Pastoral Care By the Numbers

I have a lot of friends whose mothers have died of breast cancer.  In my last parish there were about 10 of us.

One of them dropped by my study on a random morning and told me that I looked sad.  “I feel sad,” I said, “And I don’t know why.”

Is this a mom day?” she asked me.  (In other words: “Did anything happen on this date regarding your mother?)  And – actually – it was my mother’s death day.  Mentally I had forgotten but emotionally my body hadn’t.

I don’t love numbers unless they have something to do with relationships.  It helps me to remember certain numbers:

  • I was 32 years and 187 days old on the day my mom died.
  • I was 55 years and 19 days on the day I outlived my mother.
  • In a year and 25 days, I will have spent more time on this earth without my mother than I spent with my mother.*

As a parish pastor, I used to keep a calendar of special relational days for our members:

  • Death Anniversaries
  • Birthdays and Wedding Anniversaries for widows
  • Birthdays for those who lost children or parents

I don’t have the capacity to do this for everybody now, but I remember a few.  [Pro Tip for pastors and other compassionate people: contact people on their special days just to check in.  You won’t be reminding them of anything they aren’t already remembering on some level.  All you have to say is, “I’m thinking of you today.”]

When I was a pastor for a single congregation, I used to write newlyweds a note on their first wedding anniversary to check in.  “Thinking of you today. How’s it going?”  [Pro Tip:  this is why we do premarital counseling.  If we have established a relationship with a couple, then they have someone to talk with after the wedding if they need support. This first anniversary note often sparked a phone call to chat about marriage things.]

I remember when HH and I were figuring out what date to get married, I looked at all those summer Saturdays on the calendar and realized that – once we picked our wedding date – that date would never be an ordinary day again.

I remember when I looked over the calendar as a pregnant lady, checking out the day of the week my due date fell upon that I remembered that – no matter what happened on the day my baby was born – it would be a special date forever.

The numbers and dates are important relational tools.  And today, I’m feeling a little sad.  And I know why.

*Yes, I see a therapist.

What Do You See?

I recently drove around with a colleague who is a young pastor – just over a year out of seminary and as we drove around his church’s neighborhood, it was clear that he saw things.  And then he responded.  And then there was obvious impact.

  • He noticed a couple who owns the independent coffee shop and he introduced himself and now he has a relationship with them as local business owners.
  • He noticed the school down the street and he met the principal and now he volunteers there and he has a relationship with teachers, staff, and parents.  And probably some kids.
  • He noticed the new real estate developments, the For Sale signs, the road construction, the other church buildings, the homes literally on the other side of the tracks.  And then . . .

You get the idea.

The future of the Church is in leaders who see things. 

They see who is in the room and who is not in the room.  They notice who speaks up and who doesn’t.  They notice the signs – both the physical signs and the figurative ones.

Look at the photo above.  What do you see?  (What you see tells me a lot about what kind of leader you are.)

We need more pastors who know how to read the room, how to exegete the community, how to notice who’s not there.  My colleague who is the newish pastor totally gets this.  As he was driving me around, I asked him, “Who taught you how to do this?” and he said, “Hmm.  I think I’ve always known.”

We also need leaders with this kind of emotional intelligence.  And emotional intelligence – like reading a room and exegeting a community – can be taught.  Please reach out to someone if you need to learn this.  It will make your ministry so much more fun and life-changing.

Unknown image source.


What Do Reparations Look Like in the Church?

(If you need a refresher on reparations, here‘s your best resource.)

I’m not sure where to begin.

We had a Presbytery Meeting (a gathering of representatives from all the congregations in our geographic area) over the weekend and it was a worshipful celebration of what God is doing in our churches.  The preaching was excellent.  The music was stirring.  The reports were informative. We joyfully welcomed new pastors into the Presbytery – seven in all, which is a lot for one meeting.

Each of these pastors is gifted and we are happy they’ve been called to their respective congregations.  And yet, this was also a stark reminder of the differences between our predominantly white churches and our predominantly black churches.  (Sadly we have too few congregations which look like a rainbow.)

Each of the newly called pastors going to full-time called and installed positions was a white male.  (I, for one, like white males.  My husband is a white male.  So are my brothers.  And I gave birth to two white males.)

