How to Be a Better Human

I’ve been thinking – for obvious reasons – what makes us better humans? Here’s my off-the-top-of-my-head list:

  • Respond to feelings with feelings. (Don’t follow a feeling with a fact.) When I say, “I’m really sad because of what’s going on in the world,” you say, “It makes me feel so sad too. And angry.” You don’t respond by saying, “That gunman was mentally ill.” And please don’t follow my feeling with silence as if I didn’t say anything.
  • Show up for people. Go to the funeral. Remember the death dates as well as the birthdays. Send the sympathy letter (preferably with remembrances of specific things you loved about the person who’s gone.)
  • Send flowers or some other signs of beauty. When things are tough, it’s comforting to be in the presence of beauty.
  • Don’t try to fix things. The hardest things in life cannot be fixed – unless someone needs money. If you can share money, that might relieve an immediate burden.
  • Don’t should on people as in “You should have ____.” Never do this.
  • Don’t make life all about you. It’s not always your party, your story, your moment.
  • Care about people who are not in your family or friend groups. All people were created in the image of God. Even the dirty ones. Even the mean ones. Even the gunmen.
  • Be teachable. I tweeted something thoughtless yesterday and someone was kind enough to let me know. Thank you N.

This is a starter list. What would you add?

Not What I’d Planned

I wrote a different post for today, but it will wait.*

Our FBC teaches high school in Alexandria, Virginia and one of his students was stabbled to death yesterday during the lunch period. But nobody will remember this tragedy because of what happened in Texas on the same day. I have nothing else to say.

*There was a typo when this was initially published. I’d typed “wail” instead of “wait.” It was probably more true with “wail.”

A Palate Cleanser

I’ve been writing some hard posts about the Church lately. Maybe all of them are hard, but the truth is that I say hard things in hopes of moving this Church we love to change. The world craves joy and relief. We can be a Church that offers that.

The world is so deeply troubled (did you see this in the news yesterday?) and yet I see the Church as a way out when we let God be God. I continue to delight in the fact that the Spirit of living God continues to move through human beings. Sometimes it takes floods, fires and wandering for 40 years, but the God of love will always win.

Let’s look at times when love has won. Call this post a spiritual palate cleanser.

Katie Hays pinpoints such Behold Moments from scripture in her book (here.)

  • That time Cornelius the Gentile (aka Not One of God’s Chosen People – or so some assume) gets baptized by Peter after Peter has a vision that no food is unclean and no person is unclean.
  • That time Paul (who used to terrorize Christians) was baptizing formerly unclean people which is really strange since Paul is usually such a rule keeper.
  • That time the rules on circumcision changed which seems to defy everything it says about circumcision in Genesis.

People of faith sometimes refer to “God Moments” as in those times when something holy happens in the grocery store parking lot or during book group. Yes, to God Moments, but there are even holier, more amazing things that go unnoticed or underappreciated every day. Katie Hays calls these “Something, Something Holy Spirit.” They are the moments that blow us away as God reveals something unexpected and unspeakably gracious.

Everybody Jesus ever met had a story to tell,” writes Hays.

What are your stories? Here are a couple of mine from fairly recently:

  • That time a Transgender woman visited a church for the first time and the congregation got to know her and love her to the point that an elder told me that his friendship with her helped him understand his Transgender granddaughter who’d been estranged from the family.
  • That time a church took a chance on a young clergywomen (after saying they had no intention of interviewing any women) and found their dream pastor who has changed the mission mindset of their whole county to look more like Jesus.
  • That time a church gave all the money in an underused scholarship fund for church members to the children of Muslim refugees so that they could attend community college.
  • That time a pastor left an emotionally abusive situation that was killing her soul only to be called to a new position that fills her soul to the brim.

I’ve seen these things and more. In every situation these stories are a result of people letting God do God’s thing. In the thick of the world’s hot messed-ness, let’s remember that if we let God be God, amazing things happen.

What If The Very Thing We Value Most Is Actually Killing Us?

An elder once told me as a new pastor that ____ (a leader in the congregation) would be an essential person in my ministry. “We couldn’t live without her.” Turns out that leader became one of those saboteurs I wrote about the other day.

If you are a Church Person, you know that there are certain sacred cows in every congregation: the beloved retired pastor, the historic preschool, the cemetery, the annual fundraiser, the choir director, the memorial windows, the 9:30 Sunday School, the Big Givers . . .

