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Friday Pro Tips

In these days when life feels hard/soul-sucking in Church World and beyond, here are some simple things that will make life easier/life-giving.

In no particular order:

  1. Pastors: on the day you baptize someone, write them a letter to open on their 10th birthday (for infants/young children) or in ten years (for older people) about what happened that day. Who was present. What happened. What you hope for them by the time they read it. Who will have your contact information if they want to catch up some day. The pastor who baptized my siblings over sixty years ago did this and I did it as a parish pastor and it’s truly special to have them reach out years later.
  2. Pastors: we have peculiar lives and often deal with individuals/congregations who make our lives harder. Do not overshare on social media about what frustrating things your congregation is/not doing. Don’t name names in media interviews. Don’t believe that your church/presbytery/colleagues will not read the post where you trashed them. Yes, vent. But vent to friends over coffee or in a private text thread. (Note: people have told me that they have shown up on my blog and – please believe me – I make up stories/change them liberally to protect both the innocent and the guilty.)
  3. Pastors and Other Faith Leaders: when someone asks you to pray for them (and even if they don’t) ask if you can pray together here and now. And then do that. Don’t wait until you have quiet time at the end of the day. Pray right then. Leave a prayer on their voicemail. Send a prayer via text. This is not about performing. It’s about authentic bonding.
  4. Don’t ever accept a call that you are not indeed called to. Don’t serve in a church just because it’s in a city where you want to live if you aren’t called there. Don’t serve in a church that will be impressive to your parents/friends if you aren’t called there. Don’t avoid the church in a place you never imagined living or the church of quirky people who resemble The Island of Misfit Toys if God is screaming in your ear that you are indeed called to be with those interesting humans.
  5. Get out more. Don’t do the same continuing education every year. Read a book in a genre you usually don’t read. Talk with a person with whom you totally disagree. Try a cuisine you’ve never tried. Sit on a bench and watch people (but not in a creepy way.) Walk somebody else’s dog. Go to a 24/hour diner at 4 in the morning and notice who else is up late.
  6. Support a B Corporation.

Have a wonderful weekend everyone.

I Am Toast

My Sabbatical begins in 35 days and I am profoundly grateful that . . .

  • I get a Sabbatical.
  • I love my work even though it necessitates a Sabbatical.

The whole world needs a Sabbatical right now to refresh ourselves and stare into space and spend time delighting in all that fills us with joy. It’s moments like these when I covet the European vacation culture. Combined with mandated vacation days, workers in Europe can get as many as 38 days paid time off. And that holiday time contributes to making these nations the happiest countries in the world.

We are in deeply anxious times regardless of our politics, family situations, and financial standing. I don’t need to spell those out details for you.

Yesterday our Presbytery hosted an informal Happy Hour at a local coffee shop and it felt good. It felt good to talk about things like funny things our kids are doing or the upcoming Chelsea-Wrexham “friendly” happening in Chapel Hill in July or whether or not these were the best empanadas we’ve ever had. It refreshed my toastedness, even for just a short bit.

Friends, take in a deep breath and remember what freshly baked bread smelled like. Life can smell like that but it takes intention. What are we doing to create Happy Hours in our lives (and I’m not talking about bar scenes)?

What if we took an hour a day for Happy Time. This is a privilege for those of us without young children or caregiver responsibilities, but honestly, most of us can find a Happy Hour. And thanks be to God for Happy Sabbaticals.

Taking deep breaths over here trying to remember what freshly baked sourdough smells like.

Who Are We Setting Up for Success?

This post is dedicated to the Rev. Betty Meadows who set me up for success. Almost five years ago, after she honorably retired, I started my new role as General Presbyter of The Presbytery of Charlotte. I am profoundly grateful for how she prepared the way for me to succeed. May 1st will be my five year anniversary in this incredibly fun call.

She dealt with hard things. She made some people frustrated. She did the work that would allow me to step in and go.

Who are we setting up for success?

Maybe it’s the transitional leader who is preparing the way for a new season in an institutional setting. Maybe it’s the mentor who’s shepherding us to do what we’re called to do. Maybe it’s the parent who is raising us to be resilient, independent, and kind.

