My Friends Write Stuff: Read These Now, Church Folk! (and Others)

I'm on my way out of town tomorrow for some much-needed vacation with the family, but I wanted to share these two books before I left. Truth be told, each is strong and deep enough to warrant its own blog post, but with time growing short and the packing list growing long, I will lean into the spirit of #WorldsOkayest and share briefly about both.

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First is The Forgotten Books of the Bible: Recovering the Five Scrolls for Today, by Robert Williamson. Bobby is a seminary colleague, and now a fancy Bible professor, but he writes beautifully for a wide audience, which this book deserves. The book considers five biblical texts that are often considered also-rans in the Christian tradition, which is a shame, because they are so rich and, well, just plain fascinating: Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. I have a passing knowledge of two of these, Ruth and Esther, only because I've preached and taught on them from time to time. The other three were largely new to me as objects of study, and Bobby is a great guide--clear and wise... and funny! "Naomi and Elimelech should have known better than to name their sons Mahlon, which hints at the Hebrew word for 'sickness,' and Chilion, which resembles the word for 'annihilation'. It’s like naming your kids Sicky Sickerson and Deathy McDeathface. Don’t do it. They will die."

Bobby looks at these texts as conversation partners with contemporary issues of the day, such as Song of Songs and human sexuality/#MeToo, and Ruth and immigration. He ably avoids "ripped from the headlines" syndrome that can plague many books that try to tackle current events, though. He pulls this off because the stories resonate across the ages, but also because the dynamics underlying so many of our current issues are also timeless, and he treats them with wisdom and care.

In addition to being a scholar, Bobby also pastors Mercy Church, a community in Little Rock that ministers with and to people experiencing homelessness and other challenges. This gives him an important and needed vantage point from which to write and reflect. 

This book is released TODAY, so if you think you'll buy it anyway, do a good deed for a writer's first book and get it today; it will boost his numbers and make him so happy. (Voice of experience.) This would be a great group study, and I hear a study guide is forthcoming. 

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The second book is Anna Carter Florence's Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community, newly released last month. Anna was a seminary professor who continues to be a mentor and light to me, and to many. One of my regrets is that I never took her "theatre in the text" course, but a lot of it is here, I suspect. Anna considers the congregation as a repertory community, similar to repertory theatre companies, who work together as a team over a long period of time, poring over texts and bringing them to life. The book makes the argument for engaging scripture as a script--not for the purpose of dramatizing it, though you could; this is a process of formation, of going deeper than head knowledge into the realm of embodied experience.

In addition to sharing why this work is important, Anna also offers a number of tools for encountering scripture together. I love her approach of considering the verbs first--who is doing what action, and in what order does this action take place? Which verbs catch our eye, and which ones do we miss on first reading? Why might the author have chosen this action word and not another? What an enlivening place to start!

Here is my endorsement of this book: I love what I do in my current ministry of writing, speaking and coaching. It's a joy to visit so many communities and be with them for a short period of time, engaging them in a deep, albeit temporary way. I do not feel called back into the pastorate. But as I read this book, I found myself longing for that role again, because it's such a gift to let this work unfold, in relationship and over time; to engage a community as they play with scripture in a spirit of exploration, curiosity and play. That's what this book does: it invites you to engage the text, not just with your head, but with your heart and body as well.

Rumors of the Church's Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated: An Interview with Nate Phillips

 coverEvery so often I have the fun opportunity to highlight some great writing, or a good book I think people need to know about. Today we talk to Nate Phillips, a pastor and the author of Do Something Else: The Road Ahead for the Mainline Church. This post is primarily addressed to people in the church, especially mainline churches such as the Presbyterian Church (USA). But I hope others will read on---especially if you think the culture has "moved on" from Christianity and religion in general. There's life and transformation in the old girl yet.

In our interview, Nate also talks about the vulnerability and courage required in writing a book like this--or any book, really. I resonate with that so much and thank him for naming it.

