3 Questions that Impact Our Whole Lives

What is the point of a life that is nothing more than an endless series of opportunities?

There’s an interesting article here about The Art of Choosing What to Do with Your Life and it remiinds me that the 20s are an especially stressful decade of life. There is – at least among the privileged with many choices – the sense that any wrong choice will result in lifelong regret.

Not true. But it feels true.

We raised our kids to focus on 3 questions that will impact their whole lives:

  • Who (or what) will you worship?
  • Who will you spend your life with?
  • What will you devote your life’s work to?

(Sorry for ending with prepositions.)

Who or what to worship?

I know a lot of self-identifying Christians (and Jews and Muslims) who claim to worship God but their lives seem to say otherwise. They worship money (“financial security is my priority“) or success (“I have to work for that Fortune 50 company/the Big Steeple Church/the impressive non-profit/the top law firm) or parental favor (“my parents expect me to go into business.”) What do we honestly revere? Sometimes we say we revere something holy/eternal but actually we revere our phones/families/way of life. That First Commandment is a bear.

Who to spend my life with?

Choosing the right life partner is an underrated miracle. I know people who married their partners for reasons like these:

  • They were the person I was with when it was time to settle down.
  • They were suitable in my parents’ eyes.
  • They could provide financial security.
  • My kids liked them.
  • I wanted a wedding.
  • They were my best options if I wanted children.

It’s better not to have a spouse/partner than to wish you didn’t have one.

What will be my life’s work?

To follow one’s bliss is not a choice for most of the world. I have a former parishioner who worked in a factory for over 30 years adding the clasps to brassieres. This was not her dream job. She volunteered in her church for at least that long and it gave her joy and meaning. I know others who hate their jobs to the point of bolting just a few years in looking for more respect and autonomy. I have a friend who has earned six figures all her working life, affording her everything from Super Bowl tickets to private education for her children, but she longs to make a broader difference in her life.

Being of service to something or someone beyond ourselves is beyond life-giving. If we’ve made a positive impact doing whatever we do each day whether it’s repairing a refrigerator or shelving books or helping a new driver get their license, we have done well.

I share all this in the context – once again – of Church World. Too many of our congregatios have forgotten who or what we worship, with whom we will partner in ministry and what we are actually doing with ourselves.

Do we worship God or the pastor/building/pet project?

Do we partner with others to support each other or are we in transactional relationships? (You give me A and I’ll give you B.)

Do we primarily serve ourselves or others?

The art of making decisions – if you ask me – involves these three questions, whether we are individuals or congregations. Have a lovely day.

Some White Christians Did the Right Thing. And also . . .

“Growing up in the South was a both/and not an either/or. My story here is told from a young white person’s experience within a mean, segregated culture. My family was very racist. Their job was to brainwash kids into as much hatred and white supremacy as possible.” Filmmaker Carolyn Crowder

[Note: This is a post for my White Siblings in Christ.]

Please watch the trailer here of Carolyn Crowder’s new film about white pastors who did the right thing when they served Southern Presbyterian Churches in the mid-late 20th Century.

Rev. Wallace Alston being interviewed by Carolyn Crowder.

Southern Presbyterians will recognize several of the men interviewed: John Kuykendall, Lee Carroll, Lamar Williamson, Willie Thompson. Their story is so moving and most of us in the Southern Presbyterian Church have not heard it. But I hope you’ll take the opportunity this summer and find a place to watch and discuss it.

If you happen to live in or near Charlotte, NC: The documentary will be shown 8/23 at 6:00 pm at Covenant Presbyterian Church (1000 E. Morehead) in the Fellowship Hall and will include dialogue following with the Director and Co-Director. Other screenings have been scheduled for Auburn, AL, Spartanburg, SC, New Orleans, LA, Dothan, AL, Mobile, AL, Dallas-Fort Worth, TX, McKinney, TX, Chapel Hill, NC, Asheville, NC, Birmingham, AL. Details here.

