pastor-search

Magnifying glasses can be used to bring things into focus. They can also be used to burn things. In this way they are the ultimate metaphor for good and bad scrutiny.

So you’re a new pastor, eh?  Or perhaps you’re a congregation looking for a new pastor.

Well, after five years in my current call, I’m now reflecting back on it all: the good, the bad, the great, the “man that sucked…”

And I think I’ve identified five things that either I didn’t anticipate, or the people of the church didn’t anticipate.  Nothing groundbreaking here, of course, but when you line it all up it is kind of sobering…and, I hope, hopeful.

Hopeful because for people who listen to death and resurrection stories every week, we’re still not very good at realizing that the pattern of death and resurrection is the pattern of the godly life.  So even when things die, new things rise.  We mourn in death, but we also wait for new life to emerge.

That is the story, right?

Anyway, here’s what I’ve identified as 5 things that will happen when you get a new pastor.

5) People will leave.  Yeah, they will.  No one is prepared for this (not even the people who leave, I think).

Perhaps they’re burned out from stressful leadership roles, or perhaps they’ve entered a new phase in life where the church isn’t as important for them and their faith life takes a different path.

Or perhaps you’ve ticked them off.  That’s real, of course.  It happens.  As a pastor I don’t think you ever intend to tick people off (at least not to the point of their taking a hike), but it will happen.  And then people will come up to you and say, “What about so-and-so?  Where are they now?” And you have no answer because, while you’re pretty sure it’s because of you, your attempts to rectify the situation haven’t worked…or there’s really nothing you can do about it because their desires and the direction of the church just aren’t compatible.

Or sometimes people will be mad at you not because you’ve done anything, but because their life needs a scapegoat and you’re a convenient one.  That’s just true.  People take things out on the church, out on the pastor.  Or maybe they’re upset because you simply can’t help them in the way they want you to and they don’t know how to deal with that.

Or maybe you as the pastor don’t know how to deal with that.

Sometimes pastors take things out on the church, too.  That’s just as true.

And both cause people to leave or check-out.

I put this as number five not because it’s the least painful of these lessons.  On the contrary: this is the most painful part of it all.  I wish someone had told me early on that this would happen, though I don’t know that you can ever guard your heart enough not to take this personally.  I put this at number five because I think it’s surprising to all parties involved.  It’s a shared pain, but probably an unavoidable one.

Or if it is avoidable, I haven’t figured it out.

4) People will arrive. New people.  People you didn’t ever think would darken the door of a faith community will show up.  And then you and the community have to decide if you’ll be able to make enough social space to have them there.  Most communities want to make space, but they’re unsure how.  Patterns develop, both good and bad.  You have to work together to change them.

And this is difficult.

But people will arrive…you must prepare for that.  You should expect it.  And you should have a lot of open discussion about how these people may not know anything about being a part of a faith community, or may not care to join this committee or that, or may want to start a new initiative that looks nothing like previous missions.  You have to be prepared to tell people in the church that things will not be the same.

I remember one of our members pointing out to me that they started collecting high chairs years and years and years ago, long before there were enough children to fill them, with the expectation that they’d be used one day.

That’s good prep-work.

3) People will feel excluded.  Sometimes leadership change is welcomed, and sometimes it isn’t.  Sometimes ownership over ministries and initiatives are willingly and eagerly changed over, and sometimes they’re not.

It’s tough.

It’s tough when the ministry that really gave you purpose is now shared by others.  It’s tough when the close relationship with the previous pastor isn’t shared with the new one, for whatever reason.  All of that is tough.

It’s tough when people who have been in the church for a long time feel like they’re being displaced.  It’s tough when you’re new to a church and no one has invited you to help in a ministry because it has run the way it has for years upon years.

No one expects to feel excluded.

It’s tough.  Community takes intention…and your pastor will try to do it all, but she can’t.  Your pastor will try to meet everyone’s need to be included and accepted and important, but he won’t be able to do it.

This, in my experience, leads to more burnout than anything.  As a pastor I sometimes want to sit everyone down in a room and say, “You are all important.  You are all needed.  And I need you to understand that without me having to tell you, show you, or start initiatives to prove it all the time.  I need you to live it.”

The cure for exclusion is to start taking inclusion for granted.  What I mean by that is that if you’re in charge of a ministry area, take for granted that you are to look for and invite new people to enter into it.  Constantly.

