Conceived in Tombstone. Raised in the Church.

Although my mother wouldn’t have disclosed this information in a million years, my dad often told me that:

  1. I was conceived in Tombstone, AZ (where my parents lived at the time)
  2. And they only had 5 cents the day they learned they were expecting me.

(Yes I’ve mentioned this to my therapist.)

Although I’ve never been to Arizona except in utero, I look forward to visiting sometime.  (FYI: The White Privilege Conference is in Mesa, AZ April 1-4, 2020.)

Some of my uncles blamed Fort Huachuca’s nuclear testing activities for my parents’ early deaths – each from cancer.  Mom often told me that she could see mushroom clouds from her office window.  She work on post for one of the generals.

After reading this article in The New Yorker about Tombstone, I wonder if – even in utero – geography shaped me.

  • Once it was true that Fort Huachuca/Tombstone was settled to guard the Mexican border against Apache Indians.  (Fun fact: The Apache were indigenous to the area from which they were being blocked.)
  • Once it was true that Tombstone was the home of Doc Holliday and the Earp Brothers: Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt who protected the locals from bad cowboys.
  • Now it is true that a group called Arizona Border Recon is taking the law into their own hands and “protecting the border.” Today their enemies are “illegal immigrants” rather than “savage Indians.”  Today there are still bad cowboys only now they consider themselves to be patriots.

And now – because the mines are long gone – Tombstone survives by reenacting gunfights between good and evil.  The shoot-outs performed by actors bring tourists.  Tombstone – like many places – has had to transform itself.  (Sound familiar?)

This statement from The New Yorker article is striking:

Frontier towns . . .  had to choose between extinction and transforming themselves into caricatures of their glory days for public consumption.  

I tend to think that there’s a third choice, but more about that later.

Some wonder if the Church as we’ve known it is destined to become extinct.  Or have we transformed into caricatures of our glory days?

Extinction of “the way Church was” or “the way we imagined Church was” is already happening.  But this is not bad news.

I started my fetal life in a place that calls itself “The Town Too Tough to Die” and I now live in a world where lots of institutions are dying and we have choices to make:

  • We can hang on for as long as possible unconcerned with our legacy and our higher purpose until there’s no more money to pay the light bill.
  • We can exhaust ourselves trying to reenact what Church once was: wringing our hands in hopes of returning to huge Vacation Bible School weeks, Women’s Groups that every woman wants to join, preaching without politics, and well-behaved children.
  • We can choose to allow old ways of being the Church to die so that God would connect us in new ways in a 21st Century Culture.

I hope to visit Tombstone one day to imagine what it was like for my parents and to ponder further what it’s like to be a town that’s died in some ways, although even their motto says that they can’t.

We who love the Church know that the Church won’t die (because: Jesus) and yet the way we’ve been the Church most certainly has and will.  To God be the Glory.  Things are changing and resurrection is our future.

Image is a 60+ year old postcard from Tombstone, Arizona – The Town Too Tough to Die.  My parents found both history and romance there.

A Love Letter to Retired Pastors

Dear Retired Colleagues,

Thank you for your wisdom and professional ministry over the past decades.  I’m grateful for the time you loved God’s people in the particular congregations you served.

Although I’ve shared thoughts with you over the years, there’s something I need you to hear with an open mind.  Yes, some of you have excellent relationships with those clergy who serve your former congregations.  This is so good.  What you need to know that for every one of you who perceives your relationship with the current pastor of your former church to be excellent, there is at least one (if not ten) pastors currently serving other congregations as either the transitional or installed leader of your former congregation who wishes you would step back.  This is hard to hear and perhaps harder to believe.  I wish I could tell you I’m exaggerating.

Maybe it’s easier if you’ve moved to another town or another state.  And even then, it’s hard not to keep in touch with so many friends.  After serving a church for over 20 years, I moved half way across the country and still was asked to officiate at weddings and funerals.  They were willing to “fly me back.”  But I needed to say no.

The reason to say “no” the very first time you are asked to “come back” is this:

If you say “yes” to one family (or to six), you either have to come back for all of them OR you clearly show favoritism. 

And the hurt is real, my retired friends.