1. What inspired you to write this book?

On the one hand, it was personal. I’m about to wind up my first decade of ministry and I have so much gratitude for the privilege of being a pastor. As a kid, I never could’ve dreamed that I would have the honor to do what I am doing today. I take some time to write about that in the first chapter of the book.

That said, there is a part of me that finds the preconceived expectations of ministry, and church leadership in general, a tad misleading. In the book I say,

I long to rediscover a real, maybe even cosmic, purpose in my work. Did I really take those ordination vows to referee squabbles over Styrofoam cups, worship service times, and the color of the carpet? Did I take on seminary and the clerical robe so that I could take out the old sound system and the grumpy antagonist? Did I master the theological and exegetical so that I could manage the janitorial and administrivial? That is where so many of us are.

On the other hand, I had a corporate reason for writing the book. Mainline denominations are coming off a pretty difficult season of disruption and schism. Several of my friends are included among those who left my denomination - PC(USA) - and took their church with them.  Maybe it is me, but it seemed as if some did so while looking down their nose at those who stayed, in a sort of delegitimizing way.  

That agitated me. 

Writing the book was a way for me to say, “No, you’re wrong.  We are doing good work in our churches. We are shaped by the gospel. We profess Jesus as Lord, albeit clumsily at times. Here’s proof.”

2. What will people gain by reading this book that they won’t get anywhere else?

People are going to get to know some really great characters in mainline church leadership - a healthy hodgepodge of Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians.  As I put it in the book,    

I went on a journey, for all of our sakes. It was a treasure hunt, of sorts. Along the way, I met the most fascinating people. They have bright faces. They are taking risks, building favor, listening well, and creating community in ways that remind me, and will remind you, of why we got into all of this in the first place. 

But, more than that, they are going to read about what makes their ministry tick.  I really tried to balance the inspirational and the practical.  I want people to read the book and say, “You know, I think Becca is great AND I see how she got things started.”  Ultimately, I want church leaders to feel like they can use this book to leverage their own ideas.  My hope is that people will run to their governing boards and say, “Here, look at how Mike is doing this in Texas!” or “Jessica is pulling this off in New Jersey, why can’t we?”

Finally, you are going to get a glimpse of my story, one of growing up as a church-kid in the woods of rural Maine.  Mission at the Eastward (a nine-church cooperative parish) shaped me in a profound way and, so, this book is a love note to that expression of the church.  

A love note to the church?  I’m not sure you get much of that anywhere else these days!

Nate Phillips

3. Your book is chock full of encouraging stories about real people doing incredible ministry. How did you find connect with all of these folks?

Several of the folks that I profile in the book I knew personally, so asking them to be part of the project was a way for me to affirm them and for them to support me.  That was the easy part.

After that, things were a bit more work.  I was really committed to making this a book for the mainline - not just my little corner of the Presbyterian Church - and so I reached out to a handful of networked leaders.  This is where Bruce Reyes-Chow (Presbyterian), Ian Markham (Episcopal), Tom Dickelman (Presbyterian), Drew Dyson (Methodist), and Jessicah Duckworth (Lutheran) were especially helpful in suggesting names to reach out to.

Then it was just a matter of sticking my neck out and asking.  This whole process has been a battle with my fear of rejection and waiting on return phone calls and emails was  nerve-wracking. I thought that people (especially these brilliant people) would be more skeptical of my idea, but I only had one person turn me down.  When you think about it, most of these people are doing what they are doing because they are willing to put themselves out there, so taking an interview with me wasn’t a huge stretch.  I am really grateful for their trust in me and I hope readers will appreciate them as much as I do.

4. Share one story, quote or section in the book of which you are particularly proud.

You are going to make me pick!?

Each chapter shares pretty much the same format.  I begin with an open-ended illustrative story, do three or four profiles, and then close with the ending of the opening story.

