group for over 20 years and have evolved from “young pastors” to a few retired pastors and to a new generation of “young pastors” along with some seasoned pastors who are facing a different Church.

All we’ve known about Church from worship attendance to Sunday School to mission trips to committee structures to What Pastors Do has changed dramatically over the past two years which is obviously a time lapse version of what’s been happening in the Church over the past 50 years. Thank God for COVID?

We grieve the deaths of over 1 million people in the United States and countless others with long term consequences, not to mention the tally of deaths worldwide. Also, God uses everything including natural and human made catastrophies.

And as far as The Church goes, COVID has forced us to face what some have been screaming from the village steeple for a while now. (Hello Presbymergent Friends from the late 90s.) And as we declare that “Jesus will always have a Church” while also admitting that “Everything is Falling Apart” it’s time to reframe the narrative.

Sometimes we can’t grow until things fall apart. We hate that, but it’s true.

I’m not saying that God makes our lives crumble before our eyes. But I am saying that God uses the spiritual tumult that comes about every 500 years to alter what needs to be altered if for no other reason than the fact that we are tempted to idolize what is not God – from temples and popes to pipe organs and pews.

Back to the novel Things Fall Apart, it was the Christian Church who brought destruction to Okonkwo’s family and his way of life. In these days when the Christian message has been hijacked, we who want to follow the Jesus of the Bible find ourselves with new opportunities.

As we watch things fall apart for the Institutional Church, there are opportunities to focus on real things:

  • How shall we live in this culture where “the sanctity of life” means completely different things to different people?
  • How do we talk about God when some tout a John Wayne God and others read Matthew 25?
  • How do we practice our faith in a broken world?
  • How do we practice our faith when we are broken?

As things continue to fall apart in our culture, God will use it. God hasn’t caused it. But God will use it.

Image source.

Clergy Groups Have Saved My Life

Actually, the more theologically precise statement would be: God has saved my life through my clergy groups. This week, I’m with The Preaching Roundtable who first got together in 2001, so it’s been a while. And we missed two years due to COVID.

Not much to say except that everybody – everybody – needs a cohort of people with whom we can share our common lives in safe, inspiring places. This year we are meeting with a coach to discuss Katie Hays’ book among other things.

I recommend the book.

I won’t be writing any other blog posts this week because I really need to stop pretty much everything and rest/visit/drink coffee with these sisters. Have a wonderful week yourselves.

Confidence and Competence Are Not the Same

She walks into the office dressed smartly with obvious poise. She has an impressive handle on theories and procedures and when she articulates them, she does so as if no one could possibly argue with her. There in fact is no argument. She knows what she’s talking about.

He sits at the head of the table with clear authority and power. He orders people to make their reports as if those reports are specifically for him and everyone at the table works for him. He’s slow to praise or thank people. He can be a bit of a bully.

This podcast (one more time) is excellent in terms of looking at evolving leadership. Even in churches, it used to be true that leaders who exuded confidence were considered the best. Maybe that confidence arose because of roles (when clergy were considered more respected than we are now or when business leaders/successful farmers/well-known citizens were assumed to be equally as successful in their Christian practices.)

Yes, there are confident leaders who are also very competent. But it’s not necessarily so.

In the words of organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic “We assume that confidence and competence are the same.” They are not.

The most competent leaders are quick to learn from others – including those with less experience or with different experiences. Competent leaders are humble. They do not come off as entitled.

Confident leaders look awesome. (i.e. Pulpit Candy.) But that doesn’t mean they will serve effectively.

This is yet another blog post encouraging personnel committees and pastor nominating committees to look beyond outward appearances. And it’s not my idea. Remember in the Bible what Samuel said the day God surprisingly called David – of all the sons of Jesse – to be the next king?

‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’

Turns out King David was not his best self when he became an entitled egoist. But even David became a strong leader, humbled by his dependence on the God who called him. What are we doing to become more competent leaders? It’s important that we not depend on our confidence that we already are.

Image of TED Talkers (left to right) Patrice Gordon, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Nicola Sturgeon, and Shabana Basij-Rasikh.

