She Had Hoped to Go to Nursing School

Breonna Taylor died a year ago this coming Saturday. She died on my 64th birthday.

When you turn 64, people sing the Beatles to you. When you turn 65, people send you a Medicare Card.

But what I really want for my 65th birthday is for us to remember Breonna Taylor. 

At the time Ms. Taylor was killed, she was working as an ER Technician in two different Louisville hospitals after previously serving as an Emergency Medical Technician.  She had hoped to go to nursing school.

[Note:  There is still misinformation about the shooting of Breonna Taylor and this article refutes that misinformation.  In truth, she was killed by two members of the Louisville Police who shot her six times.  One of those shots was fatal.  It is also true that no one was charged with her death.]

I am not asking you to give me a birthday gift or to donate in my name.  There is nothing about this that’s about me.

My wish, however, is that you would consider making a donation to the scholarship program of the National Black Nurses Association in memory of Breonna Taylor this week as a way to remember her name and her dreams.  Consider it a simple Lenten practice. You can make a donation here.

Please designate your gift in the dropdown to “Scholarship Donation” with the tribute being “in memory of” Breonna Taylor. There are many promising Black nursing students out there who will be blessed by our gifts.

Remember her name.  And remember that her dreams were destroyed in a single, racist moment.  She had hoped to go to nursing school.

Image is an undated family photo when Ms. Taylor was honored for her EMT work.

Guest Blogger: More on Retirement from a Retired Church Leader

Note: One of my gifted colleagues Mary Marcotte shared her response to yesterday’s post and she has given me permission to share it with you.  

Yesterday’s post on retirement struck a real chord for me.  I’ve worked with pastors (and educators) who had essentially retired in place.  My observation is both they and their congregations suffer. 

I’m three and a half years into my retirement and think I’ve found my rhythm.   My retirement date was as much to do with the state of Presbytery finances as it was with my personal needs.  I’ve been lucky enough to never have used my salary to put food on our table, unlike so many of our colleagues. 

In early days of retirement I was delighted to continue supply preaching  and to be able to commit to teaching a long term, in depth Bible study.  About six months into retirement we moved to Dallas, within the bounds of a different Presbytery.  We’ve settled into our new church home (actually the first congregation I served as an educator and where we raised our children.) I have a wonderful network of educator friends and enjoy keeping my mind sharp by joining with a group of fabulous retired educators in an on line book group.  I continue to be involved in the Association of Professional Christian Educators and my congregation’s Director of Faith Formation knows I have her back.

That is probably more than you need to know, but a bit of background to a couple of observations.

I think many pastors (and other church professionals) hold on too long because they don’t know who they are if they are not the pastor of their congregations.

They realize that if they do a good job of observing separation ethics, they will be losing touch with all their friends and are not sure how to make new ones.

I think presbytery’s could fill a wonderful function if they helped folks begin to navigate these issues in the years looking toward retirement.  A  few great questions are:

  • What about your ministry would continue giving you joy if you were not being paid to do it?
  • What about your current ministry exhausts you or no longer engages your heart?
  • What new skill have you developed in the last year?
  • What new insight have you gained in how scripture speaks to the issues of our time?
  • What new initiative would you love for your congregation to engage
  • What friends do you have beyond your own congregation?

You get my drift. 

I worked with Rev. Jim Atwood in his last year of ministry before retirement and remember vividly his story of coming to the realization that it was time to retire.  He was in Alaska, watching a sled dog demonstration and someone asked how they knew when a dog was ready to retire.  The answer was when the driver pulled out the sled and the dog was no longer jumping up and down to be chosen, the canine version of “Pick me!”  He realized he was no longer jumping up and down, yet that was not the whole story.  Jim was able to devote his next 20 years to the issues relating to gun violence.  That fed his soul and made a difference to so many lives.

I no longer suffer from ‘helium hand’ as one former colleague described the reactive need to volunteer for all tasks.  I was shocked to find myself NOT apply to write curriculum.  I am clear that I will NOT re-up  to serve in my current APCE leadership role, and I am committed to making space for the next generation of leaders and to provide whatever support they might need.  I’m far clearer on this as I anticipate my 70th birthday this year than when I was looking at 65.

I hope to be as clear as Mary when God calls me to retire.