Each one of my little profiles has its own identity and I allowed myself a lot of creative license in building them. That is, I want people to be able to pick up the book and not feel like they need to read the whole thing or even a whole chapter to get something out of it.  It might even be best to just read one profile at a time and chew on it for awhile.

Here is a taster for the profile on The Slate Project out of Baltimore, Maryland:

With a flick of her wand, the Blue Fairy gives Pinocchio a mouth to speak and hinges on his wooden limbs so that he can dance. In his great excitement at this gift, Pinocchio makes the mistake of believing he is real. 

“To become a real boy,” the Blue Fairy corrects Pinocchio, “you must prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish.” 

She knows that a little puppet can be alive without being real and, to be real, there are certain, specific conditions that Pinocchio must meet. Sometimes the church falls into “Blue Fairy Syndrome” when it assesses new creations in ministry. Does it meet our standards for legitimacy? Can we measure it in the way we always measure things? Yes, it is “alive,” but is it “real”? Jason Chesnut, the Gepetto of the online ministry The Slate Project, hears the “Blue Fairy” interview regularly and he’s surprising her with his answers.

Jason’s work began through a generous investment by an ELCA  …

5. Dream time: where would you LOVE to see this book get covered? (Krista Tippett? Colbert?)

Maybe it is because this is my first book project, but there is part of me that is terrified that it could be covered in a super-public way. I’m not sure I want to trust my vulnerabilities and half-formed notions with an audience outside of the (hopefully) forgiving church world. I suppose that is no longer in my control!

I would LOVE to hear that this book is being used by people I admire - like George Anderson who is doing amazing work with the Trent Symposium or Landon Whitsitt who always seems to be discovering a new way of inspiring the church. If, for instance, Kenda Dean, used this book in the innovative work she is doing at Princeton Seminary, I would be over the moon. When I read her endorsement of the book I thought I might pass out.

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Best of luck to Nate on the release of this book! I hope you'll check it out.

Are Religious Children Less Generous Than Non-Religious Ones?

2394859566_71a94927f5 Last week The Guardian published the results of a study that claims to demonstrate just that:

Almost 1,200 children, aged between five and 12, in the US, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa participated in the study. Almost 24% were Christian, 43% Muslim, and 27.6% non-religious. The numbers of Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and other children were too small to be statistically valid.

They were asked to choose stickers and then told there were not enough to go round for all children in their school, to see if they would share. They were also shown film of children pushing and bumping one another to gauge their responses.

The findings “robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households”.

Older children, usually those with a longer exposure to religion, “exhibit[ed] the greatest negative relations”.

Someone asked me a few days what I thought about the study. I said, "Non-religious people get to feel superior and vindicated in their choices, conservative evangelicals can complain about the liberal media, and progressive religious types can geek out by wondering about sample size and methodology. Something for everyone."  I can't speak to the quality of the research, though I'm told it's a peer reviewed study, which counts for something. On the other hand, Robert tells me that half of all psychological studies are unreplicatable, so...

But assuming this study is accurate, what would account for a lack of generosity in religious children? Not sure. For the record, I don't think you need to have a religious tradition or belief in God to be a moral person. And at the same time, there is a strain of judgmentalism in some expressions of Christianity, and apparently Islam too, since that was also mentioned in the study.

But I do have one small hypothesis.

For the past several months, our family has been between churches. Since I finished my tenure at Tiny Church, we haven't found a church to call home. I may preach in 2-3 congregations a month, but many of these are in other cities, so the kids don't come with me.

During these months without a church, I've been keenly aware that it's my job and Robert's job--and pretty much ours alone--to teach generosity and kindness as spiritual practices. I say "as spiritual practices" because to some extent they also learn these attributes at school, during team sports and in other activities. But there's usually no deeper meaning underlying them--it's just the way you treat people.