Leading the Church We Wish We Had (Instead of the Church We Actually Have)

It’s not fun beating your head against the wall.

Former Lakers Coach Frank Vogel

HH shared an article with me yesterday about newly fired L.A. Lakers Coach Frank Vogel with this title: Frank Vogel is Gone Because He Coached the Team He Wanted Instead of the Team He Had.”

Where have I seen this before?

God bless the pastors who work so, so hard trying to help their congregations notice the needs of the community only to hear members say, “But what about our own people?” Lord have mercy upon the pastors who expect their elders to be spiritual leaders themselves – worshipping regularly and attending, if not leading, Bible studies – only to have their congregations elect a member who hasn’t been to worship in over a year in hopes of “bringing him back to church.” Or maybe the church elects the member who’s a powerful business leader in town because it looks good to have him on the governing board, but he has the spiritual maturity of a cherry tomato. (Sorry. I have strong feelings about this.)

I’ve written before about Pastor Nominating Committees who lie to their pastoral candidates, telling them “we are committed to mission” when they are actually committed to keeping certain families happy. Again, please don’t lie to your PNC – or to yourselves.

And Pastors – we must love the church people we have, not the church people we wish we had. I know it’s hard, but if it’s become untenable, it’s time to move on.

In the case of Frank Vogel, he seems like a good guy. He has a strong record of coaching, including an NBA Championship during his first season as Head Coach of the Lakers. He’s got a compelling life story from doing an impressive Stupid Pet Trick on Late Night with David Letterman at the age of ten to surviving a housefire with his mom at the age of seventeen. It’s easy to see why the Lakers would hire him. And it’s easy to see why they let him go if he was not a good match for that particular team.

One of the leadership pro tips shared in the TED Radio podcast I mentioned yesterday (please listen to it) involves choosing leaders who are competent and humble instead of leaders who are confident and charismatic – or even narcissistic. This is especially true when calling a new pastor.

Pastor Nominating Committees sometimes look for people who “look like they should be their pastor.” Forgive me, but some congregations will call an incompetent narcissicist who “looks like they should be their pastor” before they’ll call a competent and humble woman/single person/young person/queer person/differently-abled person. It’s madness. And it’s unfaithful.

You are looking for a good match in terms of theology and vision, not necessarily in terms of physical characteristics.

And yes, it’s also possible that your next pastor will look like all y’all. But what’s most important is not that. What’s most important is that you call someone who can lead the church you honestly are – and with your willingness – the Church God is calling you to be.

How Are We Doing?

Yesterday was the 4th anniversary in my current role as a denominational Mid-Council Leader and I”m thankful every day for the privilege of serving in this position. Part of my job is to help churches call pastors who will be effective leaders and to help pastors be those effective leaders.

Image from the “What Leadership Looks Like” on the 4-29-22 TED Radio Hour

Leadership is the #1 factor determining whether a congregation will thrive or not. I urge you to listen to the TED Radio Hour Talk here featuring executive coach Patrice Gordon, organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, and educator Shabana Basij-Rasikh. Seriously. I’m begging you, especially if you serve on a church personnel committee or a pastor nominating committee.

Evaluating church staff members can be tricky business and the common mistakes are that:

  • Evaluations never happen. This is more prevalent than you might think either because church leaders don’t know how to do them or they simply don’t want to.
  • Evaluations are done by human resource people who don’t understand that business metrics and church metrics cannot be measured the same way. The Holy Spirit plays a part in Church World and less obviously so in Business World. (Read this. Seriously every person responsible for evaluating a church staff needs to read it.)

Things I observe everyday:

  • Gifted pastors who are called to be a spiritual leader among spiritual leaders in a congregation thriving because they exist in a culture of spiritual growth and community service.
  • Gifted pastors who are called to be a spiritual leader among spiritual leaders in a congregation that values their own comfort and appearances more than authentic ministry.
  • Pastors who need to learn how to be effective leaders who seek out coaching, continuing education, and therapy to become the best version of themselves.
  • Pastors who need to learn how to be effective leaders who are unteachable/unwilling to make an effort/holding on until retirement. Retirement could be 5 years away or 25 years away.