These are important stories, but I have two important points to reiterate here:

1. Just because a handful of pastors did the right thing in the past, doesn’t excuse us from doing the right thing now or exempt us from doing the right thing in the future. Sometimes when discussing White Supremacy with my White Christian siblings, I’ll hear comments like these:

  • My grandfather served on an all-White jury in 1962 and they found the Black man accused of robbery not guilty.
  • My father built the first community swimming pool for the Blacks.
  • I have Black friends.


Anecdotes like these gloss over the fact that most all-White juries have found Black defendants guilty, recreational services in minority neighborhoods continue to be substandard, and when was the last time a Person of Color spent the night at your home or ate dinner around your table?

We have a lot of work to do in changing both our awareness of White Supremacy and our civic actions.

2. Doing the right thing can get you killed, kicked out of school, excused from the country club and shunned from the community. (No need to remind you what happened to Jesus.) And yet through the generations there have been people who took their faith seriously enough to defend the vulnerable for the sake of Loving Their Neighbors.

Princess Alice of Battenburg, Leokadia Jaromirska, Raoul Laporterie and Derviš Korkut were all Christians who have been recognized at Yad Vashem for saving Jewish children and adults during the Holocaust. Obviously they risked everything to do the right thing.

Most of us are too afraid of losing friends – much less our lives. Doing the right thing can mean giving up our life for what’s right, but it’s usually more about speaking up when we hear lies and hate. Doing the right thing means ensuring that what we want for our own children is available to all children.

Some say that our nation is on the cusp of another civil war fomented by lies and the demonization of those whose politics differ from our own. A time might come – and surely will – when we will have the opportunity to do the easy thing or the right thing.

If that time comes, I hope we will be as brave as the pastors in this documentary.

A Statement on Christian Nationalism

“You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:3

People of faith are as susceptible to idolatry as anyone. The bottom line is that God is God and we are not. We are not called to worship the Bible (the Bible is not God), the Church (the Church is not God), the Pastor (the Pastor is not God) or our nation.

We live in a nation of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Bahai, Hindus, and Zororastrians. According to this Pew study, the breakdown of religions in the United States looked something like this in 2017: Christian (70.6%), Jewish (1.9%), Muslim (.9%), Buddhist (.7%), Hindu (.7%) and unaffiliated (22.8%). Again, that was 2017. Pew now reports that only 65% of Americans self-identify as Christian. The numbers of self-professing Christians decreases every year.

Is this why Christian nationalism seems to be on the rise – because there is that whole fear of being replaced by non-Christians, not to mention people of faith – or no faith – who are not white?

You can’t be a serious Christian and a Christian Nationalist. They are incompatible.

By definition “Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a Christian nation—not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future.” (Christianity Today)

Scholars Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry summarize Christian nationalism beliefs with the following statements:

  1. The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.
  2. The federal government should advocate Christian values.
  3. The federal government should not enforce the strict separation of church and state.
  4. The federal government should allow religious symbols in public spaces.
  5. The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.
  6. The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.

The belief that the Founding Fathers intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation is a lie.

Christian Nationalists seem to believe that “everyone needs to know their place” and there is – in fact – no place for immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQA+ people, and non-White people. Policies on gun control, police shootings, gender roles, and abortion are based on their own non-negotiable understanding of “Christian values.”

Compare these ideas with what we know about Jesus. Jesus lifted up foreigners as heroes. He healed people of physical and mental brokenness. He engaged in theological conversations with women. And his own band of disciples who were not exactly rabbi material. Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. Jesus challenged those who would conflate Roman rule with the reign of God. Jesus didn’t own a weapon.

There are many reports about the fact that today’s White Christian Nationalists – many of whom are supporters of the former President – have no church affiliation. (Are they Chinos? Christians In Name Only? Actually a lot of us fall into that category.)

We can’t know the teachings of Jesus if we don’t study the teachings of Jesus. There was nothing resembling the message of Jesus among those who broke into the Capitol on January 6, 2021. And I suspect that the killer of four Muslim men in Albuquerque last week had Christian nationalist inclinations just like the killer of nine Black Church people in Charleston and the killer of seven Sikh worshippers in Milwaukee and the killer of 23 Latinos in El Paso and the killer of eleven people in a Pittsburgh synagogue and the killer of ten Black people in Buffalo. White nationalism kills.

