Archive for the ‘Church Life’ Category

contact-lens-discomfort-296x238“Were you Baptist before Lutheran?” someone asked me recently.

No. I was more atheist than anything…which is sometimes like being Baptist (as any faith affiliation is), but mostly not.  A closet atheist, but a convinced one nonetheless. I think I was asked this question because sometimes I sing Gospel tunes in worship, or ask for an “Amen” in my sermons.

Lutherans can do that, right?

In one of my theology classes at university (called “Black Theology/Black Church) we were assigned the task of visiting a historically black church on a Sunday morning.  For a university that, at the time, was only 6% people of color, you can imagine this was a stretch for many in the class.

Off I went with two classmates one Sunday morning to First Church of God in Christ in Gary, Indiana.  We arrived a little early, disrupting a small Bible study taking place in the sanctuary.  And when worship started, the small Bible study turned into the small congregation, perhaps only numbering 20 in total.  And the little electric organ ramped up and we all stood up and clapped (on 2 and 4), and hands were held high and “Amens” came aplenty and we sang and sand for probably half an hour.  No hymnals, mind you. It seemed everyone got the words but us newbies…though we stumbled along.

And then the pastor came with a message, another half hour or so.  And then an offering, “the tithe” as it was called.  And then more singing.  And then a second offering, or “the gift” as it was explained. The pastor must have seen my perplexed face. And then an altar call, where no one was particularly saved but everyone was blessed.  And then gone.

And the whole thing was totally foreign to me.  Totally uncomfortable.  Doubly uncomfortable, in some ways.  I felt that my presence was a disruption…this white guy coming to watch.  And then I also felt disrupted by the strangeness of it all: I didn’t know the hymns, I didn’t shout “Amen,” I didn’t want to be saved.

And looking back I’m thinking, I’m wondering, if this experience wasn’t one of the big wedges that got stuck in my armor of atheism. It shook me up. It made me feel totally uncomfortable.

And I paid attention to it.

When something forces you out of your comfort zone, there are two natural responses: run or ridicule.

We can run from discomfort, preserving ourselves and what we already know.  As Father Richard Rohr has been known to say, “We only want to learn what we already know.” This is true in most all of life, but I see it most clearly in the church where the ruffling of the feathers means the rumbling of the masses.  We essentially decide to go find a place that makes us feel more comfortable…at least, for a while.  Because nothing is comfortable forever. Evolution is the way of all living things.  And even the relative plateau times are really just the cover for quantum leaps of change.  Even in times of so-called steadiness, the tectonic plates are shifting underneath it all.  Hence why a straw can “break the camel’s back.”  Were things not always in flux underneath the surface, a straw wouldn’t have that power.

Or we can ridicule it.  Write it off. “That’s not the way we do things,” I say, trying to preserve a sense of “we” that is largely based off of a heightened sense of “me.”  Ridicule is a philosophical tool we use to take power away from things that don’t fit in our worldview.

But we have another response that we can use: we can pay attention to the feelings of discomfort inside of us and learn from them.  Why do I feel this way?  What is the underlying thing, true or imaginary, I’m trying to hold on to?  How can this moment teach me?

Jesus employed discomfort as his tool for growth in everything that he did.  He caused everyone around him to feel uncomfortable.

The Christian church is going through this extreme time of discomfort.  It’s happening at all levels: from the denominational offices to the congregation (and even to the individual Christian).  And we can run from it; some are certainly doing that.  They’re voting with their feet and their faith.   We can ridicule it; some are certainly doing that.  “Just keep things the same until you push my casket down the aisle,” is a phrase many pastors have heard and many parishioners have entertained.

Or we can learn from it. We can let it instruct us.  We can trust that we catch a better glimpse of God in these moments of discomfort. After all, there must be some reason Jesus used this as his primary teaching tool!

Discomfort is now my friend.  We’re not best buddies; I’d like to see them less than I do sometimes.  But they always teach me something, usually something about myself and my preconceived notions.  Something I can’t learn elsewhere.

And it’s hard to learn these lessons…any other way.

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Going up?

The votes are in.  It is clear that, in many and various ways, the church is slowly but surely abandoning the cross as its primary identity.

The new hotness? The arrow.

And if you doubt this is true, think of all the churches that have an arrow pointing upward, or “right and up” as the business world calls it, in their logos. As their logo. It’s the new “thing” and it speaks to optimism and the “you can do it” vibe that much of Christianity is giving off these days.

