Do You Know These People? (Every Church Should)

Please read this article. It’s about the realities of rural homelessness featuring Sandra Plantz, the homeless liaison for school kids in Gallia County, Ohio. One of my favorite parts is this:

Every school in Plantz’s district has boxes of supplies — children’s underwear, toiletries, prom dresses — and she is always looking for ways to destigmatize the process of getting those items to the students who need them. At River Valley High, they are stored in the Raider Room (named for the school’s mascot), which also has a shower. She brings kids in and out to do various school-related chores so that visiting the room is not seen as a sign of poverty. When one of her students, a cheerleader, stopped coming to school because her unstable housing situation made it impossible to do her hair in the morning, Plantz bought her a $14 hair straightener from Walgreens and put it in the Raider Room.

Sandra Plantz, homeless liaison for Gallia County, Ohio Local Schools.

Sandra Plantz is a hero and I wanted to send her money. And so I tracked her down and heard back from her about what the Raider Room needed next. And then it occurred to me: I wonder if every school system in the United States has local Homeless Liaisons for their students.

Yes, they do.

Where I serve the Church in North Carolina, we cover seven counties and not all of them are rural. Every Church in every county in the United States needs to know the name of the Homeless Liaison in the place where your congregation is located. There are homeless students – more than we realize – in each of our counties. The very least our congregations can do is partner with the liaison in your county. Find out what they need. Form a relationship with that liaison office. Help those students with anything that would possibly make their lives more comfortable.

It could be a winter coat. It could be a hair straightener. For the love of God – literally – we can prevent kids from living in shame because their families struggle with homelessness.

If you live in my own Presbytery, here are the people you need to know:

  • Anson County – Mary Ratliff, Administrator Student Services
  • Cabarrus County – Amanda Smith, McKinney-Vento Liaison
  • Mecklenburg County – Courtney Lacaria, Community Support Services
  • Montgomery County – Tracy Grit, Associate Superintendent, HR
  • Richmond County – Kim Childers, McKinney-Vento Liaison
  • Stanly County – Beverly Pennington, Student Services Director
  • Union County – Lori Spruiell, Title 1 Specialist

Look up the names of the liaison in your local county government and contact them. Schedule a meeting. Invite them to lunch. Find out what they need.

Find. Out. What. They. Need.

If you do not live in the Charlotte Presbytery area, google “homeless liaison” in your home school district. And make friends with them. This is an essential task for this week. Holidays are coming. Winter is coming.

Send money to Sandra Plantz in Ohio and also connect with your local school district. You might be surprised how many housing insecure students attend your local schools. They are our neighbors. They are our children.

Where Are The Great Pastors?

We probably disagree on what makes a Great Pastor.

And I’m not talking about Great Preachers here. Pastors do considerably more than preach.

For some The Great Pastor is the one who has no life and happily works 60+ hours a week, whose priorities are church and calling over personal wellness and family responsibilities. For others it’s the Total Package Pastor who is supremely gifted in all pastoral skills (bedside manner, preaching, teaching, administration, evangelism, community organizing, fundraising, personnel management, and personality.)

In my opinion, Great Pastors . . .

  • Love God and their congregations.
  • Have a balanced life and good boundaries.
  • Know what they excel at and what they need to work on (or who to call when they don’t want to work on it).
  • Care about their community beyond the walls of the church building.
  • Are lifelong learners who read books, listen to podcasts and attend classes/webinars/conferences.
  • Have a team to support them (i.e. a therapist, a coach, a mentor, a spiritual director, a financial planner, chosen family).
  • Have an approachable personality.

By this definition there are hundreds and thousands of Great Pastors out there.

And there is also a dearth of Great Pastors.

What I’m not saying: that our current pastors are imbalanced, weak, faithless, close-minded, unhealthy, and cranky. Those leaders are out there, but they are not in the majority.

Nevertheless, congregations need to have a realistic understanding of what a pastor is supposed to be and do and what a pastor can humanly be and do. And we pastors need to be honest about who we are and how God is calling us to serve right now – not 10 years ago.

Here are some realities/truths for these days:

  • Fewer people are going to seminary.
  • Fewer seminary graduates are seeking traditional parish ministry.
  • Fewer churches can afford a full time called and installed pastor (and most pastors cannot afford to live on a part time salary.)
  • Fewer pastors are willing to move to a different part of the country (away from family) to accept a call.
  • Fewer churches can afford to move a pastor from a different part of the country to serve in their part of the country.

Note how often I use the word “fewer.” We seem to have fewer options, fewer candidates, fewer resources and yet I believe that we have all we need. God is doing a new (and disconcerting) thing and we need to shift our priorities and perspectives.