We in the Church are called to gird ourselves against those who confuse the message of Jesus and the fear of White Nationalists. We are called to acknowledge and dismantle White Supremacy. We are called to speak the Truth in love.

And if we really want to follow Jesus, we must participate in government (i.e. vote) according to what Jesus actually teaches about money, foreigners, greed, women (Jesus trusted them), lepers, children, healing, and love. The pastoral is political, folks. Jesus was killed for sedition.

And also, there is nothing Christian about Christian Nationalism.

There Is No Teacher Shortage . . .

Actually there are plenty of qualified, experienced teachers. Unfortunately there is a shortage of respect and appropriate compensation, resulting in many teachers leaving the profession. Accoding to this WaPo article:

Experts point to a confluence of factors including pandemic-induced teacher exhaustion, low pay and some educators’ sense that politicians and parents — and sometimes their own school board members — have little respect for their profession amid an escalating educational culture war that has seen many districts and states pass policies and laws restricting what teachers can say about U.S. history, race, racism, gender and sexual orientation, as well as LGBTQ issues.

Teachers don’t enter that profession to get rich. But we are losing committed teachers and it’s our students who will suffer. Our FBC has been teaching high school for 7 years and he loves his students. He gets them paid internships and counsels them about college. What he doesn’t love are parents who threaten him and administrators who don’t listen to him. Maybe he will teach this fall and maybe he won’t.

For what it’s worth, there is also no clergy shortage. Unfortunately there is a shortage of respect and appropriate compensation resulting in many pastors leaving the profession. It’s happening throughout the Church of Jesus Christ.

Pastors don’t enter this profession to get rich. But we are losing committed pastors and it’s our congregations who will suffer. Unfortunately though – unlike in the teaching profession – it’s the congregations who sometimes make it difficult for their pastors to continue. The main issues seem to be:

  • Congregations who can no longer afford a full-time pastor but expect their part-time pastor to work fulltime. It seems like a good deal for the church. It’s unjust for the pastor.
  • Congregations who say “they want to grow” but they truly don’t.
  • Congregations who simply do not treat their pastors (or each other) very well.

Just as gifted professional educators are most concerned with the welfare and development of their students, gifted pastors are most concerned with the spiritual welfare and spiritual development of God’s people.

I’m looking for ways to support our clergy in these unusual times. What can Mid-Councils do to support their pastors? What can congregations do? What can clergy do for themselves?

Would love your comments – if you are a pastor or other church staff member – on what keeps you in active professional ministry? We don’t want to lose you.

The Problem with Martha

Ridiculous church story: I once heard a sermon based on John 11 and the story of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha and the preacher – with a lovely Scottish brogue – mistakenly referred to Martha as “Margaret.” “Perhaps they called her Peg,” he said. “Perhaps you need to examine the text more closely,” I whispered to myself. His scholarship was lazy at best.

Soon to be Dr. Libbie Schrader is not a lazy scholar. If you have heard all the ruckus about the great Diana Butler Bass’ sermon preached at Wild Goose last month, you have heard about Libbie Schrader’s extraordinary scholarship. Today’s post is basically a strong recommendation that you watch this. If you love meaty Bible study, this will be a feast. Enjoy.

Is There Still a Rural Purge?

Aisha Brooks-Johnson preached for the Presbyterian Urban Network gathering last week and she (almost) sang the theme song from Green Acres, a 1960s sitcom about a couple who move from NYC to the rural town of Hooterville. Oliver believes “farm livin'” is the life for him and Lisa adores a penthouse view. Hilarity ensues.

Aisha’s point was that God reigns in both urban and rural landscapes.

By the mid 70s, television executives had canceled most comedies and drama series in what networks called “the rural purge.” Out came programs about farm families and small town life (The Andy Griffith Show, Lassie, Green Acres) and in came programs featuring urban and suburban families (Sanford and Son, Seinfeld, Full House.) Although today, the vast world of television offers a variety of families and settings, but city life is featured most prominently.

