Category Archives: Uncategorized

Celebrating Far From Home

I’ll be taking a break from writing new posts for a couple weeks while HH and I travel to India for the wedding of JHEL and AJC in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India. Thanks be to God.

No to Drama. Yes to Dramatic.

Drama Queens can be fun and yet Church Drama Queens are exhausting. Those who clutch their pearls about the brand of furniture polish being used on the pews. Those who angrily obsess that the playground swings are too close to the cemetery fence. (“The children will be able to kick the top of the wrought iron if they pump hard enough!”) Those who complain that Chagall’s Sacrifice of Isaac is not appropriate for a bulletin cover on a baptism day even though the scripture lesson was Genesis 22 (and then keep talking about it for the next ten years.) Do I sound like I’m making up these examples? I am not.

Jesus wasn’t a pearl clutcher. Jesus was a life changer. And following Jesus brings dramatic change in our lives.

I’m not just talking about the former arsonist/meth addict who becomes a banker because he was saved during prison Bible-study. I’m talking about the person who sits next to you during the 9:30 service who clings to grudges and judges people who have made difficult decisions.

And – because Jesus brings dramatic change in our lives – we are called to encourage our congregations to be dramatically changed too. This involves those congregations making dramatic changes for the sake of Bringing Good News to the neighbors.

Not dramatic changes:

  1. Replacing the church signage.
  2. Ordering new hymnals.
  3. Painting the sanctuary “Gracious Greige” when the old color was “Agreeable Gray.” (Note: these are actual paint color names. And for a good time, sit in a church meeting when leaders are debating paint colors by their Benjamin Moore names.)

Dramatic changes:

Sanctuary of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston Before and After. Note the labyrinth on the new floor. And the skylights.

Also:

  1. Transforming underused classroom space for affordable studio apartments (because you’ve noticed that there aren’t many kids in church but there are quite a few people who need shelter.)
  2. Calling a pastor whose first language is not English (because you’ve noticed that there are quite a few Spanish-speaking businesses popping up around you.)
  3. Starting a gathering for the parents of non-binary kids (because the local guidance counselor tells you that those families have been kicked out of other churches and the parents need support.)
  4. Offering Birthday Parties for kids who never get invited to parties (because the principal was telling you the other day about Kids Who Don’t Get Invited to Parties- especially the immigrant kids and the special needs kids.)
  5. Tear down your mold-filled building with no elevator or sprinkler system and replace it with whatever space in needed for the new ministries you’ll be doing in 2025 (because your rolls are filled with people who no longer live in the neighborhood and they might not be alive in 2025 but all kinds of new folks are moving into the area who seem to need childcare, financial education, job training, grief support, Christian education, affordable meals, friends, tutoring, or all the above lovingly offered in the name of Jesus. Note: Don’t assume what the neighbors need. Ask.

Drama no. Dramatic yes. And to recap yesterday’s post:

Dramatic times call for dramatic changes. This is good news, friends.

But we have to be willing to want this. It has to be about what Jesus has taught us to be and do.

“How to pay for such things” you ask? If God is calling you to do ministry in new, dramatic ways the funds will come. It’s also possible that you’ve waited so long to do the dramatic, that God will call someone else to do it for you.

Stuck and Dangerous

I’m still a bit haunted by this quote (via Jim Kitchens) from Dr. Bill Drummond:

Four friends of mine have all recently decided to leave their church positions without a new call – unless it’s the call to rest and that’s certainly a valid one. And while all their reasons are different and I’m not going to hypothesize what’s made them exhausted, one of the most energy-sucking experiences in professional ministry – especially today – involves working with stuck congregations. It’s not just energy-sucking. It’s dangerous. It will kill.

100% of the congregations that are struggling right now are stuck. And it’s as painful to watch as it is to experience.

Your church is stuck if . . .

  • Leaders have had the same conversation/debate for months now and no decisions are ever made. The issue might be as simple as “we need to replace a window” or as complicated as “we need to call a pastor.”
  • Leaders do what they’ve been asked to do (like “bring in new members” or “expand outreach”) and suddenly distracting little melodramas pop up. I call them Satanic S#*@storms. The most common example is the person whose power has been diminished who spreads rumors about the pastor.
  • Nobody is brave enough to stand up to the bully.
  • The bully knows it.
  • The leaders are not faithful disciples (and they don’t really want to be.)

Because we are tired, those little melodramas, those faithless conversations, those allergies to conflict make leaving Church overwhelmingly attractive. Clergy and church members alike realize that life is too short to argue about chancel flowers.