Some Pastor Search Committees tell me that they can’t find a pastor they like. This is certainly not true for all search committees.

But small town and rural congregations are having a challenging time calling a pastor willing to move to regions of the country with a depressed economy – especially if that pastor comes with a spouse who will need to find work. Our historically African American congregations and Korean and Spanish language congregations are finding their choices very limited if they are seeking leaders who look and speak as they do.

We seem to be missing that pipeline of new, energetic, visionary pastors who know how to lead in these transitional days.

Where are all The Great Pastors?

They are here and truly wanting to serve God’s people and make a difference in Christ’s name. And they may not look or seem like what you’ve always considered to be a Great Pastor.

What you are hearing out there in Church World? And where you are hopeful about the future of the Church leadership?

Image of an insulated pastor mug you can order here. (Is the pastor insulated? Or is the mug insulated?)

Money Messages

On this All Saints Day, I give special thanks to the saints who have given sacrificially so that the Church could do its work in the world sharing hope in Christ, providing for those in need, and making the world a bit more on earth as it is in heaven. You know who you are. Thank you.

Suze Orman tells a story of her father’s business being – literally – on fire and yet he ran into the office to retrieve the metal cash register in the thick of the flames. Message: we risk our lives for the sake of finances.

All of us grew up with money stories:

We’ll always be in debt because Uncle Bud lost the farm.

Everybody who’s anybody carries credit card debt.

Your grandmother will bail you out.

People with money work harder than people without money.

Honest disclosure: my wonderful Dad told me many times in my life that the day he and Mom learned they were expecting me they had a nickel in their pockets. The message I grew up with was that I better show the world that I was worth having. The message I carry now is that we have all come a long way and thanks be to God.

Consider the money messages we hear in our houses of faith:

We don’t have the funds to give our staff a raise (when there are millions in the endowment.)

We can either patch the roof or hire a nursery worker (when it’s possible to do both if we really want to. Sadly the roof usually wins.)

We can save money by hiring Ms. Jones’ son to replace our windows (even though Ms. Jones’ son is a barber by trade.)

We can only afford a part-time pastor (forgetting we could share a pastor with another church and bolster the ministry of two congregations.)

We have to keep The _____ Family happy or they’ll leave the church and take all their money with them.

That last message is a classic and chances are that the family who threatens to leave and take their money with them is 1) not contributing as much as everyone imagines and 2) less interested in glorifying God than maintaining power.

We have enough. We have enough to fulfill our calling to serve God and others if we are willing to consider new stories:

Maybe the congregation that “can’t give any more” can actually a little dig deeper when they have relationships with those they are able to serve.

Maybe the church that never participates in community mission find itself regenerated by new relationships with their local school or fire department.

Maybe there are neighbors who are not interested in joining your congregation but they admire what you do in Haiti every spring, and they want to contribute too.

The Bible is filled with stories about having enough and being enough to make a difference. On this day when we remember the saints, consider who has made a difference in your congregation, in your personal life, in your town. They are often not the ones we expected.

The Fun Neighbors

Every neighborhood seems to have at least one: Neighbors who are serious Halloween people.

In the neighborhood where our kids grew up, the adult sons of a widowed mother came home to decorate every Halloween, delighting in creating “the scary house” where spiders dropped out of the trees and one of the brothers sat on the front porch dressed as a monster handing out candy.

Pictured above is just a corner of the Halloween House in our current neighborhood. It’s a Zombie Carnival theme replete with a ferris wheel of creepy dolls and a 12 foot tall skeleton in front of a red-striped circus tent. The man who lives there has been working on his masterpiece for over a week now.

Historically Halloween has had Christian connections but we often forget.

Good neighbors are more necessary than ever in these days. Let’s be the neighbors who make an effort, who create connections, who learn about each other’s histories. Happy Halloween!

Horrifying God?

I can’t find it now, but someone tweeted recently that – in working with some church kids – they thought she was saying that we “horrify” God when she was saying we “glorify” God. Prophetic children are the best.

I pray we glorify God in our service, our gratitude, our sacrifices, our love. And yet, it’s likely we humans spend quite a bit of our lives horrifying God. I’m reading William Yoo’s excellent new book and it’s horrifying. And brilliant.

Dr. Yoo is Associate Professor of American Religious and Cultural History and Director of the Master of Divinity Program at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. His most recent book is a must-read especially for my Presbyterian siblings. I serve congregations in North Carolina which have both benefitted from slavery and been traumatized by slavery. The oldest congregations (circa pre-Revolutionary War) were all established by slaveholders. There are church balconies in the sanctuaries of some of our church buildings that still have evidence of chaining enslaved people.