Although most people in my denomination are part of large congregations in urban and suburban settings, most Presbyterian congregations are small. According to Leslie Scanlon’s article here 20% of the congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have 25 members or fewer. About two-thirds of our churches have 100 or less members.

These small congregations can be found uptown, downtown, in the suburbs and small towns, and in rural areas. But it’s rare to find a large congregation in a rural area. Our rural congregations are almost always less than 100 members and many have less than 50 members.

They can rarely afford a full-time pastor and if they can, that pastor is most likely earning the minimum required salary. What can we do about this?

One thing we must do – as Mid-Council Church Leaders – is avoid a rural purge. We cannot cancel these congregations. We cannot ignore either the needs or the gifts of small town and rural neighbors. One of the actors from Green Acres, lamenting the cancelation of that show said, of CBS:

“They canceled everything with a tree in it – including Lassie.”

As long as most employment is found in more populated areas, small towns will be unable to attract young people seeking industrial, professional, and skilled trade jobs. Pastors with a working spouse might hesitate to accept a call with no employment options for their spouses. Pastors with young children might hesitate to accept a call where the schools cannot attract teachers to move to their county.

But there is hope for our rural congregations:

  • If working from home continues to trend and people can work from anywhere – at least in some fields – this will help lure people to beautiful, affordable places with lots of fresh air.
  • If local officials honestly want their communities to grow, there are many tools available for shifting the culture of our farms, small businesses and manufacturing industries. Great example in Mooresville, NC: Carrigan Farms was once a regular family farm with row crops and cows. It has evolved into a different kind of farm with pumpkins (and the requisite pumpkin patch), fruits for self-picking, hay rides, haunted trails, and quarry swimming. They are now a venue for weddings, proms, and corporate events.
  • If urban and suburban churches partner with rural congregations, there could be opportunities for shared preaching and teaching, and invitations for farm VBS, etc.

If you are interested in this kind of creative ministry, don’t just look for it in wealthy city congregations. Calls to rural churches make for some opportunities that would never happen in the city. (I learned how to hypnotize a chicken in my first call in Schaghticoke, NY.)

Green acres might indeed be the place for you.

I’m Not the Person HH Married 35 Years Ago

Here’s the problem with having had a really easy time of it growing up: when you do finally experience tragedy, as we all inevitably do, you are totally unprepared for it. Amanda Held Opelt in A Hole in the World: Finding Hope in Rituals of Grief and Healing

35 years ago today at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, HH and I got married in a service with four officiants and over 30 clergy present. It was a lot.

Little did we know that in the first five years of marriage we would experience the death of both my parents, two miscarriages, and – thank goodness – the birth of our three healthy children. Again, it was a lot. At the age of 36, I was not the person HH had married at 31.

Amanda Held Opelt has written a raw and real book about grief with twelve chapters of information about spiritual practices that have historically helped. They don’t fix things. But they help.

One of the things they don’t tell seminarians is the fact that there will be deep grief in Church World – in addition to the deep grief of our regular human lives. We will bury children. We will sit with treasured elders as they say goodbye to the person who’s been the infrastructure of their daily lives. We will sit with women praying their fertility treatments will work. We will grieve with parents whose teenagers are lost.

Even as a Mid-Council Denominational Leader (it sounds so boring, doesn’t it?) I am both privileged and burdened with being with people when life as we know it ends. Church staff members lose precious children in accidents. The best of church ladies and church gentlemen bury their spouses. Longtime saints die.

God calls us to love each other and when we do, it’s going to hurt. But it’s still so worth it.

Opelt shares this thought as she holds her small daughter in her arms:

The reality is that if I don’t lose her, then she will lose me. I will die. Either way, this ends in grief. Sometimes the thought of it is just too much to bear.

When HH and I were considering children, I used to say, “Let’s have three because if one dies, we’ll still have two.” And he would say, “What if we have three and two die? Or they all die?” Yes, this is ridiculous thinking, but I’d been a chaplain in a NICU and pediatric oncology ward before we got married and I saw children die every day. There was a month I’d officiated at 23 baby funerals.

Life is crazy and terrifying and nonsensical and unfair. I wouldn’t want to spend it with anyone other than my HH.