You don’t have to Google too much to find one.  You probably will see it on a bumper or as a window cling on your way home from work today.

And that’s not bad, necessarily.  But it certainly isn’t the cross.

Sermons are now “TED talks.”  They’re “how can I improve my life?” talks instead of “how does Jesus ask me to give up my life?” proclamations. (And I love me some TED talks)

And, look, I’m all for practical and relevant sermons.  I think I give them. And I’m all for trying to improve myself and others.  I hope I do that in some ways.

But I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t die on the cross so that I can learn how to reach higher in life.  I’m pretty sure Jesus talked, lived, and died in such a way that makes me desire downward mobility rather than upward mobility.

The downward mobility of washing feet.  The downward mobility of kneeling with those in grief. The downward mobility of embracing a life that banks more on repentance and grace rather than “trying harder” or “getting it right.”

In my neck of the woods so many churches are embracing the arrow over the cross.  The arrow of “make your life better” instead of “God is embracing you where you are, and believe it or not, that is better than constantly trying to make your life better.”  And I get why it’s happening, at least in part.  Arrows can speak to transcendence, a desire that humanity has been wrestling with since we first started to think bigger than our stomachs.  But the problem is that arrows promise a false transcendence; a transcendence that requires you to “keep climbing” instead of giving up.

But the cross speaks of giving up.  Specifically giving up your life for the sake of others.  And only then realizing that your life is given back to you in a new way.The cross speaks to the truth of human fragility, human vulnerability, human suffering and, subversively, Divine hope.  The arrow speaks to the lies of stair-stepping our way to salvation and human moral progress in such a way the sacrifice is less about “what I give up” and more about “I’m going to work harder.”

A difficult truth to swallow for some may be this understanding, which I’ve come to see as true: sometimes I find people following other faith paths (and sometimes even no faith path) living a more cruciform life than those with Jesus fish on the back of their cars.

And it’s not about wealth or church attendance or even belief statements, necessarily.  It’s about, as Jesus says, “Losing your life to gain it.”  It’s about starving the all-consuming ego monster in deference for the Other in front of you.  It’s about God resurrecting you more than you trying over and over again to resuscitate your happiness, self-worth, career, what have you.

This is something that 12 step programs understand so well, and something that we’re missing in the pews (or auditorium chairs, if that’s your thing).

Now, before you write that response below, I have to clarify something: I’m not for living or wallowing in total depravity.  I’m not for shunning the gym or canceling your therapist.  I am all for self-betterment in the non-annoying, non-cloying, non-consumerist ways it can happen (spoiler alert: that audio book will not “take away your Mondays”…but you knew that before you bought it and you bought it anyway because you’re willing to try anything to get rid of that feeling, right?).  This is not just a “grumpy church person” rant.

I think these things form and shape us.  And I think arrows are bad news when it comes to spiritual life.  They look like good news, but as a Lutheran I must “call a thing what it is.”  And it is bad news.

Because we don’t climb our way out of life.  This life is not about the climb.  We can’t climb out of that life, no matter how high you go, but we can live in such a way that we give up that life in exchange for a different one not so intent on moving up, but more intent on having the Spirit move within.

But the Spirit does all sorts of thing that will make you unhappy.  Things like:

Ask you to give up your life for the sake of others.

Ask you to put down the self-help book, to help the other selves around you.

Ask you to speak out against injustice  and own your role in the system (a system that promises you ascension at the expense of others).

Things like convince you that God is less interested in how much money you make, and more interested in how much money you decide to keep.

And, ironically, that’s exactly what we need.

maxresdefaultThere is an exciting but difficult reality facing the mainline church: the seismic shift mainline (and other) congregations are feeling will be in full effect in the next twenty years (which the sainted Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence“).  Right now we’re just feeling the tremors, and even these small shifts are causing extreme anxiety!

Which means that the landscape will look radically different in the near future, and I’m not trying to be an alarmist, but we need to start considering what might need to be in place so that we can move with the shifts, and we need to do so from a multiplicity of angles: pastor, evangelism, congregational structure, ecclesial hierarchy…all of it.

Many conversations around this topic focus on the pastor, specifically how we’ll have to embrace bi-vocationality or even employ circuit pastors as congregations dwindle to the point that calling full-time clergy will no longer be an option.