When you say “yes” during the Interim Time (whether you or another pastor recently left), it’s just like saying “yes” after the next Installed Pastor arrives.  I know you do not intend harm, but your are making it difficult (whether he/she/they admit it or not) for the other pastors who lead that congregation.

I get it:  you miss your friends.  You miss the pastoral calls and the holy moments.  You miss being the Biblical scholar.  You miss the identity.  But please believe me when I say that your continued presence, much less your continued leadership will one day be an event that the congregation will look back on as something that kept them from moving forward.

(This is the moment when some of you are thinking, “But they want me to come back.  Even the new pastor wants me to come back.”)  To quote Nancy Reagan: just say no.  Re-read the second paragraph if necessary.

The purpose of this post is to give you a way out.  Let’s say that you’ve agreed to do some weddings/funerals for former parishioners.  Maybe you did one.  And maybe you did half a dozen.  I’m inviting you to send a letter to the leaders of your former church saying this:

Dear (Name of Congregation here,)

I made a mistake.  In my love for your congregation, and so many of you individually, I thought it would be pastorally meaningful to accept your invitations to officiate at your family events.  But I was wrong.  It has only put me in the position of hurting others – including those who might want me to officiate at future events.  But – for the sake of your congregation’s health and in hopes of a thriving future for this church – I will no longer agree to officiate at any of your events, either within or outside the walls of the church building.  I made a mistake before.  Please understand that this is the most loving thing I can do for (Name of Congregation here.)

Yours In Christ’s Service,

Joe/Tammy/Bruce/Phyllis/Don/Warren/Dorothy/Whoever you are

 

Here’s another way to live into retirement:  if you long to lead Bible studies, preach, offer pastoral care/go on mission trips, we can find you another congregation in which to do this who would be thrilled to have your leadership!  Let somebody in your denomination know.

The #1 issue I hear at Boundary Training is about retired/former pastors continuing to show up and not-so-secretly continue to be involved.  Please know that you are loved.  Thank you for years of loving service.  But this congregation you love deserves a fresh start in order to be a 21st Century Church.  Please let them go.

Yours In Christ’s Service,

Jan

 

New Header

Twice in one week, I’ve had people send me links for blog posts that I might be interested in/want to read. And both of those times, the posts they sent me are pieces I wrote myself. A colleague – also this week – said that it’s too hard to find my name on this blog and so for the first time in 14 years I’ve changed the header. The quote I’ve used for all this time I first heard from Brian McLaren long ago when he was at Cedar Ridge:
Artists are simply people who are passionate enough to imagine things that do not yet exist.” Seona Reid, Principal of Glasgow School of Art, graduation 2003
I still believe that artists see what doesn’t yet exist. This is the Church God calls us to be. We are a Church for Starving Artists.

The Living Church

A couple weeks ago, HH and I were eating fish tacos in our Charlotte neighborhood. We were talking about the upcoming Opioid Training Breakfast we would be attending the next day.  (Note:  Nothing says Romantic Date like the words “opioid training breakfast.”)

Church happens here.

Our server – Leigh* – asked what we were talking about and we told her and she said that she knew something about opioid abuse and would we report back on what we learned.  And I said, “Of course.”

Last night I went back for more fish tacos and to let Leigh know what I learned.

Me: (entering the restaurant and seeing Leigh)  Hi Leigh!  How are you?

Leigh:  Good but busy.  (She was balancing multiple plates of tacos in her arms.)

Julie:  Hi.  Where would you like to sit?

Me: Anywhere.  I’m by myself so maybe this little booth.  

Julie:  I’ll bring water.

When things calmed down for Leigh, she came and sat down at my booth.  Julie soon joined us and Leigh said, “This is Jan and she just went to an opioids thing she’s telling me about.

Julie:  Hi.  I’m Julie.  I know something about opioids too.  I used to be a nurse but I went a little crazy in the pharmacy.  That was a while ago.

Eventually the bartender also came over and all of us were talking about what the community needs for people who deal with opioid and other substance abuse.  We compared experiences and rehab clinics we knew about and – bonus – I learned about the 19 Crimes Wine phone app that turns wine labels into history lessons.  (Please drink wine and other adult beverages responsibly.)

