When Churches Want a Pastor Who Can “Bring In Young Families” . . .

Children in church 1

[Note: Just like yesterday, this is a re-post I wrote a few years ago that resonated with people.  I finish up the class I’m teaching Friday and will write new posts for next week.]

Almost every church I’ve ever known has wanted to Attract Young Families.  The reasoning behind this includes the following:

  • If we don’t regenerate, everyone will eventually get old and die.
  • It’s energizing to have young people around.
  • Younger members can do the work that older members can’t/won’t do anymore.
  • Older members tend to be on fixed incomes and younger working members are needed for their pledges.
  • Young families (i.e. mom, dad, and kids) remind us of church when we were (or wish we were) part of young families.

There are a few things wrong with this reasoning, including the fact that “attracting” people in general feels manipulative – as if people are “targets” to be used for our own purposes.  Yuck.

Let’s be honest about the “why.  Are we saying that we want these rare and valuable Young Families for what they can give to us?

What if  – instead – the “why” of this demographic quest was about feeding souls and sharing authentic community?  I always hoped – as a young mom – that church would provide adults that could help me nurture my children.  I always wanted to know that – if my kids couldn’t come to me or HH with a problem – they would have other trustworthy adults to whom they could go (and they did.)

Young families are great.  Old families are great.  Families made up of child-free couples are great.  Families of single people are great.  Imagine if every church simply wanted A Pastor Who Could Bring In Broken People.  Now that’s a church.

Also, the days are gone when Young Families were present in worship every Sunday.  The statistics are in about how the definition of “regular worship” has changed since the 1950s.  (“Regular” used to mean weekly.  Now it means once or twice a month.)

Instead of seeking a Pastor who can bring in those vaunted Young Families, we need to call a Pastor who knows how to shift congregational culture.  The culture in which we live and move and have our being has changed, but we are killing ourselves trying to maintain a dated congregational culture.

News flash:  Most pastors will fail at “Bringing in Young Families.” Families of every kind are drawn to communities that are in touch with real life.  For example, check out Carey Nieuwhof’s recent post about why even committed Christians do not worship as regularly as they did in previous decades.  At least two of his “10 Reasons” specifically impact cultural changes connected to Young Families.

So how can we be the kind of congregation that welcomes Young Families for more than their energy and wallets?  We can:

  1. Be real.  Deal with real issues in sermons, classes, retreats, conversations, prayers.
  2. Listen to parents’ concerns.  Listen to children’s concerns.
  3. Ask how we can pray for them.  And then pray for them.
  4. Allow/encourage messiness.  Noses will run and squirming will ensue.  There might be running.  There will definitely be noise.
  5. Check our personal Stink Eye Quotient.  Do we grimace when a baby cries?  Do we frown when the kids are wearing soccer uniforms?
  6. Refrain from expecting everyone to be the church like we have always been the church.
  7. Help parents, grandparents, and all adults become equipped to minister to children and youth.  How can we learn to offer such loving hospitality to the younger people in our midst that they will always experience church as home?
  8. Do not use children as cute props.  Yes they say the darndest things during children’s stories, but they are not there to entertain us.
  9. Give parents a break.  Really.  Help struggling parents get coats and hats on their kids.  Hold an umbrella.  Assist in wiping spills.
  10. Give parents a break administratively.  Make it easy to participate. Minimize the unnecessary.

It’s also okay not to have Young Families in our congregations depending on the context.  Some neighborhoods have very few young ones living nearby.  But there are still people who crave some Good News.

I want a Pastor who can minister to whomever lives in the neighborhood in the thick of these cruel and beautiful times.

Image is a popular one that shows up in lots of random blog posts.

Dear Pastor Search Committee

[Note:  Ken McFayden, Richard Boyce and I are teaching Transitional Ministry Training this week in Charlotte and writing a fresh post is not going to happen today.  Here’s one from 2013 that might be appreciated, especially if your congregation is searching for new leadership.]

Dear Pastor Search Committee,

The truth is that you are the most important committee in the church.  Your choices will impact the future of your congregation for the rest of that congregation’s life.

No pressure or anything.  But here’s the good news:  God wants to direct you. Your job is to discern and listen and then act in faith, not in fear.