Two women counted among the seven new pastors as well but they are not in “permanent” positions.  One will be ordained to serve as a pastoral resident and one will be “commissioned” to serve a small African American congregation as a Ruling Elder.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s good to have the resources to call a new full time pastor who will be relatively well-paid with job security and benefits.  But the truth is that most of our African American congregations cannot afford to call a full time pastor.  There is a divide between the larger “white churches” and the smaller “black churches.”  And this brings me to reparations.

The wealth divide between white folks and people of color is best explained by a not-so-deep dive into the history of this country and the 400th Anniversary of the first enslaved people to be brought to what is now the United States.  It will take the rest of our lives (white people) to study the cultural, political, and sociological realities of white supremacy and we need to get started, if we haven’t already.

I’m aware of wealthy white congregations who currently “support” poor black congregations throughout my denomination.  It happens in a variety of ways from white churches including black churches in their mission budget to partnering together for worship services.  But are these efforts more like reparations or patronization?

I’ve been in meetings with representatives from multiple white congregations sitting with representatives from a single black congregations in which the wealthier ones call the not-so-wealthy ones “their mission project” and it feels humiliating.

How can wealthier congregations – which tend to be white – truly partner with our neighbors who, for a long list of cultural reasons based on white privilege, struggle to call a full-time pastor?  How can the Church continue to honor historically significant black congregations in our fold while keeping their heritage alive.

In the Presbytery I serve, we have a number of treasured historically African American congregations dating back to the end of the Civil War.  What do reparations look like for those churches who started out of slavery, survived through Jim Crow, and now experience the ongoing realities of white privilege?

This is something I continue to ponder as a church leader and I covet your insights.

Image source. Please support this artist on Etsy.

The Congregational Divide

What makes some congregations thrive and some congregations falter?

I work with 96 congregations of different sizes and contexts that stretch across seven counties.  Every day I spend time thinking about the churches that seem to be dying and the churches that seem to be alive with possibility.  And the divide between them is obvious and not-so-obvious.

The obvious:

  • Congregations in growing neighborhoods have the capacity to swell in numbers, as opposed to rural and urban areas where the population is decreasing steadily, usually because of a lack of jobs.
  • Congregations with a large endowment have the ability to keep a full-time pastor, even if their regular weekly donations are stagnant. They can and do tap into their savings.
  • Congregations with larger memberships (and “larger” is relative) still appear to fill the pews on Sunday mornings, especially if their sanctuary seats between 100 – 200 people.

The not-so-obvious:

  1. Congregations who do make decisions based on “saving money” are going to die within the next ten years.  I’m looking at you Pastor Search Committee hoping to hire a retired pastor to avoid paying pension and health benefits.  
  2. Congregations who plan their ministries around “getting people to join” are going to die within the next ten years. You are not fooling anyone.  We know you started a preschool “to bring in the young families” instead of starting a preschool to serve the children in your neighborhood for their own sake.  We know that the only reason you are offering community dinners is “to attract the neighbors” rather than offering hospitality with no strings attached.
  3. Congregations who consider strategic plans without prayerful discernment are going to die within the next ten years.  So many times church programs happen because they are the pet projects of particular members when – maybe – those programs are no longer relevant or effective.

Thriving congregations make decisions this way:

  • They invest their money in the best possible leadership trusting that effective ministry funds itself when the community is impacted for good.  And this not only includes the paid leadership.  They also invest in leadership training for unpaid volunteers.
  • They offer ministry that’s informed by the needs of the community.  It’s about serving the neighbors, not bringing in new members for the sake of survival.
  • They pray together.  They seriously pray that God will guide them in their planning, that God will open their eyes to the needs around them, that God will empower them to take on audacious goals for the sake of the Kingdom.  They take the time to discern what God is calling them to be and do in this time and place.

Children born today will be 25 years old on August 14, 2044.  Will there be a church for them?  (Thank you HH.)

Thriving congregations are more fearless than not.  They especially do not fear failure.  Let’s try it and see what happens.  Maybe it will work and maybe it won’t but God will use it either way.

If we are too tired or too comfortable or too fearful, our congregations will never thrive.  And we might look back 25 years from now and wonder where we went wrong.  (Re-read #1-3 above.)

And if you need another reason to embrace a new way of being the Church: Thriving congregations are more fun.

Image of the Perseid Meteor Shower on August 12, 2019 over Macedonia where the apostle Paul encouraged believersSource.

When the Cool Kids Become Spiritual Leaders

I was a Young Life kid in high school and during my senior year, I shared my testimony about Jesus being my Lord and Savior.  All the cool kids went to Young Life on Wednesday nights and I remember my small group leader – the one who asked me to share my testimony – telling me that it was important for “the popular kids” to be spiritual leaders:  the captain of the basketball team, the student body president, the children of important townspeople. (I was head cheerleader.)