The list is endless.

Those who try to tip over those sacred cows are often vilified. The ones who try to prop them up again are accused of not moving forward. What we need to do is work together – the traditionalists and the change-agents – to faithfully serve the Church we are called to be. Not the Church we once were. Not the Church we wish we were.

We must be the Church God is calling us to be right now. And we can’t be that Church if we are afraid.

So what if the very thing we value most is what’s killing us/keeping us from being the Church we’re called to be? Examples:

  • We loved Pastor Joseph so, so much and under his leadership we grew like we’d never grown before. We will never find another pastor like him. (The Killer: Every subsequent pastor will fail when compared with Pastor Joseph and this makes it impossible to move forward. Times are different from when Pastor Joseph led us and it’s time for noticing that this time calls for a different kind of leadership.)
  • We long to have young families join us to help relieve tired volunteers and regenerate the congregation. (The Killer: Yes, young families are wonderful and they are also overwhelmed these days. Chances are that young parents will not be able to volunteer like 1970s stay-at-home moms. And there are members who are not “young” but they have much to offer if we will allow them to lead.
  • We love our history and must continue to cling to it. Our cemetery includes war heroes. Some famous people have preached from our pulpit. We were the first church to _______. (The Killer: Notice that the oldest churches in Christendom are long gone. If we allow ourselves to become a museum, we will die. What is God calling us to be and do now? The world is craving Good News.)
  • We can’t live without this wealthy widow/this energetic deacon/this longtime treasurer/this beloved organist. (The Killer: That Very Important Person can hold the church hostage, threatening to leave if things don’t go their way.)
  • Our sanctuary is not to be touched because we love those pews, those windows, that organ, all the plaques. (The Killer: A huge sanctuary built for 500 but looking empty with our congregation of 75 feels cavernous. The whole set up might be unfriendly to people in wheelchairs, people with nursing babies, people with hearing issues, people who don’t listen to classical music on the radio.)

Let’s say that the congregation calls a new pastor and everyone’s feeling great about the future, agreeing they can never return to their (glorious?) past. That’s just the first step. There will be challenges because, when a church agreed to changing some things, they didn’t imagine they would be asked to change their favorite things.

Sometimes the very thing we value most is also the thing that’s killing us.

This is What Congregational Sabotage Looks Like

A church says they want a pastor who can “reach new people.” They want to address “changes in the community.” They are open to being a different kind of church.

If they are very fortunate and have been paying attention to the Spirit, they call a pastor who – possibly – doesn’t look like the dominant demographic in the congregation. They successfully identify a leader who will move them forward from their stuckness. They choose what is brave and faithful over what they’ve always done. Jesus dances.

And then something excruciating happens. The church administrator who’s a longtime employee (and maybe a church member) starts to withhold information from the pastor – like who’s in the hospital. Or the church musician who’s been on staff for a decade or so starts badmouthing the pastor who suggests new things. Or the preschool director who’s been part their historic preschool becomes jealous of the new pastor’s relationship with preschool parents.

And in the throes of these little conflicts, the church leaders choose to back the administrator or the organist or the preschool director because 1) they don’t like conflict and/or 2) they don’t want to upset the congregation who have grown accustomed to the longtime staffers.

So, do we want a pastor who can “reach new people” or not? Do we want to address “changes in the community” or was that merely what we were supposed to say? Are we open to being a different kind of church but in our heart of hearts, we can’t let go of Comfortable Church?

This happens every day in the institutional Church. Congregations sabotage themselves and the blame will go to the new pastors themselves or to the Presbytery (or other church judicatory) or the pastor search community. In truth, we are to be blamed for not being brave – even in the perfect time for bravery and fresh ideas: after a pandemic.

Too many of our churches are stuck in the myth of Sisyphus and we’ll never get that rock to the top of the mountain. Because we don’t really want to get there. (And we deserve to close sooner than later.)

Image source.

Are Attacks Actually Confessions?

It looks like the current divides in our world have something to do with history.

I once got into a conversation with a friend who was loudly complaining about people on welfare. As he ripped “Welfare Moms” I remembered that his own mother had been on welfare when he was a child after his father left.

Sometimes we attack others for doing what we ourselves have done or are guilty of still doing because amnesia is real. I’m seeing this in politics especially. Politicians accuse their rivals of illegal voting practices, pandering, and lying when they themselves – or their followers – have been caught committing such actions.