What I mean by that is that if you’re new to a community of faith, take for granted that you’re welcome to participate in all facets of life.

I hope any good pastor would try to foster that kind of atmosphere and would welcome it.  But we can’t create the atmosphere all on our own.  We all have to breathe the same air in rhythm to change the atmosphere.

2) New ideas will fail and old ideas will gain new life.  When I came to this community our second worship service, which is different in style and tone from the first, had a consistent 30 people in attendance and had been consistent in the 30-40 range for two years before I came.

That’s not sustainable in the long run. It was at a crossroads.

I was hearing voices on both sides of the “keep it/abandon it” argument speak logically.

Today after tweaking and retooling, it’s now a consistent 80-90.  This old idea gained a new life, and now has a life that is feeding many on a weekly basis…though it doesn’t look exactly like what it used to.

That being said, the evening service that was quiet and contemplative that I started two years ago didn’t last.  It was feeding people, but not enough to create a lasting community (though there is always a chance for resurrection!).

Sometimes old ideas gain new life and gain a new form.  Congregations need to be prepared and become OK with this.  Sometimes more effort isn’t what an initiative needs. Sometimes it’s effort that is differently focused.

In short, a new pastor will breathe new life into some old things, and will start new things that don’t have enough life to last.  There has to be space for all of this to happen.  New pastors always think that what they start has to last forever.  We think this because we don’t take seriously Ecclesiastes 3 when it lifts up time as the sordid mistress she is. There is a time for everything under heaven.  Not everything has to be forever.  Stars eventually burn out; but they’re beautiful in the process.

1) If you give it enough time and godly space, you will get used to one another and even love each other.

You will.  It will happen if you give it enough time and godly heart-space.

Despite the fact that some leave, that roles change and evolve and egos are hurt on both sides, that new things start and die while old dying things get new life (or vice-versa), if you allow godly space to grow together, if you hold each other accountable to the reason you’re called together, if you open your heart to the possibility that you might be wrong about this opinion/option/initiative or that one (both pastor and congregant have to reserve the right to be wrong), you will love each other.

You will.

All of my favorite theologians talk about the mature person as one who embraces the shadow-side of life (how Jungian, right?).  And the above are part of the shadow-side of having a new spiritual leader.

Embrace the shadow-side. That’s not a Star Wars reference; that’s life.

Hug these five cacti, prickly as they are, and trust that God’s mission in the world can work even through such imperfect systems.

joel-victoria-osteenBy now you’ve probably seen the shot from Houston.  If not, take a second and make yourself happy by watching it here.  Do it for yourself.

It’s ironic, of course, that the home of NASA’s “mission control” would be the place where a great deal of the Christian world claims the Gospel is going out of orbit.

I’ve been sitting on this post for a bit because I wanted to see the continual fall-out of this.  It’s no surprise that many church leaders across denominations are taking umbrage with VO’s remarks.  Article upon article, meme upon meme, floating around either point-by-point refuting her, or simply making fun of her.

I wouldn’t even call it “mocking.”  They’re not mocking her, they’re making fun of her.  Which is shameful. Mockery, actually, is a high form of critique.  Paul Woodruff notes this in Reverence, and I think he’s largely right.  Mockery actually takes the person seriously.

No.  I’ve seen people just more outright making fun of her.  Even Bill Cosby’s 40 year-old self has a response.

But, with all of this negative press, I’ve just been thinking of my Shakespeare. As Hamlet says, “Thou dost protest too much.”

In other words, I think much of the Christian world is so pissed about her words, so quick to say, “No way!  That’s not what we do. That’s not how it goes…” because underneath the skin, deep into the soul, there is a real fear that VO’s words are true.

True about the pastor who is quick to deride her for her words, and true for the parishioner sitting in the pew.

She meant them as prescriptive, of course.  But I take them, her words, as descriptive.

I mean, when we trumpet around that Christianity is all about “Jesus-and-me” for so long, are we really surprised that we are where we are here?  Osteen is not a theologian.  In fact, I dare to say she’s been raised and taught in the classroom of the pew her whole life.  Civil American Christian Religion has been a warm blanket for many pockets of society, and I’ve rarely if ever heard it seriously challenged from most pulpits.  And Victoria Osteen was just repeating what she’s heard her whole life, I think.