Having said this, I get that you don’t want denominational staffers to tell you what to do, but there might be some insights that we can contribute as entities who do this All The Time.  You don’t have to take this guidance, but honestly, we want you to have the best pastor possible and these tips will help.  You can find this out now or you can find this out later.  So please consider the following:

  • For the love of God, please don’t judge pastors by their gender, hair style, skin color, accent, age, or (even) education.  Maybe she went to the local community college for a really good reason.  Maybe he studied at Harvard but he’s a jerk.  Perhaps they have fabulous hair, but they also have the pastoral skills of a carrot.  Maybe she won preaching awards but she’ll stab you in the back.  Maybe he’s quirky and yet there is a holy aura about him.  I’ve written about pulpit candy before in this blog.  Don’t choose pulpit candy.
  • If you consider yourselves to An Amazing Church, congratulations.  But do not assume that all candidates believe you are all that.  If you come off as arrogant (“If we should deign to call you . . .“), if you believe that everyone will be clamoring to be your pastor, if you believe great candidates will come to you – beware.  The candidate you really want is not that shallow.
  • If you consider yourself to be a church with little to offer, stop it.  You deserve a strong pastor.  Keep in mind that your community needs a shepherd who will teach you how to make disciples and love people.  Don’t settle for someone without the energy to serve you well.
  • If several candidates have turned you down, stir up the courage to have someone contact the former candidates and ask what you could have done better.  Make it clear that you truly want to learn how you could be more hospitable, transparent, authentic.  And listen to those comments.
  • Give people space and yet keep them informed.  Don’t interview somebody and then fail to be in touch for a month.  Acknowledge receiving their resumes.  And when they come into town, do not insist they look at certain neighborhoods while simultaneously offering a salary package that makes that neighborhood out of their financial reach.
  • Tell the truth.  Don’t hide skeletons.  Don’t forget to mention the misconduct of your former pastor or the full financial picture of the congregation.  It will not be pretty – or fair – when your new pastor finds out the truth the week after her/his installation.
  • Don’t rush.  It’s better to have no pastor than have a pastor who’s a terrible match.

Your congregation deserves a pastor who will understand you, love you, lead you, admonish you, and challenge you.  Pray for that person.  Your next pastor is out there but it might take a while for you to find each other.

Grace and peace, Jan

Repeating Lies is a Spiritual Problem

No lies about your neighbor.  Exodus 20:16 in The Message

Scientific American magazine reported about something called the Illusory Truth Effect in December 2019 and it’s part of the ongoing conversation about why there is so much disinformation being spread these days.  From disinformation about vaccines to misinformation about “what the Bible says” it’s not a good time to be a lazy person.  If we hear that Senator X has a zipper problem or Pastor Y misuses her church credit card, we need to dig deeper.  If we hear those rumors more over and over, we need to dig even deeper. From that Scientific American article:

The Washington Post recently reported that there are “more than 350 instances in which [Trump] has repeated a variation of the same claim at least three times.” In fact, Trump has repeated some false claims more than 200 times—for example, his claim that his border wall is being built.

If I tell people over and over again that I was a Rhodes Scholar, I might even start believing it myself.  But it’s not true.  And it’s an easily provable lie.  But if I tell people over and over again that the Pastor of Big Church on the Corner is an ineffective leader, her reputation will be damaged.  And it’s harder to prove or disprove such a comment.

The world is awash in disinformation and misinformation which threatens our democracy, our health, and our souls.

Many people believe that:

  • President Obama is Muslim.  (Note: It would be fine if he happened to be Muslim.  But it’s not true.)
  • Today’s U.S. economy is the best it’s ever been in the history of the United States. (Note: The economy is great. But it’s currently not the best it’s ever been in our history.)
  • “The Wall” is under construction at the Mexican border.  (Note: Photos widely shared of the promised Wall were actually taken of a different wall in Calexico, Calif.  In other sections of the border, new fencing is replacing old fencing contracted prior to President Trump’s election.)

These lies have been repeated so many times that millions of people believe them.  That’s the Illusory Truth Effect: if someone says it over and over again it “becomes true” in the minds of those who keep hearing it.

Unfortunately the lies that millions of people also believe have to do with their inherent worth.  Millions of people are told every day that they are not worth being loved, that if they are loved it’s conditional or transactional.  This is a lie.

Here is the God’s honest truth (and I mean that literally):

Every human being is worthy of unconditional love.  Every skin color. Every gender.  Every orientation.  Every culture.  Every ability. Every religion.  God created each of us worthy of love.  We in the Church need to repeat that fact over and over and over again – not because it is an illusion but because it’s eternally True.

For God so loved the world . . .

Not just white people.  Not just healthy people.  Not just successful people.  Not just Americans.  Not just educated people.

All people.  The world.  This is the Truth and souls are damaged if we fail to live accordingly.  Let’s make a point of spreading this True Information as often as possible.