This is one of the reasons why it’s essential that we know our nation’s history and not for the sake of being smarter in general. It’s about our own spiritual and mental health. (Also our physical health. Read about ACEs here.) It’s not about being “woke.” It’s about being self-aware.

All this talk of “replacement theory” is ironic in that those who seem to fear being “replaced” in American culture have forgotten that once people who looked like Payton Gendron once displaced indigenous people. And some of the very people he targeted are descendants of those taken from their own lands during the first 200 + years of this nation’s history.

I wonder if people who identify as white are so afraid of being the minority because in our hearts, we know that minorities have not been treated well in our nation. Are we making a subtle confession here?

Acknowledgement and confession of sinful behavior is essential for spiritual growth. And what we are confessing here are both personal and corporate sins. (Maybe I’ve never enslaved anyone, but I’ve benefited from the system of white supremacy that led to enslaving non-white people.)

In my own theological tradition (Presbyterian/Reformed) we value confession as an essential part of the Christian life. Without confession, it’s hard to move forward and have a fresh start. Without confession, we are foolish and blind. Without confession we become what we criticize.

Personal examples: I really have a hard time with judge-y people and the truth is that I’m very judge-y. I am repelled by snobs and yet, I’m also a snob. I find people who don’t know how to read the room to be ridiculous and yet I’m often guilty of not reading the room.

Although I don’t always agree with posts I retweet, I agree with this one:

America was founded on Replacement Theory. Europeans literally “replaced” indigenous nations and took their land.

Are our attacks always confessions? Maybe not always, but more often than we think.

ISO Norm Entrepreneurs

Norm enterpreneurs draw attention to what they see as the stupidity, unnaturalness, intrusiveness, or ugliness of current norms. From How Change Happens by Cass R. Sunstein

Someone phoned me a few weeks ago very troubled by the fact that a school bus driver had been nominated to serve as an elder in her church. “A school bus driver!” she said. “We used to have people like bank presidents and doctors to serve as elders, but now we’ve lowered our standards to elect a bus driver.” She wanted me to do something about it.

I told her that the elders are the spiritual leaders of a congregation and that God chooses all kinds of people to serve. I told her that I’d rather have a faithful bus driver who teaches Bible study than a faithless bank president who only worships on Easter. I told her it’s about discipleship not education level or bank account or name recognition.

I sometimes grow weary of this conversation. It shows up in countless ways.

Every congregation follows a set of norms and those norms could be killing their church. If the norms are “stupid, unnatural, intrusive, or ugly” that congregation will not survive much longer. Of course none of us believe that we are any of those things, but the reality is that:

  • It’s a little stupid if your elders spend time working on a Ten Year Plan these days. Exhibit A: COVID.
  • It’s unnatural if your congregation assumes that there is only one demographic (e.g. straight white men of a certain age and abilities) eligible to serve in leadership, as if the Holy Spirit doesn’t move through unlikely candidates. There is Biblical evidence for this.
  • It’s intrusive if your congregation expects all members to share personal information they don’t want to share. People are different. Some will want everyone to know about their brain tumor and others will not.
  • It’s ugly if your congregation has unspoken biases against people who don’t look, sound, or think like the majority of members.

Without exception, each of our struggling congregations struggle because of norms that harm instead of bolster their church. I’m in search of norm entrepreneurs who know how to shift the culture of a congregation from what doesn’t look like Jesus to what looks more like Jesus.

Show me a church that has norms based on Micah 6:8, Galatians 5:22-23, or Matthew 6:33 and I’ll show you a church that grapples with everyday hospitality, worship, spiritual growth and outreach into the community in an impactful way. Unfortunately too many of our congregations have norms based on keeping people comfortable. And instead of centering on The Things of God we focus on lesser things.

What was the last Big Conflict your governing board had? If it was about attendance, building or cash, you need to refocus. The Church is called to be about proclaiming the gospel and offering spiritual nurture and worshiping a God who is bigger than ourselves and preserving the Truth and promoting the justice of Jesus. What everyday norms help us to be that kind of Church?

We need leaders who know how to shift dated norms – with pastoral sensitivity, of course.

Image of Cass R. Sunstein’s book How Change Happens (MIT Press, 2019)

Things Fall Apart: A Spiritual Practice

In the Chinua Achebe novel Things Fall Apart, the hero Okonkwo lives a comfortable life as the head of his clan in Nigeria until several catastrophic occurences threaten his way of life, and . . . everything. To say that things fall apart is an understatement.