May God have mercy..

Among the most horrifying of insights from Dr. Yoo’s book is this:

In subtle yet perverse forms, white Presbyterians have expressed that the most tragic result from the age of Black enslavement is the division of their church.

They wept not for the abuse that enslaved women . . . endured. Rather, they shed tears of anguish over their worries about ecclesial schism.

The fact that human beings with more melanin in their pigmentation were being raped, whipped, starved, and chained was considered less an issue than the possibility that the Presbyterian Church might split is horrifying.

We horrify God.

As our siblings in faith – the United Methodist Church and others – grapple with theological notions like whether or not the Creator might call queer people to serve in ordainable roles, we might continue to horrify God if we consider denominational division to be a bigger problem than the casting out of people for whom Jesus died and God calls. I believe we horrify God when we tell trans people that God rejects them. I believe we glorify God when we love as Jesus loves.

What’s unspeakably amazing to me is that the Mysterious One who created us doesn’t zap us into oblivion for missing the point of life in such outrageous ways. I would say that our ways are unforgiveable except for the fact that God’s grace abounds even when we don’t deserve it – which is the definition of grace in the first place.

What a beautiful thing to glorify God in our singing, in our praying, in our financial spending, in our daily practices, in our eating, in our sleeping, in our working, in our playing, in our child-raising, in our love-making, in our decision-making, in our breathing. Thanks be to God.

Literally – for the love of God – might we consider what we do that actually horrifies our Creator and then stop it.

Please read William Yoo’s book and commit – like me – to at the very least try to do better.


What Would It Look Like to be an Anti-Colonization Leader?

My chosen vocation as an eight year old was Explorer.

I had already found an antique diamond ring while playing treasure hunt in my backyard. And I also “discovered” a log cabin in the deep woods behind my house which I regularly visited with a book all by myself for hours and hours. (Note to 21st Century Parents: yes, this is shaky. Imagine now if your eight year old announced she’s heading out into the woods by herself to sit in mysterious cabin and she’ll be back by dinner.)

A wise colleague recently suggested the idea of teaching Transitional Ministry (formerly known as Interim Ministry) with an emphasis on anti-colonization. Imagine all ministry leadership emphasizing a culture of anti-colonization.

This is a steep learning curve for me who – as a straight white privileged person with a beloved family heritage of Scots-Irish colonizers – is still learning from people like Kaitlin Curtice and Edgar Villanueva. And you might be thinking right now – who has time to ponder this kind of thing? I have a bulletin to finish.

But I wonder if this might be the perfect time to consider analyzing if we – unknowingly – lead like a colonizer (and it’s not helpful to God’s people.) Some basic questions to ask if we are church leaders – and particularly if we are new transitional leaders:

  • Do we enter a situation assuming a) there’s something wrong and b) we can fix it?
  • Do we come in with an agenda without first learning who’s already there? What have they been doing before I got there?
  • Do we assume everything needs to be broken down/deconstructed? (Thank God we’re here now!)
  • Do we believe we and our plans are their future?

I know a transitional leader who swept into church with impressive leadership skills declared that she was going to save them. (Actually the word wasn’t “saved” but that’s what it probably felt like.) She alone knew how to do this.

And so she required the officers read a book with her not paying attention when one of them shared that they’d read the same book a year before. She re-distributed all the volunteer tasks “to shake things up” without taking time to form relationships and talk with volunteers about what they love and what they don’t love about their roles. She wasn’t a good listener. She castigated those who questioned her. She accused leaders of not being “creative” or “fun.” She brought people into leadership who agreed with everything she said whether they had the right gifts or not. She was a little sneaky – orchestrating shifts in power without transparency.

It didn’t go well.

What I’m not saying:

I’m not saying ministry isn’t creative or fun. I’m not saying that we don’t need new people to refresh the energy of the congregation in terms of roles and expectations. I’m not saying that we don’t have serious de-construction needs.

But leadership – particularly in a church context – is about humility and collaboration and letting go of sacred assumptions about our own culture and history. Were things great in the 1950s Church? The 1960s Church? The 1970s Church? Not if we consider how some people were subjected to demeaning roles or if they were cast out in general.

I’m wondering about all this. Colonization causes problems from the start and far into the future. How can we be a different kind of leader who notices this and serves to stop it? What’s the Holy Spirit telling us about what’s working and what’s not working in our leadership efforts?

I don’t want the future Church to be like an abandoned cabin in the woods.

