It’s Perry Chen Week

I’ve anointed Perry Chen the Patron Saint of A Church for Starving Artists – at least for this week, because his thinking is rocking my ecclesiastical world.

Perry Chen founded Kickstarter in 2009 with two friends – Yancey Strickler and Charles Adler – in hopes of giving everyday people (i.e. not millionaire investors/philanthropists) the opportunity to support the arts and creativity. He had me at “not millionaires.”

He was featured on the podcast How I Built This with Guy Raz recently and this quote sparked a flood of ideas:

Governance is the killer app. And I don’t mean leadership at the operational level. I mean organization at the corporate governance level. We’ve been running so much on this totally profit-centric system in the US. and even the biggest businesses are giving their head nods to a lot of other things that matter in the social contract. But that’s going to take real evolution of governance – something nobody’s thought about for a long time. I think this is going to be an era. I think this is how things are going to differentiate. Like people look at an Uber and a Lyft and say, “It’s the same thing.” But over time the difference in a lot of things will be governance.*

The future of creativity/generativity is in governance.

What will matter in the most successful organizations in the future will be “their soul and the alignment of their actions with their own stated mission values.” If it’s our church’s fundamental mission is actually to serve ourselves then no attempt to grow will succeed because people are craving authentic relationships and meaning.

Examples:

  • Does your congregation’s Governing Board spend lots of time tweaking the bylaws? Or do they consider how they can make the space friendlier? (I once sat through a meeting during which two hours were spent clarifying whether pet dogs could be in the building. It evolved into whether pet ferrets, cats, and parrots could also be in the building. Jesus wept.)
  • Does your church have a long list of requirements for people who want to be ushers (i.e. must wear a suit, no open-toed shoes) or are ushers anyone who understands the ministry of hospitality? (There are many congregations who do not allow women or children to be ushers. Believe me – most folks hope for someone who will be so happy to see them without regard to age or gender.)
  • Is the Manual of Operations for your church thicker than “Oh the Places You’ll Go“? The thicker the MoO, the less permission-giving the organization which means that creativity is often squelched.
  • Does your Governing Board spend more time talking about the bills than sharing what signs of transformation they’ve seen because of the church’s impact on the community?

Now more than ever, the way we govern our organization will impact its vitality. And if sociologists who study generations are correct, the youngest generations will be more interested in the soul and mission of an organization than anything else. More about that here.

My hope – as the Mid-Council leader of many congregations – is that I would help shift our culture to be more generative than extractive. Step One: look at how you govern, church leaders. Is it about being expedient? Being Cheap? Appearing successful? Or following Jesus?

Note: Dan Hotchkiss wrote about this regarding congregations and other non-profits. I connected more with Perry Chen but the Hotchkiss book is an important resource.

*Lyft is generally considered less corporate than Uber which is appealing to many consumers who would use a ride-sharing app. If Lyft proves to be a more compassionate company in the way they treat their employees and their customers, they will thrive more than Uber according to Perry Chen and others.

Image source.

Everybody Needs an Uncle Frank

First of all, the movie Uncle Frank is not a comedy. HH and I were under the impression that we were going to be watching a comedy, but it’s heart-wrenching with a couple of humorous moments. Brace yourself.

Secondly, Uncle Frank, the person, is a mess. He’s broken and addicted and full of shame. But he is also wise and good and encouraging. Many of us are a mess but we are great at offering wisdom, goodness, and encouragement to others. This is Uncle Frank.

This movie will trigger many LGBTQ+ people who have traumatic memories of spiritual abuse, and yet I hope it will mostly be a reminder to those of us with a Frank in our lives that someone queer (in all the ways humans can be) loved us because of (not in spite of) our own unconventional and queer parts.

Final note: God loves Queer People however that queerness manifests itself. The depth of God’s love for us is beyond measure no matter who we are. The very people who believe that God doesn’t love us for who we are are the ones in need of conversion. The Bible tells me so.

Have a lovely weekend and be someone’s Frank today.

Image of Paul Bettany as Uncle Frank in the 2020 Amazon Prime movie.