Beyond thankful today. Also, read Opelt’s book.

Image of the newly published A Hole in the World by Amanda Held Opelt who will be introduced for a long, long time and perhaps for the rest of her life with these words: she was Rachel Held Evans’ sister. Please pray for all who grieve today.

A Love Letter to Executive Presbyters

[Note: My wise colleague Jeff Paschal, upon reading my Love Letter Series, commented on the need for a Love Letter for EPs. I invited him to write it and it’s worth our attention. Thank you Jeff.]

This is me (Jan) doing executive work, but I really want you to notice the pillow.

Dear Executive Presbyters,

Thank you!

Thank you for the long hours you put into the ministry. For helping congregations and pastors reach their God-given potential. For comforting grieving churches and hurting pastors. For leading and sharing leadership with presbytery staff. For challenging the entire presbytery to be more faithful. Thank you!

I’ve never been an executive presbyter or served on a presbytery staff. So, I’m unqualified to write this love letter, but Jan offered and I accepted.

I was ordained in 1990, and I’ve served various congregations for more than 30 years as a Head of Staff or a solo pastor. I’ll share my idiosyncratic views. Facebook friends may complete or correct what I write. Executive Presbyters, here goes.

Love begins with the work of attention. You cannot love what you ignore.

Execs, try not to play favorites, even though we all do to one degree or another. Do your best to be just as responsive to the tiny church as the huge church, and just as available to the pastor who is your good friend and the one who isn’t. Regularly pray for your pastors and other clergy members by name. Pay some attention to your pastors and other clergy, because you are their pastor and how well they function with the churches or chaplaincy positions will determine in large part how well the presbytery functions.

Here are some questions you might ask yourself as you seek to build up the Body of Christ.

How are clergy received by the presbytery? With suspicion? By being ignored? Or with true welcome? When I was a young pastor serving my first church more than thirty years ago, it meant the world to me that my executive presbyter took the time to call me one day just to check in.

Are clergy within the presbytery actually friends with each other? Do they truly reach out to welcome new pastors or chaplains in their area (lunches, phone calls, etc.)? How can you teach and model this?

How are clergy encouraged as they do joyful, heartbreaking, exhausting ministry year after year?

How do clergy retire? With some sort of recognition? Or by being disregarded?

Does the presbytery play favorites in choosing commissioners to G.A., sending some people multiple times over people who have never had the chance to go? Do Executive Presbyters support G.A. decisions, even when they don’t agree with them, or do they undercut those decisions?

We live in a time when many pastors are leaving the ministry, and unhealthy church conflict often has something to do with it. So use your power and let your response be quick and assertive when pastors are unfairly attacked or when pastors are unfairly attacking. Folks who study church conflict say the most important factor in helping pastors and congregations weather destructive conflict is having someone outside the congregational system, someone with authority (such as an E.P. or COM representative), step in and require fair treatment by all parties. Do it sooner rather than later, because later will probably be too late.

Yes, it’s playful, but reconsider calling some pastors “superstars” or “rock stars.” There is only one superstar–Jesus Christ. The rest of us (even the best of us) are muddling along as the Spirit works through us. Some of us are pretty good at helping congregations grow numerically. Some are better at preaching or doing pastoral care or helping people develop spiritually. But we’re all doing many of the same things—leading worship, preaching, teaching, pastoral care, administration, helping churches search for God’s vision, etc.

Speaking of vision, can people in the presbytery state what the presbytery’s vision is in a few words? And as various social justice issues arise over the coming months and years, how will the presbytery lead? Does the presbytery have a justice committee?

Heaven knows, being an Executive Presbyter is a tough ministry. You’re in our prayers. And I end where I began. Thank you!

What Does Your Church’s Museum of Failure Look Like?

Every church has one.

Check out the Museum of Failure here.

Some Museums of Failure are monuments to trying new things for the sake of the Gospel/reaching unserved neighbors/being faithfully creative. And some are monuments to being stuck in TWWADT (pronounced tow-WAD-ti The Way We’ve Always Done Things.)