Anyway, if this is our job and ours alone, we will want to approach it with great intentionality and care. Whereas parents who are religious may be relying on their faith communities to do a lot of this work. I used to hear this often from parents when I was a pastor--they rarely felt equipped to pass on the tenets of their faith to their children, and really hoped the church would do it instead.

Yet we know from study after study that parents are their children's most important teachers. Which means that if parents are relying on faith communities to do this work, then the work isn't getting done nearly as effectively.

What do you make of the study?

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photo credit: lone kid (6 of 8) via photopin (license)

A Pastor without a Congregation

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 9.12.32 AM “Welcome to outside the dome, Traveler. We have been waiting for you.”

Of all the messages I received on my last day of pastoral ministry, this may be my favorite.

I’ve been a pastor for the better part of twelve years, and worked in parish ministry for a good six years before that. The only thing that’s lasted longer in my adult life is my marriage. Until Adam asked me to write for this series, I hadn’t thought much about pastoral identity because for a long time now, pastor=me and me=pastor.

That doesn’t mean I had no life outside of pastoral ministry. Nor does it suggest that I approach my everyday life all “ministered up.” I mean it more in the sense of seeking congruence in my professional and personal identity. I want to be the same person in the pulpit as I am with the swim team carpool—though there are obviously different expectations and norms in each place.

Now I’m a pastor without a congregation.

READ THE REST at Adam Walker Cleaveland's blog Pomomusings. And check out his whole series on pastoral identity.

My Friends Make Stuff: Unbound by Jann Treadwell

060002I have an embarrassing confession to make---well, embarrassing for a pastor: I've never been on a mission trip. 

I've visited other countries for learning and cross-cultural work, and I've done mission projects in my own community, and I even planned a mission trip when I was a youth director, but I went to seminary before the trip took place. When I got ordained, I was busy having babies, so the month-long trip to Kenya sponsored by the church I used to serve wasn't feasible. I wasn't involved in the church as a teenager so I missed the boat then too.

Jann Treadwell is a retired certified Christian educator and was the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators' 2010 educator of the year. Her book is Unbound: The Transformative Power of Youth Mission Trips, and it is both theological and practical.

Jann weaves together the "why" of mission trips (what makes them powerful and transformative) with personal stories and lots of nuts-and-bolts stuff as well. As someone on the outside look in on this whole experience, these stories are inspiring.

The appendix, full of release forms, suggested bible studies, and chore charts would be invaluable to someone planning a trip for young people that isn't just feel-good tourism but something deeper. Is that you? If so, give this resource a look.

"If You Don't Go to Church You Can't Complain."

medium_2246225674 This morning as I drove home from breakfast with a church member, I caught the last 15 minutes of the Diane Rehm show on NPR. She and her panel were discussing the upcoming midterm elections. One of them shared a recent poll, in which only 15% of respondents said they were "closely following" the midterm elections. Among voters ages 18-29, that number is 5%.

The topic turned to voter turnout, especially among young people. How can we get young people to register and vote? Diane asked, and enlisted each panelist to make his or her best pitch for voting.

Now, I'm not a young adult. (As my friend Jarrett put it, "If you're happy Apple put the U2 album on your phone, you're not a young adult anymore.") And I'm a committed voter. But as I listened to the panelists' responses, I thought to myself, "There's no way young adults who aren't voting will be convinced by these reasons."

And--of course--I was struck by how similar their reasons were to those reasons we give why young people should be in church.

  • It connects you to a larger community. Guess what? There are many ways to connect with community. Young adults go to work or school, they pay their taxes, many of them volunteer, and many seek to live ethically in how they spend their money and their time. They don't feel they need to vote/to attend church in order to make a contribution; there are other avenues.
  • It allows you to be "part of the solution." Don't like what church has to offer? Get involved. Don't like your options for governor? If you get involved in the process, and bring your peers along, the candidates will start to respond to issues you care about. But young adults are involved in all sorts of community service and activism. They see themselves as able to make change. They just do it differently than pulling a lever or showing up on Sunday morning.
  • And they ended with the old saw, "If you don't vote, you can't complain." Eh, I don't know about that. First of all, because for better or worse, we Americans (and others) see complaining as a birthright. That's why #firstworldproblems is a thing! But also because millenials' lack of participation is a statement, if we bother to listen. Their silence in our churches and at the polling places is not apathy. It's a clear message: "This has no relevance for my life whatsoever." Our job isn't to convince them otherwise. Our job is to ask, "What if they're right?"