“Not from my church…” you might say.  But remember your church is one small thread in a whole tapestry of the Christian industrial complex, and whether or not you have heard it within your walls, I seriously doubt you’ve heard it challenged in any real, life-shaking way.

Why?  Because people might leave.  And no one wants to be down on a Sunday morning.  And we really do want it to be that personal, we really do want permission to be happy, and if we can’t get it from God, where can we get it from?

The theology of “feel good/do good” is a powerful force because it feeds a need within us to have permission to be happy and have a purpose.

That might be a bit cynical, which is not like me.  I’m an optimist, or at my best, one who lives on hope.

But sometimes when an opportunity comes to point at the emprorer’s pink parts because everyone caught a glimpse, a flash, of his nakedness, it’s important to take a moment and analyze the strong reactions we have.

Perhaps it’s because we realize that Christian culture has created these words, and Osteen is just repeating what she’s learned.

Perhaps it’s because deep down we realize that many do come to church to get their shot of Jesus, the drug of choice for many.

Perhaps it’s because deep down we realize that in many pockets of the world, VO’s message is exactly what people are hoping we’ll say from the pulpit on Sunday morning because one of the biggest motivators for us getting up in the morning is to chase that elusive rabbit of happiness in a dark hole existence.

…and it should be noted that there is nothing wrong with being happy, wanting to be happy, or searching for happiness in life.

But when we’ve turned that into the point of the Gospel, well, we can’t get mad when someone repeats it back to us.

And if that’s not the point of the Gospel, which I do not think it is, then instead of getting mad and making fun of Osteen (either of them), we should look at ourselves, our message, and realize that we’re largely sucking at getting it across effectively in many pockets of Christianity.

See, I think Victoria Osteen said something really true about Christianity today, and I think that our vehement reactions against her words are not just because we disagree with her assessment (which I truly do), but also because we know that she’s just, on TV, pointed out that the emperor is naked in many places.

Which means we have more work to do.

Osteen is not where the Gospel is going out of orbit.  Osteen is a product of a Gospel that is largely out of orbit, and has been for a long time.

I’m on vacation.  The beach.

I woke up on vacation to the sound of the surf and seagulls and the smell of salt water.  vacation-planning

I woke up on vacation to the sound of laughter being silenced as a brilliant comedic force lost a battle to depression.

These two things don’t mix easily.

I woke up on vacation to the sight of children running and playing in the surf.  Children of all ethnicities chasing crabs and picking up shells.

I woke up on vacation to the news of an unarmed black man being shot in cold blood. To rioting, angry voices justified in their anger, but not in the violence that followed. Death begets death.

…and yet in some ways I understand it…

These two things don’t mix easily.

What’s funny, of course, is that most of us are on “vacation” from this sort of death.  From pretending depression isn’t an illness but just a phase.  From pretending that racial inequality isn’t real because, well, if it is real then we might have to change the way we behave…

And, let’s be honest: we don’t really want to do that. (We have a black president, for Christ’s sake!  Doesn’t that mean racial inequality is a thing of the past?!)

Most of this country is on vacation most of the time.

And that vacation mindset can find a shock of reality in the church community, if we’ll allow it.

Most, though…I think most go to church to have their views reinforced, not challenged.

The pastor has become the conscience massager instead of the conscientious objector to the vacation tendencies that power and privilege provide.

People leave churches because their pastor mentions these things.  All congregations.  My congregation, too.  And in a time of church-attendance limbo we may feel like we can’t say anything because, well, what if people take a vacation from the congregation because of what is said?

So we massage it.

But there is another reality that can’t be massaged into something different, that can’t be escaped: a black man lay dead in the street.  A comedian became the victim of joylessness.

And we have to admit that God has something to say about that, something to say about a culture that considers you “OK” as long as you’re laughing; a culture that considers you “OK” as long as your skin color doesn’t automatically make you suspect.

Blood has only one color, though.

And for as much as we lift the blood of Christ up at the Communion table and say “for you,” you’d think we’d see the connection there.

So what to do?  Raise our voice in indignation?  Console one another? Tell the truth about depression?  Speak to racial inequality and violence and unchecked power?

Yes.  Of course, yes.

But also: let’s stop being on vacation.

Stop pretending these things aren’t reality.

