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.

Sheep Need Underpants, Kids Need Play... And You Need a Free Book

I am very excited to be hosting Lee Hull Moses today at The Blue Room. She is co-author of Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People, available from Alban and from Amazon. Believe me, it's good---really good. Smart and funny, eloquent and real. It's John Wesley meets Tiny Fey. We're also excited to be giving away a free copy of this book. See the bottom of this post for details. And now, take it away Lee...

4766601577_93ec78a50b_b“Let go of your tongue!” the mother next to me shouts to her daughter, who is lining up with the other five-year-old soccer players in the middle of the field. The girl looks over at her, still gripping the tip of her tongue with her finger and thumb. “Let go of your tongue!” the mother shouts again.

The girl lets go long enough to shout something back, something about a hurt finger. Neither the other mother nor I can figure out what this has to do with her tongue, but then the coach blows the whistle and play resumes. The mom looks at me in exasperation: the things you never thought you’d have to say out loud.

(“Yes, sheep wear underpants,” I once told my daughter Harper, trying to move along the getting-dressed routine on the morning of the church Christmas pageant.)

This is our first foray into organized sports, and I have to admit, it’s not as terrible as I feared. I signed her up for this 8-week league partly out of peer pressure (all the other parents seem to have their kids in activities like this), partly out of guilt (she’s been asking for dance classes for years and we can’t seem to get that together), and mostly out of opportunity (a half-price Groupon offer showed up in my inbox.)

I thought she would probably enjoy it, but I didn’t think I would. It meant getting her to practice every Monday night, and games on Saturday mornings, and buying new equipment (and keeping track of it), and getting used to new schedules and people and procedures. I was wary of another evening commitment, and dreaded tying up our Saturday mornings – our only at-home family time. Also, there was this: I’m pretty awful at not being in charge of things. Most of the activities we do are related somehow to the church, and I generally know everybody involved and have made a lot of the decisions about how things get done. To be just another parent on the sidelines is a weird place for me to be.

So these eight weeks of practices and games and looking for the shin guards have probably been as good for me as they have been for her. And I have to say, I’m a convert. It’s been, well, fun. There’s something wonderful about 5-year-old soccer. Nobody keeps score. The teams are small so everybody gets to play a lot. There’s no ref – just the coaches, who nudge the ball back onto the field if it goes too far out of bounds. Everybody cheers when somebody makes a goal, regardless of whose team it is. I’ve heard the horror stories, of bad-tempered coaches and mean-spirited parents, but for us, it’s just been fun.

cover imageOne night recently, we were in the kitchen laughing, all four of us, in a few found minutes before the next thing happened – before I had to leave for a meeting, before bathtime needed to begin – and for once I was ignoring the pile of dishes in the sink and the mess on the living room floor. I don’t know what silliness we were laughing about but it doesn’t matter; I could see that Harper was watching us. She was laughing, participating in the silliness, but also she was watching. And all of a sudden I could see that she is hungry for this, this all-out fun we are having. This sort of moment is rare enough that she noticed, and soaked it up. More than any meal, this whole-family laughter feeds her, fills her up.

I forget that sometimes, I’m afraid. I forget that she needs us to have fun together, to know that we are happy.

I’m firmly in the I-won’t-martyr-myself-for-my-children camp. I like doing grown-up things. Reading books with more depth than the Berenstain Bears. Walking across the kitchen without stepping on smashed up raisins. Watching West Wing reruns after the kids go to bed. I like the work I do beyond my family, and often, I wish I had more time to do it. And sometimes – oh, I love my children dearly, but sometimes – the kid stuff, packing lunches and signing up for soccer and cleaning up the puzzle pieces for the eight-hundredth time, start to seem like chores that get in the way of what I’d rather be doing.

But my kids are not tasks we have to take care of, not items on the to-do list to be checked off.

