Fixing It

Some of our churches looking for new pastors are seeking a leader who will fix them.  Sooner or later they will be disappointed.

Your pastor cannot fix you or your church. Neither can your therapist, your parents, or your fairy godmother.  The rich member who has seemingly endless resources can’t fix it either.  Money can move mountains but often it’s just a band aid.

In some cases, your internist/oncologist/cardiologist/etc. can fix certain parts of you.  The same is true for your dentist, your car mechanic, your pest control specialist and your banker.  And this is so frustrating because we like to push a button and have our problem go away.  (Thank you re-booting.)

Becoming a Faithful 21st Century Church requires a culture shift, not a fix. We are setting everybody up for failure if we refuse to accept this.  Adaptive change is harder than technical change.  You know this.

So here is a tip from my Transitional Ministry Training from last week.  (Note: please take this training if you love your church. There might be additional workshops in summer 2019. Get on their mailing list.)

Before we can move forward, we need to know who we are now.  Not who we were yesterday. (The Church with 100 people in our choir!  The Church with 4 pastors!  The Church with 250 kids in Sunday School!)  Not who we wish we were.  (So friendly!  Open to diversity!  Okay with having one worship service!)

How do we figure out who we are now?  Scott Lumsden suggests these questions be asked to everybody in the congregation from the pillars to the prepubescents.

  1. Three words that describe our church are:
  2. An important characteristic about our church is:
  3. An important event in the life of our church is:
  4. A time when we were most tested was:
  5. The thing I most appreciate about our church is:
  6. The thing I most appreciate about being Presbyterian is:
  7. Something that’s never made sense to me about our church is:
  8. One thing I’ve always wondered about us is:
  9. Three things we must continue to do are:
  10. Three things we could stop doing are:*

*These are Scott Lumsden’s questions.  He gets all the credit.

Answering those ten questions is the first step in figuring out a congregation’s identity.  For the second and third steps, you’ll need to attend the training I referenced above.

We are not only not going to fix our congregations painlessly.  We are not going “to fix them” at all.  We are going to:

  1. Let them die.
  2. Teach them how to transition.

It’s really hard.  Really hard.  But I have so much hope because . . . The Holy Spirit.  The Big Decision we need to make today is: Do we want to be a faithful 21st Century Church or not?


Image is an assortment of multi-bit screwdrivers.  They can screw things but that’s about all.


The Whole Sex Thing

Sometimes it’s not even about sex.  It’s about power or violence or control.  Sometimes it’s about drunkenness. Sometimes it’s about procreation.  Sometimes it’s just about fun.

It’s lovely when it’s about love and the treasuring of another human being.  God created sex to be about love.

But we in the Church have made sex weird.  I haven’t read Nadia Bolz-Weber’s new book yet but it’s causing a stir.  I don’t particularly aim to cause a stir here.

My hope is that our congregations learn to deal with sex in healthy and open ways.  Or that we deal with it at all.  I know congregations who have created a culture in which the youth learn about healthy, honorable sex along with healthy, honorable body image and self-respect and respect for other people.  They learn about consent along with tips on how to ask somebody out.  These are important questions for young disciples trying to discern who they are and who God is.

I know congregations with assault victim support groups and small cadres of women who have connected because they share the horrible history of incest.  But I know more churches with victims who don’t dare disclose such things.

Most of us have twisted sex and made it something God didn’t create it to be.  In the last two weeks,  the media has published stories about:

Every single one of those articles involves church people who have abused their power and/or used sexuality as a weapon.  We human beings are quick to idolize what isn’t God.  We are a greedy species.  We are good at sin.

But we have particularly twisted sexuality.  We have made it ugly and it’s no wonder that almost every woman I know has either been sexually assaulted themselves or knows someone else who’s been assaulted.

Imagine a Church that deals with that tragedy and tries to shift the culture in a way that doesn’t shame people or hush people.  I was once leading a Children’s Sermon during worship in a church that I was visiting with a group of about twenty children between the ages of three and eight.  I have no idea what I was talking about with them, but one preschooler raised her hand and said, “Sometimes my brother puts his penis in my mouth.”  Some of the other children laughed.   Most didn’t catch it.  Some adults up front wondered if they’d heard her correctly.

She was very calm.  She was not saying words to make us laugh.  She was dead serious.  And I said, “Is your mom or dad here today?”  A church staff member – who had indeed heard this little girl – mouthed that her grandmother was present.  And then I said, “Thank you for telling me.  Can you talk with me about that after we finish here?”  And she nodded “Yes.”