A Salute to Homemade VBS

VBS = Vacation Bible School

Much of the world doesn’t know this as illustrated in a long, long Twitter thread I was reading in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. Someone posted that her local VBS was preying on children, indoctrinating them with myths about fire and brimstone and that it would take the rest of the summer to deprogram her child. And then the responses poured in:

  • What’s VBS?
  • I took my kids for the free childcare.
  • Yeah, my mom took us to every VBS in town every summer for the free childcare and snacks.
  • They taught my daughter that she was going to hell if she didn’t accept Jesus as her Savior. She was four.
  • They taught my son that the Jews killed Jesus (from a Jewish mom)
  • They taught my kids that Jesus was an American.
  • They taught my kids that God hates gay people.
  • They taught my kids that only boys can be leaders.

It was hard not to feed the trolls in that thread but it did make me wonder where their kids went to VBS. Yes, it’s true that many congregations use the same packaged curriculum (because it’s easiest) and sometimes that curriculum is shaky in terms of the theology (and politics) taught. Yes, it’s true that many parents use VBS for free childcare. Yes, it’s true that some churches take advantage of poor communities, sending buses to their neighborhood in hopes of proselyzing their children and therefore “saving them.”

And it’s also true that Vacation Bible School can be a valuable ministry to children . . . when it’s not transactional. This is what transactional ministry looks like:

  • God will only love you if you pray like we pray and believe exactly what we believe.
  • Yes, you can have snack today if you recite The Sinners Prayer.
  • You can only get a t-shirt at the end of the week if your parents sit through a presentation by our pastor.

When I was fortunate to visit Christian schools in Lebanon and Syria, I learned that they were very popular with Muslim families because the religious lessons learned were about the love of God and how Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor. Muslim parents I talked with said that the Muslim schools taught lessons that denigrated their Jewish and Christian neighbors and they wanted their children to learn the way of Jesus. This did not include condemning their children to hell if they didn’t get baptized.

When I was a parish pastor, we often used packaged VBS programs because – yes – they were easier. You get flyers and puppets and CDs of Bible songs and easy-to-follow lesson plans. But when the staff felt creative and excited about something different, we made up our own curriculum and it was a lot more fun. Exhausting. But so much fun.

There was the time we did “Great Stories from the Old Testament” and we built a massive papier mache fish with a mouth big enough to fit 10 preschoolers and a teacher in there. We threw sand on the fellowship hall floor and got a life-sized blow up pharaoh which doubled as a punching bag. We built a Garden of Eden with hundreds of houseplants brought from members’ homes. It was exhausting but a blast.

There was the time (our church’s anniversary) when we used Bible verses with the numbers 40 (the church was founded in the 1940s), 50, 60, 70, 80, and 90 and then we took songs from each decade and changed the lyrics. (“Jeremiah was a prophet! Was a good friend of mine” – from the 70s.) “I Want to be like Christ. I wanna be, I wanna be like Jesus” – from the 90s. It was a blast.

The summer of 2021 is particularly heavy with many global issues and our churches are still reeling from pandemic changes. But in spite of this, there are still congregations creating their own VBS and it’s about loving God and our neighbors and serving others. You know who you are, Amazing Followers of Jesus. I thank God for you.

It’s Okay, Simone

As my sister Denise said yesterday, “If Simone Biles never does another thing, she’s done enough.”

Naomi, Serena, You who have battled The Bullies of COVID, You whose grief feels fresh, —- you have done enough. Your mental health is important and you get to stop and rest.

Note to people who are feeling steady and strong: reach out to those who are not.

Mental health is part of human health inspite of those who say things like this:

“We’ve just been told that, with regards to Simone withdrawing, it is not injury-related.

It is a mental issue that Simone is having.” John Roethlisberger of NBC

Demons cause injury. Trauma causes injury. Overwhelming stress causes injury.

Simone Biles is 24 years old. She survived abuse by an Olympic doctor. She is a Black female who grew up in this country. She has sustained injuries.

Someone said to me yesterday that “young people need to toughen up” after I had just told a story about the verbal attack on a young clergywoman by an older male church leader and I was surprised by the comment. Yes, life is hard and we need to be tough. And the voices in our heads of people telling us we aren’t good enough, smart enough, white enough, black enough, successful enough can still injure us.

Simone Biles is no snowflake and neither are those who wrestle with their demons. We in the Church can do better when it comes to supporting those with mental health challenges. We begin by recognizing that mental health is part of human health.