My daughter needs those tangible things, certainly: food, shelter, clothes and shoes that fit. She needs me to sign the permission form so she can go on the field trip, and she needs me to remember to make her an appointment at the dentist. But she needs more than that. It’s her family, too. She lives here. It’s her life, and she needs me to help her live it. She needs me to listen to her stories. She needs me to ignore the dishes so I can play with her. She needs me to laugh, and mean it. She needs me to have fun, with her. She needs me to sign her up for experiences she’s never had and stand on the sidelines with the other parents and cheer my heart out, for her.

Turns out that sometimes, that’s what I need, too.


bromleigh-and-leeLee Hull Moses (right in photo) is the co-author, with Bromleigh McCleneghan, of Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People. She is also the pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Greensboro, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband Rob and their children, Jonathan and Harper. She will be spending this Saturday morning cheering at the final soccer game of the season.

BOOK GIVEAWAY: To be entered in the book giveaway, leave a comment, sharing your thoughts on this post and/or a similar sense of joy in the midst of the busyness of life. We'll choose a winner Monday morning. Limit one comment per person per day.

Soccer ball photo credit: Great Beyond via Photopin

Can Sabbath Be Productive?

woman-running221Play is a key component of Sabbath, it seems to me. Especially play for its own sake---"play without purpose." But what does it mean for something to be purposeless? People sometimes ask me whether certain activities are acceptable for Sabbath because they accomplish something useful. Weeding the garden, for example, changes one's environment. It's work. It's something a gardener has to do even if she isn't seeking Sabbath.

I always start by saying, What am I, the Sabbath police?

But it's a good question, and one I think about too.

I waffle on whether running is a Sabbath activity. It's fun (sometimes); it's playful (in its own way). It's spiritual time for me, to be sure. And it's a wholesome activity. But it's a tremendous expenditure of energy. Right now I'm training for a half marathon, and I have to run if I'm going to pull that off. Exercise in general is non-negotiable at this stage of my life, like eating and sleeping and brushing one's teeth.

Have to doesn't seem very Sabbathy to me.

This article by Mark Rowland helps tease this stuff out. The idea of a "second childhood" doesn't resonate with me, but I appreciate the way he approaches categories of work and play.

Today’s world is a deeply utilitarian one, where everything must have a use or be ‘good for something’. Our lives are dominated by work and, unless we have been extraordinarily lucky, we work not because we particularly enjoy it but to get paid — payment that keeps us and our loved ones alive for a while and, if there is anything left over, allows us to do something more interesting than the work. Our lives are spent, largely, doing one thing for the sake of something else, which is in turn done for something else.

This is a kind of instrumental thinking. Something has instrumental value if its worth lies not in itself but in something else that it can get you.

He contrasts these instrumental activities of our lives (in which A produces B) with intrinsic ones, in which A may produce B, yet we do it for the sheer pleasure of it. Maybe that's the key to what makes something a Sabbath experience. It's pretty simple: does it feel like Sabbath to you? Does it somehow honor God, however you understand God? Does it simultaneously take you out of yourself and connect you to your truest self?

Mark Rowland describes it thus:

There comes a point during a long run, perhaps at the limits of my endurance, when I am no longer running for any reason other than to run. There comes a point in karate — perhaps when I am in the middle of a kata, and each movement flows thoughtlessly and seamlessly into the next — when I am no longer acting for reasons, but acting without them. There is a point in tennis, when I thrust aside as irrelevant all thoughts of point and games and sets, and am absorbed instead in the sheer and savage delight of swinging at a moving target. These are all moments when the endless round of doing one thing for the sake of another comes to an end — however briefly. In these moments, I am acquainted with what is worth doing for its own sake. In these moments, I experience intrinsic value in my life.

What do you think?

Friday Link Love

Just a few today: ~

Joy of Books -- YouTube

I cannot fathom how long this took... but I'm glad they spent the time.



New Playgrounds Are Safe... And That's Why Nobody Uses Them -- Atlantic

I couldn't agree more. I can't count the number of times I've stood at the bottom of a lame plastic slide just in case one of my kids flies off the bottom---because it happened to me when I was a kid---and then realized, "Who am I kidding? They're going to grind to a halt halfway up and have to scoot their way off. Childhood today sucks."