I believe that all the little churches Dr. Drummond is talking about are stuck in unhealthy, unrealistic, unfaithful cultures. And it will kill them sooner or later.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Stay tuned.

Healthy Shame Changes the World for Good

Yesterday I heard UNC Charlotte Associate Professor of Religious Studies Dr. Julia Robinson Moore describe the difference between healthy shame and unhealthy shame this way:

Healthy shame results in positive change. Unhealthy shame results in secret-keeping.

Dr. Moore is interested in researching slave cemeteries here in Charlotte which often means that some of our oldest, predominantly White congregations have an opportunity. They can grapple with the fact that human beings who were slaveholders and human beings who were enslaved are buried on their property. Or they can ignore it.

More often than not the graves of the enslaved are hidden from view without markers or landscaping or tidy fences around them. Note: It’s great to learn our history, but if we don’t act on what we now know, we are wasting an opportunity to repair what is still broken.

Church cemetery (established in 1767 in Charlotte, NC) with wall opening leading to the graves of enslaved members in the woods.

A couple things:

  • The national White Privilege Conference is criticized by people who assume that it’s an event about shaming and blaming White People. It is not. In fact, there was none of that at the recent conference held in Charlotte March 9-12, and some (White) people told me that they were surprised. They had braced themselves. This conference lifts up the fact that every person has privilege no matter who we are and it’s the hope that we all use our privilege to lift up others. (We who are White have many advantages merely because of the color of our skin.)
  • Remember when Ben Affleck was on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots” and he’d asked the producers not to mention his slaveholding relative from Georgia? And they complied? When the truth came out Affleck said this:

“We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing. I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion. While I don’t like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country’s history is being talked about.”

Yes, let’s talk about it – not in anger because our noble bubbles have been burst and not in embarrassment to the point that our ancestor becomes like Voldemort (“He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”) although it’s possible that our fourth Great Uncle was in fact like Voldemort.

Let’s talk about it because addressing even the terrible parts of our history brings the kind of shame – healthy shame – that results in positive change. The congregation that knows it’s history can then make a commitment to repair that history. The family whose slaveholding ancestors donated the stained glass windows might find themselves called to make financial donations to life-giving causes.

Maybe you don’t live in a part of the world that enslaved people over 150 years ago. But there is something in all of our histories – both personal and corporate – that we need to know in order to move forward to repair the world in the name of Jesus.

Who were the Native Americans on the land where we live? What were the laws in our town that discriminated against the non-dominant population? What do we need to know about our history so that we can do better? What’s the history of hate-groups in our community?

One of the best examples of looking at difficult history and using healthy shame to change the world for good is in York, South Carolina at Allison Creek Presbyterian Church. Check it out here. (Thank you Sam McGregor.)

I have shame about the fact that my ancestors were slaveholders in North Carolina and maybe in Virginia too. But – I hope – it’s mostly healthy shame at this point, and I’ll use it to help repair the breach. I prayerfully ask that you join me in this calling.

The Opposite of Rental-san

Shoji Morimoto

Maybe you’ve heard of people who hire dates to accompany them to weddings so that Aunt Sophie won’t look at you with pity because all the other cousins are married. (Note: I remember a wedding in which I was holding a champagne glass which my sister grabbed for preventative measures when an elderly great aunt wondered – out loud – whether or not I had a character defect since I wasn’t married at 30.)

Certain moments are hard when you are uncoupled. And Shoji Morimoto has made a business out of these moments.

He charges 10,000 yen (about $85) per session, and is most frequently hired to accompany people who are at a turning point in life, who want to rewrite traumatic memories or experience a vulnerable moment they feel uncomfortable sharing with friends or family.

Because Japan is a shame-based culture (as are most of our cultures) business is good for Shoji Morimoto. He will be with you when you sign your divorce papers, pick out a casket, tell your parents you’re queer or need a hemorrhoid consulation – all shameful events in many families.

I know how to save you $85. Find a Church that’s not about shaming people.

Your immediately response might be, “Our Church doesn’t do that” and yet, how well does it go when a stranger or a long-term church member blurts out that they are unemployed/dealing with alcoholism/sensing they are bi/not loving their newborn like they thought they would/drowning in debt? Most of our faith communities shame people whether we realize it or not.

  • The church that gives you attention when you are a young family but ignores you when you are a single person of a certain age.
  • The church that doesn’t sit beside you in worship or invite you to brunch afterwards because they don’t know your people.
  • The church that whispers about your job layoff.
  • The church that you’d never tell about the suicide attempt.
  • The church that doesn’t know that Child Protective Services took your children.