You can probably guess which congregations will still be here in 5 years.

COVID has accelerated what happens when gifted pastors and congregations thrive, when gifted pastors serve congregations who don’t actually want to thrive, when teachable pastors want to grow and when teachable pastors have no energy to grow.

This week, I’m pondering some of the nuggets that TED Radio podcast examined. Stay tuned.

SBC Drinks Chai Now

We knew that our Second Born Child was interested in the person who is now our daughter-in-law when the words “we are going snowshoeing” came out of his mouth. This particular offspring prefers libraries to sports fields and inside to outside.

After the wedding, he shared that he drinks chai now. This coming from a person who didn’t touch tea or coffee for thirty years.

Love changes us. We become willing to try things and maybe even adapt to things we would not have chosen before because we love someone beyond ourselves.

We could use more of this today in politics, in churches, in workplaces. If we love our country, our families, our enemies, our neighbors, and our God we will make changes because of that love. I might not love the hymn “In the Garden” but people I love do and so I’ll sing along. I might not love the sycamore tree that drops those annoying pods on the church lawn, but Mrs. B loves them and I love Mrs. B. and the tree was planted in memory of her husband. I might not love certain parts of worship or the fact that some parents drop off their children for Sunday School and then go to a coffee shop or that church leader’s voice who gets on my last nerve. But I love those children and parents. I love our church community. I love that person with the shrill voice.

I might even hate painting walls or weeding gardens, but I’ll do it if I love the neighbor whose kitchen or yard needs a facelift. I will paint and weed for love.

When we love people, we are changed. We will try something new. We will adapt.

Let’s try to love in a way that changes us. Have a good weekend. I’m spending mine with some ladies I love.

Two Weddings and A Pastor Installation

And there was Holy Week and Easter and a mini-super spreader event and the month’s not yet over. This is my explanation for writing only 4 posts in April – until today.

The over stimulation of the past four weeks has required time to process and – as God often does it – my processing time happens in unexpected moments. I was listening to the Jon Stewart podcast with Isabel Wilkerson (you can listen here and I hope you will) and it helped clarify why the world feels heavy inspite of life’s great joys like true love and resurrection and the moving of the Spirit.

Jean-Michel Basquiat with an earth globe on his shoulder. Photo by Christopher Makos, May 29, 1984

As Wilkerson describes the state of our union (the United States), it’s like a 400 year old house that all of us live in together. We’ve noticed that the floors were installed unevenly during construction and the ventilation needs improvement. And the bricks need to be repointed after all these years and the roof definitely leaks. We can ignore all this maintenance but we do so at our peril. In the long run, it’s better for all of us who live in this house to level the flooring and improve the ventilation and repoint the bricks and replace the roof. (These are my words, not Ms. Wilkerson’s.)

The world feels especially heavy when – simplistically speaking – one side wants to spend time banning books instead of assault weapons, one side wants to make it harder to vote instead of easier, one side wants to talk about sexuality in ways that bring more shame and less wholeness. Again, I’m being simplistic and – frankly – political.

In the Stewart podcast there was discussion about The Big Year When We All Experience Something We’ve Never Experienced Before In the United States: in 2045 people with white skin will be outnumbered by people with brown and/or black skin. I believe this is the underlying reason why the world feels so heavy right now. This fact worries White People. And we – White People – are the ones who need to figure out how to fix our house for the benefit of all people.

As our family celebrated the joining of multiple cultures at weddings in India and NYC, it felt like home in a way that would have seemed so foreign to my parents. I believe they would love this family photo and yet it would be a marvel to them.

At the installation of one of our pastors into a new position yesterday, I was struck by the power of those participating in the service. Our Presbytery is blessed with more African American members than any other Presbytery in the world and this installation was led mostly by Women of Color who could indeed run the world. And yet most of our congregations – across my denomination and most denominations – are predominantly White and segregated from people with Brown, Black, and Golden skin.

Again – White People – this is our work to do. If we take seriously what The Reign of God looks like, we must admit that it looks more like the two weddings and one installation I’ve attended this month than most of the weddings and pastoral installations we attend.