So here’s the thing: I tell this story not because I handled anything well.  (If I did, it was because God put words in my mouth.)  My point is that  – as the grandmother told me after worship – this preschooler was in therapy after being assaulted by an older brother and she was told by her therapist that she can talk about it anytime she feels safe.

For. The. Love. Of. God. This little girl felt safe in Church.  She felt safe with a lady wearing a black robe whom she’d never seen before, but she’d seen other safe humans in black robes in that sanctuary.  And she felt safe surrounded by her church friends.  And her lovely grandmother had not shamed her at home when she talked about it. And she certainly didn’t shame her for talking about it in church.

Imagine a Church that doesn’t mess up sexuality.

We can be that Church.  We really can.


Image of a purity ring.  You can read about them here and here.  Purity has less to do with virginity than with who we are as God created us to be.

When You Need a Day

I overheard lots of strangers’ conversations in the past 24 hours –  in the airport, in the airplane, waiting for a Lyft, in the grocery store.

One woman was on her way to her boyfriend’s Army basic training graduation.  Another woman was fighting with her husband.  There was a Mom who looked exhausted and her little son was trying to be helpful.  There was a charming guy I thought might be a serial killer because he was persistently offering a young woman a ride even though she kept telling him she already had a ride.  Lots of people looked weary.  Some looked utterly joyless.

Many of them looked like they needed a day. A day to sleep in.  A day at the spa.  A day outside.  A day with a book.  A day in sweatpants. A day with no responsibilities, no burdens.

I return to the office today after a week of continuing education followed by a weekend with HH in our Midwest house.  I got my day plus some.

I hope you get a day soon.

Image is the sky over Idaho last Friday.

Who Would Want to Be President These Days?

Apparently a lot of people.  I’ve lost count of how many people have announced their intention to run in 2020.

I can’t remember who said this in a recent radio interview, but a politician – in discussing the process of running for national office – offered this advice to potential candidates:  Prepare to be eviscerated.

Opposition research will dig up every parking ticket, every romantic relationship, every college escapade, every rumor, every secret.  Family members will be investigated. Neighbors will be interviewed.  Opposition research can alter the personal narratives of even the saintliest among us and define people into unrecognizable caricatures.

Who would put themselves through this?  Who wants something enough to be willing to be “eviscerated”?

Power is a potent motivator. But so is a vision of heaven on earth.

I am still in the institutional Church business because Jesus prayed ἐλθάτω ἡ βασιλεία σου, γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου, ὡς ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς: (“Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” Matthew 6:10).

I still believe that there are people in the world who are trying to serve something higher than themselves.  I would love for one of them to be elected President in 2020.

Happy Presidents’ Day.

Image of George Washington by Roy Lichtenstein (1962)

Models for Transitional Ministry

They are called Place Holders, Interim Ministers, Transitional Pastors – and they tend to have different roles depending on the needs of the church.  Gone are the days when Transitional Pastors followed a precise recipe.  There is no one model for doing this work of serving a congregation after one pastor leaves and before a new pastor arrives.

Again, I’d like to encourage all professional ministers to take Transitional Ministry Training at Menucha – whether you intend to serve in an intentional interim role or not.  All congregations are in transition.  All of them need leaders who understand how to navigate those transitions.

This Friday post is intended to be lighthearted, so work with me.  As I see it, there are many models of Transitional Ministry – some more helpful than others – but all serving their purpose.  Consider . . .

  • The Transitional Leader as sorbet – something to cleanse the palate between courses.  (Thank you HH.)
  • The Transitional Leader as laser surgeon – problems will be pinpointed and subsequently zapped with very little blood involved.
  • The Transitional Leader as wrecking ball – everything gets knocked down to the foundation whether it was necessary or not.
  • The Transitional Leader as seat warmer – not much is happening until the new pastor shows up.

Which transitional leaders have you worked with? My hope is that effective leaders can come into any transitional situation and move the church forward in healthy ways.  That’s a lot right there.

Have a good weekend.


Attention Clergy: Are We Pastors or Are We Leaders?

“When the Pastor becomes a Leader change finally happens.”  Scott Lumsden

The role of pastor and the role of leader are different and we need both – preferably in the same person.

Pastors get to do the good stuff. We are invited into intimate family situations.  We literally stand with brides and grooms, the newly baptized, the grieving.  As a parish pastor, I was shown engagement rings even before the brides saw them.  One couple asked for my blessing upon their engagement because their own parents would not bless them.  I’ve been with mothers during labor when we knew their babies would live for only a few moments.  I’ve been with parishioners before chemotherapy and after surgeries.  I’ve blessed houses and cast demons out.