Indifference is a Killer

It was during a Presbytery Council meeting. A pastor in the Presbytery came to share concerns about a culture of bullying she had witnessed that was damaging the Presbytery’s mission and ministry. She shared examples. She lifted up suggestions. She finished her time among us. She was dismissed. And then the Council never spoke of it again.

There was no follow up. There was no response to her. There was no plan to address the issues.

This, my friends, is indifference.

Imagine that on the night that the elders are meeting, a fire has displaced 20 neighbors across the street from the church building and the elders don’t mention it between the budget report or the motion to hold a turkey dinner fundraiser.

Imagine that there are two people who live in the alley behind your urban church and they spend every night there huddled behind the dumpster with a grocery cart filled with their possessions. And the parish nurse does a great job visiting homebound parishioners with mobility issues and anxiety. And the missions committee is organizing a trip to Haiti to paint classrooms. And it hasn’t occurred to anyone to talk with the neighbors in the alley living behind the dumpster.

Imagine that in your rural community there are used hypodermic needles in the parking lot that worshippers find on Sunday mornings as they park their cars. None of the church members know anyone who injects drugs – at least personally – and “it’s really none of their business.”

I am grateful to serve a Church (or 92 of them here in North Carolina) that addresses needs in their particular parts of cities and towns. Of course there are a few who are only concerned about what goes on within the walls of their sanctuary. Of course there are some whose connection to their neighbors is nominal – ranging from collecting cans of food to sending checks to local charities.

The Church exists to address the needs of the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the lonely, the broken, the lost in the name of Jesus Christ. The God who frees us from whatever enslaves us expects us to respond in kind. Our mission is worshipful work.

Maybe we are tired. Maybe we don’t know where to begin. Maybe the structures are too enmeshed to change.

I spent last week with a group of colleagues who – like me – serve our denomination as Mid-Council Leaders. In other words, we are Presbytery Leaders – professionals to serve multiple congregations and pastors – whose role it is to help God’s people be the Church as we are called to be the Church. It was often emotional as we realize what’s at stake.

The world feels crushed in countless ways and thank God we already have a Savior. And yet, we cannot be indifferent to the needs around us. We cannot refrain from having hard conversations about unhealthy systems. We cannot congratulate ourselves for being Good Christians while condemning our neighbors.

It’s good to be home after a long week away. And now, consider me a refreshed-ish cheerleader for engagement with the world in new ways.

How is your congregation engaged with the world? How is your congregation indifferent?

CREDO

In Latin, the word credo means I believe.

Before arriving here at Ferncliff Conference Center in AR I believed I could continue to write a blog post most days. And I believed that I could respond to work emails. And I believed I could keep up with work texts.

Now – after less than 24 hours here – I believe I need to take advantage of this time of reflection. So I believe I will do that. Back next Tuesday.

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things/Real Church

What not to do.

Yesterday’s blog post was about money. Today’s is about money as well, only different.

Over the weekend, I read a couple disturbing pieces about our colleagues in ministry affiliated with Elevation Church (one of the largest Southern Baptist Congregations where I live in North Carolina) and our colleagues in ministry affliated with the “He Gets It” project which is an initiative of The Servant Foundation which is an initiative of The Signatry which exists to promote “biblical generosity.” (This took some digging.)

Rachel Held Evans famously said that millennials have excellent bull@*^! detectors. I would offer that other generations can also smell inauthenticity/traps/foolishness a mile away depending on our own spiritual maturity. Both Elevation and “He Gets Us” don’t pass the smell test.

And this is why we can’t have nice things.

Yes, Elevation Church is cool and there are some authentic people involved. And also they are charging up to $1000+ for “tickets to worship” at the Kia Center in the Los Angeles area in November.

I believe this makes Jesus weep. Yes, you can attend by purchasing cheaper tickets, but . . . gross. Pastor Steven Furtick is known for some sketchy activities from faking spontaneous baptisms to living a lifestyle that looks more like Herod than Jesus. Unbelievers sincerely seeking spiritual answers will not find it in a pay-to-worship venue led by a man who needs a helicopter pad in his backyard.

Some of the television ads sponsored by the “He Gets Us” project are well done and yes, I believe that Jesus gets us. The whole fully divine and fully human thing.

And also this organization – though definitively not aligned with any denomination or political party – is run primarily by successful white men whose personal church affiliation is very conservative theologically. Some of my best friends are theologically conservative successful white men and yet I would like to scream, if I may: Jesus is not a brand.

The Washington Post featured an article last weekend about this “He Gets Us” movement that says this:

A $100 million effort launched this year is blanketing cities and the web, aiming to redeem Jesus’ brand from the damage done by some of his followers.