It’s the role of every single one of us to prepare another Child of God for success. Who are we setting up for success today?

PS. Thanks Betty.

Magical Thinking Kills

Maybe your place of worship resembles Hogwarts. Cool.

I personally love a beautiful place of worship: candles and rafters and stone and carved angels. Some of us find peace just sitting in a sanctuary with stained glass and gothic architecture. If the place feels magical, maybe something extraordinary will happen . . .

One of the mistakes churches are making everywhere I look involves magical thinking and it has little to do with architecture or design. It’s all about looking backwards, culturally speaking.

Magical thinking for a Pastor Nominating Committee:

  • If we call a young pastor, people will come.
  • If we (a predominantly white congregation) call a Person of Color, People of Color will come.
  • If we call a pastor with little children, more families with children will come.

These ideas worked 30 years ago. They do not work now. They maybe didn’t even work 30 years ago.

Magical thinking for governing bodies:

  • We have a big enough endowment that we can afford ______.
  • I know we have investments to keep us afloat.
  • Our treasurer of 20 years tells us we are fine financially.

These are dangerous assumptions. My own experience as a denomination leader over the past 10+ years have included experiences with churches who call pastors they cannot afford to pay with long time treasurers who use money or resources set aside for one purpose to pay for a different one.

Magical thinking for Pastors:

  • If I lay low and keep the key members happy, things will be fine until I retire.
  • If I use my continuing education money to go on vacation, I can read a book or two about faith formation or stewardship and nobody will be the wiser.
  • If I take naps every afternoon, nobody will notice that I’m not doing my job.

This makes my heart hurt. We Pastors were not called to pat people on the heads or take advantage of our role to unsuspecting parishioners. We are called to love God’s people and hold them accountable and expect them to hold us accountable.

Jesus was not a magician. His miracles were not magic tricks.

Faith in God is not magical. We don’t pray for a parking space and –poof!— one appears.

Magical thinking – no matter who’s doing it in our congregations – might just be the death of us. Facing reality makes amazing things happen. How are we doing with this, friends?

“We Choose to Believe in a Happy Ending”

“It’s one of the American qualities that we absorbed — be optimistic, believe in happy endings, and that’s where we stand right now. But I’m not stupid. I understand what’s involved. But that’s what I choose to believe.” Ella Gershkovich

The parents of Evan Gershkovich – Ella and Mikhail – were interviewed last week about their son Evan’s arrest in Russia, accused of espionage. As I’ve previously shared, Evan is a friend our of TBC and we pray he will be set free soon along with Paul Whelan and all others falsely charged. Evan Gershkovich is a journalist for The Wall Street Journal covering the war in Ukraine.

Perhaps it is an American characteristic to be optimistic. We are the homeland of Disney movies and Jason Bourne, after all. We believe that:

  • Things will turn out in the end,
  • If you work hard enough, you will be successful,
  • Anyone can be President.

So . . . the truth is that not everything works out in the end unless we are talking in cosmic/eternal terms, and most of us don’t know precisely what the cosmos/eternity will bring. Trust in the future and karma and heaven are all matters of faith. The truth is that many impoverished people work very hard and never reach the middle class. And while we live in a nation where both a reality TV personality and someone whose middle name is Hussein could be elected President in the same decade, not everybody can be President.

We choose to believe what we believe. And while I believe that these times are cataclysmic for our culture, I choose to believe that we will come out better on the other side. Ultimately.

Someone said to me recently, “This is a rough time for the Church.” And I agree. And I also believe that these changes are essential if we are going to become the Church as God intends it to be.

Easter morning felt especially secular this year. After church, HH and I went out to brunch and there was zero indication that it was Easter morning. No “Happy Easter” from the host. Nobody was dressed up. There were no “Easter Specials” on the menu. For the first time in my life, I’m not sure most of my neighbors knew – or cared – that it was Easter morning. And I live in the Bible Belt.

I hear of congregations doing extraordinary ministry. I see pastoral leaders offer profound sermons and pastoral care. And I also hear – over and over again – “where are the people?” “Will our members ever come back to Church?