And it occurs to me that this – what I experienced over fish tacos last night – is The Living Church.  I will be praying that Julie has a healthy happy baby sometime this summer.  Leigh and I will continue to connect about opioids.  The bartender will continue to welcome people at his restaurant.  We have chosen to be a little community over there.

Here’s what nobody outside the Church cares about:

  • Whether or not the pastor wears a robe.
  • Whether or not the front door needs new paint.
  • Whether or not the church building is on an historic register.
  • Whether or not there are screens in the sanctuary.

The Living Church cares if the sick are healed and the lonely find community and the imprisoned are visited and the hungry find nourishment and the homeless find shelter.  The Living Church sees you and knows your name.

You can even be an introvert and be part of The Living Church.

Also, here’s info about the 19 Crimes app.

*Names have been changed – except for my own.

Image of my favorite fish taco place.

 

Seeing Visions

Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 
Acts 2:17b

For the record, young women also see visions, old women dream dreams, and gender fluid folks see visions and dream dreams as well.

At the risk of sounding Pentecostal, I have both seen visions and – on three different occasions in my adult life – strangers have seen visions about me (and taken steps to find me and fill me in.) I have shared this information with my therapist for a psychotic behavior check and she says I’m okay.

I tend to keep these stories to myself.  I shared one of my stories in a sermon and was ridiculed by a colleague so I learned to talk about my supernatural experiences sparingly.

Yesterday I wrote about churches who might have reached the point of no return in terms of a thriving future ministry.  Death – including Church Death – is part of our tradition and theology, so death doesn’t scare me.  We also believe in resurrection from death.  And we believe in visions and dreams.

Thriving leaders and congregations see things that most others cannot see.  We see potential.  We see miracles.  We see a future where others see only the past.  We see things.  Hope is our super power.

It’s not a false hope and it’s not a cartoon hope.  We see something real and while it might be fuzzy around the edges, we are clear about one thing: it’s about what God can do.

Who are the visionaries in your midst?  Who are the prophets in your spiritual community?  Without them, we are missing out.

Image of Marc Chagall painting the mural in the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC.  (1967)

 

When Has a Church Passed the Point of No Return?

I got a phone call a couple weeks ago from a sweet lady who told me that her church had decided to close.  They’d been struggling to keep going for some time but the part-time preacher had quit, the part-time musician had quit, a couple elders had quit and she (the caller) was in no shape “at her age” to keep things going.

When does a church reach the point of no return?  When we look at the life cycle of congregations and we know churches that are 100, 200, 300 (yes, there are some of those in the United States), it’s clear that – during that life cycle – those oldest of congregations made a choice that renewed them and moved them into a period of growth again.

Churches grow and slow and some die and some find rebirth.  Again – how do we know when a congregation has reached that point when nothing will bring them back to life – even in a new semblance of life?  Here are some choices that seem to prompt certain death:

  1. Leaders choose to keep more money in The Cemetery Fund than in the general fund for ministry and mission.
  2. Everyone – and I mean everyone –  has their own pet project/thing they love and they’ve stopped asking “What does God want from our church?”  It’s become what we want and we argue about that.
  3. The same people have been serving in the same leadership roles for over 10 years.
  4. The surrounding area is brimming with new people, new commercial projects, even new public transportation options and the church is not growing.
  5. The congregation does not look like or sound like the neighborhood and there are no efforts to change this.
  6. Not one leader in the congregation knows the names of: the principal of the closest school, any of the cashiers at the closest stores/gas stations/diners, the names of the people who live in the house/farm/apartment building closest to the church building.
  7. The majority of every meeting of the governing board is spent talking about Attendance, Building, and Cash.
  8. Sunday morning worship is the #1 portal through which people participate in the life of the church.
  9. Nobody prays out loud or talks about Jesus except for the pastor.
  10. The majority of people are fine with changing things as long as it happens after their own funerals.

Sometimes by the time a church contacts me for support, it’s too late – at least in a worldly sense.  They no longer have the capacity to stay alive whether they want to close or not.

At what point has a church reached the point of no recovery?  It depends on the church.