That’s an important conversation.  I fully realize that my generation may be the last who can expect to make a full-time living in mainline churches with this odd way of being in the world that we have named “Call.”  In some ways, seminaries today are training the ecclesial equivalent of a cobbler: a noble but antiquated profession.  That is to say, while much of humanity still wear shoes every day, the work of a cobbler has changed significantly (as in, they’re largely out of work).  I have no doubt humanity will still seek spirituality and look to religion as some sort of compass (when Google fails them), but it will not be the same.  It just won’t.

I, however, want to look at this seismic shift from the place of the congregation, or more rightly, from congregations.  How might congregations be organized now, or re-organize themselves now, to prepare for this inevitability?

There are a couple fronts already being worked.  Congregational renewal, missional training efforts, alternative (at least to traditional forms) worship styles are popping up all the time it seems (beware the hipness!).  Like advertisements during daytime TV, they all claim to have the fix.

But I want to move the lens out even wider than the individual congregation.  Move the focus out to the neighborhood.  And then wider still, to maybe a section of the geographical landscape.  As a point of reference, consider my own locale: Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill here in North Carolina.  In this geographical area we have 13 ELCA congregations, some just a few miles apart.

Why do we maintain this kind of density?  The short answer has to do with tradition, identity, and an allegiance to an old model of church planting.  The longer answer has to do with a merger in 1988 that happened without much sacrifice in the pews, causing churches of the same denomination to end up literally across the street from one another.  That is a lack of strategic vision, a “let’s play nicely” way of operating on the surface that, in actuality, is Darwinian “survival of the fittest” at its worst.

I’m not saying the 1988 merger that formed the ELCA was bad or wrong; far from it.  Indeed we’re one of the only denominations to come together despite disagreements.  Most other denominations simply fracture (looking at you, other Lutherans).  I’m just saying that it was done without the strategic vision necessary to ensure sustainability of mission (it deferred instead to sustainability of form).

But as I gathered with some area clergy yesterday, all of us sitting around the table in a first meet-and-greet of sorts, I made the bold claim that in 20 years one of our parishes would no longer be around (at least one).  And it’s not like any of our congregations are in trouble on paper; they’re not.  We’re all growing (in different ways), and doing good ministry.  But for how long?  With the seismic shift happening, how long with this model last?

The truth: not long.

And then I said this: what if all of the churches around the table started to live like the Acts community in scripture?  That is, what if instead of thirteen individual congregations being present in this geographical area, known colloquially as “the research triangle,” what if we pooled our resources, pooled our laity, pooled our creativity and ideas and just created Triangle Lutheran Church?

And Triangle Lutheran Church has eight sites and fifteen pastors, each individual site retaining it’s particular tradition(s) and flavors, though joining together in missional efforts, corporate identity, and even in specialized ministry (as the context dictates).  Live in East Raleigh?  Head to our Good Shepherd site or St. Philip site, depending on which side of Falls you live on.  Out in Cary?  Check out our Our Savior’s campus.

Nothing earth-shattering here as far as ingenuity goes, right?  But polity-wise this would be a seismic shift for our mainline denomination.  Perhaps big enough to match the seismic-shift already occurring…

What does this accomplish?

First, it is my conviction that this will begin to stave off the accelerating number of congregational closures that are taking place in the mainline church.  Banding congregations, and pastors, together not after they’re dwindling/dead, but even when they’re growing helps morale, accountability, and stops the siloing effect that is plaguing our churches today.

Secondly, yoking pastors together (with a Head/Executive Pastors at the helm of the parish) will provide a structure for mentorship that is desperately needed in the profession today.

Thirdly, we don’t engage in the creativity-killing practices that typically infect multi-site congregations, specifically when it comes to proclamation.  Pastors will preach and preside at individual sites weekly, none of this “live-streaming,” consolidating, muting of messaging that creates cultic personalities for clergy.

Finally, with pooled resources (and that’s a non-negotiable…too many yoked congregations fail because they fail to truly and fully pool their resources), logical distribution practices, and pooled missional efforts, a parish like Triangle Lutheran Church could afford a localized missionary (or two!) for those radical experiments needed to work with the new evangelism landscape this shift will bring about.

None of the above is new.  In fact, I think it’s probably the oldest model of church out there.  But we need to get back to it.