I get it.  But it felt icky.

I felt the same discomfort as I was watching The Family on Netflix over the weekend.  I’d read Jeff Sharlet’s book years ago and it had effected me for many reasons.  It effects even more so now as a docu-drama.

The Family – also known as The Fellowship – is the organization that makes The National Prayer Breakfast happen in Washington, DC every year.

I know people who have been a part of that organization and most of them have left or been asked to leave over the past 20-30 years.  At the invitation of Doug Coe they became part of The Family/The Fellowship essentially because they were The Cool Kids in evangelical Christian circles.  They were the influencers, the former team captains and children of the powerful.  Although they have included members of both political parties, they lean conservative.

Their ministry is  a behind-the-scenes quest to build relationships with powerful people – focused on Jesus – in order to influence governments.   And – in spite of espousing wholesome family values, several of their associates struggled with adultery through the years. At least one went to prison for conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent. And National Prayer Breakfast attendee Maria Butina is currently in prison for the same thing on behalf of the Russians.

Again, it all feels icky.

When The Cool Kids become the spiritual leaders, the temptations to follow something besides Jesus are enormous.  The power, the entitlement, the wealth, the notion that we are “chosen” and can do anything we want because Jesus has picked us to influence others – all this is toxic.  And the theology is shaky.

Yes –  King David from the Hebrew scriptures was was used by God even though he was an adulterer and a murderer. But he was also held accountable for his crimes.

Few seem to be held accountable in The Fellowship, most especially the dictators and kings to whom The Fellowship has reached out.

Although the teachings of The Fellowship declare that Jesus met with kings, King Herod was not Jesus’ target audience.  Although the teachings of The Fellowship declare that the apostle Paul was a influencer in the Empire, Paul found few people willing to listen to him in the towers of power and – in fact – they tried to destroy him.

Weak is the new strong in Jesus’ actual message.  Yes, Jesus could be fierce (you brood of vipers! ) But Jesus always sided with the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned.  The rich have received their reward.

I love the end of The Family because we meet a small group of men who push back on the notion that powerful. wealthy white men are the key to spreading the message of Jesus.  The truth is that God uses all of us: black, brown, white, golden, poor, rich, sick, well, old, young.

When I’ve had the opportunity to meet people in that organization, I’ve felt sized up and cast off when it was clear that I was not going to be a tool for their power.  That, my friends, is not true relational ministry.  That’s transactional ministry.  And eventually it self-destructs.

Image from Netflix.  I highly recommend watching The Family directed by Jesse Moss, based on the book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeff Sharlet.

I Would Love You Even if What You’re Telling Me Is Not True

People lie to me just as they lie to their own pastors and to their doctors (“I only drink one glass of wine a week“) and to their dentists (“I floss most days.”)  They tell me they are “fine” when they are not fine.  They tell me family stories that are either exaggerated or wholly false.

Sometimes they are also lying to themselves and they’ve told a story so many times, they believe it’s true.

[Just to be clear, I also lie to myself and others to spare me shame or to avoid difficult conversations.  Ask me about that time I told the truth about chopping up our neighbor’s rose bushes as a seven year old and – while I confessed the truth – my siblings who were partners in that crime – lied about it and I was the only one who got disciplined.  I learned that lying = getting off easy.]

Throughout my professional ministry I’ve been told some pathologically interesting stories:

  • The parishioner who told me he grew up in a mansion with gardeners and chauffeurs when the truth was that his father was a prison warden and he grew up on the prison grounds.
  • The parishioner who told me he went to Harvard when actually he signed his war registration documents on the campus of Harvard and never took a class there.
  • The parishioner who told that her successful father was her hero, when actually he had sexually abused her throughout her childhood.

I remember sitting with a woman who was telling me for the umpteenth time that one of her relatives had won the Nobel Prize.  I don’t know whether this was true or not, but God put the following words into my mouth:

You know, I would love you even if what you’re telling me is not true. 

I wasn’t saying that I didn’t believe her.  But she had shared that comment with me so many times, it was clear that it meant a lot to her.  It made her feel important.

But she wasn’t important because of her proximity to the Nobel Prize. I didn’t love her or those others because of who their parents were or what they owned or where they went to college.  I loved them – or tried to – just because.