And while I'm on the topic, why do parents say "Good job" when their kid reaches the bottom of a slide? "Way to be subject to gravity!"


How Do We Identify Good Ideas? -- Jonah Lehrer

The inconsistency of genius is a consistent theme of creativity: Even those blessed with ridiculous talent still produce works of startling mediocrity. (The Beatles are the exception that proves the rule, although their subsequent solo careers prove that even Lennon and McCartney were fallible artists.) The larger point is that mere imagination is not enough, for even those with prodigious gifts must still be able to sort their best from their worst, sifting through the clutter to find what’s actually worthwhile.

...But this raises the obvious question: How can we sort our genius from our rubbish?

The answer may surprise you... and it has implications for Sabbath, in my opinion.


Free Cabin P0rn 

I wish it weren't called that, but whatever.

We talk a lot in our family about the idea of a "self house." Caroline came up with the name at Christmas several years ago. She told Robert she wanted to give me my own small cabin in the backyard "where Mommy can go when she's feeling mad." Sigh. I was half dismayed that Mommy apparently gets mad often enough to need a whole separate building to contain it, half blown away by her idea, which let's face it, is spot on. Who wouldn't love a self house?

This site is full of self houses, and the story snippets are fascinating, the pictures arresting. I was reminded of my friend Karen, who recommended a book years ago about desert spirituality called The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. OK, I then bought the book and never read it. But don't you see the solace of fierce landscapes when you look through these photos?

Oh and Caroline, if you ever read this, here's the one I've picked out:


And speaking of a space of one's own, I'm off to Montreat on Sunday for a week of Preacher Camp. It's an intense week socially, academically, and... gastronomically. (We eat out a lot.) But every night I retire to my own "cabin" of sorts, and it's very very nice. And then by Friday I'm very happy to get back home to the chaos.

My papers are written and I can't wait. Take care.

Do Reptiles Play?

Recently I had a chance to hear Cindy Rigby speak about her recent work on "the theology of play." She has an incredible mind and is really drilling down deep with this stuff, but her basic thesis is that play is incredibly important to our spiritual lives and vital to a healthy understanding of God and of ourselves. Some time ago she was asked to speak at an event, and she proposed the theology of play as her topic. The planners of the event balked: these are serious times we live in, after all, and play is something frivolous, a luxury we can't afford. So Cindy did something that was in itself playful: she tweaked the titles of her talks to be palatable to the organizers, and went ahead and presented the play stuff under these new headings.

I think this story is OK to tell because there is no identifying information about the organization... but also because there's something universally recognizable about it. We all know people who are Too Important to Play. These people will tell you that, like the Apostle Paul, they've put away such childish things.

What a shame.

I was reading Edwin Friedman's book A Failure of Nerve recently (short review here) and he suggests that unwillingness or inability to play is a symptom of a regressive/unhealthy/anxious system:

Systemic anxiety... locks everyone into a pessimistic focus on the pathology within the [system] and it becomes almost impossible for such systems to reorient themselves to a focus on their inherent strengths.

What also contributes to this loss of perspective is the disappearance of playfulness, an attribute that originally evolved with mammals and which is an ingredient in both intimacy and the ability to maintain distance. You can, after all, play with your pet cat, horse, or dog, but it is absolutely impossible to develop a playful relationship with a reptile, whether it is your pet salamander, no matter how cute, or your pet turtle, snake, or alligator. They are deadly serious (that is, purposive) creatures.

I'm pretty sure salamanders are amphibians, and maybe some owners of pet reptiles will come along and correct Friedman's/my assumption, but I found this fascinating. The group I was with during Cindy's presentation talked about purposelessness being an important (though perhaps not essential?) component of play. My kids and I watch the reptiles at the pet store a lot, and there is nothing purposeless about these creatures. Contrast this with the kitties waiting for adoption, batting at children's fingers poking into the cages, or even the ferrets, piling on top of one another. (And c'mon, are these mice having a ball or what?!)