Maybe we are waiting for the wrong people. Believe me, there are people craving hope out there. There are people who wonder if anyone sees them, loves them, cares about them. They are God’s people. We are God’s people. But we in the Church have some work to do.

I believe that Jesus will always have a Church even if most of us church people miss the point. I believe in happy endings. I believe that the blind will receive their sight, the lame will walk, lepers will be cleansed, the deaf will hear, the dead will be raised up, and the poor will hear good news. I believe in the hope of Easter.

Image of Evan Gershkovich. Please pray for him today.

We’ll Continue to be a Divided Nation As Long As We Characterize Each Other Like Cartoon Characters

Why do political and/or theological rivals demonize each other with cartoonish characterizations?

I listened to Senator Tim Scott’s message this week about his exploratory committee regarding a run for the GOP nomination for President and it made me queasy. I like Tim Scott. He seems like a good person. And yet, when I heard his message it made me question his character. Does he intend to stoke division like a cynical politician? Or does he want to be the President of all US citizens? Among the things he said in that video:

  • President Biden and his people are “the radical left.”
  • Democrats promote “a culture of grievance” and “victimhood.”
  • Democrats are “indoctrinating our children to believe we live in an evil country.”


We have a joke in our family that any one of us – no matter how wholesomely or beneficently we may have lived our lives – would be crucified in this political climate if we ever ran for public office. Someone would dig up dirt on how we treated a prom date or something. I’m sure someone would find that pastoral prayer in which I prayed for Saddam during the Gulf War and declare that I hate the military.

We have got to stop demonizing each other.

I even hear church people (aka Followers of Jesus?) make up stories about people with opposing theological views for the sake of promoting their own theological views. Theology and Politics often align along the same lines: I hear Christians say that “you can’t be a Christian if you’re gay” and I hear Christians say that “you can’t be a Christian if you own an assault rifle.” The truth is that life is more complicated than cartoons. Although I might not understand how my sibling in Christ wants to eliminate difficult but real American history from the classroom, it’s better to talk to that person rather than write them off.

Jesus was executed because of political demonization. Haven’t we learned anything?

I’m not interested in voting for someone who calls their opponents “creators of a culture of grievance” anymore than I’m interested in voting for someone who calls their opponents “gun-toting Nazis.” I know. I know. Some of you are reading this and thinking “some people are hooked on grievances” and “some people are gun-toting Nazis.” There are certainly extremists on every side.

Resurrection is for each of us. And we begin by trying to understand our enemies, by praying for and with them. Jesus conquered hate and death which makes me know that we can as well.

Image is from The Mission Resource Network to offer support to independent congregations. I probably disagree with them on some things.

Talent Dysmorphia

The great majority of pastors I know do NOT suffer from Talent Dysmorphia but I wanted to consider this after hearing the term on Ted Lasso this week. (No spoilers. It’s just a term I appreciated much like “Compliment Sandwich.”)

Ted Lasso is chock full of leadership lessons.

Back to Talent Dysmorphia though . . .

There are indeed some pastors who believe they are amazing preachers, teachers, and pastoral caregivers when their parishioners would disagree. These are the pastors who tend to forego Continuing Education classes, mentoring, and counseling. They don’t think they need to brush up on their sermon writing or delivery. They love their people even if their faces appear annoyed.

I also know pastors who struggle more with Imposter Syndrome. (“If people really knew me, they’d never let me be their pastor.“) For what it’s worth, here’s a good article about women and imposter syndrome. Some of us might have it because we’ve been told we aren’t enough/supposed to be in the room because of our gender or age or experience. We often believe what other people say about us, even if it’s not true.

I wonder if people who accuse their colleagues of being imposters actually – themselves – have Talent Dysmorphia. Maybe they believe they are smartest/most gifted people in the room to the detriment of their organization’s health. Nobody else can be successful if leaders believe they are the only successful ones. They have an unrealistic opinion of their own talent.

In happier news, the most effective pastors I know are lifelong learners (especially about their own psyches.) They don’t take themselves too seriously, but they take their calling very seriously. They laugh easily and have an obvious spark. They are self-aware. They know that they belong to God.