Note: Mary Marcotte retired as the Associate General Presbyter of the Presbytery of New Covenant in Texas in the Presbyterian Church USA.  She previously served as the Director of Christian Education for three different congregations.  The Rev. Jim Atwood retired from Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington, VA.  He was one of the co-founders of the Million Mom March  in 2000 and former Chairperson of the Board for the National Coalition to Stop Gun Violence after his retirement from professional ministry.  Jim died of complications from COVID-19 in June 2020.

Are You (Or Is Your Pastor) Discerning Retirement?

I will be 65 years old next week (and will try not to talk it incessantly because I think about it incessantly.)

Being 65 makes me eligible for Medicare and marks fifteen years since I could join AARP. I could say so many things about aging here but I won’t.

Instead, I want to talk about clergy retirement.

I’ve written a bit on 60-somethings in our congregations and some of those posts have hurt my colleagues feelings.  That was not my intention.  It is my intention as an institutional church person to devote my life to helping congregations thrive and expand the reign of God and make disciples of all nations.

As I did when I was a pastor serving a congregation, I have a small group of people I trust to tell me the truth.  One of their primary responsibilities these days is to tell me when it’s time to retire and I am confident they will do this. 

In my denomination, it’s lucrative to retire when you are 70 years old if you are vested in our pension system.  And it’s also true that churches do not tend to call new pastors who are 60+ in age.  

So, here’s what sometimes happens:  A pastor is – say – 62 and wants to retire at 70 but that pastor has lost energy and the desire to learn new things.  There is no steam left to shift the culture of that congregation.

This is especially dangerous in these days as we discern what the Post-Pandemic Church will look like.  A struggling congregation cannot survive 2 to 10 years of leadership under a pastor who will not or cannot pivot to serve a Post-Pandemic Church.

As I discern these things personally, I am begging my Boomer colleagues to talk about these things with the LORD:

  1. Am I one of the first to say ‘yes’ when elders and deacons present fresh ideas for our congregation to consider?  
  2. Am I excited about Sunday mornings? Sunday evenings? Tuesday afternoons doing my ministry?
  3. Have I surrounded myself with people who help me dismantle doing things “the way we’ve always done it?” for the sake of the Gospel?
  4. Am I willing to learn from younger leaders?
  5. Do I feel hope for the future of our congregation?

If you answer “no” to any of these questions, please consider retirement in the next year, my beloved 60-something colleagues.

The truth is that it’s not about age.  It’s about energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  And yet if you find yourself at a place where your energy is depleted, your desire to learn is negative, your imagination has leveled out, and you don’t love ministry the way you used to love it – please, for the love of God – retire this year.

I don’t mean to offend, but our churches will suffer to the point of no return without hopeful, dynamic, servant leadership.  We need pastors who are pumped to move our congregations into the future with impactful ministry in the name of Jesus Christ.

P.S. If you don’t know that this is a post for you, ask around.  Ask your colleagues, your family, and those trusted parishioners who are not ‘yes people.’ Listen to what God is telling you in prayer.

 

This Could Be Dangerous

Courageous people do dangerous things.  They speak the truth when it could get them in trouble.  They step in when the weak are being bullied.  They put themselves in situations that others avoid.

Jesus did all these things.

We could say he was an instigator, but actually he was showing us what God’s love looks like  – speaking the truth, stepping in, putting himself in tricky situations.  He wasn’t putting himself in danger for the danger’s sake.  He was doing it for love’s sake.

Talking to a foreign woman in public.  Refuting the powerful Pharisees in public. Touching a leper in public.  His was a public ministry and it was often dangerous.

Our congregations do dangerous things too, but sometimes they are the wrong kind.  It’s very dangerous for a church to:

  • Keep the same leaders in the same roles for decades.
  • Conflate confidentiality and secrets.
  • Allow bullies to go unchallenged.
  • Grant one or two families more power than others.
  • Confuse “spiritual practices” like observing Lent with “traditions” like eating breakfast with the Easter bunny.  (Both can be meaningful but they aren’t the same thing.)
  • Let pastors surround themselves with ‘Yes People.’
  • Refrain from doing a regular financial audit of the books.

These might be common occurrences in our churches, but the danger is that they create unhealthy congregations that – subsequently – spend more time untangling messes than doing ministry.

It’s so much more fun to do authentic ministry that changes people’s lives than to think we are doing ministry, but actually we are busying ourselves with power struggles and conflict. Nobody wants that.

