{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

5 Things the Church Should Stop For Lent

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Lent is the time of year where we look at our lives and do the hard work of being honest about things that might be keeping us from growing deeper in our relationship with God. Now many use it as an excuse to deprive themselves of chocolate or caffeine or dessert. I say that’s fine so long as those things are hindering your faith life. If they’re not and you still want to give them up as an act of endurance for the next 40 days, then fine, at least add something new to your life that will help you grow deeper in your faith journey.

It occurs to me that while the church asks individuals to do this critical and honest work, maybe we should spend some time as the church doing it too. In other words, how can the church practice what it preaches about self-denial and transformation?

Below are 5 things the Church should think about giving up for Lent. Maybe you can read these and add a few of your own:

  1. Stop working people to death. Too often we associate discipleship and service with being busy at the church. Churches should really slow down and think about what it means to people when you ask them to spend 2, 3, or 4 days a week busy in a church building. Maybe it’s time to free people up to serve for the sake of others outside the walls of your building? Maybe it’s time for busy-work ministries to take a break? Maybe we should spend this season in prayer and maybe even in rest in order to actually be with God and one another instead of making those things one more item on a to-do list? Remember the wise advice of the Apostle Paul who said it’s by grace alone that we are saved, not by the busyness of our church programs.
  2. Stop viewing visitors and especially young families as investments for the future of your church. We do it all the time. Someone starts visiting our church and we get excited about the potential of what they can give the church. If it’s a young family, we foam at the mouth with anticipation of how they will bolster the size and vitality of our children and families programs. Stop it. Just stop. It’s selfish to view newcomers to your church as commodities to use for your own purposes. If a family is visiting your church, don’t find ways to make them busy (see above), find ways to connect them with God and other people. If a new person graces the doors of your church, don’t ask what they can give before they get to their seat. Give them time to connect with God. Let God’s Spirit do its work. Remember: while it’s important that people serve and become involved in the local church, it’s double important that churches don’t exploit them for their own gain in the process.
  3. Stop thinking young clergy are the key to bringing in younger members. As a young pastor, this is a real struggle. On the one hand, you can’t help but become the face and voice for “all young people everywhere.” You share a life stage with other young people who might be visiting your church. And you act as a sort of interpreter for those who struggle speaking and understanding the language of young adult. On the other hand, it’s a burden to be expected to become a magnet for other young people. If churches think a young pastor is what will bring in younger people, they’re wrong. It’s the job of the whole church, not just the pastor, to reach out to others and engage them in the life of the church. Give your young pastors a break from this burden. And for God’s sake, give your more mature pastors a break from the guilt of not being a young adult anymore! You might be surprised how young adults can connect with people of all shapes, sizes, and ages if a church is committed to things like hospitality and serving others.
  4. Stop being so inwardly focused. This is a tough one. Any church of any size or age eventually has to deal with this temptation — it’s not all about us. We need to take stock of how many ministries are geared to serve those who are already members of our churches. We need to be critical of how much effort we expend worrying about paying our bills, maintaining our buildings, and serving the needs of those sitting in our pews. That’s not to say we don’t watch over one another in love and care for each other through life’s ups and downs. It simply means part of that care is lovingly reminding each other that we are called to love and serve others, even above ourselves. It’s sort of what Jesus was all about.
  5. Stop being petty. We don’t meant to do it. But sometimes in the wonderful meaning we find in being a part of a church, we become petty. We inevitably put too much meaning in a piece of furniture, a building, a room, the color of the carpet, a certain pew, etc. because these things are symbols of how much a church means to us. That deep love and meaning is a good thing. But being petty, sensitive, or argumentative over these things are not. Sometimes it’s not about winning an argument as much as it’s about reacting the way Jesus might. And that requires we remember Jesus had no place to lay his head, no sacred pew to sit on, and no sacred piece of furniture bought in memory of a family member to guard life Fort Knox.