Image is Jack (actor Jodi Balfour) from Season 3 of Ted Lasso: The worst people often think they’re the best. My dad calls it “talent dysmorphia.”

The Process of Becoming a Pastor Has Changed – That’s Both Good and Not-So-Good

I preached my 40th Easter Sermon in what is the historically oldest congregation in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina last weekend. Professional ministry and the preparation to become a professional minister have changed in those forty years.

Note: This is not a post about how it used to be better or harder so let’s make it harder for seminarians.

There are certainly generational differences in those entering seminary today and those who entered seminary 10-50 years ago. Requirements have changed. Demographics have changed. Expectations have changed. Seminaries have changed. Thanks be to God.

Today, we have online seminaries, weekend seminaries, commuter seminaries, and the traditional live-on-campus seminaries. Today it’s possible in many of our seminaries and/or denominations to be ordained without ever doing field education in a congregational setting, much less in a congregational setting that’s unlike one’s home church. Some people are even ordained to serve their own home church.

It used to be true that every seminarian was required to get experience in contexts unlike what’s familiar to them. For example, I grew up in a large small city church. I had planned to be a hospital chaplain when I started seminary, and took four units of Clinical Pastoral Education, and was also required to do field education in a church unlike my home congregation. My first call was not as a hospital chaplain but as a rural church pastor in a town of 400. But it was okay. When my sense of call changed (from chaplaincy to little rural congregation) I was prepared for a broad variety of contexts.

Philadelphia Presbytery and Princeton Theological Seminary are partnering to offer a really cool field education experience that involves students serving in congregational contexts but working to dream about community ministries working from those congregations. This is great training for 21st Century professional ministry.

I’ve often said that I wish I’d taken seminary classes in non-profit management and community organizing along with all the language, Bible, theology, practical, and history classes. I’ve taken continuing education courses in those other areas over the past decades. And I encourage new and seasoned pastors to branch out and fill out what seminaries didn’t teach with new learnings after ordination. (Note: pastors also need training in conflict resolution, leadership, stewardship and personnel management.)

This is not about hazing seminarians or pastors as in “when I was a student I had to walk ten miles to my field education church and work ten hours every Sunday – so you should have to do that too . . .” This is not about forcing busy people to become busier for the sake of the Gospel. This is definitely not making seminarians “marketable.” (A mid-council leader once told HH that he was impressively “marketable.” Gross.)

This is about being a well-rounded leader whom God is preparing to do whatever.

I still believe that professional ministry (and I include Chaplains, Educators and Youth Leaders here too) is an unusual calling in which we can expect God to lead us to serve in places we would never choose for ourselves. See Abram, Ruth, and Jonah. It always concerns me when a seminarian declares that they will never . . .

  • Leave their hometown
  • Serve a small church
  • Live farther than 5 miles from a craft brewery
  • Go to a part of the world they don’t want to ever go

It’s possible that God could call us to serve in a rural community where we don’t know anyone or in a part of the country where we don’t have family or a place with three diners and no coffee shop. It’s possible.

God gets to be God in terms of leading people. If God is doing the calling, all will be well even if it’s arduous.

I don’t believe God calls us to contexts that will be abusive or damaging. But I do believe God challenges us and blesses us in unlikely places. As a person who lived in the same (semi-perfect) town where I was born for the first 23 years of my life, it’s been a blessing to serve in three other states far-ish from home these past decades.

May this Eastertide offer deep insights and nuggets of wisdom. If you are a pastor or you are preparing to be a pastor, keep an open mind. God has unexpected plans for us.

Image of the chapel at the Charlotte Campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Who Will Be Courageous?

On this – the holiest and the busiest – week of the Christian calendar, I am moved to honor courageous leaders remembering both the courage of some of Jesus’ followers and the lack of courage of even more of Jesus’ followers. Unfortunately this continues to be the trend.

We who say we love Jesus and hope to follow him but don’t live up to this aspiration, imagine being more courageous as a spiritual discipline this week. I thank God for the ones who say brave words, take unpopular but faithful stands, and make sacrifices for the sake of love.