The truth is that we pastors want to be beloved by our congregations and so we are often conflict averse.  We might not address issues that – left ignored – will hurt or even destroy a congregation.  We want to be everyone’s spiritual friend.

But the Church today needs leaders.  We need spiritual leaders who love their congregants and love them enough to walk them through contentious times.  I know a lot of pastors.  I don’t know a lot of pastors who embrace being leaders.

  • We need leaders who have the guts to help staff members move on when they can no longer do their jobs – even if they are treasured members of the congregation.
  • We need leaders who will say “no” when asked to officiate at a wedding or funeral after they’ve retired.
  • We need leaders who will confront church bullies and hold them accountable when those bullies are sabotaging the ministry and health of the congregation.
  • We need leaders who will ask hard questions (like “Why does our church exist?” and “Who are we – now – as a congregation?” rather than “Who did we used to be?”)
  • We need leaders who know how to engender trust so that people will follow out of faith – not out of fear.
  • We need leaders who know how to affect transformative congregational change in a swiftly changing culture.

And we also need pastors.  If you’re an effective pastor but you fear conflict, or you don’t know how to help a stuck congregation, or you want to keep up with 21st Century practices that replace what worked as 20th Century practices, there are some good training opportunities out there.

I’m attending one this week at the Menucha Center led by Scott Lumsden.  Not only will this kind of training feed your soul but it will also feed your congregation.

The future Church depends first and foremost on the Holy Spirit.  But the Holy Spirit can do even more when we lead God’s people with the right tools.  Yes, we will still mess up and God uses those times too.  But all these cultural changes are great fun to grapple with.  God does amazing work in anxious times and sometimes we get to be a part of it.

Image is Jesus Raising Jairus’ Daughter by Yelena Cherkasova


Laurie Explains It Well

I’ve been writing about Millennials a little bit lately – although I’ve actually been writing about more than that when I talk about Millennials.  As I spend this week overlooking the Columbia River in Corbett, Oregon, here are some gentle invitations:

Invitation #1:  Read this bookVagabonding: In Defense and Praise of Millennial Faith by Laurie Lyter Bright, a PCUSA colleague living in Colorado these days.  This would be an excellent Lenten book study for any church “wondering where all the young people went.”  Laurie looks at several key Bible stories over the course of twelve chapters and her take on these passages is fresh and insightful and very 21st Century – with an eye on the 1st Century.  Please read it and grapple with the truths Laurie offers.

Invitation #2: Let’s consider who is included when we talk about Millennials.  It occurs to me that “Millennials” are described as a specific generation of about 73 millions Americans born between 1980 and the late 1990s.  But usually when we are talking about Millennials we are picturing well-educated, digitally privileged, widely-traveled, urbanites or suburbanites.  Jim Kitchens noted recently in a tweet that – if we start new congregations at all – we tend to start them in urban wealthy-ish neighborhoods.  But there are poor neighborhoods and rural areas in need of new spiritual havens for young adults as well.  There are also Millennials in those contexts but we tend not to consider them.  I invite you to consider prayerfully how to offer opportunities to young human beings who don’t all look like the cast of New Girl.

This is an exciting time for the Church.  But there are also innumerable opportunities to miss Jesus’ point.  It’s going to take thoughtful and faithful cultural and attitudinal changes.  But nothing is impossible with God.

Writing this week from Transitional Ministry Workshops at the Menucha Center in Oregon, led by the staff of Seattle Presbytery.  P.S. Buy Laurie’s book.


Not. One. Word.

The Charlotte Millennial Report never mentions the word “church.”  Not one time.  Also not mentioned: the word “spiritual.”

I was not surprised but was hoping to be surprised.

[Quick review: I read the report over the weekend. It’s okay but not life-changing, at least for me.  I feel queasy whenever anyone of any generation makes statements like, “Millennials like ____.”]

Back to God things.

Millennials are spiritual human beings – as are other generations before and after them.  It’s just that most Millennial human beings find spiritual nourishment in something different from what fed their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.

We human beings – of all generations – are created to be in community, to find meaning, to serve something Greater than ourselves.  Some people are fed by 19th or 20th Century worship traditions.  And many are not.

But our churches/spiritual communities need to pay attention to what nourishes 21st Century souls – regardless of generation.

If you feel closer to God wearing a coat and tie or navy pumps on Sunday morning sitting in traditional church pews and hearing a three point sermon and a pipe organ – keep doing that.  If you serve your Maker by participating in church committees and singing in the choir, please continue to do these things.  I’m completely serious about this.