Image source. Note if you are in the Charlotte, NC area: There is a daylong mental health training for pastors sponsored by Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Davidson College Presbyterian Church on Wednesday, August 18, 2021 from 8:30 am to 3:45 pm ET. Register here.

Equipping the Bystanders

I was initially going to call this post “Bullies Unleashed.”

There have always been bullies in church and only the most naive among us believe that everybody in church is kind and sweet. Church exists for people who need help whether it’s because we are bullies or we are broken. (Actually bullies are usually broken but that’s for another post.)

COVID has unleashed the bullies in Church. While – again – there have always been bullies in congregations, the world feels upside down. From isolation to political division to half the world being on fire while the other half is under water, we are deeply weary. During COVID congregations lost members and money and traditions and a way of being God’s people that brought comfort and routine. And now – as early COVID dissapates and new variants spread – worship is different, Sunday school is different, meetings are different. Many people are not “back” and many are never coming back.

And bullies have been empowered. It’s easy to take out our COVID frustrations on volunteer organizations and my ministry coach tells me that this is happening everywhere. Bullies are mistreating their pastors and other leaders. I’ve heard more stories from pastors about COVID bullies than any other time in my 30+ years of professional ministry.

Long before COVID, when HH and I were co-pastors, a former pastor of our church asked to meet with us while he was in town visiting. The day before, he had eaten lunch with a group of members and – as he told it to us – one parishioner in particular spent the whole lunch “shredding” us. That church member – an elder by the way – criticized us in searing terms. The former pastor thought we needed to know that we had a Session member who was doing this.

What did the other members at lunch say when they heard him talk about us like that?

And the former pastor simply said, “Nothing.” The others around the table had kept silent rather than speak up and defend us.

Anti-bullying and anti-racism advocates often teach us how to speak up when we witness different forms of public harassment and we need this kind of training in church too. Church people need to recognize that “saying nothing” while witnessing bullying in church is the same as condoning it.

No – it’s not okay to ignore it or change the subject or meet privately with the person who was bullied after the fact and express our shock at ___’s behavior. This is not the way of Jesus, my friends.

In this COVID/post-COVIDish time, I’ve heard of bullies lashing out at pastors and church volunteers for everything from favoring one form of worship over another to misplacing the microphone. I’ve personally heard bullies scream at pastors in meetings while the pastor took it and no one stepped up to say, “This is not how we talk to each other.” Emotionally controlled leaders can say this themselves: “This is not how we speak to our siblings in Christ” and then they go home and cry for a while.

What really hurts is when there are witnesses and the witnesses don’t have the courage to step in.

Pastors are called to equip the saints for ministry and strengthening bystanders is just as essential as teaching the saints how to pray or exegete Scripture. It’s about modeling justice. It’s about modeling pastoral care.

Just as God intervened in human life as Jesus, we are called to intervene when faced with suffering. Let’s teach our leaders how to do this. We can shift Church Culture to become a Culture of Respect.

Thanks to LF for helping me wrestle with this.

Lawn Signs Won’t Change the World

HH and I were away over the weekend and we saw one of those lawn signs that starts: In this house we believe . . . only we had never seen this particular sentiments on one sign before nailed to a tree beside the swingset and the American flag. It said:

In this house we believe that

All lives matter

Abortion is murder

Socialism is evil

Pedophilia is immoral

We kneel for the cross

We stand for the flag

I could write about this particular combination of beliefs all day long, but I invite you to do your own analysis. Signs like these are interesting for so many reasons and they tend to identify the politics of a particular neighborhood. We usually find multiple “Black Lives Matter” in some neighborhoods just as we tend to see “Blue Lives Matter” in other neighborhoods. And then there is sometimes both in the same yard, much less the same neighborhood.

Good for us if we want to change the world. I’m going to assume for a moment that people place these kinds of signs in their yards to express all kinds of things: anger, hope, frustration. Or maybe they are trying to pick a fight. Or maybe they are trying to fit into their neighborhood.

I, for one, believe Jesus was talking about changing the world when he said these things right here. We change the world to look more like what God created the world to be when we love God and our neighbors, when we care for “the least of these,” when we make disciples, when we pray for our enemies. When we change our own hearts, we change the world.