My clergywomen’s group met last week and a common theme for each of us – all pastors in a variety of settings – is that Things Are Falling Apart. We’ve been a group for over 20 years and have evolved from “young pastors” to a few retired pastors and to a new generation of “young pastors” along with some seasoned pastors who are facing a different Church.

All we’ve known about Church from worship attendance to Sunday School to mission trips to committee structures to What Pastors Do has changed dramatically over the past two years which is obviously a time lapse version of what’s been happening in the Church over the past 50 years. Thank God for COVID?

We grieve the deaths of over 1 million people in the United States and countless others with long term consequences, not to mention the tally of deaths worldwide. Also, God uses everything including natural and human made catastrophies.

And as far as The Church goes, COVID has forced us to face what some have been screaming from the village steeple for a while now. (Hello Presbymergent Friends from the late 90s.) And as we declare that “Jesus will always have a Church” while also admitting that “Everything is Falling Apart” it’s time to reframe the narrative.

Sometimes we can’t grow until things fall apart. We hate that, but it’s true.

I’m not saying that God makes our lives crumble before our eyes. But I am saying that God uses the spiritual tumult that comes about every 500 years to alter what needs to be altered if for no other reason than the fact that we are tempted to idolize what is not God – from temples and popes to pipe organs and pews.

Back to the novel Things Fall Apart, it was the Christian Church who brought destruction to Okonkwo’s family and his way of life. In these days when the Christian message has been hijacked, we who want to follow the Jesus of the Bible find ourselves with new opportunities.

As we watch things fall apart for the Institutional Church, there are opportunities to focus on real things:

  • How shall we live in this culture where “the sanctity of life” means completely different things to different people?
  • How do we talk about God when some tout a John Wayne God and others read Matthew 25?
  • How do we practice our faith in a broken world?
  • How do we practice our faith when we are broken?

As things continue to fall apart in our culture, God will use it. God hasn’t caused it. But God will use it.

Image source.

Clergy Groups Have Saved My Life

Actually, the more theologically precise statement would be: God has saved my life through my clergy groups. This week, I’m with The Preaching Roundtable who first got together in 2001, so it’s been a while. And we missed two years due to COVID.

Not much to say except that everybody – everybody – needs a cohort of people with whom we can share our common lives in safe, inspiring places. This year we are meeting with a coach to discuss Katie Hays’ book among other things.

I recommend the book.

I won’t be writing any other blog posts this week because I really need to stop pretty much everything and rest/visit/drink coffee with these sisters. Have a wonderful week yourselves.

Confidence and Competence Are Not the Same

She walks into the office dressed smartly with obvious poise. She has an impressive handle on theories and procedures and when she articulates them, she does so as if no one could possibly argue with her. There in fact is no argument. She knows what she’s talking about.

He sits at the head of the table with clear authority and power. He orders people to make their reports as if those reports are specifically for him and everyone at the table works for him. He’s slow to praise or thank people. He can be a bit of a bully.

This podcast (one more time) is excellent in terms of looking at evolving leadership. Even in churches, it used to be true that leaders who exuded confidence were considered the best. Maybe that confidence arose because of roles (when clergy were considered more respected than we are now or when business leaders/successful farmers/well-known citizens were assumed to be equally as successful in their Christian practices.)

Yes, there are confident leaders who are also very competent. But it’s not necessarily so.

In the words of organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic “We assume that confidence and competence are the same.” They are not.

The most competent leaders are quick to learn from others – including those with less experience or with different experiences. Competent leaders are humble. They do not come off as entitled.

Confident leaders look awesome. (i.e. Pulpit Candy.) But that doesn’t mean they will serve effectively.

This is yet another blog post encouraging personnel committees and pastor nominating committees to look beyond outward appearances. And it’s not my idea. Remember in the Bible what Samuel said the day God surprisingly called David – of all the sons of Jesse – to be the next king?

‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’

Turns out King David was not his best self when he became an entitled egoist. But even David became a strong leader, humbled by his dependence on the God who called him. What are we doing to become more competent leaders? It’s important that we not depend on our confidence that we already are.

Image of TED Talkers (left to right) Patrice Gordon, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Nicola Sturgeon, and Shabana Basij-Rasikh.