I'm not telling people not to vote. I mean, come on. It's a small expenditure of time to do basic research and get yourself to a polling place (though one party wants to make the voter registration process harder, through a variety of tactics designed to alleviate the non-epidemic of "voter fraud").

There are people out there who will say that both parties are corrupt, and they aren't that different, so why bother. I am not one of those people. Yes, I've never seen such a bunch of do-nothing, gridlocked dysfunction as I do in our nation's capital, and the day Citizens United was decided was a dark day in our democracy. Still, I vote. In a fallen world, the lesser of two evils is a choice we need to make.

Similarly, I think Christian community provides something distinctive that you don't get other places. (Other religious communities provide their own distinctives.)

But I can't exactly fault young people for not being jazzed about deciding there are better uses of their time than choosing between Corporate Candidate Chet and SuperPAC Steve at the ballot box. And let's not dump on them for not jumping on board with church, when what "church" often means is "the way we've always done it... until you're around long enough for us to trust you to suggest ways we can change."

The whole Diane Rehm discussion--and the discussion so many churches have--is backward. The question isn't how to convince young people to show up and vote, or to go to church. The question is, what is it about the "product" that they find utterly un-worth their time?

Why do we frame this as a problem with the millenials and not with ourselves?

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photo credit: Denise Cross Photography via photopin cc

My Friends Make Stuff: New Book by Christine Chakoian

41fih44oopL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A friend of mine has a new book out! Huzzah! Chris Chakoian is a pastor in the Chicago area and a colleague on the NEXT Church strategy team. Her new book is Cryptomnesia: How a Forgotten Memory Could Save the Church.

Cryptomnesia is "the reappearance of a suppressed or forgotten memory which is mistaken for a new experience." Here's a bit of the book description:

The world is changing, and it is changing fast. Social media friendships, global commerce, online education, populist uprisings, e-books, and smartphones are just a sample of the Internet’s growing impact on our lives. Americans are rapidly becoming more mobile, worldly, and secular—all while it feels like the church we know is being left behind. Growing numbers of “spiritual but not religious” show disinterest in church, and mainline churches fear imminent demise. How do we find a way forward? Ironically, by looking backward.

NEXT Church posted an excerpt from her book a few months ago. Check it out.

And check out the book. This looks like a great, hopeful read for church leaders of all types. Gonna put it on my Goodreads right now.

 

A Sharp Intake of Breath

The steeple of First Presbyterian, Houston This happened yesterday:

An influential Houston church voted on Sunday not to defect from the nation’s largest Presbyterian body... The congregation of the First Presbyterian Church in Houston voted narrowly on Sunday to remain with the Presbyterian Church USA over a breakaway evangelical denomination. The alternative denomination — A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or ECO — advocates a stricter interpretation of the Bible and prohibits openly gay clergy.

A supermajority (67%) was required for the congregation to leave the PCUSA. They fell just 36 votes short, with about 64.5% voting to leave. What this means is that despite a comfortable majority wanting to leave, they're staying put.

Close votes are painful in the church. I know many people, from all over the theological spectrum, who are praying for First Pres, regardless of whether we see eye to eye with them on biblical interpretation. I don't agree with First Presbyterian Church's leadership on many issues. I agree with them that the PCUSA has changed, but I don't agree that they (we) have strayed from the fundamentals. We are body of Christians who are "reformed, and always being reformed."