Authentic ministry can be dangerous too.  We run the danger of changing unhealthy systems.  We run the danger of stepping on the toes of the powerful.  We run the danger of changing our brand from Pretty Church to Land of Misfit Toys Church. 

It’s deep faith in Jesus that makes us care more about being faithful than being fearful.  He lived in danger for much of his life and yet he remains the Light of the World, the Good Shepherd, the Bread of Life – and so much more.

Love wins. 

Religious but not Spiritual?

I don’t know Jennifer Banks, but I agree with her:

You know “spiritual but not religious”? Well, I often wonder about that other, less discussed category “religious but not spiritual.”

The pandemic is creating even more “spiritual but not religious” people from what I’m reading, but I worry about the religious ones who are not very spiritual.  (Note: we made them that way, Church.)

We in the Church have taught people who wanted to know Jesus the importance of serving on committees (especially the dreaded Property Committee.) We have taught them that church attendance is more important that daily discipleship.  We have taught them that acting like we have it all together is the way to present ourselves instead of acknowledging that we are hot messes in need of a Savior.

See what I mean.  It reminds me of the apostle Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus:

“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” Acts 17:22

But God was unknown to them.

I hate to admit this, but I’ve seen this in our congregations.  Elders can tell you how much a new boiler costs, but they don’t know how to pray with church members.  Deacons know where to find the tableclothes but they have never been taught how to pray by someone’s bedside.  Youth leaders know fun things to do with shaving cream and plungers and plastic flamingos but they are lost when kids ask about Jesus.

Again – we have created this issue.  We who have been more concerned about bolstering an institution (and therefore our careers and power) more than expanding God’s reign have allowed this to happen.

But this is what resurrection is all about.  To paraphrase Jesus:

The blind stop focusing on the building and start seeing the people, and the lame walk out of the building into the neighborhood to serve.  The lepers are cleansed and welcomed and they go out healing and welcoming others. And the deaf hear the voice of God and not the voices of gossipers, and the lifeless congregations are resurrected.  Oh, and the poor have good tidings preached to them.

Lent is a great time to ponder whether we are more religious about institutional church things or more religious about our devotion to God.  One of these is more spiritual.

The quote at the top is from a tweet yesterday by Jennifer Banks who is Senior Executive Editor of Yale Press.

A Barber Who Changed the World

It’s taken me over a week to write this post.

Darryl Gaston was neither “just a barber” or “just an elder” or “just a community leader.”  To describe him that way is an affront to his Maker.

Darryl was one of those people who lived out his baptismal vows to the point of changing the world.

He died suddenly on February 20 and the only joy in that moment was that it was sudden and painless – at least for him. Leaving suddenly is traumatic for those we leave behind, but he was spared a difficult ending of this life.

His years were a testimony to what is needed in the world.

Please read this and this and this.  

One of things they don’t teach you in seminary is how to prepare for the constant losses: the deaths of beloved parishoniers, the abrupt departures of angry church members, the slow departures of parishioners who no longer feel connected.  It’s enough to give a pastor abandonment issues.

It felt like a gut punch the night Darryl died.  His little church is without their pastor.  (Darryl was a ruling elder trained to serve as a Commissioned Local Pastor.) 

I write this to remind myself and anyone reading this that we are not  “just” anything.  We are so much more than one thing although our primary identifier might be Pastor or Mother or Christian.  God equips us to shine in every part of our lives if we will only pay attention, but few of us do this well.  Darryl Gaston did it very well.  

Please continue to hold this family and congregation in prayer.

Relaxing (Or Not)

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it;
  Prone to leave the God I love:
Take my heart, oh, take and seal it
  Seal it for Thy courts above.
*

Years ago, I spent every Wednesday morning in a women’s prayer group from 6 am to 7 am.  It started during Lent but we kept it going for several years every Wednesday.

We met in person and the only rule was that the coffee had to be ready.  Some women wore full make up and panty hose because they’d go straight to the office from there. Others wore pj pants and sweatshirts with messy hair buns.  We simply drank coffee and shared our prayer requests and prayed together.  That was the agenda.

