If We Love the Work . . . (Committee Edition)

Institutions have committees.

Most of our committees could be eliminated except for the fact that many believe that we can’t be a church/school/hospital/non-profit without committees.  Let’s do ourselves a big favor and get rid of:

  • Committees that meet for two hours when the work could get done in 30 minutes. Why does this happen?  Because some of us are not organized and some of us believe committee time = social time.  (Note: I’m not talking about brief connecting time – like “please pray for me because I just found out I need heart surgery.”  I’m talking about reminiscing, naysaying, sharing your vacation photos, etc. I am guilty of this myself too many times.)
  • Committees of one.  We say that we have lots of committees  – maybe – because it sounds like we are super active.  But the truth is often that Miss Irma is the de facto Christian Education Committee and Mr. Earl is the de facto Building Committee.  And then Committees of One bring work into the whole governing body as if committee work is their job.
  • Committees of grumpy people who do not want to be there, but “nobody else will sign up.” Stop the madness.
  • Committees with elected members who never show up. Maybe this isn’t a good time for someone.  There’s no shame in saying, “If this isn’t a good time for you to serve, it’s really okay to step away.”  Or if you are the committee member who needs to step away, do that.

Here’s my question for all volunteer coordinators, nominating committees, and leaders to ask committee people:  Do you love this work?  If you don’t, please leave the committee and then – if necessary – dismantle the committee.

If I love the work – whether it’s running a summer kids program or cleaning out closets or having a community barbecue – I will do whatever it takes to do it.  Friends: Divide up the prep work (i.e. construction estimates, speaker fees, buying pickles, etc.) and just do it.  If everyone is clear on:

  • Core Values/The Vision
  • The Budget (and the process for spending beyond the budget if necessary)

. . . then set people free to do the work without having to schedule a meeting.  And if meeting together is essential, honor people’s time.  Meet, Pray, Assign Tasks. Leave.

And if you have committees with zero energy or inspiration, ask them:

Do you love this work?

Because if we don’t, maybe God is telling us to let it go.  If nobody picks it up after us, maybe it needs to be dropped permanently.  And if it’s really important, believe me, someone will pick it up.  (Maybe they’ve been waiting for us to let go.)

Even the busiest people will do what it takes to make something happen if it means enough to them, if they love it, if we’ve discerned that God is leading us to do it.

Regarding Steve Jobs: treating our organizations as start-ups everyday is not terrible advice.

Image of Steve Jobs.


“Little Lady”

I was preaching among one of our 87 congregations in Charlotte Presbytery several months ago with worship sandwiched between a class before and a meeting of leaders after.  Great people.  Wonderful mission. And as I was leaving to go home a gentleman stopped me in the lobby and said:

“Little Lady, you did so well today that I think it’s about time you got your own church.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

Young clergywomen everywhere recognize comments like this from people who can’t believe they are “old enough to be a pastor.”  I am clearly old enough unless you have 90 year old eyes.

Today is the 35th anniversary of my ordination as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament.  I indeed “had my own church” for 27 years before serving in Mid-Council and national ministry for the past 8 years.  It’s been a joy and I still can’t believe that I get to do this.

Many of the people who were present at my ordination in Boston Presbytery in 1984 have passed away, but they are still with me.  And I’m especially grateful that God is still with me.

Have a great week.

Image of the Rev. Margaret Towner, first clergywoman ordained in the old United Presbyterian Church the year I was born.  Her clergy robe was too big – because it was a man’s robe – and Sarah Dieter, a member of First Presbyterian Church, Allentown was making last minute adjustments before worship on the first Sunday after her ordination. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life Magazine, 1956.

Weekend Reading

I don’t know about you, but I’m reading A Sin By Any Other Name this weekend.  When the words of a descendant of Robert E. Lee and the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. show up in the same book, I’m in.  I’ll report back next week.

In addition to this kind of reading, I’ve been researching some family history in search of any ancestors who might have enslaved people before the U.S. Civil War.  Last night I found that my 4th Great Grandfather reported holding four enslaved people in the 1830 Federal Census:  two males under the age of ten, one female under the age of ten, and one female between the ages of 24 and 35.  I believe in repairing this sin and I am trying to figure out how.  And so – for now – I educate myself.

Again, I’ll report back.  May your weekend also bring fresh learning that will change your life for good.

Image of A Sin By Any Other Name by Robert W. Lee (2019)

I Was Gay & You Voted for Me

As candidate for President Pete Buttigieg enjoys a “boomlet” these days according to this article, I’ve been pondering whether or not the country would actually elect an openly gay man to be President of the United States.  This particular gay man is smart, thoughtful, patriotic, and a devout Christian.