Billboards with messages like “Jesus let his hair down, too” and “Jesus went all in, too,” have been posted in major markets like New York City and Las Vegas. And ads featuring black-and-white online videos about Jesus as a rebel, an activist or a host of a dinner party have been viewed more than 300 million times, according to organizers.

The He Gets Us campaign, funded by the Signatry, a Christian foundation based in Kansas, will expand in the next few months, with an updated website, an online store where people can get free gear if they forgive someone or welcome a stranger, and an outreach program for churches, all leading up to a Super Bowl ad.

Again, this smacks of marketing for a religion that is not about hipsters or t-shirts. I like hipsters and I like t-shirts, but saying that “Jesus let his hair down” makes me queasy.

What if – faithful readers – we who are trying to follow Jesus simply did what Jesus commanded: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, support the weak, and serve “the least of these”?

Again, we make many mistakes misrepresenting what Jesus is all about. We confuse church attendance with spiritual maturity. We avoid sharing what we believe to people craving hope. We pretend we have it all together when we don’t.

Real Church is about discipleship and service. Disturbing Church is about profits and branding.

Let’s Talk COLAs, Bonuses, and Raises

If your professional clergyperson is doing a good job leading your congregation, we need to have a serious spiritual conversation. (Note: if your professional clergyperson is not doing a good job leading your congregation, your personnel committee needs to have a serious spiritual conversation directly with that leader.)

I remember serving a congregation (a couple of them in fact) who struggled with finances. Or at least they believed that they couldn’t “do any better” than what they were giving financially to their church. The disheartening thing for the whole staff was that no matter how well we served, no matter how effective we led, no matter what we did, there were rarely any raises or cost of living adjustments. We knew this and yet we continued to serve to the best of our ability.

In a frank conversation with a couple dozen pastors earlier this year, one pastor disclosed that he had never received an increase in salary in the ten years he had served his current congregation. Not a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). Not an extra week of vacation. Not a Christmas bonus.

His was not a “poor” congregation. His parishioners included lawyers and orthodontists and business owners. Maybe they didn’t believe he was an effective leader? Nevertheless, as difficult at money conversations might be, this pastor needed to talk with his leaders about this.

Today, I’m talking with you – church members – about this.

Again, if you appreciate your pastor and church staff, please – at least – consider budgeting for a Cost of Living Adjustment for 2023. The Social Security Administration is adding an 8.7% COLA to all SS checks in 2023 because that’s what the current economic situation in the United States warrants. The cost of living will be about 8.7% higher in 2023 than in 2022 which means that if we do not increase our church staff’s salaries, they will be paid less in 2023 than in 2022 in terms of the purchase power of their salaries.

NOTE: All salaried workers deserve this. I get it when people tell me that they don’t get COLAs and so their pastors shouldn’t get them either. I hear that parishioners resent pastors who get sabbatical time after 7 years of service. Believe me when I say that all of us need both fair pay and spiritual refreshment. And also please believe me when I say that effective pastors and other church staff members work long hours – including almost every weekend – and make regular sacrifices for you and your families. We pastors didn’t go into professional ministry for the money, but we still have bills to pay, loans to repay, and hopes of having a little extra for things like college for our children. Just like you.

There’s nothing holy about poverty. And your spiritual leaders will not be as effective if they are constantly worried that they can’t pay their rent or mortgage.

A couple tips if you want to support your pastor:

  • Consider putting extra money in their reimbursable continuing education funds. It’s not taxable and they can go someplace interesting and come back rejuvenated.
  • Consider cash or gift cards for the holidays. I have found that most congregations do not include such gifts in the budget assuming that individuals will offer simple gifts to their pastor. Gifts from the congregation express appreciation from the whole congregation rather than one or two thoughtful parishioners. Also, about gifts: I was once on a staff when each of us received crystal cross paperweights. Lovely, but one member of the staff was Jewish. Think seriously about the gifts you give. Again, all people can use cash or gift cards.
  • If you cannot give your leaders a raise, consider giving them an extra week of vacation – and then please don’t complain that they are taking “too much” vacation.
  • Consider that your staff is an investment in ministry. They often make the difference between your congregation having a lively, organized, inspiring ministry and having a tired, disorganized, dreary ministry.

I know that some of you reading this are thinking, “Nobody goes to bat for me when I want a raise or deserve a bonus or need a cost of living adjustment.” Well, you should have these things too if you are working hard and serving dilligently.

To all of us: it’s both okay and admirable to have honest conversations about money with our employers. We live in a world where the divide between the wealthy and the struggling grows larger with each year. In appreciation for those who serve us and our families – not to mention God – this is the time to remember that it’s shortsighted to ignore the financial health of our professional church staffers.

Thanks for listening.