But my hunch is that – in the next five to ten years – most of our small congregations will close. By “small” I mean our congregations with 1 to 25 regular participants whose vision and energy has dried up.

There are congregations with a handful of members who love and serve their neighbors with a lavish faithfulness that makes their ministry quite large.  Those congregations will be fine.  If they die, they will rise again in glory serving their communities in a new way.  It will be beautiful.

The Good News is that Jesus will always have a Church.  It just won’t be the Church we have experienced for the past 500 years.  And – as much as we loved that church –  this too is Good News.

That Time Yusef Salaam Changed My Life

I first heard Yusef Salaam speak at one of the national White Privilege Conferences several years ago.  He was one of the keynoters and after hearing him, I tossed the rest of my schedule and attended every one of his workshops for the rest of the week.  His story changed my life.

During one of the breaks, I was in the hallway staring into space talking with a woman from Massachusetts about Salaam’s story, trying to process the profundity of it all. And then I realized that we were standing beside a table stacked with the book Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. The woman had been selling the book and I figured the least I could do was buy a copy since I’d taken so much of her time.  Her name was Debby Irving.

The story of Yusef Salaam and four other men of color is unspeakably disturbing.  And now that Ava Duvernay’s four part Netflix series about The Central Park Five is available, I wish every American would watch it.

When They See Us is not for the fainthearted.  It made me sick actually.  But it tells a true story and a True story:  the criminal justice system in this country is beyond broken.  White Supremacy is embedded in our nation’s DNA and the fallout has contaminated every single one of us.

Please watch this series and talk about it with your people.  It’s sadly one of thousands of stories that will never be told by Netflix.  It’s a story tied to the long history of chattel slavery from 1619 to the present.  It’s a story that each of us needs to know – especially those of us who consider ourselves to be white.

The amazing thing about Yusef Salaam is that he continues to be a man of peace.  After everything he’s endured, he calmly speaks about justice for all.  After experiencing the most destructive features of racism, he works to fight racial injustice with hope.  He honestly changed my life.  For the love of God, listen to his story.

Image from June 27, 2014 when The Central Park Five won a lawsuit in civil court after their wrongful conviction.  Yusuf Salaam is in the center of the photo. Also, next year’s White Privilege Conference will be April 1-4, 2020 in Mesa, Arizona. Presbyterians get a discount thanks to MC.

Because Nakia Lied to Me

She had a good story and I had literally just noticed that my schedule was open for a few hours and I was happy to have a little free time.

She rapped on my car window and was crying. Sobbing actually.

“Do you know where I can get find an ATM?”

“Get in the car.”

[Note to my spouse & children: yes this is dangerous but she had fun hair. And the crying.]

She was from Wilmington and in town to see her mother who had had a heart attack and she’d run out of gas and a guy had filled up her tank and wanted $46 in cash to pay for the gas and she’d left her 14 year old autistic brother named Jeffrey with him so she could run to a cash machine but she didn’t know where to find one and she was just in a production of 101 Dalmatians and she played Cruella deVille for a non-profit theatre company that supports autism research and her name was Nakia.

Nakia lied to me. She said all the right things:

  • Jesus Christ is her Lord and Savior.
  • She’s in college in Wilmington and the first in her family to go to college.
  • She’s involved in her Methodist church.

It was about this time that I knew she was lying. Her story wasn’t lining up. But I got her some money and a water bottle and some cookies for Jeffrey and I dropped her off in a parking lot where she was going to pick up some fast food and walk to her car on the other side of McDonald’s.

Me: I can go through the drive through and take you to the car.

Nakia: Oh, you’ve done enough. I’m happy to walk and I need to use the bathroom inside.

Yep. The old “bathroom inside” trick. I prayed with her and gave her my business card that said “Reverend” on it and hugged her goodbye.

God bless you,” she said.

I drove out of the driveway and went around the block and saw her leave with no food and I followed like a detective from a bad TV show.

And as she walked into an apartment parking lot behind a 7-11, I drove up and asked if she was ok. And she knew that I knew that she had lied to me.

