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Is Collaboration Female?

Some of us read Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice in seminary which notes the differences in how men and women make decisions. Generally- speaking. women make decisions according to their relationships and men make decisions according to what’s right and wrong. [Note: gender studies have evolved since Gilligan wrote this book in 1982 but that’s for another post.]

I remember when, as a parish pastor, our elders approved to have an organization place a huge metal bin in a corner of the church parking lot to collect used clothing.  On the day the bin was delivered, it was accidently placed in a corner of the church parking lot across the street.  The Methodists had our bin!

Whatever.  Both churches were served by female pastors and we agreed that it was just fine to keep the bin over there and it was just as convenient for people to donate clothing in “their” parking lot as in “ours.”

Conflict ensued.  Some of our elders were concerned that “we wouldn’t get credit” for this mission project and when it was pointed out that the purpose of the bin was to serve those who might need the clothing rather than to score points in some heavenly tally, the conflict was settled.  But the feelings remained the same.

To put it simplistically, the women were quick to collaborate and the men wanted to keep score.  [Again: these are stereotypes.  Please don’t troll me.]

The future of the Church is collaboration in mission: with private business, with school systems, with local police departments, with other congregations.  If the point is to make a positive impact in service to our neighbors, then who cares whose idea it was or whose name is on it?  Unless we are keeping score.

If Jesus kept score, we would all be doomed.  

Some say that “the future is feminine.”  I don’t know about that, but I do know that the days of white straight male privilege are slowly (very slowly) fading away.  Weekend assignment: watch the movie A Promising Young Woman by Emerald Fennell.*  To be discussed next week.

Image of (L to R) Actor Carey Mulligan, writer/director Emerald Fennell and actor Laverne Cox on the set of Promising Young Woman.

*Viewer Warning: it might trigger those who’ve been assaulted.

Meddling from the Pulpit

I included this question in yesterday’s post about the shootings at the three Asian American spas:

And why is it okay for someone to register for and buy a gun on the same day in Georgia but it’s not okay to register and vote on the same day in Georgia? 

Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t see that question as controversial.  It’s a real question.  I would love to hear from someone – especially from a person of faith – an answer to that question that makes sense.

People of faith can disagree and it’s an ongoing topic of conversation among preachers about how we – as students of Scripture charged with proclaiming The Truth – can express what we believe God is saying to us even if we know there are hearers who will – at best – disagree and – at worst – accuse of of meddling/preaching politics.

[Note: Jesus was crucified for political reasons.  Just something to keep in mind as we move into Holy Week.]

As a preacher, I have not cornered the market on God’s Truth.  And yet I can say for sure that God doesn’t want us to :

  • Perform child sacrifice.
  • Burn down our neighbor’s house.
  • Enslave people.

Those beliefs do not seem political unless we go deeper.

  • Are we sacrificing our children by not tightening gun legislation? (Check out this new book Children Under Fire by Washington Post reporter John Woodrow Cox.)  Are we sacrificing our children by permitting abortion?  By aborting fetuses with Down Syndrome? 
  • Are we figuratively burning down the houses of our neighbors when our troops accidently or strategically target civilian villages?  Are we sacrificing safe neighborhoods for fossil fuel expansion?
  • Are we allowing financial institutions to hold students hostage with crushing debt?  Are we participating in unfair labor practices that keep the poor impoverished?

See what I mean?  It doesn’t take much to move into “meddling.”

I believe we are called to speak the truth in love and it’s also true that people will not love us back.  In healthy congregations, people can agree to disagree.  In healthy congregations, people of deep faith can say to each other, “You could be right, but I’m not there yet.”  

In unhealthy congregations, preachers get bullied and gas-lit and assaulted in ways unbecoming of a follower of Jesus.  And sometimes preachers speak in a way that people can’t hear them.

Stories help.  But sometimes people with whom we disagree don’t believe our stories.

How do we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ when the Gospel makes God’s people uncomfortable?  We love them or at least we try to love them.  And we remember that we follow One who loved God’s people even from the cross.

Image from St. David’s United Reformed Church in Eastham, U.K.

 

The Women in the Spa Where I Get Pedicures

I know quite a few Asian women as clergy colleagues.  They are without exception among the most brilliant leaders in our denomination.  Most of them are Korean American.

There are two young Asian women in my family whose life stories seem similar to mine, but they aren’t.  One is Pakistani American and one is Indian American.

My financial planner is an Asian woman whose wisdom I treasure. She is Filipino American.

[Note: There are 48 countries in Asia.  Each country has multiple cultures and differences.  To identify someone as Asian doesn’t begin to describe their heritage.]