Please read the Bible.

Jesus spent time with hated people, whispered-about people, condemned people And he loved them not because he was “woke” but because he was holy.

I read this quote on Jim Kitchen‘s FB this past week from Georgia Tech professor Dr. Bill Drummond:

“If we do nothing different, by 2040, all of our current churches sized 100 and less will be gone.”

And all I could think about was Rental-san. If the Church cannot sit with/stand with/pray with/hold those who need someone, we will have failed. This goes for you “theologically diverse church” who actually only tolerates your LGBTQA+ people. This goes for you “friendly church” who actually talks only with people you know. This goes for you “we-want-young-people” church that only wants young people who can be molded into your idea of a Jesus follower.

We must be a completely different church well before 2040. And it’s not about survival. It’s about being The Church of Jesus Christ – literally – for the love of God.

We can hire strangers to fulfill our social and cultural needs. Or we can find – and be – authentic community.

Happy Monday to you.

Counterintuitive Moves

Can you name something – anything – that’s going really, really well?

This is not a rhetorical question. Please add your things-are-going-so-well contributions in the comments. Seriously.

I talked with some public school teachers recently who believe the educational system is broken. I have a police officer friend who believes the justice system is broken. Everywhere we turn – from government to politics to elections to banking to climate to media – things seem a little unglued.

And then there’s The Church. Pastors and other leaders are wondering how to adapt and if they have the energy to adapt post-pandemic.

The common reaction to Times Like These involves:

  • Clinging to all the things we’ve loved in the past from BBQ fundraisers to traditional Vacation Bible School.
  • Turning to the tried and true volunteers who have been in charge forever.
  • Cutting costs.

If we want energy, if we want excellence, we need to look to our Counterintuitive Savior – the One who said Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth and The first shall be last and the last shall lbe first. Jesus turned many things on their heads. Let’s be like Jesus.

Our school teachers are exhausted and demoralized. What if our government forgave the student loans of all public school teachers?*

Our police officers are exhausted and demoralized. What if our justice system allowed police officers to receive more training in de-escalation and culture building and less on military drills?

Our justice system in the United States has failed hundreds of people who have been found innocent after already serving decades in prison. (Check out this story about Darryl Hunt.) We have long focussed on punishment instead of rehabilitation. Imagine investing in – first – assisting those exonerated citizens who have been broken by the system to give them trauma counseling and job training. Imagine helping those in transition out of prison to build new lives that serve the community.

And in Church World . . .

Imagine long term volunteers stepping aside to let someone new be in leadership. The usual thing is to keep the old guard doing what they do for stability. The counterintuitive thing is to equip new leaders and then cheer them on and don’t micromanage them.

Imagine letting go of institutionalized events that “we’ve always done” but – secretly – there’s no energy to keep doing them. The counterintuitive thing is to do is to stop doing that Strawberry Festival in June and discern what new thing God might be calling us to do that nourishes us with more than strawberries.

Imagine making a concerted effort to invite non-Church people to join us. Instead of welcoming Christians from other churches, what if we invited the local sheriff, the local high school principal, the local community social worker – regardless of their faith tradition – to come to our worship services and tell us what they are seeing in their daily work. Maybe the Spirit will open our eyes to new needs, new possibilities for outreach.

Imagine things going really really well in the name of the One who challenges us to look at the world in a new way. Instead of a tyrant, our Messiah was a baby born in a cave. Instead of a political despot, our Messiah entered Jerusalem on a donkey.

Jesus is moving us in new ways. Let’s not miss this opportunity.

If your Church is stuck, get together with a small group of faithful leaders and ask God to show you what to do. Do not be surprised when it’s the opposite of what you’ve always done.

*I can hear you asking, “Who’s paying for all this?” I believe that we could afford to pay for this and more if we had the will to do so.

How It Went

Last week The Presbytery of Charlotte hosted a national secular conference and we learned many things.

We learned that . . .