Loving people – or trying to – is the only way I can get through this life and I’m often not very good at it.  People can be so selfish/obnoxious/narcissistic/cruel and the only possible way I can love them is to remember that God loves them.  I don’t have to like them.  But I’m called to love them because of Jesus.

All of us say things and do things that we think will make others love us.

Sadly, it is true is that some will not love us if we behave a certain way or if we don’t behave a certain way or if we have debt or an addiction disorder or a criminal record or a home in a not-so-great neighborhood.  Some people won’t love us if we fail to live up to their expectations.

Love feels especially conditional these days.  And we could all use some unconditional love.

How can we nurture unconditional love?  Repeat after me:

  • I will love you even if I disagree with your politics.
  • I will love you even if you disappoint me.
  • I will love you even if you don’t take my advice.
  • I will love you.  No matter what.

There is someone in my life who made some poor life choices once upon a time, and now that those poor-choice-days are over, I sometimes remind him: “There’s nothing you could ever do that would make me stop loving you.”

The first time I whispered those words into his ear, it was just a pep talk comment.  But because he told me that it means a lot to him, I say it more often now.  I want it always to be true.

Only God can help us know the truth about ourselves.  And only God can help us love each other unconditionally.

Happy Monday.

Go Into the Weekend with Hope

I’ve spent time this week with several people who see no hope.  No hope for their personal financial situation.  No hope regarding our national divide.  No hope that we’ve seen the worst of the gun violence around us. No hope that their physical pain will subside.

And so – in spite of the hopelessness that deadens us – I’m asking you to share the hope you’ve noticed that enlivens us.  Here’s what I’ve got off the top of my head:

  • All traffic stopped in a busy parking lot yesterday to allow an older man using a walker and the woman at his side to cross – very, very, very slowly.  There was no honking.  There was no shouting from car windows.  People waved and smiled.
  • The farmer’s market nearby was open today and there were tomatoes that taste like heaven.
  • Therapy dogs.

What about you?  What’s giving you hope as we move into the weekend?

Image of Jersey the therapy dog who is comforting an Army Veteran simulating a panic attack.  Good boy, Jersey.  Source.

What Would You Think of Me If I Joined the United Daughters of the Confederacy?

It’s a serious question.

Since moving back to my home state of North Carolina in 2018, I’ve been delving into family history, both as a hobby and as a tool for understanding my own white privilege.

I already knew that my great great grandfather died wearing a Confederate uniform at Antietam in 1862.  But I didn’t know – until I moved back here – about the lynching of three (almost certainly innocent) black men in Rowan County near the birthplace of that great great grandfather in 1906.  This infamous lynching occurred just four years after the lynching of two black boys – one 11 and one 13 – who allegedly killed a young white woman working in a field.

The press reported that 3000 people gathered for that 1906 lynching after midnight on August 7th and it’s possible that my grandfather – who was almost 14 at the time – could have been present. There is no one alive to ask, and it’s not the kind of story that was written up in our family histories.

I’m going to assume that someone in my family tree or someone among their friends was there for the hanging and mutilation of Jack Dillingham, Nease Gillespie, and Gillespie’s son John (who was 14 or 15 years old.)  I need to claim this part of my heritage because it is true.

Everybody’s heritage includes ugly.

If we tell the truth about who we are – as individuals and as a nation – we must accept both the great moments and the shameful ones.  Yes, it’s true that courageous explorers landed at Jamestown 400 years ago and it’s also true that

The powerful American Indian chief, known as Powhatan, had refused the English settlers’ demands to return stolen guns and swords at Jamestown, Va., so the English retaliated. They killed 15 of the Indian men, burned their houses and stole their corn. Then they kidnapped the wife of an Indian leader and her children and marched them to the English boats. They put the children to death by throwing them overboard and “shooting out their brains in the water,” wrote George Percy, a prominent English settler in Jamestown. And their orders for the leader’s wife: Burn her. (Source)

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

If you regularly read this blog, you know that I have an inclusive understanding of racism.  We are all racist by virtue of growing up in a country built by enslaved people.

And at the bottom of the application for membership in the United Daughters of the Confederacy, it says in bold letters: We are not a racist organization.

So here’s the thing:  all our organizations are racist from the PTA to the neighborhood book club to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  I would consider being a part of the UDC’s gatherings if we were serious about talking about our heritage – all of it.