Look, I do not think the Church is going to die (or, following the story we tell every Sunday, stay dead for long).  But I do think congregations and even whole denominations will.  And my question, no…not a question anymore but a quest. My quest is to help ensure that there is still this particular voice being heard in the world.

Another way of saying that is: God’s not going anywhere.  But will we be the ones telling the story?  And if we want to be, how will we change to make it happen?

 

2165374689_0c605b8e92_bTransparency note: my bias is toward pastors in these situations, mostly because that’s my vantage point.  That being said, I do recognize that it is really difficult when someone comes in and starts changing things a community has held dear for centuries.  I welcome all responses.

This last week I heard another example; it was the second time in as many weeks. I heard about another colleague who had received an anonymous note or had been the recipient of anonymous passive-aggressive behavior from someone at the church who was disgruntled about something.  They were crestfallen.

Actually, I hear about these incidents a lot.  An image of Sisyphus always comes to my mind when I hear about these incidents, because that’s exactly what it feels like to get feedback you can’t do anything with. Anonymity provides the critique without the accountability…

Quick aside: speaking from experience, anonymous feedback is the worst kind of feedback.  It makes it absolutely impossible for follow-up, encourages tactlessness in messaging (after all, if no one knows it is you writing, you can be as mean as you like), and most disappointingly, it is endemic of a passive-aggression that seems to be fostered in the communities of faith.  It’s not scriptural. God is highly relational in the scriptures, so don’t you think we should be, too?

My advice? Throw it in the trash.  I’ve been blessed to have calls where I’ve received relatively few anonymous notes.  I can say I’ve not been the victim of bullying that I’ve seen some of my colleagues endure…which is a good thing.  But I wonder if I’m the exception.  I hope not, but I wonder.

Let’s be honest: if you can’t sign your name to a note or a criticism, it’s not worth sending.  If you can’t stand behind your statement, it’s not a conviction but a predilection.

But my above advice is just a short-term solution.  I think there is a larger issue that we have to deal with in some way, and it is this: many churches simply do not want the pastors that seminaries are producing these days, and many new pastors simply do not want the pulpits available.

Let me explain myself before you send me that anonymous note…

My seminary class was full of idealists.  We had, and many still have, a strong conviction that God in Christ is active in the world, and that as pastors we would connect people to God’s action and the world would start to look differently, first at the individual level (for hearts changed), and then at the communal level (for societal change), and then at a systematic level (for world change).

That’s still our vision, at least one that I cling to in big and small ways.

But I also know that, at least in some ways, social justice can be talked about as a savior in some instances…and that’s just not scriptural.  It’s evidence of the Savior’s work.  It’s a call of the Savior.  But social justice is not Jesus; it’s easy to fall into that rabbit hole, though…especially when Jesus is largely thought to be assumed in the church’s work.

We need Jesus along with justice, people.  We don’t need exclusive “social justice,” but rather “social Jesus.”  We need growth in faith while also being invited to act on that faith in real, tangible, life-changing/system-changing/world-changing ways.  We need that Jesus who speaks to our inner faith and discipleship growth as well as calls us out of our comfort zones to engage the world.

…”Social Jesus.”  I might trademark that…

And I wonder if sometimes the seminary community doesn’t find themselves falling down that rabbit hole in much the same way university students find themselves becoming entrenched in this cause or that, siloed off into affinity groups for action.  Group think can be a powerful force, even in a place of robust dialogue.

On the flip-side, faith communities can also become that siloed place where group think takes hold.  Jesus has often been talked about, communicated, and felt in particular ways in a particular community, ways that people are reluctant to change.  Particular patterns of life together are largely assumed to be universally understood in many communities of faith. Pastors are often expected to reinforce these particularities.

This, too, is a rabbit hole, the hole of particularity.

Traditions and community rituals form us together, but sometimes they also wall us off from new ideas or new expressions of the faith.

And so when you have two entities coming together from siloed places of formation, both with ideas of how and what they’re supposed to be doing, there is not only a gap in expectation, but a gap in understanding about what is going on.  The one believes they’re called to lead a people into finding out where God is active in the world, matching the two up; the second believes they’re calling someone to reinforce for them that God is active in what they’re already doing.

Now, forgive me for the broad brush-strokes.  This is certainly not true for every pastor or every faith community.