And then there are the women over at the nail place where I get a pedicure. They are primarily Vietnamese Americans. Their name tags say “Angela” or “Jasmine” but I suspect their real names are something like Hyunh or Khanh.  They speak very little English but they know my name when I visit about once a month.  

The photo above was part of a project by Chris Buck for O Magazine in May 2017.  The photo essay – “Let’s Talk About Race” – included women in stereotypical situations according to their race. And then he flipped the stereotype, as you can see in the photo above.

It’s intended to jolt us into reconsidering how we see each other.

I’ve tried to keep quiet and listen after the shootings in Atlanta last week. Nobody needs to hear from another straight white woman about this and yet I wish to condemn this insane hatefulness.

The people killed that day were:

  • Soon Chung Park, age 74
  • Hyun Jung Grant, age 51
  • Suncha Kim, age 69
  • Yong Yue, age 63
  • Delaina Ashley Yaun, age 33
  • Paul Andre Michels, age 54
  • Xiaojie Tan, age 49
  • Daoyou Feng, age 44

Six of them were Asian American women who worked in the spas, and I suspect that if I had walked in for a pedicure, I would have barely noticed their faces much less their names.  I admit that I had no idea that women of Asian American Pacific Islander heritage have been as verbally and physically assaulted as I’ve read about since March 16. 

This tragedy requires intersectional analysis.  This tragedy requires saying out loud that the lives of these women who worked in the spas – with those who were killed alongside them – were children of God created in God’s image.  

I condemn these murders.  And yet I need to do more than write in a blog that such violence and hatred is horrible.

We need to speak up when stereotypes are accepted as truths.  We need to stand up when anyone is treated as if they are less.

And why is it okay for someone to register for and buy a gun on the same day in Georgia but it’s not okay to register and vote on the same day in Georgia? 

Our hearts break for these families and it means nothing if we don’t address the deeper issues.

Image source.

 

Getting Unstuck

Yesterday’s post was about being stuck. But there are ways to get out of that quicksand.

According to the Eagle Creek travel gear store, here are the five things you can do to free yourself from being held captive by quicksand:

  • Make yourself as light as possible—toss your bag, jacket, and shoes.
  • Try to take a few steps backwards.
  • Keep your arms up and out of the quicksand.
  • Try to reach for a branch or person’s hand to pull yourself out.
  • Take deep breaths.
  • Move slowly and deliberately. 

Such an easy metaphor for the Church.  

If you are a stuck congregation, getting unstuck sounds a lot like escaping from the clenches of quicksand.

  1. Travel lightly as a congregation.  Are you bogged down by centuries of history?  On the one hand that’s wonderful because it shows that your congregation has done something to reach this point.  (In other words, courageous followers of Jesus have taken risks along the way to get to 2021.)  Our history is a part of our DNA but it’s not wholly who we are.  Our history can weigh us down to the point that we become a church museum, not an active community of faith.  We can also be burdened by an historic building that can’t be updated without a preservation society becoming involved or by a former pastor whose perceived successes sabotage the ministry of anyone who has followed him.  It’s okay to toss the Annual Fish Fry if everybody hates the Fish Fry although your church has been doing it for 65 years.  Congratulations.  Now move on.
  2. Try to take a few steps backwards.  Backtrack and see how you got to where you are today.  Did the stuckness begin when you chose a pastor who looked good on paper but was basically a Ken doll? (i.e. plastic with great clothes and good hair but without a trace of life?)  Was it the decision to build a gym “so that young families would join” even though there was a local gym a mile away and not a single family has joined since 2014?  How did you get here?
  3. Where are your arms and hands?  Are they folded in your laps? Are people pointing fingers?  Does everybody have their arms in the air with suggestions but they expect someone else to do the work?  Congregations with an active membership (i.e. using their hands and arms for everything from distributing food to painting the neighbors’ houses to writing cards to the homebound) aren’t stuck.
  4. Reach for help.  Your Presbytery – or whatever your middle governing body is called – exists to help your congregation thrive.  There might be consultants or grants or partnerships to invigorate your ministry.  Please don’t use the excuse that “The Presbytery” did something to upset you 30 years ago.  Support is a phone call away.
  5. Breathe deeply.  This is ultimately about God and where God is in your congregation’s life.  If your church doesn’t spend time in spiritual discernment and deep prayer, with Bible studies (start with Acts) and hard conversations, no wonder you are stuck.  
  6. Move slowly and deliberately.  Don’t pull a Peter on Transfiguration Mountain wanting to jump into a construction project without paying attention to what God has to say.  Don’t choose the first pastoral candidate who seems nice.  See #5.