Like many Progressive followers of Jesus, Buttigieg identifies one of his favorite Bible verses as Matthew 25:40:

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

Earlier verses in that passage go like this:

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Jesus doesn’t say anything about either homosexuality or voting – here or anywhere else in the Gospels.  But what if God is calling this person – or any other LGBTQ+ person – and we reject that person for his/her/their orientation?  (Note: there are apparently thousands of people who believe that God chose President Trump in spite of his less than noble – much less pious – words and actions.  Could the same people believe that God might also choose a married gay man who is also a scholar and a veteran?)

I’m not sure about God choosing candidates as much as I believe that God allows us to elect candidates and we often get what we deserve.  I believe in “calling” whether someone is up for President or county commissioner.  And sometimes God calls people outside of the dominant sexual orientation.

The newly elected mayor of Chicago is a lesbian and there are other mayors in other cities who self-identify as LGBTQ+.  But would we elect a gay President?  (I’m still surprised that this country elected a Black President.)

Just this week, the nation of Brunei implemented stoning LGBTQ+ people to death.  You read that right: stoning. people. to. death.

And even in the United States, there are many people who would like to bring back (the incorrectly named) sodomy laws.  But as I work with people in large urban congregations and small rural congregations and everything in between, almost all of those churches have LGBTQ+ members and/or members with children, siblings, and/or friends who identify as LGBTQ+.

But could a gay man be elected President of the United States in 2020?  I don’t know.  Maybe.

Embracing JOMO

Social media contributes mightily to FOMO.  We see photos of parties we missed or events we weren’t invited to and deep regret ensues.  Whatever.

The truth is that there can be deep joy in missing out. Maybe it comes with age or maybe it shows up at all ages as a healthy independent streak, but some of us reach a point when we are fine with missing the conference, skipping the party, choosing not to participate in the hoohah.

There are naps to relish.  There are books to read.  There is space to stare into.  Think of it as Marie Kondo-ing your schedule.

What gives me joy?  Sipping a third cup of coffee with a book. Baking banana bread in an empty apartment.  Not going out.

I also find joy in my work, in leading retreats and planning meetings that matter.  I love one-on-one conversations at parties.  I appreciate a good movie on opening night in a big theatre with a balcony surrounded by people dressed like Marvel characters.

But count me out of the Final Four Watch Party at the sports bar.  And I’ll be watching election returns at home without a crowd.  And I am deeply content taking road trips by myself.

What gives you joy in terms of your daily schedule?  Let’s do that more – even if it means not being in all the Instagram shots.  It will change our lives for good.

“You’re Safe Now”

Although my life is remarkably easy and privileged, I experienced some difficulties a while ago, and I bring that up because – in a conversation yesterday with my coach, I heard words that brought enormous physical and spiritual relief:  “You’re safe now.”

I’m safe now.

Like anyone who’s ever experienced trauma or any life-jolting incident, I am occasionally triggered by random encounters.  My heart races.  I toss and turn at night. But I’m safe now.  When I say that to myself, my heart slows and I sleep very soundly.

Part of being The Church is making the world safer for God’s children.  

Some congregations have policies created to make people safer:

  • Live Shooter policies
  • Gun-Free Zone policies
  • Background check policies
  • Boundary training policies
  • Playground policies

But policies are no match for culture.  The culture of a congregation is what makes a community feel safe, much more than policies and procedures.

  • Do we have a culture of gossip, bullying, or gas lighting?
  • Do we have a culture that shames people?
  • Do we have a culture that allows people to be imperfect (or even a hot mess?)
  • Do we have a culture that takes risks to protect somebody?  (I see you Sanctuary Churches.)

If we can’t feel safe in Church or in church-related institutions, our very souls are damaged and it makes Jesus weep.

The Church is called to be a community that’s different from the world.  The world is often ugly and mean and dangerous, but how soothing it is to hear the words, “You are safe now” while surrounded by people who exemplify the love of God.


“Thank You For Having Me”

I listen to a lot of National Public Radio and I’ve noticed that guests often say, “Thank you for having me,” when the interview ends.  It’s an interesting thing to say and I wonder what they mean.

  • Thank you for letting me share my perspective?
  • Thank you for giving me air time?
  • Thank you for including me?
  • Thank you for the invitation?

After a lovely weekend – having been invited to lead two retreats and participate in a colleague’s installation into a new pastoral position – I said, “Thank you for having me,” more than once.  It’s the “having me” that’s strange.