Bonus: A practice churches could take on during the season of Lent

  • LISTEN! Having been raised in the church and now serving it as a pastor, I can tell you this is something we need more practice at. And it touches on every aspect of church life:
    • Can’t figure out why your attendance in declining? Try listening to people who are sitting in your pews. Better yet, call someone who has become less active or inactive and listen to their story.
    • Wondering how to get more young adults and families to become involved in your church? Sit down with some young people and listen. Maybe you’re asking too much? Maybe you’re not asking enough? Maybe you’re asking all the wrong questions?
    • Are people bored or is it hard to get them to serve in your leadership structure? Listen to some leaders and ask how you might actually be making it hard to serve. As a United Methodist pastor I can testify to the fact that we love our model of leadership sometimes more than our leaders or even the mission those leaders serve. Yes, leaders serve a mission, not a model or structure.
    • Listen to people’s hopes and dreams. Listen to the ways they long to connect with God. Listen to their fears and and joys. Listen. Listen. Listen. Don’t speak. Resist the urge to jump into telling them how to live or what choices to make or what to believe. Just listen.

What items would you add to this list?

Moving the Church from “In Here” to “Out There”

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It’s the end of summer. Vacation is over. It’s time to get back to the business of being the church. Odds are you’re holding leadership meetings and addressing various issues in your local church. Odds are worship attendance has felt the summer slump. Odds are you’re behind on your budget and seeing a lot of red in the financial reports. It’s time to rally the troops and make that end-of-the-year push that we all know must happen every September if we’re to continue surviving.

Have you ever wondered if things could be different?

One of the biggest lessons I’m continuing to learn as I grow into my first senior pastor position is that we must do more than just show up on Sundays. The status quo can’t keep churches going. Folks are tired of doing all the work it takes to go through the motions of simply existing as the church. The church, in our decline, is being faced with the reality that people need a compelling reason to join a faith community. It’s no longer the cultural norm. And that might just be the very best news we could hear.

I recently read an article that said reporting average attendance numbers really doesn’t tell the story of congregational health that it once did. The reason for this is that the definition of “active member” has shifted over the last generation or so. It used to be that you were considered active if you attended worship services three or four Sundays a month and rarely missed an opportunity to get inside the doors of the church. Now, if you’re present once a month you’re considered active.

We can mourn this shifting reality. We can pine for the “good old days.” Or we can see this as an opportunity to ask ourselves big questions. We, as local churches, can dare to risk being self-critical and even entertain the notion of changing in light of the changing landscape of church involvement. The problems aren’t always the fault of others or “those people” or the culture – sometimes the problem can be us.

Instead of working so hard to keep up buildings and expecting people to come to us (and then mourning when they don’t), maybe we should think about more ways we can get out of our buildings and go out into our neighborhoods, meeting and engaging others. Instead of watching people age and move out of our neighborhoods and then complaining that the church has lost its relevancy, maybe we should consider ways to change in order to better adapt to a changing neighborhood or community around us. Instead of focusing on ourselves, our needs, our frustrations, our children, our budget woes, and our needs, maybe we should turn our vision outward to discover what God is up to outside of the walls of our buildings. It’s ironic that we sing, “The church is not building…the church is a people,” and yet local congregations disband and close every year when they reach a place where they can no longer financially support a building.

As painful as it is to admit, the future of the church will be less about buildings and more about relationships; less about meeting budgets and more about giving of ourselves in ministry to the world. And on our most faithful days, it will be less about us and more about how we can better fall in love with God and our neighbors.

[This column was originally published in the 9/1/14 edition of The South Georgia Advocate]

In Transition: When Priorities Begin to Shift

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I’m now a little more than 3 weeks into my new appointment and my first solo pastor gig. It’s been a whirlwind of paperwork, sermon preparation, meeting people, and trying to remember what day it is. It’s funny when people ask how things are going, all I can say is that it’s the most fun and exhausting thing I’ve ever done on a daily basis.