It has occurred to me that there was a time in every stuck congregation’s history when the leadership was energetic and more faithful than fearful and willing to take risks.  That’s how your congregation was established.  Just as we are now in the throes of a pandemic, racial divisions, and political battles, the founders of our congregations started churches during wars, economic depressions and medical outbreaks.  They made sacrifices and they joined forces to serve in the name of Jesus.

We can do that too.  That’s what unstuck churches want to be.

 

Stuck

It’s no fun feeling stuck. And we sometimes don’t even know we’re stuck until there’s an epiphany that we want things to change.

I work with churches that find themselves stuck and ministry among the stuck feels exhausting, mostly because there is little room for the Spirit to do life-giving things.  There are at least three things that make a congregation stuck:

  1. They are in survival mode.  There is fear that one bad decision and the church will close.  And so no decisions are made.  
  2. “They’ve always done it that way.” The world has shifted. Life in 2021 looks different from life thirty, twenty, or even ten years ago, but the church is still organized, still doing mission, still doing worship exactly like they did it decades ago.  And it feels dated even to the people who have always done it that way.
  3. They have lost their spiritual energy.  Maybe a church bully has drained it.  Maybe poor leadership has squelched it. Maybe they’ve tried to be Good Church People for so long that they’ve forgotten that God inspires us to so much more than maintenance of an institution.

So, here’s the question: are we okay being stuck or would we like to be moved in the name of Jesus Christ?  This is the question for congregations discerning what’s next.

Image of Indiana Jones dealing with quicksand – the curse of adventure heroes everywhere.

Glimpses of the Post-Pandemic Church: Multi-Church Disciples

About 30 years ago I had a friend in rural Virginia who claimed to have three churches and she participated in all three each Sunday morning. She attended 9:30 Bible Study with the Baptists. She attended 11:00 worship with the Presbyterians. And she attended 12:30 coffee hour with the Episcopalians.

I remember feeling semi-outraged by this, thinking she lacked commitment and was taking advantage of those congregations as a mere consumer.

Today the pandemic has made this kind of relationship with multiple congregations not only possible but preferable.

I now know multiple people who attend the Bible Study on Wednesday nights at one church, Sunday worship at another church, and perhaps a book study at a third church. And they tend to be very committed and very generous to all three gatherings. And these congregations might be located in three different states.

This might continue as a feature of the Post-Pandemic Church.  When once we were siloed, we can now be more connectional.  When once we were devoted to a single church congregation – perhaps to the point of perpetuating an institution first and foremost – we can now become more devoted to becoming a disciple of Jesus first and foremost.

Here are the common questions though:

  • Will people participating in several congregations be willing to support each of those congregations financially? (i.e. Who’s going to pay for all these great events in all these great congregations?)
  • What if somebody from “our church” likes that book study over at the other church to the point that they leave us and join them?

We have been all about Attendances, Buildings, and Cash for so long in our congregations (the ABCs) that we have forgotten about the Neighbors, Organizational changes from what no longer works, and Paradigm shifts needed to be a Church for Post-Pandemic times (the NOPs.)  

I’ve been preaching about this for a while now, and the pandemic has blessed us by accelerating the need for these shifts.  This is good.

Do not be surprised when “strangers” – and perhaps people who do not even self-identify as Christian – call your church “their church” because they’ve been attending your Bible study on Genesis and they feel connected.  Do not be surprised when a person nobody knows in Colorado starts pledging to your church’s ministry in Georgia because they’ve found community.  It’s a new day.  And all this is very good.

 

Queen Latifah and My Post-Retirement Plans

First of all, I’m not announcing my retirement. And yet because of yesterday’s post and other ponderings, I need to do what I ask others to do. I’m thinking about what I would love to do whenever I actually retire.

Preliminary ideas:

  • Cuddle with babies in the NICU.  I’ve taken four units of Clinical Pastoral Education.  I love babies, even when they are sick.  I would do this all day if given the opportunity.
  • Volunteer in a museum.  This is one of my favorites.
  • Create a Queen Latifah-esque role as The Pastoral Equalizer.*

*God is God and I am not.  Also this.

Queen Latifah plays “The Equalizer” on television – an unlikely role that serves as a guilty pleasure on Sunday nights after busy weekends.  She plays a former  agent of some kind who helps those who cannot go to the police.  There are computers.