The church can be a place where we help people live with the tensions of life, not trying to alleviate them, but helping us all live well with them.

Jesus helps us live here and now, in reality.  Jesus doesn’t let us take a vacation from reality.  “If you see me, you see God,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John.  If you see Jesus you see ultimate reality.

Do you see Jesus in the person battling depression?  In the black man dead in the street?

Or are we just all on vacation?

He was beautiful and tragic.Drinking-the-beer-and-smoking-a-cigarette

At least that’s how I took him to be at the time.  And I’m not romanticizing here…at least I don’t think I am.  And I’m not talking about “beautiful” as in “attractive.”  I’m talking about beautiful in that deeper way you talk about beauty, if you get what I mean.

Maybe I’m not sure what I mean by that, but it’s the only way I can describe it.

We were in Denver at The Great Divide, a nice little brewery that spits out tasty pints.  We were waiting to take a tour, but it turned out that there weren’t enough people for a tour that day.  We had to just settle for the wares of the place, and I stood at the edge of the crowded bar for a long time before the tender, also enjoying a tasty pint, noticed me.

Drink in hand, the five of us sat down.  If you looked around the table you’d see the width and breadth of what a college education spits out: a teacher, an artist, a doctor, a financial advisor, and a pastor.  The lawyer couldn’t make it this year, though he often rounds out the crew.

College friends.  College roommates.  Most of us fraternity brothers (the doctor and the lawyer opted out of the fraternity experience in deference for books…a questionable choice).  We all raised a pint and celebrated our yearly vacation together, something we ceremoniously call “Mancation.”

We’d been in Denver for a few hours, had already visited a brewery, and were on our second hop.

I noticed him standing just behind the guard rail of the sidewalk patio.  Black shirt. Deep blue jeans. Black rimmed glasses. Beer in hand, cigarette emerging from his pocket.  He was listening in as we chatted.  I knew he was going to chime in.

“Nice glasses,” he said to me.  I was wearing my Aviators.  They are nice glasses.  Prescription sunglasses, which means I wear them inside, after dark, because I always forget to bring my other ones.  The Financial Advisor in our group (I usually refer to him as a “banker,” which he hates) never fails to shame me when I wear them inside.

But they are nice glasses.  The guy obviously has taste, so I affirmed the truth of his statement, which gave him a conversation “in.”

Turns out he was a visitor to Denver, too.  Staying in town for just a few more days.  We chatted about the area, the dream that is Denver living, local brews. We found out his name was Wit, short for Dewitt.  He’s from North Carolina.  As a fellow Carolinian, I naturally respected him implicitly.

“What brings you here?” I ask. He takes a long drag off of his cigarette. “Treatment,” he says.

And I realized at that point that, every once in a while Wit would scratch himself just below his belt line. Every time he did that you’d catch a glimpse of his stomach, and these nice little cut marks all along his pelvis. And when he said “treatment,” I looked over at his left arm. Nice little cut marks all the way up it.

He looked at me and said, “Tell me Tim, do you think I’m too skinny?”

I sat for a moment. What to say? It all became clear: the bony elbows, the ribs showing through his baggy shirt if he shifted just right, his collarbone showing clearly through pale skin.

“Do you think you are?” I asked. He smiled, his pierced lip breaking a little at the edge.

The Doctor gave me a knowing look.  He’s seen this about as much as I have.  His diagnosis is technically the same as mine, but I use a different word for it.

Wit’s plagued by a demon.

Maybe a demon of his past; maybe it’s more recent.  Whatever it is, it torments him.  It tells him lies.  It tells him things like, “Every bone should show…I can’t see that collar bone enough.”

It tells him things like, “If you cut just a little bit, the pain will go away.  You’ll see the red, you’ll feel the release.  It’s something you can do.”

He never answered my question.  He’s sitting down now, scratching the cuts on his pelvis every once in a while.  Bright red.  Not old cuts.

No one really knows what to say.  It’s kind of like when someone who has attempted suicide shows you their wrists.  You lose your words, and rightfully so.  There’s no words for those types of demons.  They eat all our words.  They digest them and spit them back out to us as shallow platitudes, no matter how much sincerity is behind them.

But I know that Wit already feels different.  He wants to be in the conversation, not out of it, even though he’s exposed himself.  It’s the reason why it took him five beers to get up the courage to join us.