In the words of Rob Lee, we need to finish the sentences:

  • When someone says that “the Confederacy was about states’ rights” the end of that sentence is “to enslave human chattel.”
  • When a group declares that “the Confederate flag honors the Southern soldiers who died” the end of that sentence is “to defend the right to own people with black or brown skin.
  • When there’s a discussion about honoring confederate soldiers who fought for freedom, the end of that sentence is “and to remember that their fight for freedom kept other people from being free.”

I would appreciate being in a group that had these conversations.  I’m not sure that the UDC is that group but I’m willing to talk with those ladies.  Maybe I would learn something.  And maybe they would learn something.  We’ll see.

Photograph by Alexander Gardner from the Battle of Antietam. (1862)

Beyond Spinach in Our Teeth

I shared with someone last week that she had spinach in her teeth.  She was grateful, as I would have been if it had been me.

Life is about personal relationships and I hope we all have friends who will tell us about the spinach because . . .

  1. We want to spare people embarrassment.
  2. We know what it’s like to realize that we’ve been smiling with a chunk of green covering our incisors all day and nobody said a word.
  3. Most of us don’t want to gross people out when we smile.

I’ve been thinking about sharing awkward information in terms of behaviors.

A piece of spinach or a poppy seed or smeared lipstick is easily verified with a look in the mirror.  But giving someone feedback about behaviors that are impacting their relationships negatively is much more difficult.

  • Is she mean because of her drinking?  Or does she simply have an abrasive personality?
  • Does he know that he comes off as a mansplainer? Or is he simply an older man who wants to remind us that he used to run a company?
  • Is she aware that she needs to have the last word at every meeting?  Or does she simply remind me of a former supervisor I didn’t like?

Imagine having such trusting relationships that we could share uncomfortable things with our colleagues and friends, and that they would appreciate the heads up.  Imagine having relationships in which we hold each other accountable for the sake of community.

This is Church – in a perfect world.  I so appreciate it when someone tells me that I talked too much at yesterday’s meeting or I was harsh to someone.  It works when I trust the person who is sharing the feedback.

Imagine a congregation in which giving honest feedback is safe and encouraged:

  • That the newly divorced wedding coordinator needs to take a break from that role because she is alternately weepy or cranky at other people’s weddings.
  • That the man who’s been working with children for decades clearly doesn’t like kids.
  • That the church lady who has taken casseroles to new parents for as long as anyone can remember needs coaching on what not to say to new moms (because “it looks like you still have quite a bit of baby weight” is not helpful.)
  • That the guy who volunteers to patch up every maintenance issue in the church building for free is costing them a lot of money because the pros have to come behind him and re-wire the kitchen.
  • That the pastor of ten years needs to take a preaching class, attend a leadership workshop, or get coaching on bedside manner. (Ouch.)

For so long, even churches that call themselves “a family” have hesitated to give helpful feedback for the sake of the congregation.  Niceness is killing us.

I’m not talking about offering cruel comments.  I’m talking about nurturing the kind of deep relationships that welcome accountability and spiritual growth.  And this is not about self-improvement.  It’s about being the people we were created to be so that we can build a healthy congregation.

It’s helpful to understand how we are coming across to others, especially when we are presenting as mean/arrogant/snarky and we were hoping to come across as clever/helpful/amusingly sarcastic.

This might be a huge culture shift for your congregation but part of being the church together means sharing the feedback that behavior detrimental to the Body needs to stop. And also you have spinach in your teeth.

Image of Kristen Wiig.

This Book Will Change Your Life

[Okay, the Bible will also change your life but in a different, lifelong way.]

The Nickel Boys should win the Nobel Prize for Literature this fall.  Colson Whitehead is perhaps the greatest living American writer.

But that’s not why everyone should read this book.

I’ve suggested all kinds of non-fiction books – especially for people in the dominant culture. (Read: White. Christian. Anglo.)  Maybe you have reached the point of rolling your eyes when I go on about the need for White People to do the work of educating ourselves about race and white privilege.  But here is a novel that captures the truth about white supremacy in the fictional story of Elwood Curtis – a young man with a promising future whose life takes a cruel turn.  It will change your life.

Don’t read the reviews.  Too many spoilers.  Just read the book.  (And then read Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead too, if you haven’t already read it.)

White People have work to do to fight racism.  Maybe a novel will lure us into some fresh conversations.

POSTSCRIPT  I hesitated for a moment when writing that Mr. Whitehead is “perhaps the greatest living American writer” because . . . Toni Morrison.  When she died today, my heart sank.  But now I know for certain that Colson Whitehead is in that seat.