I would like to have this position, only for pastoral accountability moments like these:

  • Your pastor has lost a child after a long illness and the elders are ready for him to “snap out of it” and get back to work.  I show up at the next Session meetings and remind them that their pastor is a human being.  I might express some anger.
  • A wife and the mom of three dies suddenly and her husband (a college professor) is dating one of his students within a week.  I show up at his door step wearing my collar and I lean in a little bit and remind him that his children need therapy and love, and a dad who is not dating his students.  And if I hear that she is serving breakfast to those children before school even once in the next 12 months, I will be back yelling “Get behind me, Satan” before his second cup of coffee.  It won’t be pretty.
  • A congregation with a million dollars in endowment loves their cemetery more than they love Jesus to the point that they are confused about what it means to make disciples of all nations.  They have conflated Christianity with Ancestor Worship (aka Taoism) which is by definition: “a religious practice based on the belief that deceased family members have a continued existence, that the spirits of deceased ancestors will look after the family, take an interest in the affairs of the world, and possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living.”  Source.  Yeah, we don’t do that in Church.  I would be happy to show up at Session with food offerings and incense for everybody and then remind them that this is not a thing for followers of Jesus.

This Pastoral Equalizer Gig would be a continuation of what I have been doing in my non-retired state, only post-retirement it could involve more props and perhaps a cape.

I look forward to whatever comes after my “working years”  and I encourage my colleagues – even the 20-somethings – to ponder what your post-retirement might look like.  Living until retirement would be an enormous gift. We must plan to use it well.

Image of the gifted entertainer actor Dana Elaine Owens, also known as Queen Latifah.

What’s Our Oxygen?

In an article about the travails of Andrew Cuomo over the weekend, one reporter wrote:

Everything about Mr. Cuomo — his home, his legacy, his identity — is wrapped up in a governorship now under siege. On Friday he was seen striding the mansion’s grounds, draped in a blanket, his cellphone pressed to his ear. Being governor, in other words, is his oxygen.

I get this.  Being governor is his oxygen.

What is the oxygen that keeps us breathing? What is our home, our legacy, our identity?

In my world, I see professional ministers who have no friends outside of their church.  The same is sometimes true for their spouses. They work with parishioners, they socialize with parishioners, they play golf with parishioners.  They might even travel vacation with parishioners.

Their legacy is based on their ministry, often in the same town, in the same church for decades. Their identity everywhere is “pastor” or “pastor’s spouse.”

Serving the Church is their oxygen. And it’s a recipe for personal and institutional setbacks.

What happens when this pastor retires? It can be gut-wrenching leaving the people you’ve loved and shared life with for many years.  And even if retiring pastors agree on paper to “separate” from their congregations, what are their spouses to do?  Make new friends outside the congregation at the age of 65 or 70 or 75?  How do you replace friends with whom you’ve shared weddings, births, illnesses, and deaths for decades?

Young pastors: please plan now for retirement and not just financially.  Unlike other life callings, professional ministry involves deep personal connections among the people we serve that need to end when the professional relationship ends.  Yes, you can still be friends, but even so, your role has been “pastor.”  You will always be seen as “pastor” even after you retire and even if you try to be “just friends.”

We need to plan now to have non-church interests and people.  

Why?

If for no other reason, it slows down a congregation’s vitality.

It’s one thing to appreciate the ministry of a beloved pastoral leader and it’s another thing to cling to that pastor’s leadership.  When parishioners want the previous pastor or the retired pastor to officiate at their family events, it’s impossible for the new pastor to establish those same connections that made the previous ministry successful. It undermines the authority of the new pastor.

Please, beloved church people: do not ask your former pastor to serve in your future pastoral moments.  Do not even ask because it puts them in a difficult situation.  Your former pastor doesn’t want to disappoint you.  But you are keeping the new pastor from developing relationships.

Please, beloved former pastors: just say “No.”  No to weddings, funerals, sick beds, and baptisms.  Don’t say, “I’d love to if the new pastor agrees.”  (That puts the new pastor in an untenable situation: to say ‘no’ makes them the bad guy.  To say ‘yes’ sabotages their authority.)

What’s the oxygen we breathe?  And do we need some fresh air?

Whether we live and breathe wholly for our families, our work, or our sports career, our identities are bigger than any of those single things.  We were created for abundant life.  Our identity is ultimately Child of God.

And our life’s calling doesn’t end when our children grow up and leave, when our high school or college sports career ends, or when we retire.  It just shifts.  And it’s hard and it’s also life-giving even if we can’t see it yet.

God created oxygen.

You (Yes, You) Have the Power to Change the Culture

If you would just speak up.

So, Church . . . 

  • The Property Committee of a predominantly White church is looking at contracts for replacing the windows and three proposals have been submitted.  One of those is from a Black-owned company.  As the committee looks over the proposals, one long-time member says out loud, “Well we can already eliminate the Black one.”  And no one says a word.
  • The preacher, in a sermon about Mary Mother of Jesus, makes a toss off joke in his sermon about “the problem with single mothers . . . ”  And no one speaks to him about this comment after worship.
  • The Head of Staff demands that a youth program welcoming formerly incarcerated kids from a nearby residential facility shut down.  “This is not what our members have in mind when they pay for youth programs.”  And no one says a word.