It’s also funny how priorities or things I give attention to have shifted dramatically.

It seems the more I am immersed into solo pastor work, the less I care about the politics, debate, and strife at the general church level.

I have to confess that in a former life, I was a political science major and a political junkie. It seemed that following General Conference and the political back and forth of the general church fit right into my political passions. And these last 4-6 weeks or so have been especially interesting as there seems to be a new blog post or wrinkle in the United Methodist Church’s debate over human sexuality. Blog posts are exchanged. Clergy are being defrocked and then reinstated after appeal. Caucus groups are getting louder and louder (and taking in more and more money in support).

But for some reason I’ve found myself reading fewer and fewer of the blogs, writing even less about it, and feeling exhausted about even the idea of engaging in another back and forth when no one will ever have their mind changed. Now before you think I’m being a little self-righteous, let me confess that I have read a few posts and I have engaged in a few discussions — but my concern is more for the unity of the church and less for waging war on someone who doesn’t agree with me. Frankly I’m even finding the whole unity/schism discussion to be another dead-end because most of us have our minds made up as to what we think.

I consider one of the biggest signs of grace in my new pastoral appointment to be this: Every day I find that I care more and more about what’s happening in my local church and in our neighborhood and how lives can be changed. And I care less and less about the politics of General Conference or even squabbles in my annual conference. 

You see I’m becoming more and more aware of the fact that people’s lives are not changed at general conference. And annual conference or district meetings can’t make disciples. The local church is where the average person comes to hear God’s word proclaimed and to discover how that word can breath new life into their everyday life. You can’t legislate that. You can’t structure it across a district or annual conference. It happens as an act of grace; a gift of the Holy Spirit. And it happens at the most local and simple level of gathering for worship, sharing in study, and giving of ourselves in service through the life of the local church. 

Look, the truth is I’ll follow the work of General Conference next year. And I’ll support our annual conference and probably serve where I can make a difference. But I thank God for the ongoing revelation that those places are not where lives are changed and the gospel is lived out in its purest and most faithful beauty. I needn’t go any further than my front yard (which connects to our church yard) to find that beauty. It’s happening in my neighborhood and community. And my best energy, I’m finding, is to find how our little church can join in and share in such beauty.

In Transition: Beyond the Logistics and Best Practices

“Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.”
— Thomas Merton from “New Seeds of Contemplation”

I have a good friend who challenged me to dig deeper when I approached the project of documenting and analyzing the process of moving. Beyond the details, notebooks, moving logistics, studying of church budgets and leadership lists, etc. there is a deeper place pastors must travel to if they are truly to be effective and faithful in a new appointment.

So I took my friend’s advice and have tried to be mindful of this deeper place throughout the process of moving. Below are a few thoughts, lessons if you will, I am learning in this deeper place.

1. Redefining friendships is both a beautiful and a painful process.
I’ve likened the last couple of months before a move to an encore at a concert or a last lap around the track after a big race. There’s very little you can do to change the results of your time of ministry. It’s a short season of letting people love you and trying to be mindful about telling others you love them and enjoying some final moments together. I’ve come to realize how much as pastors we’re programmed to love others but deflect their love in return. It’s as though we’re uncomfortable being praised or told how much we might mean to another person. The truth is, we actually love it but we hate the fact that we love it so much. I think pastors are prime candidates to suffer from this sort of false humility. This time of transition requires a grace from pastors to accept and embrace the beauty of another person’s love. We take it for what it is — a gift. And we humbly say the only holy words in response proper for such a gift — Thank you.

2. Moving to a new place is downright scary.
I think pastors are pretty good at putting on a brave face about the idea of moving to a new place. And maybe those who have done it three or four times are actually pretty good at it. But this is the first time we’re moving with a child. And it’s scary. Will your child make friends? Will they excel in a new environment? Heck, will you make friends and excel in a new environment? These are all questions that nag you during the busyness of moving.