“Treatment, huh?” I say, “Decided it wasn’t for you?”

“Let’s just say we had disagreements regarding method,” he said in-between a drag.  Cool. Smooth.  He’s used that line before.

“Well, if you’re wondering about skinny, that beer’s empty calories are giving you some answers.”  He laughed.  I figured he could laugh at that.  It wasn’t sensitive to him in that kind of way.  “I’ll allow these calories,” he said.

“Yeah, I know those other calories they try to give you.  Ensure and Carnation and all those chalky drinks.”

“Can’t stand the stuff.  Doesn’t taste good, anyway,” he smiled again.  Another crack. His lips were chapped in the middle of summer, the beer and the lack of calories sucking out the water from his skin.

We chatted a little while longer and after a bit my friends and I decided to head to a different brewery. We all bid Wit farewell, and I got up last to leave. And I looked at him before going, and somehow the pastor in me, the Christian in me, the human in me couldn’t just leave. And I put my hand on his shoulder and I said, “I don’t want you to give up on treatment, OK?”

He took out a cigarette, put it in his mouth, lit it and said, “Tim, do you think I’m too skinny?”

I said, “Wit, I don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t want you to worry about that question anymore. Don’t give up on treatment.”

And this guy, who was probably in his early twenties, who I’d never met before, grabbed my hand and pulled me down into one of the tightest hugs I’ve ever had in my life. His cigarette fell to ground, and he just squeezed me. And he started crying.

Jesus says in Matthew, “My yoke is easy. My burden is light.”

Wit was yoked badly. It was sucking his life away. He thinks he needs a lighter body, but he needs a lighter yoke. He needs a yoke that doesn’t cut into him, like those red lines on his arms reveal the one he carries does.

He’s trying to force a balance on his life, a balance of weight loss to counter-balance his pain, but he’s breaking himself in the process. He’s being devoured by this demon.

I’m not sure religion is the answer for Wit, but I’m pretty sure love is.  Love of self.  Love for self.  The love of Divine love that loves you even when you’re ill and possessed by the demons of this world…and somehow that helps you become well.

Usually I tell people that possession doesn’t really fit into my worldview.  And yet, I’m not sure how else to describe what Wit is going through.  He’s possessed not by some other-worldy entity, some literal demon, but by this worldly entity that continues to spit out lies to him.  A different tap spits out a different lie each time he draws from it.  His cup runs over in a bad way.

I was on vacation, and all I could think is, “Holy shit.  This guy needs a pastor and a doctor.”

And there we were…but we were helpless in that moment.  Or at least it felt that way.

I still keep Wit in my prayers, though we last met about a month ago.  I wonder if he’s back in treatment; I pray he is.

I wonder if he’s sitting somewhere today asking someone, “Tell me, do you think I’m too skinny?”

I wonder what they say.

I wonder if anything that can be said is enough to battle these demons.  I’ve seen both sides win in this.

For some reason I wanted to write this out today.  Maybe it’s because I’m going on a longer vacation tomorrow.  Maybe it’s because it’s a summer day in August and it’d be a good day for a beer.  Perhaps I’m still processing the encounter with this demon.

Perhaps someone needs to hear this today.

Perhaps.

 

My faith community doesn’t do a special children’s sermon every Sunday.  Bored Boy

In fact, we don’t do them most Sundays.

Now we only do them on festival Sundays, or special occasions. Sure, some of our children leave the sanctuary during the sermon on Sunday mornings to go with our Deaconess and hear a message or do an activity specifically geared toward them, but that’s not a children’s sermon.

No more coming to the front every Sunday.  No more sitting quietly and looking at an object lesson. No more watering down the story about Rahab, glossing over that she’s a prostitute (because it’s kids, you know) and trying to make some sort of moralism out of it.

No more of that.

And there’s a reason.  It’s important to be honest here.  There’s a reason for why we’re not doing that every week anymore.

The biggest reason is that a children’s sermon has, by and large, turned into a “viewer” event at most churches.  That is, the kids are called up front to be viewed by the parents while the pastor engages them like an episode of “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”

And that’s really annoying to me.

It’s annoying because then the message can be as cheap as it wants to be…because the message isn’t the point anymore.  Just the act.  It’s annoying because then kids get the unspoken social cue that they’re supposed to be cute and “ask the darndest things.”