This is Good News even though refurbishing an old house can be exhausting. Isabel Wilkerson gets the final word here:

America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see. (From Caste)

[Note: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s family has made an exhibition of his work available in NYC and we were blessed to attend last week. His work expresses the same thoughts shared by Ms. Wilkerson. More here.]

A Biblical Case Against Christian Nationalism

Maundy Thursday: Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’ John 18:10-11

Good Friday: Then a servant-girl, seeing Peter in the firelight, stared at him and said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But Peter denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ Then about an hour later yet another kept insisting, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly. Luke 22:56-62

Can We Hang on for Seven Days?

Image from Molly Casteel

As a college student, I volunteered at a suicide prevention hotline and on Good Friday that year, we got a call from a weeping student. She was inconsolable to the point of not being able to talk, but once she calmed a bit, I heard her say, “I can’t believe that Jesus is dead.

Me: ?

Caller: I can’t believe he was killed this way. I never thought it would happen.

Me: (in my head) Is this some kind of joke?

Me: (not trying to be funny, but not sure what else to say) If you could just hang on for a couple more days, everything’s going to be alright. If you can just hang on until Sunday.

What a different a few days can make.

For those of you who are overwhelmed this week, for those who feel like you’re are drowning in grief, for those overcome with cynicism in this broken world . . . hang on. Even in our darkest days, there is hope.

Our God knows what it’s like to be betrayed, to be tortured, to be killed by those in power. Our God knows what it’s like to lose a child. Our God knows what it’s like to be a disappointed human being.

Can we hang on for a little while longer? Healing is promised. Resurrection is coming. But first – yes – we feel like weeping inconsolably. Evil is real.

Things We Don’t Do Anymore

Fun fact: you can watch old “Bewitched” episodes on international American Airlines flights. It’s on the “classics” selection along with Arrested Development and 30 Rock – even though those shows were created thirty years after Samantha and Darrin threw their last dinner party.

I watched an episode from Season 1 (1964) featuring a young Jack Warden. He played Mr. Barker – a baby food executive for whom Samantha threw a dinner party in hopes he would sign an advertising contract with Darrin’s firm. It was clearly a 1960s soiree where men wore suits and women wore cute cocktail dresses. And after the dinner party, Mr. Barker made a pass at Samantha. He tried more than once and – today – we would call it an assault.

A couple of things: Darrin didn’t believe his wife when she first told him about it. And Samantha didn’t seem all that surprised/shocked that it happened in the first place. It was the culture for many men to assume they could grab any woman in their presence. (His lovely wife was there too and she made a comment about her husband that implied that his behavior was often dallying.) The difference in this scenario was that Samantha turned this character into an actual dog. Hilarity ensued.

I’ve shared before that one of the first clergywomen ordained in my denomination told me that from the time she was ordained in her late 20s until she was in her mid-40s, there was not a meeting or gathering of any kind when at least one clergyman didn’t comment about her body or touch her inappropriately. She told me that at one meeting in which she was the sole female in a room of male pastors, one of them said, “You have to understand, ___ , that your ticket into this room is that one of us gets to have you.”

Again, these men were all pastors.

I would call this farfetched except that it happened to me as a young clergywoman too, although not to that extent. I’m sure that the men who made suggestive remarks to me at clergy retreats or after meetings would not do it today. I know some of those guys – still – and they know that things have changed.

There are things we don’t do anymore.

We – White People – do not use the N-word in church meetings or in church parking lots or anywhere. We – straight people – do not make “gay jokes.” We – men – do not comment on the pastor’s legs or the church administrators breasts. We don’t humiliate children during Sunday School.

Only, I know that these things still happen in Church World.

It was shocking to see a black and white TV sitcom make a joke about a man cornering a woman in a gazebo. Yes, she turned him into a little dog. That’s what made it a comedy.

We can call it political correctness or we can call it being the people God has called us to be, but either way, the people of God must not do the things we used to do. It has wounded the Church in the past and I could make a case that it’s one of the reasons so many people do not find Church safe today.

This week of all weeks – let’s be the Church God calls us to be.