But the congregation does good ministry too. And I feel for them wholeheartedly.

64.5%. Man.

They will either find a way to move forward together, or they will split. And that hurts.

I'll be returning to the PCUSA's General Assembly this summer, this time as a commissioner (I've been an observer a few times). As I think about what we'll be doing in Detroit, I think about the many church votes I've witnessed and taken part in. I remember a GA vote to overturn our denomination's ordination standards prohibiting lesbian and gay clergy and officers. The vote was close. Very close. When the results flashed on the screen, there was a sharp intake of breath. There almost always is in close votes. (It's right up there with the murmur that people make when someone shares a powerful story---not quite an Amen, I call it the Presbyterian Moo.)

Now, the gasp at a close vote can mean a lot of things---relief on the part the "winning side," lament from those who lost so narrowly. But in the church, it's also an expression of pain that we are not of one mind and heart on significant issues. The gasp is a realization that change, when it happens, is so hotly contested, yet so incremental. And yes, it's a sympathetic cry of pain even from those whose point of view prevailed.

It's hard for some people outside the church to understand that. The non-religious people I know, for whom the full humanity of LGBT persons is indisputable, sometimes find it puzzling that we'd be hurting for a congregation that wants to leave our denomination in part because of their apparent unwillingness to embrace that full humanity. "How are you not condoning bigotry?" they ask me.

First, I don't find the label productive. It's a non-starter.

Second, and more important: that sharp intake of breath is part of our witness. It's not our only one: I expect that marriage equality will come to the PCUSA this summer, or perhaps two years from now, and rather than being a departure from our fundamentals, I personally see that as a faithful expression of them. And that action will be, I hope, a witness to the world.

But that sharp intake of breath matters too. In a world where we "like" Facebook statuses that we agree with, only ensuring that we see more of the same---in a world where cable news and blogs tell us exactly what we want to hear---in a world where narcissistic trolls have taken over internet comments such that meaningful back-and-forth debate is an endangered species---our unity in the Holy Spirit, in the bonds of peace, is a witness too.

The Case of the Disappearing Staff

There's a lot of talk about what kind of staff the "next church" will need to have. As budgets and membership rolls shrink, fewer churches will be able to afford a pastor, and more pastors will work part-time. Programmatic and support positions will shrink and be taken over by volunteers. The hope is always for churches to have the right-sized staff... and it's not the staff's job to do the ministry of the church, but to support the members and friends of the community as they engage in ministry. At Tiny Church, our staff is minimal: part-time pastor, part-time administrative assistant who works two half-days a week, organist/choir director who works Sunday mornings (plus preparation time), and a custodian. We also have two nursery workers who look after the kids on alternating Sundays during worship. I'm thankful for every one of these folks, all of whom do this work on top of other full-time jobs.

As a small church, the largest share of our congregation's budget goes to staff, which can make the budget tricky to interpret for folks. This year during stewardship season, we decided to have a little fun while highlighting all the behind-the-scenes work our staff does. We riffed on the Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life. Remember the alternate universe in which George Bailey had never been born? We put together a story (accompanied with photos) in which the the church suddenly found itself without any staff. Here's a small taste, but suffice to say that hijinks ensued!

For example, without a nursery worker, things got a little out of hand.

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How did James pull off that naughty expression so effortlessly?

Without a pastor to preach, other folks had to fill in as they were able.

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(This one should and does happen from time to time, by the way. Indeed, I sometimes  think the pastor is the most expendable person on a church staff...)

But without an administrative assistant, the mail got all messed up and the electric bill didn't get paid. Brrrr!

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Then there was the missing organist. Well, you can see people made do the best they could:

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In a church our size, money is always a topic of conversation. We are trying to have the mindset of a rich church rather than a poor one. Part of that mindset is to approach these topics with a light heart. On a personal level, I'm tickled that these people (and more who are not featured here) were willing to get their pictures taken doing silly things, often without knowing why.