I’m not sure lawn signs change much of anything.

We human beings tend to prefer lazy activism. We might vote, send checks to the Heart Association, and buy Girl Scout Cookies and feel great about ourselves. We might put a sign on the lawn declaring our support for immigrants or Dr. Fauci. But if this is the extent of our spiritual practices, we are falling short.

God calls us into relationship with each other, and God wasn’t just talking about relating to people who agree with us. We are called to love and serve even those people whose lawn signs make us crazy.

My immediate response to the lawn sign that HH and I saw was, frankly, anger. I wanted to argue with the people in that house, not befriend them. (Personal note: I don’t believe socialism is evil, for example but I know it’s often demonized. Please read what Jesus said about sharing.)

Here’s what I believe: I believe God is calling us to do more than stick a sign in our yard about loving immigrants or supporting Black lives. I believe God is calling us to – actually – love the people. I believe that God is calling us to increase our proximity to people who don’t look, speak, think, or act like we do. It’s really hard sometimes.

Or we could put up a lawn sign.

The Truth About “Anglo-Saxons”

“Why be apologetic about Anglo-Saxon superiority, that we were superior, that we had the common heritage which had been worked out over the centuries in England and had been perfected by our constitution?” Winston Churchill, 1943

In 1955, an all White, male jury were charged to do their duty “as Anglo-Saxons” as they deliberated whether or not J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant were guilty of torturing and murdering 14 year old Emmett Till. The men were found “not guilty” althought Milam and Bryant later admitted their guilt in a paid interview with Look Magazine.

“Anglo-Saxon” was a not-so-secret code for White Supremacy back in the day. The term was used by social organizations like The Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America which apparently was a fancier version of the Klan. And the 19th Century French “intellectual” Edmond Demolins wrote a popular book called Anglo-Saxon Superiority which – according to this article – Teddy Roosevelt carried into Cuba with the Rough Riders in 1898.

Today, people who look like me with a Protestant European heritage tend to call ourselves WASPs – often proudly – without acknowledging how KKK-adjacent this term really is.

So, why is there a dark brown man featured on the 13th Century Domesday Abbreviato – the official survey of England which spelled out who owned what land? For details read this.

While we with Ancestry.Com accounts dig through our family histories in search of royal connections, the truth is that the original “Anglo-Saxons” were often migrants from the sub-Sahara. Some of the earliest medieval coinage of the “Anglo-Saxons” have Islamic designs. According to this excellent article:

From the eighth century onward, these (Old English) charters increasingly favored granting land to laypeople, many of whom were migrants. Those Americans who seek a return to the roots of Anglo-Saxons should realize that this actually translates to more open, inclusive borders.

For what it’s worth, this WASP and history lover embraces her darker ancestors and neighbors with gratitude. Jesus himself was one who knew something about more open, inclusive borders. You can read about it in the Bible.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Thanks to HH for sharing the Smithsonian article.

Savior

A friend of mine was a medical missionary in Malawi in the 1990s. Although she was a trained cardiologist, most of her days were spent delivering babies and treating people with AIDS. She wrote in a letter that during an emergency procedure, when the medical team was trying to save a man’s life, someone said, “Hey, M. – you’re the Christian, right? This would be a good time to pray.”

Oh right” she said. “Praying. I’m supposed to call on God in times like these.”

This resonates with me as I spend time with People of Faith who say things like:

  • We are thinking about closing our church but we don’t know what to do next.
  • We are wondering what to do about our preschool expansion.
  • We are thinking about restructuring our church staff and there’s a lot of conflict.

It doesn’t occur to them to pray. It doesn’t occur to them to study scripture and talk and pray together in faithful discernment.

This is why many congregations struggle right now: we have forgotten that we are not a social club nor are we an institution that is dependent upon sentimentality or cultural control. We have a Savior.

We have access to divine direction. We are blessed with a God who is interested in shepherding us into something holy and purposeful.

I hate to say this but many, many Church People would not think about turning to God for help and direction even in times of trial.

I have shared the story before about former parishioners who arrived late to worship every Sunday. Almost every Sunday, they stumbled into the sanctuary just after the Prayer of Confession with their two little girls. At that time, I also had young children and I got it: it’s really hard to rally the troops on Sunday mornings.