Because Nakia lied to me, I may not believe the next stranger who asks me for help. Or maybe I will. Apparently I’m a sucker for crying ladies who look like Cruella.

Proximity is Everything (also: This Is the Most Important Blog Post I’ve Written Lately)

Location. Location. Location.  It’s the motto of realtors everywhere because people generally want to be close to what makes life better/easier:

  • Close to work
  • Close to a Target
  • Close to family
  • Close to the beach
  • Close to good schools

Last night, I had the privilege of hearing National Treasure Bryan Stevenson speak in Charlotte. My first thought upon seeing him in person was that I thought he would look much older and weathered, especially considering what he has seen in this life.  (Read Just Mercy.)

He started by saying that we could talk about issues of injustice all night.  But he wanted to talk – instead – about solutions.  Talking about injustice weathers us.  Talking about solutions gives us hope.

I wrote a post last year that asked “Who is the poorest person you know?”  Many of us have narratives in our heads about “poor people” just as we have narratives in our heads about Black men in prison, unmarried pregnant women, immigrants from Central America, people addicted to drugs, Trans people, etc. etc. etc.

We read and hear news stories about “them” and we believe we know who they are.  Actually we have no idea who they are.

We only learn the true stories about people when we are close to those people.  Proximity is everything.

Sadly, many of us want to be “successful” in order to remove ourselves from the poor (i.e. “bad neighborhoods.”) In fact, we want to move far away from anybody who makes us uncomfortable.  But this is the opposite of what Jesus did.

This.  Is.  The.  Opposite.  Of.  What.  Jesus.  Did.

I’m not say that we need to move out of our comfortable homes or refuse to stay in nice hotels on vacation.  What I’m saying is that each of us needs to make choices to become more proximate to the very people whose lives we fear or condemn.

  • If we are angry about immigrants coming into our country from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador we have a holy and civic duty to meet people in this very demographic.
  • If we are adamantly “pro-life” to the point of equating a six week old fetus with a six month old infant, we have an obligation to get to know some people who are pregnant as a result of rape, incest, or in brutally difficult circumstances.
  • If we fear young Black and Brown men in hoodies, God is calling us to get to know such men and hear their stories.

I’m not talking about one and done conversations here.  I’m talking about relationships.  If all our relationships are with people who look, speak, and live like we do then we have missed the point of Jesus.

This is the most important thing I can say this morning – except to quote my father who, upon hearing me complain about people, always said, “Just love ’em.”

We can’t love people we aren’t willing to know and be in proximity with.

Image of Bryan Stevenson speaking on May 30, 2019 in Charlotte, NC

 

Energy, Intelligence, Imagination, & Love

The eighth ordination vow made by all Ruling Elders and Ministers of the Word and Sacrament in my denomination is this:

Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love? I will.

When I hear about pastors and congregations who feel stuck, I think about this promise.  My hope is that all pastors and all elders evaluate ourselves in terms of how well we are keeping this one.

First of all, are we praying for the people God has called us to serve? And secondly, are we seeking to serve them with these specific markers?

Do we have energy for this ministry?  If not, we need to ask why?  Is it because we are simply in need of a Sabbath, a vacation, or a Sabbatical?  Do we have energy for other things – but not for this particular calling?  If so, maybe we need to consider a new ministry.  If our energy is generally depleted for ministry it could be time to retire.

Are we still willing to learn new things?  Do we attend conferences, lectures, and retreats to hone our skills?  Do we read books, watch webinars, and listen to podcasts that enhance our ministry?  Or do we believe we know all we need to know?

How imaginative are we in this calling?  Can we see the possibilities?  Are ideas easily sparked?  Are we excited about the potential all around us?

Do we love these people?  Can we see our congregation through the eyes of Jesus to the point that we can love the grumpy ones, the judge-y ones, the mean ones, and even the hateful ones?

Effective Ministry – whether as professionals or as volunteers – requires enormous energy, bountiful curiosity, fertile imagination, and abiding love.  When it comes to annual evaluations of both paid and unpaid staff (and I’m including all volunteers here) we need to ask ourselves and each other these questions. God deserves our best efforts.

Keeping this particular ordination vow will free up  a stuck congregation every time.