You worry for your family. As pastors we can busy ourselves with church work. But your family tends to find themselves in the background to fend for themselves. One wise friend reminded me that moving is tough because it takes time to make true friends. Plenty of people will talk to you. But that’s a far cry from finding a friend to go walking with and bear your soul in conversation. And I worry about my wife and daughter in this uprooting process as they make new friends.

3. The transition from the role of associate to lead pastor is both daunting and exhilarating.
It’s been hard to talk about why I wanted to make this transition in the first place. I’m serving a wonderful church in a great location. I’ve really clicked with the community and our ministry together has been very effective. My family loves the community and the church and my wife loves her job. It’s easy to question why I would want to make this move in the first place — I questioned it for the better part of a year. The best way I know how to describe my desire to move is to say that in my gut I just know I’m ready for the responsibility of being the lead pastor of a church. And as the move gets closer, I’m growing more and more excited about what lies ahead.

But it’s also daunting to think about.

Preaching every single Sunday sounds fun, but I know it’s a monster of a task if I want to be good at it. Being the final decision in some instances sounds exciting, but I know that comes with a burden to bear. It’s strange to be both exciting and scared all at once about what lies ahead.

I’ve found some pastors seem to relish the role of jokingly reminding “young bucks” that they’ll take some licks along the way and not to be too cute as they make this big transition. It’s sort of like people joking with newlyweds about how awful being married is — it often reveals more about the person giving the advice than the one receiving it. These jokes are a bit of a rite of passage for associates — just grin and laugh.

On the other hand, I’m deeply grateful for my conversations with wise and seasoned pastors who don’t see the need to puff themselves up as superior to a younger pastor. These are the sort of wise people I want to be like one day. And it’s no shock that these are also the pastors I know who have had the most fruitful ministries wherever they serve. I’ve learned from their example that wisdom is best expressed in love and support, not in condescension and sarcasm.

As I write this, I’m about 12 days away from my anticipation becoming a reality. I’m grateful to God for showing me people filled with wisdom. I’m grateful for the time I’ve been graced to have to reflect during this transition. And I’m especially grateful for the lessons I’ve learned and will continue to learn as I grow into this new season of life in service to the Church and in love with my family.

What about you? What are the deep lessons you’ve learned or are learning in transition to a new ministry appointment?

Rediscovering Joy and Taking Our Cues from Jimmy Fallon

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“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

I don’t really know who first said those words. It’s been used by many speakers and writers and thinkers over the years to instill a sense of urgency and passion in others. However no one can seem to pinpoint the true origin of the quote. Yet it doesn’t deter people from using this quip whenever it’s necessary to emphasize the importance of a point or, better yet, when you want to plant your flag on a proverbial hill and fight anyone who would challenge your stance. After all, it seems being a jerk is okay so long as you’re “standing for something” in the process.

I count myself among the throng of people thrilled to see The Tonight Show be turned over to Jimmy Fallon. I’m not a Jay Leno hater. I just never connected with him. But Jimmy Fallon has brilliantly endeared himself to me as a child of the 90s with his clever references to pop culture, music, etc. of the last 20 years. He speaks my language. More than that, Jimmy Fallon’s style of hosting The Tonight Show as a sketch comedy, candid moments with stars, fan-centered, hilarious hour of television has done something more profound than just entertain me. It has inspired me.

You see, I’ve always been a diehard fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I DVR it and will often binge a week of episodes on a Saturday morning. Stewart is brilliant. And I love the way he uses sarcasm to speak truth to power. But here’s the thing: the longer I watched his show and other news-oriented shows on cable, etc. I found myself growing more and more cynical. After about two weeks of getting into Jimmy Fallon’s tenure on The Tonight Show, I realized that I was hooked not because his show was just entertaining, but because that entertainment comes from a place of pure joy and spontaneity. Whether he’s trying to keep a string of one-liners going with Higgins no matter how zany and funny it becomes; whether he’s putting an A-list star in the most awkward and silly position playing a game; or whether it’s getting a musical star to do a duet with him using real or even kid instruments Jimmy Fallon knows how to create something special and joyful. And quite often it’s beautiful.

