I’m (Sort of) Back

Come Back SoonBeen without my laptop for a few days and will be writing a post soon.  But not today.  Have a lovely rest-of-the-week.

Somebody You Love Has Had an Abortion

I read that line over the weekend on social media.

It reminded me about a conversation I had with the pastor who baptized me long ago when he was referring to the difference between being a pastor in the mid-20th Century and being a pastor now.  He shared that his parishioners rarely shared deeply private information with him (e.g. addiction, incest, unplanned pregnancy, domestic abuse, even cancer) unless they had nobody else in the world to tell.  People never “aired the family laundry.”  There was no need to divulge family secrets with The Preacher because the family was nearby.

When people tell me that they’ve never known anyone who ever had an abortion, I wonder if it’s just that they haven’t been told.

As a pastor, people tell me things.  Parishioners and non-parishioners alike have disclosed their secrets with me about everything from incest to infertility to adultery to secret children to secret spouses to embezzlement to trafficking . . .

. . . to abortion.  I remember when a mother with an “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart” bumper sticker on her car phoned me to ask where her 14 year old daughter could get an abortion.  Sometimes we are against something until it hits home.

We are hearing a lot today about “Heartbeat Bills.”  In Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Ohio, and Mississippi bills have either been passed or are awaiting a governor’s signature.  And the name of this legislation follows along the same lines as other terms used by “Pro-Life” advocates like “late term abortion” and “abortion on demand.”  They are words intended to spark an emotional response.

Scientists will tell you that what is being called a heartbeat at 6 weeks gestation is called “fetal pole activity” by medical professionals.  It’s not a heartbeat like you and I have a heartbeat.  It’s the potential heartbeat of a developing embryo.

I remember doing a Bible study on Exodus 21 and noting that in their “eye for an eye” culture, a pregnant woman’s child was not yet considered equal to the life of the mother.  This is not to say that abortion is right.  I’m not into proof-texting.  But I believe with all my heart that God understands the complexities of such  situations.

I’ve known women who have had abortions for all the reasons anybody has ever had an abortion and some of those decisions were the best possible choice out of several difficult choices. And I’ve known women who made their choice to end a pregnancy without much thought.

From the beginning God has offered human beings choices.  Sometimes we choose well and sometimes we do not.  Every day.

But if women – like men – are created in the image of God, we must way allow women to have autonomy over our own bodies – literally for the love of God.

Former Pastors: Just Say No

It’s a common issue – so common that few are disciplined or held accountable. But it damages congregations in the long term, even though intentions are good.

I’m talking about pastors who leave a church through retirement or resignation, and yet they don’t break pastoral ties with the church.

Believe me when I say that I understand. You marry young couples, baptize their children, sit with them in ERs, bury their loved ones. You sit through fertility tests, court procedures, unemployment, and graduations. They are your family.

But if we really love those people in our former church, we have to say “No.”

When your favorite parishioner whom you baptized as an adult finally finds a life partner and wants you to marry them? You say no.

When the older couple, who took you in and supported you as a young pastor, die together in a car accident and you are asked by their grown children to officiate at their funeral? You say no.

When the ladies of the church tell you that “nobody does Bible studies like you” and they want you to keep doing them in the local diner- because you’re still in town? You say no.

It’s not that you don’t love them. It’s not that you don’t care. It’s that you are no longer their pastor. And as long as you act like their pastor and do pastoral things, they will not move forward. They will not identify someone new as their pastoral leader.

It’s not about the new leader’s insecurity. It’s about yours. You don’t want to be forgotten. You don’t want to be replaced.

But you are no longer their pastor. It’s not up to the new pastor to say no for you.

If you love your former church, let someone else serve them. You left. That was a good thing.

And now God is doing something new.

The Best Article I’ve Seen Lately on Evaluating Pastors

Ever seen this?  A disgruntled parishioner wants to serve on the church’s Personnel Committee to have a voice about his/her dissatisfaction with the pastor.  “The pastor must go” because:

  • She just had a baby and she spends too much time with that child.
  • She just got married and isn’t available every night like she used to be.
  • She’s a woman.
  • He goes to all his daughter’s softball games.
  • He didn’t want my wife on the Board of Deacons.
  • He brings his dog to work.
  • We pay him too much money.

I have literally heard all of these comments and my personal favorite – which was about me – was exclaimed by a man who had begged to be added to the Personnel Committee:  “It’s time for her to go. No discussion.  I move we fire her! All in favor?”

Whoa, cowboy. (A horrified Personnel Committee member reported this to me after the meeting.)

Consultant Susan Beaumont’s expertise is in large church ministry and yet there are helpful nuggets about evaluating all kinds of pastors here: Five Pitfalls to Avoid When Evaluating a Senior Pastor.