But note that most people feel close to God, most people serve their Maker in other ways.  The way human beings have honored their Creator has evolved throughout the ages.  Once it was not having sex certain times of the month or taking great pains to sacrifice a dove in a precise way.  For some today, it’s tithing 10% of one’s income.  For others it’s studying scripture in a comfortable church parlor.  And for others it might be taking part in an after school program for first graders or learning to speak Spanish in order to communicate with the new neighbors or buying Fair Trade coffee.

Our job as disciples of Jesus is to help make that connection between caring for each other and for the world and the God of the universe. 

Our calling is to be cultural tour guides connecting what we see out there (and in “here” – our souls) with the living Word of God (i.e. Jesus.)

We cannot possibly make these connections with dated connectors.  According to Charlotte’s Millennial Report 20 to 30-somethings are moved by images, peer review, and transparency.  Word of mouth is how most people – even in my generation – learn about new restaurants, good movies, and inspiring art.

When was the last time your congregation’s life together was the buzz around town?

Because the God we worship is exceptional, our churches also need to be The Exception to the world’s darkness.  In a world rife with blackface photos, uncovered sexual assaults and fake news, we are called to be radically just, wholly respectful and utterly true.

And we have a lot of lamentation, repentance, and reparations to make before anyone will take The Church seriously.  Who is up for this – for the sake of the Gospel?

You can order the 2018 Charlotte, NC Millennial Plan here.  Even if you don’t live in Charlotte, it offers ideas for all cities and towns (and congregations.)



Power is good.

It can be a tool to transform neighborhoods and repair the breach.  It can open doors and offer opportunities.  It can reveal the truth and melt away shame.

It can also cause chaos and unspeakable misery.  Examples:

  1. Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, Mark Herring
  2. Oscar Arias
  3. The Roman Catholic Church
  4. Every other church which has covered up misconduct
  5. Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, etc. etc. etc. etc.

Why does it feel like there is so much misbehavior these days?  (Quick answer: Humans are really good at sin.)

Each of those listed above ostensibly used their power for their own benefit – whether their power was based on white privilege, money, celebrity, physical strength, or ecclesiastical role.  Their choices  – whether thoughtless or strategically planned – have brought deep pain to a wide swath of human beings.

I have a simple request:  can each of us consider the power we have and try to use it for good today?

  • Speak up if you see someone being gaslit.
  • Stand between a person and her bully.
  • Use your influence to clear the path for somebody.
  • Pay attention to the needs in front of our faces.

We were created to care for something beyond ourselves.

Have a good weekend.

The Curse of the Historic Church Cemetery

I love an historic cemetery.  My parents are buried in one.  Here are some of my favorites.

Cemeteries are holy and beautiful places.  But some of us love them more than we love Jesus.  Or we love the people buried there more than we love Jesus. (Same thing?)

Not only are we unsure about where Jesus was buried (there are at least two options) but worshiping the cemetery can kill one of Jesus’ congregations.

How do we know if our church is at risk of Death by Historic Cemetery? Here are some questions to ask ourselves:

  1. Are there more members of The Cemetery Committee than the Board of Elders?
  2. Do we spend more money on irrigating the cemetery than we spend on Christian education?
  3. When someone asks, “What excites you about your church’s ministry?” do people say, “We have a beautiful cemetery“?
  4. Do church leaders spend more than 15 minutes per year discussing cemetery needs?
  5. Are ministry opportunities voted down based on the location of the cemetery?  (Examples: “The youth shouldn’t play soccer in that field beside the graves because it’s disrespectful.”  “We can’t build a warehouse for disaster relief beside the cemetery because it will look ugly when people come to pay their respects.”
  6. Has there ever been a church fight about the cemetery?

Just as people die and are buried in cemeteries, whole congregations can also die and find themselves buried in their cemetery.  Remember when angels asked the women at Jesus’ grave why they were looking for the living among the dead?

Thriving spiritual communities are living, breathing, laughing, thinking, comforting bodies of human beings who gather for community and ministry.  Whether your church building has a cemetery or not – at your next church meeting – note how much time is spent discussing dead things (buildings, cemeteries, parking lots) and how much time is spent discussing living things (children, youth, adults, neighbors.)

It will offer a clue about whether your church is more in love with the living God or with death.

Image of Thyatira Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Rowan County, NC where three pirates are buried.  The story goes that they had left their pirate lifestyle on the N.C. coast and became farmers in the middle of the state, only to be discovered and subsequently hanged.