But I’m trying to figure out why I’m seeing so many of my colleagues leave the profession (or think of leaving…the stats are surprising), “take a break” from the profession, or trudge along into the headwind of anonymous notes and continual barrage of insults that I’m really not sure happens in any other profession, at least not the way it does for pastors, all the while nursing addictions, depression, self-loathing, or a callousness unhelpful in the profession.

Think about it: in what other profession, other than perhaps politics or a CEO of a non-profit, do you have the people you serve as your literal boss, even though they ask you to lead?  And even in those cases just mentioned, there is a level of abstraction from the person serving to the person being served.

As one meme nicely put it: pastors are the only people who get complaints when they don’t visit people who don’t want them there in the first place.

Imagine sitting at someone’s bedside as they’re sick or dying, and that person has had a history of trying to systematically stand against everything you’ve tried to do in your ministry at a particular congregation, and you have to be their compassionate hand and voice in that moment. Yes, it’s part of what we’re called to do, but let’s not pretend there’s not just a little bit of bitterness there on either side of that situation, and quite a bit of psychological violence as some pastors must minister to people who have said horrible things about them.

Jesus does say bless the ones who curse you for my sake, but he didn’t say that you have to preside over their funeral or entertain their insults to the grave…

Added to this gap in expectation are three more glaring issues that we continue to skirt around: pastors leaving seminary today often don’t look like their predecessors in style or theology (not to mention gender or race) than even a decade ago, some churches are in the pressure-cooking process of dying already, and my generation in particular is deciding that life is too short to do work for people who dislike you (mostly because we’ve seen our parents or our mentor-pastors endure it for years, and we just won’t live like that).

Those three issues create a perfect storm for dysfunction, vocational crisis, and just really bad behavior that looks nothing like Jesus and everything like evil.

Of course there is some fragility that we must be honest about.  Pastors: you need a thick(er) skin.  Let me walk that statement back for a second and re-state it:

WE need a thick(er) skin.

My skin has grown thick(er) over the years, but there are still soft spots.  And I still get frustrated, especially when complaints pile one on top of the other with this work.  Reading and re-reading Friedman’s work and the Psalms has helped with this.

But the Office requires it; demands it.  And the back-biting and dysfunction in communities of faith is not new, nor does it just affect certain flavors of churches.  Just look at the issues that Charles Stanley had when trying to assume the senior pulpit at highly conservative First Baptist in Atlanta alongside the issues that progressive Riverside Church in New York City has had finding a stable presence for their pulpit.  Or, just look at Paul’s advice to that church in Corinth who just couldn’t get their act together.  It’s not new.

I think what is new is that many from my generation of pastors just aren’t feeling the Sisyphean work is worth the pain, and that the situation is literally one of life and death for some churches who see continual decline and some pastors who find themselves trying to fit (or not) into a role they feel they never signed up for.

Pastor: ask for good behavior overtly.  Expect it. And if you’re a Senior or Lead Pastor, it has to come from the top down.  I cannot tell you how many colleagues have left calls because they’ve been bullied by congregation members and the Lead Pastor hasn’t had the stomach to do something about it.

But in a broader sense, I am seeing a really disturbing trend. My fellow clergy are entering parishes that simply do not want their ministry, despite calling them to the pulpit.  They want something else.  Sometimes they say that they want something that looks less like 2016 and more like 1956, or even 1986 (impossible).  Sometimes they say that they want someone who looks more like the pastor they had as a child than one of their grandchildren (even though their grandchild is exactly the person they want in the pew).  Sometimes they just want to get rid of the pastor, a “return to sender” to the Bishop…that’s just not how it works.

And I’m seeing fellow pastors who just don’t want the congregations they’re being called to, either. Sometimes because they don’t want to/can’t offer the ministry desired of them from the people.  Sometimes because they don’t identify with anyone in their congregation in theology or age, and loneliness catches up with them.  Sometimes because their creativity is stifled (though from the pew it can feel like things are changing for the sake of change), and sometimes because they just can’t make their zeal in seminary translate into a zeal for the people they’re called to serve.

And we say things like, “the system is broken” when it comes to matching seminary graduates and congregations.  And that is true; it is broken.  But that’s not the whole story.  It’s not all about bad matches.

It’s also about bad expectations on all sides.  It’s about a changing church and a changing world that we all give lip-service to, but aren’t quite sure how to actually be in yet.