  1. The governing board should evaluate the minister. Don’t ask for volunteers to serve on a Personnel Committee because you’ll get the lady who doesn’t like the pastor’s hair. Note: The governing board should also evaluate themselves for effectiveness.
  2. Evaluate pastors on what their job descriptions say.  If  Pastor A is charged with doing all visits to home bound members, don’t judge Pastor B for not doing visits to home bound members. Note: Susan Beaumont says that no human can do more than 12 essential functions in a job.  If you’ve chosen 50 essential functions for your pastor, somebody will be frustrated.
  3. Stop with the “Some People are Saying . . . “ – Who are these people and are their concerns random? Read what Susan says about this for mature responses.
  4. Forget Congregational Surveys. Most parishioners have only a cursory idea what the pastor does.  Sometimes we don’t believe that pastors are working unless we see them in the pulpit, in the hospital, in the meeting, in the community activity.
  5. Nobody needs to hear every last comment.  Some feedback is random:  It’s distracting when she doesn’t wear black shoes.  Some rock star pastors wear navy blue.  Or pink.  Some feedback is just hurtful: That was the worst Christmas Eve sermon I’ve ever heard. The point of evaluations is to increase success and effectiveness.

Congregations regularly ask for help when evaluating their pastor.  What tools have you and/or your congregation found helpful?  Here are my two favorite pro tips:

  1. Read Jill Hudson’s When Better Isn’t Enough: Evaluation Tools for the 21st Century Church.
  2. Professional human resources professionals are not necessarily the best people to evaluate pastoral leaders.  HR folks might be great at what they do.  They might even be Church People.  But they usually don’t know church culture and the spiritual nuances of Reign of God Work.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an HR person evaluate a pastor by saying something like, “That’s not how it’s done at Bank of America.”  (Do we want to run a church like Bank of America?)

Mostly, be transparent, fair and kind. Many of us don’t get paid enough to have dozens/hundreds of people judge not only our work, but also our children, our wardrobe, our hair, our homes, our cars, our calendars, our vacations, etc.  Praying for pastors is always a good idea, and while you’re at it, also be generous to your church’s educators, musicians, support staff, and maintenance people.

Are We Ready for This? (Said Jesus Never)

This post is based on a conversation with one of my genius colleagues JC (not to be confused with Jesus Christ.)  It speaks to me deeply as I work with church leaders in the thick of making Big Decisions.

As Church People wrestle with everything from “Who is God calling to be our next Pastor?” to “What is God calling us to do for our community?” I often hear:

Are we ready for this?

  • Are we ready to call a female pastor?
  • Are we (English speakers) ready to call a Spanish-speaking pastor?
  • Are we (White People) ready to call a Person of Color?
  • Are we ready to call a Head of Staff under age 35?
  • Are we ready to open a homeless shelter?
  • Are we ready to start a prison ministry?
  • Are we ready to share our church property with a refugee family?

Note that Jesus never said:

  • Are we ready to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?
  • Are we ready to love our neighbors as ourselves?
  • Are we ready to repent for the kingdom of God is at hand?
  • Are we ready to stop judging people?

Nope.  Jesus just told us to do it.  Ready or not.  The Spirit will tell us what to do and help us do it.  We simply need to pay attention and trust the One who calls us.

I’m Back But Different

Sometimes things are going along swimmingly with no crashing waves. And then a wave comes out of nowhere and knocks you breathless.  One of my cousins – the second youngest one – died suddenly last week leaving two young children and it was like RHE and my mother died again.

But of course there are always streams of light to help us regain our bearings.  My beautiful Aunt VHE turned 90 with grace and aplomb, and she makes the world feel safe and whole.  My beautiful friend WM and I caught a little time alone to catch up and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for life.

All of us with busy work lives know that – when we’re away whether it’s for vacation or a work trip – it’s hard to leave regular work behind because it will be piled up to the sky when we return.  So that’s what I walk into today, and with new people to pray for and thank God for.

Happy Tuesday everyone.

Competent Churches

A colleague recently described a church nearby as being “the most competent church I have ever served.”  I had never heard a church described like that before.

What he meant was that they get things done.  They are efficient while also being discerning.  They bend the rules when necessary.  They keep their eyes on the mission of the church and the mission is clear.

My only problem with considering the competency of a church is that it presumes that some churches are incompetent.  And while this might be true in some cases, most congregations I know suffer less from incompetency than anxiety.  They are stuck.  They only know what they know and what they know is not working anymore.  Their leaders need new skills and the energy to use those new skills.