White Churches: Your Next Pastor Might Not Be White

I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful
tragedies, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated
hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America. I definitely think
the Christian church should be integrated, and any church that stands against integration and that has a segregated body is standing against the spirit and the teachings of Jesus Christ, and it fails to be a true witness. But this is something that the Church will have to do itself. I don’t think church integration will come through legal processes. I might say that my church is not a segregating church. It’s segregated but not segregating. It would welcome white members. Martin Luther King Jr on Meet the Press April 17, 1960

Someone asked me a couple weeks ago, “How can we get Black People to join our church?”  The people asking were White Christians and they were hoping to become more racially diverse.

The answer to this question is complex, but here are some initial followup questions:

  • Why do you want your congregation to be diverse racially?  Did you hear that diverse congregations are popular with Millennials?  Has it occurred to you that a segregated congregation doesn’t look anything like the kingdom of God?
  • Are People of Color (truly) welcome in your worship services and other events?
  • Do people treat new worshipers – especially people who don’t look like the majority of worshipers in skin color, age, abilities – like rare birds who are stared at and tiptoed around?
  • Is your staff diverse? This is a big one.

Depending on your congregation’s polity, Bishops, Church Elders, Pastor Nominating Committees, and Personnel Committees have the power to interview and hire/call pastors, educators, administrators, and music leaders. Especially when it comes to calling new pastoral leaders, there’s pressure to select a combination of Jesus/Rock Star Pastor.  There is also pressure to select a pastoral leader who will make everybody comfortable.

[Note: Jesus probably made a lot of people uncomfortable and Rock Stars can be divas who prioritize making themselves comfortable.]

If your congregation’s neighborhood is changing, it makes sense to call a pastor who reflects those demographic changes.

If your workplace, your children’s classrooms, and the stores in which you shop are racially diverse, it makes sense to have a church staff that looks like the office, the classroom, and the Target where you and your family spend your time.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that there are segregated churches and there are segregating churches.  Yes, most of our congregations are racially segregated.  But the great sin is that most of our congregations are also racially segregating.

Image from Thrivent Financial with ideas on how we can serve others on this national holiday.  If nothing else, write a letter of thanks to a first responder, take food to a shelter, or volunteer where needed today.  Thanking God for prophets of justice like Dr. King.

Mike, De’Amon, and Miguel

How comfortable are you feeling right now?  Most of us like to feel comfortable.

And yet I increasingly believe that we learn life’s most important lessons when we are uncomfortable.  And I’m not talking about mattresses and shoes.

I’m talking about embracing uncomfortable situations and having uncomfortable conversations.  This is how we stretch and grow and move forward.  Or we can seek comfort and stay where we are.

The National Gathering of NEXT Church is perennially inspiring, fun, and motivating.  Yes, there have been speakers who jolt us and spark new ideas.  The 2020 National Gathering – in particular – promises to make us uncomfortable.

Yay.

Keynoters Mike Mather, De’Amon Harges, and Miguel de la Torre will make us decidedly uncomfortable in Cincinnati March 2-4, 2020.  And this is very good.

One of the questions Brene Brown asks in her book Daring Greatly when trying to figure out an institution’s culture is this one:

What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort?  Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?

Let’s say you are sitting in a church pew on Sunday morning and a guy comes in wearing a torn t-shirt and he smells bad.  And he sits beside you.  Or there’s a woman you’ve never seen before who sobs throughout the whole worship service.  Do you approach her?  Or there’s a young man clearly dealing with some sort of brain injury who is sitting behind you in worship and he keeps touching your hair.  All these things make us uncomfortable.  All these things are opportunities to love someone.

Spiritual growth is essential for humans and we have a lot of growing to do if we are going to follow Jesus in a tumultuous world.  And it’s going to be uncomfortable, but also holy and worth it.

I hope you consider welcoming some uncomfortable conversations with Mike, De’Amon, and Miguel in March.  Register for NEXT Church here.  It will be holy and worth it.

Image is one I use when talking with congregations about being uncomfortable in church.  How would you feel sitting beside this guy next Sunday?  And what could we learn from him? And what could we learn about ourselves?

Lin-Manuel, Audie, and Ijeoma

I was getting my haircut last Friday and mentioned to my stylist that SBC had met Lin-Manuel Miranda at Freestyle Love Supreme. She gave me a blank stare.

S and I have talked over many haircuts about Lizzo, Fleabag, and podcasts we like.  I also know from these conversations that our backgrounds are different and I enjoy her company (and her salon skills) very much.  Did I mention that we come from different worlds?

S had never heard of Lin-Manuel Miranda much less Freestyle Love Supreme.  When I told her about a story that Audie Cornish has reported on All Things Considered, it was clear that she’d never heard of All Things Considered, much less Audie Cornish.  When she asked me what I’d learned in 2019, I told her I loved So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo and I was looking forward to the Just Mercy movie.  More blank stares.