  • Logistics are important. Like all event planning there are the big decisions (what hotels to book) and there are the tiny decisions (how to arrange the t-shirts.) This event took about three years to plan. A lot can happen in three years.
  • Context is more important. When we started planning something very intentionally named “The National White Privilege Conference” almost every bank, hospital, restaurant, and club wanted to be a part of it. That was 2019. In 2022, almost every bank, hospital, restaurant, and club didn’t want anything to do with it. During those three years, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Daunte Wright and several others were killed by police officers while unarmed. Armand Arbery was killed by three men later convicted of hate crimes. The U.S. Capitol was attacked by people who defecated in congressional offices and beat police officers. And over six million people have died of COVID worldwide.
  • Exhaustion reigns. People are tired of COVID. People are tired of hearing about racism. (Note: if you happen to have long-COVID or you lost a loved oned to COVID, there’s a different kind of exhaustion. And for those of us who are White People, saying we are “tired of race talk” only highlights our privilege.
  • Misinformation also reigns. Yes, we got a little hate mail and it was usually filled with misinformation. My favorite was a complaint about the Presbytery spending $250 million on this conference. (Believe me, if we had $250 million there wouldn’t be an affordable housing problem in Charlotte.)
  • Hope reigns most of all. One of the disadvantages of attending this event virtually (and more than twice the participants attended virtually both because of COVID and expense) is that you don’t get the hallway conversations and the lunch meet-ups. You don’t get to have informal conversations with the keynoters and workshop leaders. In those interactions there is enormous hope. People are smiling in spite of the world’s brokenness. There is laughter and it’s not all cynical. There is deep respect and love shown.

Also, everyone should visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame. They were big unexpected supporters.

Why do I work to make conferences like this happen? Because Jesus. I would love to talk with you about it if you are willing.

“I’d be curious to know . . . “

Early – like three weeks in to my new position as General Presbyter in Charlotte – I was attending a men’s breakfast sponsored by five congregations and I was so new that I didn’t yet know that we had multiple congregations with the same name. Because of the history of slaveholding in our oldest Presbyterian churches, there are Black Churches and White Churches with (almost) the same name. After emancipation, those who had been enslaved in the White Church left to start their own Black Church down the road.

I didn’t yet know this.

I was eating my pancakes with two White men who said they were from “Little Church” and this surprised me – in a good way – because I knew the Pastor of “Little Church” and he was a Black man. “Good for these guys,” I thought to myself.

A few moments later, that Black Pastor came into the breakfast. He greeted the two White men at my table like a Pastor would typically greet parishioners and they were all friendly. Then the Black Pastor greeted me and I said to the Black Pastor, “I was just talking with two of your parishioners here.

One of the White men almost spit out his coffee. With a strange laugh he said, “Do you think we would have this N- be the Pastor of our church?”

To say I was shocked is an understatement.

The Black Pastor who surely heard this turned and walked away. And I blurted out, “Wow, that word just came out of your mouth.” And then I said something like, “We don’t say that word in Church. Actually we don’t say that word anywhere.” It felt like I was a preschool teacher talking to four-year olds.

I shared that story at lunch yesterday at the pre-conference event for The National White Privilege Conference which we have been planning for almost three years. For 23 years Dr. Eddie Moore and his team have led this conference throughout the United States, but this is the first time it’s come to the Deep-ish South. Please check it out here. Our theme this year is Wade in the Water: White Supremacy, Religion, and Reciprocity.

If I learn nothing else this week, I learned an important teaching at lunch yesterday. Two women asked me what I said next to the two White men at the breakfast table and I said I was too shocked to say much more.

Not good enough.

We who identify as White are given opportunities every day to interrupt racism and I missed my opportunity that day. I’m not going to moan about it and I’m not going to cry in shame about it. But I am going to try to do better. My lunch friends suggested that next time, I offer this helpful response: “I’d be curious to know . . . “

  • “I’d be curious to know why you think you could use that word.”
  • “I’d be curious to know why you would treat this Pastor this way.”
  • “I’d be curious to know how you could say that word as a Christian.”
  • “I’d be curious to know how you could say that word in front of me as your General Presbyter.”

The hope is that we would express curiosity instead of shock. The hope is that we would come into a conversation with authentic curiosity which also requires more compassion than outrage. The hope is that I might have said something within ear shot of that Black Pastor so that he might know I won’t let that word go without addressing it.

Every day we hear comments that hurt and violate people that the dominant demographic tend to “otherize.” Black people, Asian people, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, people who are not Christian. We can do better.

Let’s stop being shocked and subsequently paralyzed. Let’s be curious. Also – no more White tears.

Thank you Christie and Melanie

Sharing Pastors, Buildings, Vision

We all want to have our own. Maybe it’s an American thing. I don’t know.

As the Institutional Church shifts and fewer people participate in person and resources are limited (or we think they are) it’s a good time to discern what Big Changes might be in our future.

What would you be willing to do to help your congregation thrive?

  • Would you be willing to share a pastor with another congregation?
  • Would you be willing to share your church campus with another congregation?

Where I live, there are congregations that do great ministry in their communities but they can no longer afford a full-time pastor. It probably feels like a death sentence to admit that they can only call a part-time Shepherd. But would you rather close your church or share a pastor with another congregation?