A greater part of the narrative, greater than any of us might want to admit, is that the pews don’t look like the pulpit anymore and we’re all having a hard time figuring out how to do ministry together because of that.

The church today is a church different than a decade ago, and certainly a century ago.  And pastors are asked not only to lead congregations to faith, but also be marketing experts, small non-profit managers, funeral directors, and miracle workers, all without rocking the boat.

And our seminaries just aren’t training pastors to be all of those things.

And the result of that is often passive-aggression and the unhealthy tension of bad behavior and burn out and splitting churches and, well, you get it.

Is my hypothesis right?  Do churches just not want the pastors seminaries are producing, and pastors the churches that are offered?  Are expectations just so radically different on either side?

None of this is helping the body of Christ, by the way.  And this kind of stuff (really, would YOU join a church full of such strife?) makes many into reluctant Christians…if they stay at all.

We have to figure this out. Together.

 

 

 

 

Upon the chair the child sits. Upon their head our judgment sits.

Upon the chair the child sits. Upon their head our judgment sits.

It is absolutely a sign of my privilege that I forget that racism is alive.

I get “down time” from the uncomfortable, awkward, demeaning, and violent ways that racism infects conversation and interaction.  I don’t mean it’s not there.  I mean that I get a rest from realizing it.

Which is no rest at all.

At our local church assembly yesterday I came out of a workshop session and was talking with a colleague.  A member of local congregation that he knew came up and started chatting as well.  And then it got weird typical:

Colleague: “How did you like the morning workshop you attended?”

Congregant: “Wasn’t helpful.”

Me: “Yeah, I think we were at the same one.  It wasn’t helpful for me, either.”

Congregant: “Yeah. All I want to know is what you do when your Confirmation students look like this.”

And as he said the words “like this” he pointed to a chair sitting nearby.

A black chair.

Colleague: <red face>

Me: “I don’t get your question.”

Congregant: “You know, like this.”

Me: “What are you saying?”

Because if you’re going to say it, say it.

Congregant: “When they’re black.”

Me and Colleague: “…you teach them.”

And I turned back to my colleague and resumed our conversation…and the man left to go somewhere.  And I knew I was giving him the cold shoulder.  And I knew I was angry.  And I knew I didn’t know what to say.  And I knew I felt bad about not knowing what to say.

And then later on we would go to vote on anti-racism legislation for our church and vow to be against racism in all it’s forms…a sea of blue cards would fly up, easily passing it…

Send the medicine, Lord. We’ve got the sickness already.

And here’s the thing: I don’t think he knew his words were hurtful.  That’s not me making an excuse for him; there’s no excuse.  Equating anyone to the color of an inanimate object is really inexcusable and tacky and all sorts of sad.

But it was another knock on my heart at how deep the system is.  Because I imagine that this man probably thinks he’s open and welcoming to everyone.  I imagine he thinks that he’s an ally.

And I imagine that in some ways he is.  But in subtle ways, he’s not.

Louis CK had a stand-up bit on the season finale of SNL a few weeks back.  It was really awkward, as most of his bits are. But this particular act was really in poor taste, I thought.  Nothing is funny about child molestation.  Social commentary is one thing. He went too far.

And it’s too bad that the parts about child molestation overshadowed the whole routine, because I actually think he hit on a nugget of reality in the monologue that is good to ruminate on, even if uncomfortable.

He talked about how he’s not racist, and how when a black man in a hoodie walks into a convenience store late at night while he’s shopping the aisles, he has to continue to repeat to himself, “I am not racist. I am not racist. I am not racist.”

And that, there, is what I’m talking about.  Because for as much as he’s “not racist,” the subtle triggers that have been given to him by the media, by privilege, and by his own uncomfortability in being absolutely present in situations that test the tribal mentality of his cultural upbringing still persist.

Because Louis CK is racist. And an ally. He’s both.  And pretending he’s not won’t do any good.  And he knows that. Because the minute we forget that the system is alive is the minute it steals from you, like it stole from me in the exchange with the man yesterday.

Because if I had been present in the moment, I would have been more forceful in telling him, point blank, how uncomfortable his words made me feel.  How when he pointed to that chair, all I could see is my own Confirmation students sitting there.  And how their heritage is so important to them. And how I could see them looking down as this man pointed at them as if they are an issue that he had to figure out.

If the man is having trouble teaching students of any race, then the man is the issue, not the student.