To the elders who stand up to bullies even when they threaten to “leave” or “withhold their pledges” . . .

To the pastors who start worship with welcoming words to “All People – including Trans Kids” even though some disapprove . . .

To the church lady who sits beside the visitor to make him feel welcomed even though it’s not in her regular pew . . .

To the church gentleman who gets a cup of coffee for the visitor who doesn’t smell very fresh . . .

To the deacon who suggests to the other deacons that they reach out to their Muslim neighbors . . .

To the choir director who says “yes” when the Ghanaian church members ask to sing an anthem in Twi knowing that some will complain . . .

To the youth leader who stands with the non-binary tenth grader . . .

To the Christian Educator who teaches a Bible study focusing on anti-racism in a congregation that doesn’t believe there’s any racism.

Jesus spoke the truth in love. Jesus turned over tables when God was being mocked. Jesus stood with people who were hated, banished, and broken. To say that Jesus was courageous is a monumental understatement. He said all the brave words. He took unpopular but faithful stands. He made the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of love.

Just one time in the next few days – unlike Peter or the other disciples – let’s be courageous for the sake of all that’s good and just and pure.

Image source.

Permanent Markers

Sometimes we need permanent markers.

I’m not talking about the kind you keep away from toddlers. I’m talking about the ones that remind older children and adults that there are beautiful and terrible things in history we must never forget. There are acts of heroism we need to remember for inspiration and gratitude. There are acts of brutality we need to remember so they will never happen again.

When I was a child, there was a permanent historical marker in the small town of Mt. Mourne, NC along NC Highway 115 that reminded passers-by that “this was the place” where enslaved people were sold and put on a train headed south. It was near one of the largest plantations in Iredell County owned by Rufus Reid, a Presbyterian. He owned as many as 84 human beings.

As a child, my dad would stop alongside this permanent marker as we drove between Mooresville and Davidson, and he would point out that the town was called Mt. Mourne because of it’s legacy of trauma.

The train tracks are still there but the platform where the enslaved were forever separated from their families is gone. The historic marker is also gone and even Mt. Mourne’s wiki page doesn’t mention this history of selling people on a platform across from the train tracks. Even the origination of the town name has changed. It’s now said that Mt. Mourne was named for the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland.

Sometimes even a permanent marker is not permanent.

Last week – with 42 colleagues – I made my first pilgrimage to The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The Equal Justice Initiative, founded and directed by Bryan Stevenson, created both this museum and memorial in order to tell a story that most of our U.S. History books do not tell.

Just as the Bibles many of us study include true stories of the mistreatment of women and children, slavery in Egypt, the worship of gold, the devastation of villages, and even the gory crucifixion of an innocent man whom some of us call The Living Word of God, real history – even if it’s excruciating and shameful – is essential for us to know. It reminds us who we are and who God is.

There are more than 176,473 permanent historic markers in the USA according to The Historical Marker Database with more added daily. There are markers at the homes of Clara Barton, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Davy Crockett. There are markers at U.S. Naval Base Pearl Harbor and Bunker Hill. There are even markers designating a Circus Train Wreck in 1918 in Indiana and the original Krispy Kreme Donut Shop in North Carolina.

Many of us prefer not to know about the excruciating and shameful parts of our U.S. history. When NFL Panther fans go to a home game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, they probably don’t want to know that the first lynching in the city happened on what is now the 20 yard line under the turf. When tourists visit Mt. Rushmore, they probably don’t want to hear that the land was stolen from the Lakota people when the U.S. broke a treaty with them in 1877.

But we need to remember. We need to remember in order to honor those who have suffered. We need to remember in order to tell the truth about ourselves – which is my favorite verse before Sunday Prayers of Confession:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I John 1:8-9

The Equal Justice Initiative continues to collaborate with local communities to install more permanent markers that tell the truth. My hope is that – one day – there will even be a marker at the Bank of America Stadium.

Image of a marker at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice commemorating the lynchings that occured in Rowan County, NC from where my people hail.