Did they really “have me“?  They welcomed me and they appreciated me, but they didn’t exactly “have me.”  Maybe I’m weary or maybe I’m taking in life and in death we belong to God too seriously.

But I’m grateful that God has me and I’m happy to loan myself out to others.  Have a good week.


Pastor Shape Up

Quick question for clergy:  What was your last Continuing Education event and how did it positively impact your ministry?

Quick question for parishioners: What would you suggest to your pastors for their next Continuing Education event in hopes of positively impacting their ministry?

Warning: These could be fighting words.

Continuing education can be a flash point for some congregations and their leaders.  If the pastor never takes classes to refresh and keep up with new ideas or if the pastor takes classes in theology and poetry writing but the parishioners wish the pastor would take classes in preaching and pastoral care, feelings will be hurt and shame storms might ensue.

It’s painful when church leaders tell me that their pastor has no idea how to visit someone in the hospital, run a meeting, or preach a sermon – and they’ve been out of seminary for decades.  Ouch.

Who’s going to be the person who tells the 50 year old pastor that she could use a homiletics refresher course?  Who’s going to tell the 61 year old pastor that his home visits are offensive?

Every day’s a school day, as one of my favorite pastors often says, and this is true for every single one of us.  Tenured teachers need to continue to learn how to teach.  Seasoned physicians need to know the latest treatments.  And experienced pastors need to improve our preaching/teaching/pastoral care/administration skills.  God deserves our very best efforts.

If pastors and congregations have a trusting, loving relationship, people can say to each other:  “How can I be a more effective leader?” and the feedback will be honest.  This goes for pastors, educators, elders, deacons, musicians, and choir members.  “How can I be a more effective follower of Jesus?” is the most important question – but that’s for another post.

Today I wonder about seeing Continuing Education through a Shaping Up lens.  What do we need to work on?

  • Are we leading meetings the ways we’ve always led meetings?  (Please don’t.  No church meeting should be more than two hours long – EVER – and most meetings can be done in an hour and a half which includes 45 minutes of spiritual reflection and vision casting. Here’s a post about what meetings are for.  Here’s another about killing meetings.)
  • Are we bored with our own preaching? (Not a good sign.  It’s possible that – if you are bored – your people have been bored for a while now.)
  • Are administrative tasks running smoothly?  (I’m not even talking about all the trains running on time.  I’m asking: do you have any idea where the trains are? Do you have any trains?)
  • Are Bible studies a mere shadow of what they could be? (When was the last time you did a Bible study – much less preach a sermon – on the unnamed concubine who was chopped into pieces in Judges or the story of Esther?  Better than Game of Thrones and with more theological grappling. And all those familiar stories are usually shocking if we pretend we are hearing them for the first time.)
  • Are we training our elders and deacons the same way we did it a decade ago – or not at all?  (Our Biblical job description instructs us to Do. One. Thing. Here it is.)
  • Are we consistently exhausted, cynical, crabby, mean, selfish, greedy, passive-aggressive, hateful, obnoxious, impatient, difficult, unthinking, cruel, deceitful, emotionally bleeding, indecisive, hypocritical, sleazy, needy, vindictive, ungrateful, moody, and/or irresponsible?  (We need therapy and spiritual direction. Most days I agree with Gaga, but we were not born this way.)

Maybe we need to shape up a little in terms of our professional and interpersonal skills.  If we are too tired to consider this, listen to your soul.  God might be telling us something.

Image of Dr. Gladys Ganiel running by St. Patrick’s Church in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland. She blogs at A Church Without Walls.

“We Are a Warm and Welcoming Congregation”

I conducted a non-scientific study of all the Presbyterian churches in my state who are seeking a pastor to note how many of them self-identified as some version of warm, welcoming and/or friendly. Almost 66% indeed pitched themselves with at least one of those positive descriptors in their pastoral search papers.  (Being “vibrant” is also very popular.)***

It’s old news to say that all congregations see themselves as “friendly.”  Churches believe they are friendly . . .

  • Even if there is a high stink eye quotient among the older members,
  • Even if there is a sign on the playground that says “Keep Out!”
  • Even if all the doors are locked on Sunday mornings except the one secret door that members know to use.

I regularly read lots of materials written by church search committees looking for new leadership and have come to the conclusion that saying we are “friendly” and “welcoming” may be aspirational but it’s not really true.  When I hear a church tell me they are “friendly” I immediately want to ask them:

  • Tell me about the people you have welcomed who are not very lovable.
  • Who in church have you gotten to know better in the last month and how has that happened?
  • What are the intentional practices of your congregation to make guests feel at home?