I would like to be the kind of leader who invests in the most competent churches and pastors in our Presbytery.  The most competent are entrepreneurial.  They are missional.  They are willing to experiment and if the experiment fails, then at least they learned something. And then they try something else.

The most competent congregations will never ask for money to buy a new church sign.  They know that the kind of sign they need has nothing to do with neon lights.

The most competent congregations will never expect a quick fix.  They get that changing a culture is needed more than changing a light bulb (or a pastoral leader or an organist or an educator.)

The most competent congregations might be small or large, theologically liberal or theologically conservative, rich or poor.  When someone tells me that, “If only they took a stronger stand on guns” or “If only we had more money” I know that – most likely – they are missing the point of making disciples.

If you believe your own congregation is not so competent, what – in your culture – needs to change.  The question is not: why technical changes are needed.

Competent congregations make a lot of mistakes, but the difference is that they learn from them. That image above needs to read “Mistakes” in the plural.


Up Close, It’s Fuzzy

Fuzzy is good for teddy bears.  Not so much for early morning teeth or pollen-laden throats.

Sometimes somebody else’s life looks smooth and silky when – up close – life is actually quite fuzzy:  fuzzy future, fuzzy relationships, fuzzy details.

I remember – as a child and especially as a Middle Schooler – looking at other people’s lives and wondering what they were like up close and in bright light, and I distinctly remember not wanting to trade my live with any of theirs.  I knew the fuzzy parts of my own life and I could live with them.

Most people’s lives are fuzzy.

The same is true for churches.  The church with great curb appeal and perfect-looking people are often the fuzziest – and I’m not just talking about their theology.  Life is fuzzy all-around and it’s okay.  The fuzziness makes life more interesting and more textured.  And it can be beautiful because God is in it.

Image of a lovely plant that’s clearly fuzzy up close.  Serra Retreat Center, Malibu.

The Scary Door

I like adventure movies but not scary movies.  Being scared is part of life and I wonder what it says about someone’s spiritual life to be truly fearless.  Some of us might describe ourselves as being “fearless” but it’s not an all-encompassing fearlessness.

We might be unafraid to parachute out of a plane but it’s terrifying to think about living alone.

We might be fearless in the face of illness but the thought of losing a child paralyzes us.

Spiritual growth requires opening and walking through scary doors.  Sometimes we do it because we simply cannot stand being on the safe side any longer.  We cannot stay where we are and live a whole life.  We cannot avoid the door for a single moment more or our souls will die.  And so we open it.  And we walk through.  And we pray we will survive the terror:

  • Like when you have to tell your family that you might be transgender.
  • Like when you decide to go to seminary – even though you’ve been taught that women aren’t called into professional ministry.
  • Like when you need to leave a relationship.
  • Like when you need to leave a job.
  • Like when you are in so much pain it’s time to find out what these headaches are all about.

We walk through the scary door.  If we are most fortunate, we have people who walk with us. It also helps to find safe people on the other side.

I believe God always provides safe people on the other side. It’s going to be okay. When you are ready, open the door and cross the threshold into the next room.

Image of a scary door along a pathway. Serra Center in Malibu where I’m learning things this week with Mid-Council colleagues.

Changing the World = Washing the Dishes

The Rev. Jennifer “Helms” and Greg Jarrell are bridge builders in Charlotte, NC and they are changing the world for good in the name of Jesus.  They were recognized with an actual Bridge Builder Award last week at the Meck Min Breakfast.  Greg said – in his remarks – that what he does to change the world includes washing the dishes.

Sometimes Changing the World = Washing the Dishes

Aspirational Gen Z-ers, Visionary Millennials, Not-Yet-Cynical Gen X-ers, and 60s-loving Boomers all want to change the world.  Many of us see ourselves doing Big Selfless Acts or starting our own 501c3 Organizations or running for public office.  Yay us.

Servant leadership is the mark of a spiritually mature person.  And yet, sometimes what’s needed most is someone to do the dishes, someone to clean up after people who cannot clean up after themselves, someone to sit there and be present.  The basics.  Nothing flashy or Nobel-Prize worthy.

The mark of a good human has more to do with noticing that somebody needs a spoon for their soup than starting a new non-profit.  So, here is our Change The World Challenge this Week:

  • Clear somebody else’s dirty dishes.
  • Offer someone a tissue.
  • Refill a stranger’s coffee.
  • Loan your pen.
  • Spot somebody $1 if they’re short.
  • Share your umbrella.
  • Tell someone they look amazing today (but not in a creepy way.)
  • Listen to somebody’s story.

No need to report back.  Just do it.  Change the world this week.

Not sure if Palmolive Dish Soap is still used for manicures, but it definitely cleans dishes.