You know you live in a bubble when everything you reference in a single conversation sounds like a foreign language to other people in the conversation.

“Everybody” I know can identify Lin-Manuel Miranda (and recognizes the lyrics to Hamilton.)  “Everybody” I know listens to All Things Considered (and Morning Edition and Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me.)  “Everybody” I know has read So You Want to Talk About Race (and The New Jim Crow and I’m Still Here and Just Mercy.)

I need to get out more.

One of the reasons our nation is so divided is because many of us live in bubbles.  We judge those who aren’t as – whatever – as we are.  And the truth is that all of us are ignorant about other people’s culture.

True Confession: I had never heard of Jason Aldean until the Las Vegas Shooting in 2017.

I know nothing about hunting and fishing except what I’ve learned from my father-in-law.  I know nothing about Pakistani food except what I’ve learned from my daughter-in-law.  I know nothing about parrots except what I’ve learned from one of my colleagues.

I know nothing about many, many things.

If we hope to heal the divisions in our nation, our families, our neighborhoods, we need to listen to people who know things we don’t know.  We need to appreciate different kinds of knowledge.  We need to be gracious in the presence of people whose opinions are the opposite of our opinions.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a is an American composer, lyricist, singer, actor, producer, and playwright, widely known for creating and starring in the Broadway musicals In the Heights and Hamilton.*  My SBC met him recently.  It was pretty cool.

Image from Freestyle Love Supreme.  From left to right: Chris Sullivan, Anthony Veneziale, Christopher Jackson, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Bill Sherman and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

*From Wikipedia

Meghan and Harry

Notice how we call them by their first names as if we know them/they’ve become like other First Name Only celebrities.

We in the former colonies don’t generally get what it means to “be a royal” although we seem to love the weddings.  Do we care because they are celebrities?  Do we care because we wish fairy tales were true?

The New York Times has published five pieces about Meghan and Harry in less than a week so The Gray Lady clearly cares.  But the most important article about them was written last week by Afua Hirsch: Black Britons Know Why Meghan Markle Wants Out.

The couple have been referred to as:

  • “A Breath of Fresh Air”
  • “Rogue Royals”
  • “Turncoats”
  • “Selfish”
  • “Victims”
  • “Victimizers”
  • “Adults Who Deserve to Live Their Own Lives” . . .

and countless other epithets, titles, and characterizations.  It’s interesting that so many people have so many comments.  But racism is the new feature in this royal story.

It’s not merely the “straight out of Compton” comment or the one about baby Archie looking like a chimpanzee.  Racism is usually coded more subtly.  We Western White People in the United States are everyday racists in the way we assume that People of Color live in poor urban neighborhoods and are inherently dangerous.  We make racist comments without even realizing it.  I know I do.

And it must be a nightmare to be followed around everywhere you go. Adele, Drake, and Cher understand this kind of imprisonment, but being “royal” ratchets it up beyond our imagination.  And being a person of mixed race who married the ginger prince feels suffocating even as an observer.

Royal news is a blessed distraction from global disasters and our own political divides.  You know what else is a distraction?  Judging people based on their skin color which has been – sinfully – not just a distraction but a policy in the United States of America.

Leave Meghan and Harry to do what they need to do.  Instead let’s focus on dismantling the everyday racism. I know I personally have a lot of work to do.

Image of Meghan Markle aka The Duchess of Sussex.

Ruth

Many people don’t get family matriarchs.  There’s no homestead to pass from generation to generation.  There’s no special tea cup or piece of jewelry.  There might not even be stories.  (Note: The NY Times shared news of the death of a local “star of New York Real Estate” last week and – as it turns out – her fabulous life story was a lie.)

Ruth Edmiston Hunter’s life was not a lie.  It was truly special and well-lived. And last Wednesday, January 8 her baptism was made complete.

Other cousins reminded me over the weekend that Ruth was the first of the fourteen grandchildren of Victor Chalmers Edmiston and Jane May Gray – my great-grandparents.  This also means that she was the oldest great grandchild of Samuel Edmiston who died at Antietam fighting for the Confederate Army.  There was also a Samuel Edmiston from Pennsylvania who fought at Antietam for the Union Army.  Every war is simple and every war is complicated in its own way.

Ruth was a woman of valor and an accomplished leader of other women.  She graduated from Queens College in Charlotte in the middle of World War II and she served Queens post-graduation in numerous capacities including the Board of Trustees.  She was a longtime member of Steele Creek Presbyterian Church and she will join her husband on the grounds there in death.  Or at least her body will be there.