We even have a term, don't we: Lizard Brain, to refer to that irrational, hyper-reactive state in which minor roadblocks become life-shattering tragedies, in which knee-jerk black and white thinking trumps nuance, in which life's normal adversities become evidence of abject victimization.

Now that I think about it, that term might be maligning our reptilian friends...

At any rate, it's a sad way to live. It's sad when politicians, reporters, pundits play off that anxiety to appeal to the lizard brain. And it feels to me like a lot of us have gotten pretty good at leisure but aren't particularly good at play.

The transformation team at our church does something unusual at every meeting: we play a board game together. We take about 20 minutes and do Taboo, Cranium, or other lighthearted fun. It is a great bonding activity and helps loosen us up for great conversation. (I can claim no credit for this idea---it was a team member's idea and the rest of us ran with it.)

Some time ago we attended a training with teams from other congregations. We talked about the fun we’ve had playing games together and how it has emerged as an important spiritual practice for us. The reaction was fascinating—people pushed back at the idea! “Well, we’d all have to agree on the rules.” “It would get too complicated trying to keep score.” “People would get too competitive.” (We don’t keep score, by the way.)

One of the trainers heard this discussion, stopped everyone and said, “Isn’t it interesting how quickly we go from hearing a new idea to listing all the reasons why it won’t work? And that’s exactly why we’re all here. To train ourselves to be open to new things in our congregations. Because the fact is, the way we’ve always done things doesn’t work in a culture that is increasingly non-religious and even hostile to Christianity.”

Now, board games are not the only way to be playful. And I am certainly not diagnosing the makers of those comments as anxious or captive to the lizard brain; I don't even know them. But it was a striking moment. It led me to consider the times that I have been disdainful of purposelessness, of play.

My point of anxiety is always around the issue of time: There isn't enough time! I need to be a "good steward of my time"! I'm the task-master that keeps this two-career-three-kids machine on track! So I find that my play needs to have a point. A product.

Something to keep my lizard eye on.

Friday Link Love

Some things I enjoyed or found thought-provoking this week: Stephen Colbert Gives Up Catholicism for Lent (video)

"Is this how Unitarians feel all the time?"


What's Your Personality Type... For Play?

For many adults, however, it's surprisingly hard to know how to have more fun. If you don't know what to do for fun, a good question to consider is: What did you do for fun when you were ten years old? Because that's probably something you'd enjoy now, whether walking in the woods, playing with your dog, making things with your hands, taking pictures, playing basketball, or dancing around the living room.

I'm an 8 with a smattering of 5 and 7.


Giving Up a Breast for Lent

Jan Edmiston is always outstanding, but this blog in particular spoke to me.

We randomly give up chocolate and coffee for Lent, but taking up the cross and following Jesus seems to be more about finding the cancers in our lives and giving those up - which is a much bigger deal. Imagine really giving up gossip. Giving up racism. Giving up living for the sake of appearances. So hard.

Jan is moving away soon... I'll miss her so much when she leaves!


The Strangest -- and Maybe Best -- Grilled Cheese You'll Ever Make

Mayo instead of butter? Nuts grated with a microplane? I can't wait to try this one.


What We Can Learn from Procrastination

Great stuff on how our brain works. Special bonus: what's wrong with the Netflix queue and how instant streaming can help.


Songs for Lent

I like this little collection of music, based on the stations of the cross. I wrote off any music labeled as "Christian" a long time ago because I decided I didn't like it musically. Mike Birbiglia understands what I mean... (video). I much preferred to be a sleuth for the Spirit, looking for messages of redemption in so-called "secular" music.

That's still my default position, but I should not be so categorically minded.

Anyway, this stuff is haunting and lovely. Thanks to my friend Troy Bronsink for the recommendation.

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And finally, a request---keep me in your thoughts, prayers, heart, or whatever you've got. My book contract with Chalice Press stipulated that the manuscript would be due next March, but for a variety of reasons I won't get into here, I've moved that up to October. It's very doable, but still: o_O

I've never used that emoticon before. It's a good inaugural use of it.