So what does this have to do with The United Methodist Church and how we take our stands?

Well for starters, what if instead of picking teams, dividing camps, and throwing salvos across the bow at one another, we took a stronger stand for joy? What if instead of constantly instilling a sense of bitterness and cynicism in one another and feeding off of it, we tried to find space to laugh or be silly or even love?

I think a couple of things could happen.

First, to share joy means we have to put our opinions and judgments on hold long enough to actually get to know someone beyond just what we know about their opinions. This is not easy, but it’s certainly rewarding. One of my favorite people to visit with at annual conference and clergy events every year is an older clergy colleague who, if you lined up 10 issues, probably would disagree with me on 9 out of 10. But a couple of years ago he sought me out at a meeting, shared his heart, acknowledged our points of disagreement and we’ve been friends ever since. He showed me that it’s possible to love another person even if you don’t agree with them. And I’m grateful to him.

Secondly, sharing joy means we might shift the language of our denomination. Instead of sky is falling, schism-shaped language, we could begin to use language based on love, joy, and peace. Instead of hunting heresy we might discover Holy Spirit moments where we find ourselves surprised by the joy we can find when we let down our guard a little and truly share with another person. We might begin speaking a language of hope to a cynical world that longs for something to hope in — and maybe that even means turning Twitter off that forum tempts us to break the first two General Rules: Do No Harm and Do Good.

I know late-night TV is probably a silly metaphor for how we should live together. But it’s the best I can come up with right now. You see, I find myself longing for hope and joy because ministry is hard and loving others (and especially those I disagree with) can be even harder.

I’m weary on days like today when all of the press in the church seems to be about splitting the denomination, being angry with each other, and drawing lines in the sand. I’m weary when caucus groups seem to have a bigger and louder voice for the church even when they have no place whatsoever speaking on behalf of the church. I’m just weary as we get closer to annual conference and kick off yet another season of politicing and sound-byting one another to death. I’m just weary.

Jesus didn’t make his kind of sacrificial love optional — even when it means my stances and opinions are the burnt sacrifice on the altar. So my daily prayer is for us to lay down our swords, jump the fence surrounding our camps, and meet on common ground. And maybe for once we could not talk with our checklist of heresies of things that offend us in our front pocket ready to whip out at a moment’s notice. Maybe we can laugh a little, cry a little, share, serve, and even learn from one another. Maybe we can discover joy together and with God. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll begin to discover through our common life and service what it truly means to be Church.

In Transition: What to Do About Facebook When You Move to a New Church

In June I will be moving for the first time and assuming an array of new duties as I transition from being an associate pastor to a lead pastor. So in lieu of this transition, I’ve decided to focus a project I have for a young clergy leadership group on the topic of moving well. I’m calling the next few blog posts In Transition and I will focus on a few things I’m working through as I transition between churches in a few weeks. My hope is to not only grow personally and vocationally as I move, but I hope this series will help generate discussion for others who might also be moving.

What Do I Do About My Facebook Friends When I Leave for a New Appointment?

We live in an Internet-driven age. There’s no denying it. And since we can’t wish ourselves back to simpler times when Methodist pastors could pack up all of their belongings in a station wagon to move, we have to deal with the complexities of itinerant ministry that now extend not only to challenges of family and spouses who work, but also to lives we live online through social media.

Before I begin, I want to point you to a couple of excellent posts by my friend, Rev. Jeremy Smith. Jeremy is a tech nerd in the very best sense of the phrase. He offers some great technical advice on how to go about making changes to your Facebook account as you move from one church to another. This most recent post is an update from previous posts where he addressed the issue. Read Jeremy’s work for details on healthy choices you can make to smoothly transition between churches via social media.