We should teach our children to ask questions.  We don’t need to teach them to be cheeky.

We also then have this “dual sermon” thing going on during worship, where the children’s sermon will have this simple, distilled point, and the other sermon (“adult” sermon?) may have a more complex point.  But which one do you think most adults will remember?  Perhaps Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed is multifaceted and complex and requires a great deal of pondering, but if you also hear that it simply means some trite moralism that uses a potted plant as an object lesson, which one will you cling to?

Jesus often posits that “infants” and “children” are the true holders of God’s wisdom.  Fr. Richard Rohr expounds upon this in Everything Belongs (a book that also belongs on every bookshelf) by calling it “beginner’s mind.”  That is, it may not be children per se that hold the kingdom of God, but those who are open to learning and unlearning…as children are…who do so.  When seen in this sense, the “children’s sermon” does more harm than good, especially if it aims to explain really complex texts as moral tales.

In this light, the sermon is for everyone, adults and children.  Maybe especially children, as they are the most open to confronting and questioning assumptions.

And I know some parents miss the children’s sermon every week because it is nice to see all the kids in the church together and cute to watch them and…yeah, I get it. To a point.

And I’m sure some kids miss it, too.  They like sitting with the pastor and sitting next to their friend that sits five rows over.  And some really like a special message for them in that unique situation.  Some children are obviously ready to listen to a sermon, but some need a different environment to stay focused.  I don’t deny that.   In that case I suggest a separate space for the sermon portion where children can engage in a similar message another way.

But I really can’t justify the children’s sermon anymore as a regular practice.  I know some love it, but I have some serious problems with it.  And I’ve tried it every way, in every style, in every form.

And I just can’t get around the fact that they don’t do for what I think we, as a faith community, want them to do.

It allows more to be lost than to be gained, I think.  It doesn’t encourage questions more than it suggests pat answers.

And, really, anything that gets away from worship being “entertainship” is good by me.

Look, I love children.  I’m good with children.  And we have a ton of children in my faith community.  The 0-7 age skews our average age like crazy.  And for these reasons, I think it is important that children are involved in the liturgical work on a Sunday morning, but not as spectator or spectacle.  Rather as worshiper of a God and as a fellow traveler on the road of faith.  No need to carry them; they can walk on their own.

I’ve never seen a 6 year old happier than when I’ve handed her the communion cup to help serve.  Exponentially larger than any children’s sermon smile.

After all, the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these…

 

imagesHeard across America last month on The Mindy Project, “He’s hot like a youth minister…”

Yeah, that’s a thing.  Have you noticed it?

Our youth minister really liked the line.  One of our health and healing workers at the church, an acupuncturist, made sure to relay the scene to him.  Smiles and laughs followed.

But man if there isn’t some truth there, right?  The popular church sure does hold up beauty in its pastors and people.

Look at some of the popular pastors you know: T.D. Jakes’s suits cost more than most of his parishioners’ monthly incomes; Joel Osteen’s teeth and hair are never unpolished (cue the “Soul Glo” theme from Coming to America); Joyce Meyers’ earrings could double as nunchucks they’re so big and sparkly; Mark Driscoll’s tight jeans betray their price tag shock value by looking just a little too distressed to be naturally distressed…

We love attractive people telling us about God.  Perhaps, then, we’ll begin to believe that God is attractive (have you seen Jesus without ripped abs?) or that God wants you to be attractive.

In a blog post by Mark Driscoll, “16 Things I Look for in a Preacher,” coming in at number 11 snuggled between Driscoll’s desire for the pastor to be emotionally engaging and not be a “coward” is the exhortation that the pastor needs to “look like they have it all together.”  From clothes to haircut to overall presentation.

When I read that I ran and vomited in a trash can.

Look, you don’t have to go far to find that the church worships beauty, especially physical attractiveness.  The apostles are all ruggedly handsome in their depictions.  The various Marys in the Bible are never overweight, never suffering from hair loss, and certainly don’t have any moles to speak of.

In fact, in the recent movie Son of God (which was surprisingly un-bad), Jesus’ mother Mary clearly has had plastic surgery, making her look like an odd choice for the role.

Beauty and aesthetics have their place within the worship of a God who encompasses beauty.  I’m not denying that.  But take a look at the stock photos on church websites: happy families with bright teeth and 2.5 kids all around, often representing a racial diversity not present in the congregation.