The original Museum of Failure is in Helsingborg, Sweden but now their exhibits travel throughout the world. Among the failed items featured: the plastic bicycle (“it was unstable and it broke“), the Twitter Peek Phone (“it only tweets and people had smart phones for that“) and the DIVX disposable DVD (“to replace rental DVDs but consumers hated it“.)

One of the differences between a thriving church and a dying church involves what their Museum of Failure looks like. Every church has one. What does yours look like?

The Museum of Failure in a Thriving Church might look like this:

  • The closet full of 200 plastic flamingos once used for fundraisers by the youth. The youth raised money when Person 1 paid to “flock” Person 2’s yard in the night. Person 2 woke up to find a sea of pink birds in their yard with a sign saying You’ve been flocked.” Flamingos were removed by same youth the next night to recycle for the next flocking. Hilarious.
  • The Starbucks-esque set up in the church basement once used to try a coffee house for Sunday evening worship.
  • The box of leftover “I Spent the Night with Dave” t-shirts which had once been given to volunteers who took turns sleeping in a reclining chair in front of a church member’s memory care room door to keep him from wandering the halls each night. This saved the family having to hire a 7 pm to 7 am nursing assistant.

The Museum of Failure in a Dying Church might look like this:

  • The church parlor that no one is allowed to use because there’s fear someone will spill coffee in there and the church ladies want to keep it pristine as a memorial to Miss Myrtle. She taught a Bible study in the parlor for 27 years and the furniture was given by her family after she died.
  • The Peach Festival that everyone hates but we’ve been doing it July 4th Weekend for 32 years so we have to keep doing it. People know our church – not because we show our community what the love of God looks like but – because of our peach ice cream. Without the Peach Festival, we are nothing.
  • The Music Room that contains files and files of four-part music, choir robes for every age, and handbells event though our congregation hasn’t had a choir – much less a handbell choir – for over ten years.

We teach children that failure is a bad thing but if we fail after trying something new, we’ve learned so many things: what works and what doesn’t work, how to improve on our idea, what’s needed and what’s not needed.

If our congregation hasn’t failed lately it could be because we haven’t tried anything new. Fun summer activity: do a failure assessment of your church this week. And then toss a few (hundred) things.

The Children

HH and I have been watching one of those semi-mindless streaming dramas involving crime and secrecy. You know the shows. We are watching one now involving two grown men befriending each other in prison. Both of them had traumatic childhoods that impacted their adulthood. Both tell the other that things were pretty great, that their parents were loving, that they have mostly good memories.

But we also see the characters’ backstories and the truth is horrible. Parents who swore at them, left them alone for long hours, hit them, emotionally devastated them, used them. As a pastor of almost 40 years, I have met these children. They come from all kinds of backgrounds. Their families might have no money or lots of money. I’ve seen countless examples of parents whose first concern has been themselves instead of their children. They make decisions based on what’s best for themselves sometimes because of addiction and sometimes because of their own emotional immaturity.

I also know miracle people: those who were unloved as children, castigated – even by their families – for being different, for being born. And yet, they had at least one person who loved them unconditionally along the way. A teacher. A pastor. A neighbor. A sibling.

They still bear scars and unhealed wounds. But they are also capable of showing unconditional love. And they are remarkable friends and parents themselves.

I think about all these things as our political leaders declare that bodily autonomy is not a given. You can carry a child without consent. Even birth control to prevent unwanted pregnancies is being questioned.

For all the pro-life talk, the truth is that we are not a nation of pro-lifers by any definition of that term. We – as a nation – do not value school teachers, do not offer equitable health care, do not treasure undocumented children, do not treasure queer children. This is the most heinous of sins – especially if we call ourselves pro-life.

I’m talking to both “liberal” and “conservative” grown ups here. What child will we tutor? What child will we house? What child will we feed? What child will we send to college – who is not our own? What child will we welcome into our lives who is not already part of our family/community/house of worship?

This is for all of us – especially if we believe there should be no abortion and no birth control. And the irony is that most of the people of faith I know who believe abortion should be an option and birth control should be a given are already committed to loving – unconditionally – children who are not “their own.”

This is about human lives. Who are we really loving out there?