Instead of getting into the technical details, I want to offer you my personal philosophy and the reasoning behind it. You might not agree with me and that’s fine. But this is my philosophy and maybe it will help you better solidify your own as you move now to sometime in the future.

Keep Your Friends While Keeping a Healthy Distance

There are some pastors, DSs, or bishops who would argue that when you leave a church, you need to truly leave it. And that means un-friending people in the process. I’ve known many Methodist pastors who have used this philosophy to set up boundaries from day 1 in a new appointment. When you know you’ll leave one day, why bother becoming friends with people? After all, you’re their pastor and not their friend. It’s about the office of pastor, right? Well yes and no.

One of the primary roles of pastors is to establish relationships with people. Yes, we’re there to be your pastor. But there’s nothing wrong with also being a friend. Personally I find it incredibly unhealthy for pastors to keep a distance between themselves and parishioners in the name of respecting an office. As leaders we need to develop the self-awareness to know where the office ends and where we as people begin. Too many of us see ourselves as pastors only and we forget how to take off the mask and just be ourselves. As a result, we isolate ourselves (and maybe even our families) in a lonely life where we are void of many meaningful relationships. You can, in fact, be friends with church members. You will not break the church or the office of pastor if you become friends with people — so long as you develop the maturity to know certain boundaries and can become aware of how to be sensitive in the gray areas where life and ministry get messy.

A friend recently pointed me to the book Networked where the authors note that a major misconception people have about social media is that we see it as a tool when it’s really a place. It’s a place where people go to see others and to share their lives (even though it’s most often the best projection of their life). To say that a pastor should just unfriend people from their previous appointment is just nonsense. If I’m in a restaurant and I run into a former church member, am I going to turn and run away as though I don’t know that person? Of course not. I’ll stop, say hello, and maybe ask them about their family. I will not, however, ask them about my former church and how the new pastor is doing there. That’s none of my business because I’m gone when it comes to the ministry of that church. That doesn’t mean I don’t continue to care about how people are doing, how their families are growing and succeeding, or how they’re struggling at any given moment. It simply means that I need to exercise the self-control to not be their pastor once I’ve moved — and that is a gray area for many of us.

My Facebook Policy

So what exactly will change about my relationships with people on Facebook? Here are two ways I plan to change my social media relationship with Mulberry members as of June 11 when I become the pastor of Aldersagate UMC in Savannah:

  1. I will “unfollow” people so they will not show up in my news feed as often. It’s not that I don’t continue to care for them. But I’m moving to a new place and I will need the space to fill a Facebook news feed with new people who I will be living with. This doesn’t I won’t occasionally go to someone’s page to check out their latest vacation or grandchild pictures. But it does mean that I will set it up to where I will not have daily or up to the minute reminders of what’s happening in their life.
  2. I will ask that all former church members refrain from commenting to me about what’s happening at Mulberry. I care about Mulberry a great deal and it will always have a special place in my heart. But my focus is on my new appointment and the wonderful things that will happen at Aldersgate — not what’s going on in my absence at Mulberry. This includes pastoral care needs. There are three fine pastors and an incredible staff available at Mulberry to offer pastoral care. As your friend, I care. But I do not need to be the first contact for pastoral care. Count me with the masses of other friends who hear news you share publicly and do not use me for private contact concerning pastoral needs.

In addition to this, I will offer my page for my blog as a great spot to keep up with my writing. I use this page to promote articles and columns I write and I encourage people to engage with it.

Ministry is messy business. It’s complicated because pastors do not just offer religious or goods, we share life with people. And that’s beautiful. But this also makes moving from one church to another a bit complicated. Upcoming posts will try to deal with other issues of leadership in transition.

So what do you find as good practices for social media when you move from one church to another? How do you avoid unhealthy practices while keeping the integrity of a pastoral ministry that fully invests in loving people?

 

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