And all the while we’re reading and hearing ancient stories of Jesus touching lepers, healing the sick and the lame, loitering suspiciously at well-known watering holes.

It doesn’t sound very “stock photo” to me.

I think it’s a little bit of an illness that we have here.  This idea that God or Jesus is “put together” and expects/desires/wants/needs for us to be so, too.  Even the local evangelical church-plant pastor who I hear all the time say, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints” never leaves home without his tragically hipster jeans and plaid shirt…

It may seem like all sorts of judgment on my part, but I’m trying more than anything to be observant.  Because my faith, more than anything, tears me a part in all sorts of helpful ways…ways that allow me to not be so tied to appearance and the necessity of having it all put together in deference for letting go of appearances and engaging life, and others, more fully.

It’s sad that “youth pastor hot” is a thing.  It’s sad that it is based in reality.

When the writer of Ecclesiastes penned, “Vanity, vanity…all is vanity” it wasn’t a prescription for the church.

I was just introduced to a bgraduationook by Christopher Rodkey, UCC pastor in Pennsylvania, where he argues that we, as a church, subconsciously encourage our children to leave the church.

For many denominations it’s called “Confirmation.”

Confirmation: the culmination of a process whereby we fill children’s heads with dogma.

Confirmation: the culmination of a process whereby we use books that look a lot like school books to “teach” children about faith.

Confirmation: the frustrating program that pastors secretly dread because they have to fight with parents and youth over sports schedules and vacations and the youth have enough homework, why give them more…

Confirmation.

Now I will admit that my faith community has gone through a bit of a transformation with regards to Confirmation.  We use a question-based curriculum that doesn’t intend to fill heads with ideas, but rather (I hope) fills hearts with questions.

And I don’t really ever have trouble convincing youth or parents about the importance of our weekly meetings.  We generally have 100% attendance.

And yet I can’t help but think that this whole process is talked about as a way for our children to achieve, graduate if you will, from the need for church.

Church then becomes something you did and accomplished, not something you live and do.

We teach about the faith.  We don’t teach faith.

And by “teach faith” I don’t mean that “I want you to learn to rely on Jesus” language that is so often used but so often vacuous.

I’m talking about living into a pattern of life whereby you see yourself in a cosmic sense as part of a radical movement within the world that we call the church.  Yes, that does mean that you often rely on Jesus, rely on your faith, to ground you.

Yes, that does mean that you must learn some history and be familiar with some doctrine that the church has historically taught.

But more than anything it means that you begin to live into faith more radically.  And it will affect the way that you buy and sell, the way that speak and act, and the way that you see yourself and others, and the way that you view work, and school, and home.

And the church then becomes your feedbox as you gather with a community to hear ancient words, sing and pray in community, and learn to encounter a God together so that you can identify when and how to encounter God anywhere.

That’s Confirmation.

But instead of that, we’ve created a system, a pipeline, to bring kids in, teach them in the style of the school room, parade them in front of the congregation, and effectively hood them with a hug and a handshake.  Some even wear special robes for the occasion.

And then they come on Christmas and Easter to tour the faith that they used to participate in, pointing out the places and memories where this or that happened, like they’re touring their old elementary school recalling Ms. Clodfelter’s therapeutic shoes scuffing up the asbestos tile floors.

The current behavior of the church subconsciously works on our children to give them the message, “This is the culmination!” instead of the real message intended, “This is the beginning!”

In fact, I see this with the baptismal rite in many places, too, especially with adult baptism.  We have these rites of faith that now have become rites of the culmination of faith…

I hear many complain that families “don’t take Confirmation seriously” anymore.

I wonder where they get that idea.  I mean, if it’s just a mechanism for leaving the church (as our rite has set it up to be), why wait until it’s done?  Now is the acceptable time, right?

As a rite of the church, Confirmation needs to go through a serious re-adjustment.  And not just in curriculum.  We need to rethink the whole thing.  I’m considering ways for this to happen, but in the meantime we must at least admit that at some level we’re graduating our children out of church, all the while blaming them for being uninterested in the church.

And I’m a reluctant Christian at times because, well, if this is the message that we’re sending with our actions, if not with our words, well…what does that really say about the faith that we’re trying to pass on?