I have no idea how heaven works exactly but it moved me to tears to imagine the holy reunion with those who have gone before her.  She outlived her parents, of course, but she also outlived her husband, her siblings and each of her ten first cousins.  I’m a little jealous that she gets to see them again however God makes that happen.

In addition to her many accomplishments as an adult, Ruth played Fanny in the Mt Ulla Elementary School’s musical presentation of Christmas with the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. Included in the cast were her aunt Annie Lou and her cousins John and Sam.

Re-reading the program for that children’s performance, I’m reminded that there was no one left who remembered Ruth as a little girl.  There was no one left who was present at her baptism.  I wonder what that feels like and I pray she was not lonely being the oldest person in her family tree.

I’m deeply grateful that God shared Ruth with us for almost 99 years.

Here’s to the matriarchs and patriarchs of our lives.  Let’s use our days well this week.

Image of Ruth Edmiston Hunter my first cousin, once removed.

Access to Bliss

Who doesn’t love being in a state of bliss?

When we live frantically, our blissful moments are easily overlooked and under appreciated. And yet the slow chewing of a perfect piece of chocolate or the sweet intimacy between partners or the deep ecstasy of noticing a bluebird on a slow walk has cathartic properties.  My therapist recently mentioned something about my “access to bliss” and I’ve decided I’d like to increase my access.  It’s not about accumulating more chocolate.  It’s about appreciating the chocolate.

“One of the quickest pathways to bliss is to experience a life-threatening illness.  All of a sudden life’s sweetness and tragedy unfurl before us.  When we hear that we may only have a short time to live, life seems especially precious.”  Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing As We Age by Mary Pipher

Bliss happens when a sick child has a really good day.  Bliss happens when the test results show no more cancer.  Bliss happens when there’s a death sentence reprieve.

It occurs to me that there are millions of people in the world who live with such a high misery quotient that they have virtually no access to bliss.  They live in refugee camps or detention centers.  They are trapped in broken bodies with clear minds.  They have no hope and no reason to be hopeful.  They have lost almost everything after a flood or fire or storm.

On this Friday full of possibilities, how can we offer someone easy access to bliss?  Seeing those who need it is the first step.

Labels (and How They Mess With the Spirit of God)

I like the wine and not the label.  Does that make sense?

I was re-watching the red wine/white wine scene in a previous season of Schitt’s Creek and thinking about labels the other day.  Especially in Church, we are good at labeling.  I know I am.

I always thought this character – David – was goofy and vain.  But this scene taught me that he is also confident and comfortable in his own skin.

Labeling messes with God’s creation.

Where I work we have “black churches” and “white churches.”  We label people to be poor, rich, strong, weak, old, young.  Young colleagues referred to me as “a crone” once about ten years ago and it broke my heart a little bit. They meant it as a compliment but my brain pictured this.

Maybe because Church is an organization, we organize the people  We lump them together as:

  • The choir members
  • The Church ladies
  • The legacy members
  • The homebound
  • The nominal members
  • The big givers

There is nothing wrong with descriptors, but each of us is more than one thing.

A post against labeling might seem trite, but how we see people determines how spiritually healthy our congregations are.  I hear churches tell me that they are a “small church” or a “poor church” as if it sums up the whole of who they are.  It doesn’t.

We are rich with diversity even if we look alike.

I have been told by Pastor Nominating Committees the following:

  • He seems to be great but we aren’t ready to call a gay pastor.  People will think we are A Gay Church.
  • We aren’t ready for a black pastor (on our all white church staff.)  In fact, it would mostly be hard for him.
  • We aren’t looking for an woman pastor.

We really limit the power of God, don’t we?  Sometimes the people we label negatively or say “we aren’t yet ready for them” are – possibly – the ones God is sending our way.  We might like the idea of calling a pastor who will stretch our souls and our understanding of who is supposed to lead us, but when it comes down to it, we stick with safe choices/what’s we’ve always done before.

I’d bet that congregations with a low incidence of labeling tend to be growing congregations.  That teenager with braces?  They might be an excellent deacon.  That person who doesn’t say much?  They might have a lot to say on the governing board.  The outcasts?  The fringe people?  The queer ones?  (See – I’m even labeling them here.)  All might be the perfect souls to visit people in the hospital or run the next community dinner or play an instrument in worship.

Relationships help us overcome labeling people as any one thing.  And maybe God is telling us that – ready or not – the people we consider least likely to lead (because we have labeled them least likely) are the ones God is choosing.  None of us is any one thing.

Image of Schitt’s Creek’s David (Dan Levy) and Stevie (Emily Hampshire) in the wine aisle.