See what I mean here?

We in the church are “nice” and discomfort is our kryptonite.  We don’t want to “split the church.”  We don’t want “important members” to leave.  We don’t want to stir up conflict. 

Nice is killing us.

I’m not talking about turning over the tables (yet) and I’m not talking about refuting heretical comments with pithy but hateful retorts.  And I’m not talking about politics.

[Note: This is a very good article in The Atlantic by Shadi Hamid here regarding our conflation of religious beliefs and political beliefs.]  We do not stand up to racism or sexism or attacks against the vulnerable to be politically correct.

We stand up to racism, sexism, attacks against the vulnerable and all other injustice because of Jesus. We speak up because we are not embarrassed by the Gospel.

Imagine how our culture would change – and especially how our church culture would change – if we stopped being “nice” and started being brave disciples of the One who preached a message of abundant life for all God’s children – including the brown ones, the poor ones, the addicted ones, the sick ones, and even the ones who are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Agnostic, and Atheist.  What if we showed everyone what the love of God in Jesus Christ looked like?

What if we spoke up when our siblings in Christ said and did things that are the antithesis of Jesus’ message?  We could change the world.  Or at least we could begin to change the culture.

It is not okay – for theological reasons – to allow men to denigrate women, to allow white nationalism to fester, to allow the poor to be punished for their poverty, to make health care available only to the wealthy.  It is not okay according to the Good News of Jesus Christ.

What would it take for you to speak up?  We speak up because of Jesus. We speak up because we say we want to follow the Carpenter from Nazareth. We speak up because we claim to love the Lord.

Please. Speak up. And have a lovely weekend.

Who Are We, Church? (Don’t Be Boring. Or Deceptive.)

Congregations seeking a new pastor are asked to describe who they are to give prospective candidates an initial sense of their identity. Many of these descriptions are boring.

We are a friendly church interested in growing.  We worship with joy together in our historic sanctuary and we value community, spiritual growth, and mission.

Yawn.

Also, really?

Are you really friendly to new people, especially if they don’t look like you? Are you genuinely interested in growing or do you secretly like things exactly as they are?  Is worship truly joyful?  Do you even know what breaks God’s heart in your community? Do members believe they don’t need to learn anything new about God?  And what do you mean by mission?  (Is it your mission to keep the church afloat?)

Most of the creative, rock star pastors I know who are looking for a new call are looking for something real:

The people of Old Church in the Valley are like the fertile soil on which we worship together: soil enriched by our Creator, stony from a 200 year old history which has made some of us hardened, uncultivated in terms of our understanding of being a post-pandemic church, and yet redeemed by Jesus Christ.  

First Church on the Hill is a congregation with a great history: established in the 19th Century, thriving in the 20th Century, and clueless about how to be Church in the 21st Century. But we are ready to be shaped and changed in the name of Jesus Christ for a vital post-pandemic ministry.

We at St. Paul’s Church would love to say that we are a friendly, mission-oriented congregation.  But the truth is that we are mostly friendly to each other and our mission has been primarily to ourselves.  We are ready to change that.  After two years of prayer and discernment we acknowledge that we need more gospel and less sentimentality.  Yes, we love our historic sanctuary, but we realize now that Jesus didn’t die for those stained glass windows.  We are ready to be resurrected and we know who our Savior is.  (For the record, our Savior was, is, and always will be Jesus – not our new Pastor.)

A pastor in another Presbytery contacted me a few months after beginning a new position. After less than a year with them, he was already planning to leave.  “They lied to me,” he said.  “They told me they were ready to reach out into the community.  (They aren’t.) They told me they averaged about 250 in worship. (More like 50.)  They said they were excited about welcoming in the new people moving into town.  (They ignore them.)”

Please, Pastor Nominating Committees, do not lie to your candidates.  Don’t tell your future pastor that you are ready to love Jesus in new ways when you can’t stop loving your pipe organ even more.  Don’t tell interviewees that you are ready to move forward when actually you are held captive by the wealthiest donors who don’t want to lose power.

One of the #1 reasons why the institutional Church is hurting is because we have failed to acknowledge who we really are which includes what we honestly love.  We are halfway through Lent.  Time to catch up on discerning reality.

PS It’s not too late to make a donation in memory of Breonna Taylor here for nursing student scholarships via The National Black Nurses Association.  She was killed a year ago this Saturday.