You’d think this group of committed lady pray-ers would be stress-free in that we easily turned over all our troubles to the LORD.  But we were often Stress Storms with our babies and illnesses and work loads.  There was a season when each of us was especially overwhelmed and someone brought in a guided meditation recording to help us focus on letting our stresses float away.  We closed our eyes and breathed deeply while the guide helped us envision a new perspective.  This was a gist of the meditation that slowly proceeded for 10 minutes or so until we were supposed to finish with lighter souls:

We are standing in a beautiful field.  The sky is blue.  The air is fresh. (Breathe deeply)

There is a colorful hot air balloon tethered to stakes in the ground in front of us. (Still breathing deeply)

The basket of the balloon is empty (still breathing) and one by one, we place our cares in the basket until the basket of the balloon is full.

Now that the basket is full, we slowly but deliberately untie the balloon from the stakes and watch it slowly, slowly get released into the blue sky . . .

This is when several of us opened our eyes at the same time and said “Wait!  Stop the balloon.  I’m in the basket!”

We have a hard time separating from our stresses, even if we are Praying People.  I don’t have quick answers about how to remedy this except to say that it takes practice and a commitment to pray intentionally every day.  I am prone to lift up hit-and-run prayers throughout the day, but what I really need is a chunk of time – like 20 minutes – to get to the point of feeling like I’ve actually released my life to God.

Prone to wander, LORD I feel it.  Trying to do better today in the thick of Zoom Call life.

*Lyrics from Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing by Robert Robinson (1758)

Pandemic Blessings: What If I Live in TX & Want to Join a Church in NC?

Let’s say that I live in Texas and I’ve been “attending” a virtual service at the church in NC that I found during the pandemic.  Sometimes I’m at worship live and sometimes I watch the recording.  I attend their Wednesday night Bible study because I love the teacher and have gotten to know some of the others.  Two of them move to NC to Texas.  I’ve been sending them money via Givelify.  What’s to keep me from joining this congregation?

Friends I have been answering this question often these days.  Pastors ask me, “Can people we’ve met during COVID join our congregation if they live in another state or country?”

I spoke with a pastor yesterday – a really gifted pastor by the way – who, when asked how things are going during the pandemic, told me that:

  • The church’s giving is stronger than expected.
  • About 20% of the people participating in their virtual worship service live in countries besides the United States.

Hello.  Welcome to the post-pandemic Church.

This congregation whose pastor I talked with yesterday is not large by Big Steeple standards.  Pre-COVID worship in the pews ranged from 75 to 125. Like most of our congregations they expect to be back in the pews eventually, and online worship will also continue for the people who prefer it for whatever reason.  Maybe they prefer it because they live in Texas.  Or in France.

What I’m not saying here is that a church has to have world class technological skills or large numbers or a huge evangelism budget to welcome people who live faraway.

What I’m saying is that churches simply need to be offering what people are seeking: authentic and Spirit-filled worship, stirring theological conversations, honest prayer groups, real community. 

Here’s what I’m seeing:

  • It’s much easier to enter a community by tuning into Facebook Live or YouTube than it is to get dressed and cross the threshold of an unfamiliar church building.  Especially if you have rarely or never been part of a church, especially if you are a person of another faith or no faith, it’s so much easier to come as you are if you can literally “come as you are” – pjs, sweat pants, dirty hair, eating a Pop Tart.
  • Those seeking a Bible study on the Psalms or a book study on anti-racism, or group of LGBTQ Christians might be disappointed that own church doesn’t offer this kind of thing, but they can find what they seek via social media in other congregations.
  • Financial contributions are up for churches making the effort to serve creatively during this pandemic.  The easier a church can make it to give, the better. Also, if church makes it known that there are specific financial needs, people are more likely to share what they can.

God is going to amaze us in the post-pandemic church.

Can someone in Texas join a church in N.C.?  I would say yes.  I would rather have 25 committed church members living in 25 different states who are hungry to serve as disciples of Jesus wherever they are than have 25 members living near the church building who nominally participate in worship and mission.

And I don’t think it’s just me.

About the image: Imagine mapping where your congregation lives and finding that membership is everywhere.  Yes, we’ve always had members who live out of town perhaps, but now they can be with us regularly.

Losing a Year of Our Lives

Sometimes I joke about the stress of a particular situation by saying, “That took a year of my life.” Turns out it’s not a joke.

The National Center for Health Statistics reported last week that life expectancy in the USA dropped by one full year in the first six months of 2020.  

Remember the first six months of 2020?  COVID. Shootings. More COVID. More shootings.  A lot more COVID. The killing of George Floyd and subequent protests in more than 2000 cities in all 50 states. More COVID.