I speak out about the overtly racist system all the time.  I forget about the subtle racist systems…and it always steals my voice. Because it exists in me, too. And it is pernicious.  And it operates under the radar for most of us (and in most of us) who consider ourselves allies.

Oh the subtle ways we’re racist…even in the church…maybe especially in the church…

The Day We Buried Richard

Posted: December 28, 2014 in Church Life
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thThe day we buried Richard I had a bit of a headache.  Maybe I hadn’t eaten enough that day, or maybe a cross word or two had fallen on my ears and had crossed into my heart leaving me colder than even the 22 degrees outside would have me be.

The day we buried Richard I had just done a baptism.  A beautiful baby boy.  He was asleep when the water touched his head, and didn’t make a sound even as I smudged oil on his brow and lifted him high for everyone to see with claps and cheers and tears.

Had I been at Richard’s last moments a similar thing would have happened: oil, tears, lifting his spirit high.  No clapping, of course, just reverent silence.  But still, transformation.  Something new.

The day we buried Richard I went quickly from morning services and put myself in my office.  Sometimes we can fake it, and sometimes we can’t.  Today I couldn’t fake it.  I didn’t want to be around people too much.  It wasn’t in me.

Richard and I met at the local coffee house, The Grind.  A place of legend in Lincoln Square, and in my own story, as it was the first place I went when I started working at the big cathedral on Wilson and Campbell.  I got to know the baristas and the owner and the regulars.  When my son was born they made a card for us, hand signed by all the baristas and the owner.  I knew every name.

Now as we wait again for another birth, they always ask about it.  I inspect the mugs on the shelf because I know Levi makes them, and he is dating one of the baristas.  Liam was gone, but now is back.  Happy to see him again.  And Claire made the Christmas decorations lining the walls.  This is a place I know like the playgrounds of my youth.

Richard sat next to me at a table one day five years ago.  He was 80 years old that first day he talked to me.  He was not shy, and no topic was off the table. Politics, religion, literature, art, music; all were fair game.  And not in the competitive way people talk nowadays.  Richard longed to know and to teach, and brought out those two qualities in the willing conversation partners.

So many of us only long to learn what we already know.  “Please, tell us the things we already think so that we’ll know we’re correct!”

Not Richard.

When he stopped coming to the coffee shop I became worried.  Tara, the owner, clued me in.  She was visiting him, as were many of us, at the new sterile room he called “home.”  He had some of his books, and though Parkinsons had taken some of his stability, he still held his mind.

The day we buried Richard I saw some tears.  He had no family to speak of, save for those of us he brought under his maven wings from The Grind.  Bradley, the lawyer from Minnesota.  Tara, the shop owner and lovingly unwitting community builder (did she know that this would be her world when she started to serve coffee?).  Rose, the sweet woman who lived above him who loved fiction and fairies.  Michael, his roommate of 30 years.  Nathan, one of the first baristas at The Grind who remembers Richard from the “old days” of 2004.  John, whom none of us knew but who had performed in a play with Richard, in Gaelic mind you, back in ’78.  Liam, who served him coffee with good cheer.

Richard had a knack for languages that would make most professional translators reach for their tools of the trade.  He was that good, recently embarking on learning Arabic in these last years.  German, French, Gaelic, Greek, Latin; his mouth was a globe.

The day we buried Richard we had no body.  We had no ashes; they weren’t yet prepared.  We had some pictures and we had some tulips and we had some coffee and eats.  We buried him much in the same fashion as we lived with him: over conversation, beauty, reflection, some good back-and-forth, coffee, sweets, and fresh flowers which are almost always found at the front bar of The Grind.

Churches would kill for community like this.  And some churches kill this type of community.

And as we all left one another there were hugs and plans to get back together and “let us know when the baby comes!” and a deep sense that we had done something right by someone we all collectively loved and knew from sitting around little wooden tables and little wooden chairs as coffee from ceramic mugs steamed up into our faces.

“So, Richard, what’s new?”  This is how I’d usually start talking to him after my glasses stopped fogging.  And after everyone left I said it out loud in the little chapel.  To myself, to God, to Richard, and to no one in particular.

And in the moment I thought to myself that the little headache and the cross word that still lingered in my ear needs to go ahead and fade away, because life is not meant to be spent around those sorts of things.  There is coffee and conversation and eats to be had, and prayers to be said.

The day we buried Richard was today.

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.