I was lightheartedly talking with the parents one Sunday and I shared that I’m in solidarity with about how hard it is to get to worship on time on sleepy Sunday mornings. To my surprise, the Dad of the family said, “Oh, we come to worship late intentionally. We come after the Prayer of Confession because we don’t want our kids believing they have anything to confess.” And while my Presbyterian mouth was still agape, the Mom said, “And we don’t like that Jesus Loves Me song. I don’t want my girls to grow up singing that they are weak and He is strong.”

So, my first question then is “Why do you need a Savior?” If you have nothing to confess, nothing to repent of, if you are so strong, why do you need Jesus?

If our congregations are so secular that we are simply going through the motions of having spiritual lives, then no wonder the Church is struggling. To be honest, I know many faithful churches who indeed seek first the Kingdom of God. They are thriving.

But when prayer is so foreign, when faithful discernment is an afterthought, our congregations cannot possibly thrive. We are the Church because we need a Savior.

Image of The Prodigal Son by Heinz Warneke in the gardens of The National Cathedral in Washington, D. C.

Saver

Professor Yolanda Pierce – who was the Curator of Religious Artifacts for the National Museum of African American Culture and History and now serves as the Dean of the Howard University Divinity School – once said that the difference between treasures and trash is that treasures have a story attached. Thanks be to God, people through the years saved Nat Turner’s Bible and the shards of glass from the stained glass windows of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham after terrorists bombed it. And now we can see them here.

Lots of us save things we don’t really need. People of a certain generation blame this on The Depression. Others of us are just lazy. There are piles on our desks and we are slow to clear the piles.

I have enough historical information to open a museum dedicated to my parents and grandparents. How many of the same pictures of my grandfather do I need to save? I have 20 copies of the exact same pose. Why? I have all my parents love letters when he was based at Fort Huachuca and she was home living with her parents. Hundreds of letters about pretty much nothing. But I’m never getting rid of them.

What do we save and why?

Churches save the minutes of meetings and the bulletins of special worship services. We save the random gifts that parishioners give us when they don’t want to get rid of them from jars of expired jellies left for the food pantry to Precious Moments figurines they think will look nice in the church parlor. A parishioner once gave me a box of vintage troll dolls (some of you might remember these little creatures with the fun hair) to put in the church nursery. She didn’t have the heart to give them to Goodwill or the Salvation Army.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that when a congregation spends more time pondering what to save – whether we are talking about the old lamps in the church library or the annual Chili Dinner – than pondering what God might be doing next, that church needs to reassess its priorities.

COVID has helped with this issue somewhat. When we are concerned about an international pandemic and the health of our neighbors, we don’t have as much time to wrestle with whether or not to save the old pew cushions even though they were replaced with new ones in 2008.

Are you a saver? Is your church a congregation of savers? And does saving old things hold us back or remind us of a holy story? Do we save trash that weigh us down or do we save treasures that remind us of life-changing moments?

Image of shards of glass found by Joan Trumpauer Mulholland outside what remained of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 18, 1963, the day of the funeral for three of the little girls killed in a bombing perpetrated by four klansmen. This, my friends, is part of the story of our nation even though some want to silence this history.

Savor

This word has come up often recently: in an ordination, in a staff meeting. We need to savor the blessings of these days.

The photograph below is the last of my birth family with my mother. I call it my savor photo because I have looked at it through the years and thought to myself, “We had no idea how fortunate we were that everyone was alive.” Of course new people are alive since then and life is sweet, and yet I wish I’d savored that moment more. (Note: I am the weary-looking woman in the flowered dress after just giving birth to the newborn who just turned 33 last week.) My dad would also be gone two years later. We had no idea.

A pastor I deeply respect suggested today that everybody is Soul Tired these days. There are deep levels of anxiety and disorientation in many of our institutions, including The Church, that an occasional massage or weekend away will not fix.

And yet there is much to savor: the presence of people we love, the smell of salt water or mountain air, the opportunities cracking open because of COVID, so many interesting people doing cool things in the world. I savor the perfect empanada from my local coffee shop. I savor the good-humored jesting among church leaders.

This is a time to let go of petty things and savor the deeply comforting things, and pray we know the difference.