No wonder we lost a year of life expectancy. It was stressful.  We hoarded Clorox wipes, for the love of God.

In my own circle of humans, three people have died in the past week and not one of them reached the average life expectancy of 77.8 years.  One was 59. One was 66.  And one was 74.

We probably all know people living well into their 90s.  This is amazing even though we rarely consider it amazing any more.

The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Psalm 90:10

During this pandemic, a common question I’ve heard is “What’s giving you life?”  And a follow-up question is “What’s diminishing your life?”  And because I am a Church Person and I think about these things in an ecclesiastical context, I have to ask:

  • What’s giving your congregation life?
  • What’s diminishing your congregation’s life?

Those are real questions and I’m not even going to suggest possible answers.  There is something in your church that’s invigorating your congregation and there’s something in your church that sucking the life out of your congregation.  We need to get rid of what’s killing our ability to do ministry and lift up what’s expanding our ability to do ministry.

It would be a good thing to ask your leaders these questions – maybe confidentially on individual index cards.  These are the kinds of hard conversations – or joyfilled conversations – that will determine where God allows us to go after this pandemic is truly over.

Image of what diminishes my life (i.e. Closed churches that would still be thriving if they had focused on something besides institutional survival) and something that gives me life (i.e. Organizations like The Bulb in Charlotte that distribute fresh vegetables and fruits to the hungry in Charlotte, NC. Five Charlotte congregations are among the Bulb market sites.)

 

The Rainy Day Fund

Some people call it The Emergency Fund.  My money squad* calls it the MASH Fund (money – to spend – after stuff happens.)  Some churches call it The Building Fund.  Some call it The Endowment. 

Financial planners suggest that individuals and organizations (like churches) have a pot of money set aside for special circumstances like an unforeseen snow emergency while living in Texas when your pipes burst and this happens.

HH and I had to spend a chunk of our MASH Fund after my shoulder surgery – which I hated because I’d rather spend it on something fun like a post-pandemic vacation – but the beauty part is that we didn’t have to go into debt.  The fact that we have really good insurance and still had thousands of dollars of medical bills is the topic for another post.

But my shoulder is an investment.  I need it and am grateful for all it will allow me to do in the future.

Congregations with investments and a pot of money to use for emergencies don’t like to touch that money.  We don’t like to use those Rainy Day Funds even when it’s pouring out there.  And now – during what we hope is the end of the pandemic – congregations fear that those funds will be needed to help rebuild post-COVID.

So here’s what I believe we need in a post-COVID world:

  1. Shame-free financial education and coaching for individuals in our congregations.  Debt is killing our people and we aren’t talking about it much less equipping people to get rid of it.  This is a spiritual issue, my friends, and we cannot use our money as a tool for expanding the reign of God if we are struggling paycheck to paycheck.  The Bible is filled with shame stories and Jesus came to release us from our shame.  
  2. Congregations investing in their own shoulders. Delayed building maintenance will result in much more expensive projects in the future. (e.g. it’s less expensive to repair a hole in the roof than the whole roof.)  
  3. An assessment of the best financial investments for our community.  (Note that I didn’t say the best financial investments for our church.)  Please do not spend another dollar on your church building if you are not using your church building as a tool for ministry.

The only reason to have a church building is to use it as a tool for ministry.  If your church building (during non-COVID times) is empty most of the week, you are not using it as a tool for ministry.  If you are renting your church space to other organizations, you are not using it as a tool for ministry.  (You are a landlord.  Big difference.)  I know, I know – you are providing a service to other ministries.  But you are not “ministry partners” if the only transactions you share involve a rent check and a key.

It’s pouring y’all.  It’s time to invest in our community.

If your congregation has a pile of money set aside for “the future” please know that the future is now.  There are neighbors who need housing now.  There are children who need safe places to hang out now.  There are hungry people, broken people, isolated people who need the Church to step up now.

When our mindset is service in the name of Jesus Christ rather than institutional survival, the rainbow in the distance becomes clear.  This is God’s promise – that healing will come.  Do we believe this or not?

Happy First Monday in Lent.

*Although it’s more of a life practice than a Lenten practice, I meet regularly with a team of women who support each other as we try to use our money better for the sake of the world One of our goals is to promote wealth for women of color.  Email me if you want to know more about this.