I know several congregations who indeed welcome unlovable people, who offer multiple opportunities to build relationships, who train all leaders in intentional hospitality practices – and they rarely self-identify as “friendly.”  They don’t have to because they are friendly.  It’s like a lovely secret they all know about.

They know to walk people without umbrellas to their cars on rainy days.  They know to walk visitors to the nursery or the rest room – not just to point and say “It’s down there.”  If they are headed out to brunch and there’s a person standing alone, they ask that person to join them.  If they see someone new, they say “excuse me” to the old friends they’ve been talking with and go to that new person to introduce themselves.  They know to share their hymnal.  They know to invite the grieving person out to lunch many months after the funeral.  They know to call and check in.

And why do we do these things?  Not to “get new members” – for the love of God.

No, we practice warmth and authentic kindness because we are human beings called to love other human beings.  That’s it.

It’s dangerous to advertise that we are warm, welcoming, and friendly (because what if we really aren’t?)  It’s much safer to work on being warm, welcoming, and friendly and see what happens next.

***I wonder what would happen if a church seeking a new pastor introduced themselves with something like this:

We are an anxious, quirky, ridiculously imperfect group of people who are trying to follow Jesus but we miss the mark on most days.  Nevertheless we hope to call a new pastor who will love us, lead us, challenge us, tell us when we are being unfaithful, and cheer us on when we get it right.  We can be cranky and fearful.  But we can also be miraculously generous and loving because we have seen glimpses of God working in the world.  We’d like to see more of that with the right leader’s guidance.  We could use some encouragement as well as a kick in the pants to figure out how God wants us to be the Church here in Little Valley, USA.

I predict that a church like this would be inundated with creative pastors lining up to hear more.  Thanks be to God for churches who know who they are and for churches who know who God is.

Channeling Felicity Huffman

Yes, it’s rotten what those wealthy parents did to get their kids into college. 

Paying for people to fake sports talent, change SAT answers, and blatantly buy spots in The Class of 2023 at Stanford, Yale, and the University of Southern California is outrageous and screams White Privilege if anything ever did.  Those of us without an extra millions dollars to throw around are shocked – shocked! – to hear about such entitlement.

But the truth is that many of us have channeled Felicity Huffman.  Yes, she paid $15,000 to an SAT proctor to tinker with Sophia’s answers but many of us have expected entitlements too.  Maybe we didn’t bribe someone with money.  Maybe we simply have relationships that have benefited us and our families.

Everyday privilege is something that many of us have enjoyed for years without thinking much about it.  For example:

  • Have you ever requested a certain teacher for your children because that teacher was known to be “the best”? 
  • Have you ever asked a friend to get your child an internship at his/her company?
  • Have you ever had a friend or family member with an extra bedroom or – how great would this be – an extra apartment where your child could live rent-free while taking a summer internship in the city?
  • Have you ever been a member of a club or a pool where your children could make connections with people whose parents could help them get a job one day?

For the record, I’ve done all those things.  We want the best for our kids.  We want to make the way clear for them to succeed.  Why not use our relationships to help our children score a good opportunity?

White Privilege – specifically – is hard to relinquish.  Why would we give up our advantages?  Some would say that the reason why we join clubs in the first place – and live in specific neighborhoods, and maybe even belong to certain churches or synagogues is because of the helpful connections we can make.  And I get that.

But imagine a world in which we offer such advantages to other people’s children as well.  Imagine sharing our privilege with others.

Maybe you heard the story about Tani Adewumi – the eight year old Nigerian refugee who became a chess champion in New York recently.  He lives in a shelter with his mother, but he attends an excellent public school with a chess club.  In Garry Kasparov’s article about Tani, he wrote:

“Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.”

Using our privilege is understandable.  We can relate to parents like Felicity Huffman – albeit without committing a crime.  But when we share our privilege, the opportunities get spread around more fairly.  It’s the right thing to do.

I know a public school teacher who has connections in the film world near where he teaches.  Part of his “ministry” (although he wouldn’t use that term) involves looking for internships for his most talented students. Often his hardest working high schoolers are poor or undocumented.

Over the years, this young teacher has helped over a dozen students find well-paying internships that also open other doors to future opportunities.  He uses his own privilege/his own connections to help somebody else’s children thrive.

Where can we share our own privilege?  Who can we open doors for?  How can we offer opportunities to people who need a break?

Yes, we who are privileged will continue to channel Felicity Huffman.  But are we so desperate that we won’t help other people’s children too? 

Do we even notice other people’s children?  Do we ever think about other people’s children?  Today, let’s try to notice.  And think.

Image of the actor Felicity Huffman in Desperate Housewives (2004-2012)