This is the choice some of our congregations will need to make in 2022.

Where I live, there are congregations with large buildings and extra space, and they can no longer afford what it costs to keep that building that used to serve a congregation of 500 when now the congregation numbers about 80. What if that church shared their building with another congregation? Would you rather close your church or share your property with another congregation?

This is the choice some of our congregations will need to make in 2022.

We like to have “our own.” Our own house. Our own car. Our own children. Our own grandchildren. But imagine how our rich life might be if we shared? The future might well involve more shared housing and more shared transportation. While we might have family by blood and adoption and marriage near us, we are also blessed with chosen family who are related to us only by God’s grace.

We teach little children to share and – as adults – many of us share our resources to support everything from universities and colleges to public television and radio to people in need of homes, medical treatment, and food. Why is it so different to share leadership and space?

This might be a good conversation to have within our congregations. Could we undergird our church’s community impact by sharing a pastor with another church? Could we double the usefulness of our building as a tool for ministry by sharing it with another church? Would we?

(Note: I’m not talking about being a landlord. I’m talking about true partnerships.)

These are not conversations about desperation. These are conversations about exciting possibilities. What can you envision? What would you be willing to do to help your congregation thrive?

Image source.

One (Mainline) Church. Multiple Campuses.

Lots of non-denominational congregations have multiple campuses to the point that they become their own denomination. In the city where I live, examples include Forest Hill Church and Elevation Church. There are four Forest Hill locations in Charlotte, one just over the NC border in SC, and one just outside Charlotte out “in the country.” Elevation has five locations in Charlotte plus additional locations from Florida to Canada. They all share common beliefs about their faith and have lots of pastors, programs, and people.

I am part of a denomination once known as a mainline church in that we are part of the earliest Christian groups to come to what would become the United States starting in the 1600s, helping to form this country. We are the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Disciples of Christ, and the Congregationalists. Our people hailed from northern Europe for the most part and we were mostly White.

Things have changed. Sort of. These days “Mainline Protestant Christians” and “Evangelical Christians” are often considered mutually exclusive although I would call myself a Mainline Protestant Evangelical Christian who is very progressive on some things and kind of conservative on some things. But that’s just me. People of faith are easily pegged but it’s unfair to do so. Most Black Protestants are part of Mainline denominations or denominations that are offshoots although I know lots of Evangelical Black Presbyterians.

But I digress.

I serve 93 congregations in seven counties as a “mid-council leader.” These congregations are small and large, urban and rural, “conservative” and “liberal” and also a mixture of both. Each congregation has it’s own governing board and it’s own budget and it’s own mission and ministry. Like “non-denominational churches” we have a shared set of beliefs based on scripture and historic creeds. We all love Jesus in our own ways – although some of us talk more openly about it than others.

What if we saw these 93 congregations as one Church with 93 campuses?

Seriously. Imagine this. While each congregation had it’s own location and leadership, there would be more of a sense of cross-pollination which – frankly – has been one of the blessings of COVID. During these past two years, I’ve seen:

  • Members of “East Church on the Hill” and “Church with the Red Barn” participate in Zoom Bible Studies and Book Discussion Groups over at “Third Church in the Suburbs.”
  • People worshipping with a variety of different congregations on a given Sunday via live-streaming.
  • Congregations partnering together for special worship events, small groups and youth programs.
  • Lots of pulpit exchanges and guest preachers from the variety of congregations in our Presbytery.

One of the benefits of being A Connectional Church is that we partner together to do what we cannot do as individual congregations. Over the past year, I’ve witnessed a large congregation replace the roof of a small congregation making it possible for that small congregation to return to their sanctuary for Christmas Eve. I’ve seen participants from at least six congregations join together to clear out an historic cemetery. I’ve watched multiple youth groups work together to build a Habitat House. I’ve marveled at the mass collection of supplies for victims of natural disasters and seen multiple congregations join to help new refugees from Afghanistan find homes and jobs.

Ministry is not about making a name for our particular branch of faith or our individual congregations. It’s not about competing with our neighboring congregations. It’s about serving the people God loves. (That would be all people, especially the broken ones.)

Yes, we have different campuses. The particular Church I serve has 93 of them. But all of us are on the same mission: to heal the dispirited, to make disciples, to worship the One who created us.

Imagine if we saw ourselves as One Church.

Image of just a few of the campuses of The Church known as Charlotte Presbytery. Friendly reminder: the church is not a building. We just use buildings as places for The Church to gather.