ministry

2017: What The (White Protestant) Church Must Do

By Rev. Mindi

I read this post shared by an Episcopalian friend this week, and along with some online conversations on “what is the future of the church?” with declining attendance and resources, I’m wondering what has happened to our ecumenical movement? What has happened to our movement for unity?

As an American Baptist pastor married to a Disciples of Christ pastor, I can tell you that not much really separates us. We all do baptism pretty much the same way. We do communion the same way, albeit Baptists tend to only do communion once a month. We aren’t opposed to doing it every Sunday, we just make it out to be more work than it really is. We have some common roots in history. We have faced some of the same struggles on inclusion and diversity in recent years, and as both denominations have taken steps to truly live into God’s ways of love and justice and the teachings of Jesus, some of our more conservative kindred have gone out the door, or have simply stopped talking with us.

And it’s not only American Baptists and Disciples, but Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Congregationalists (and other UCC-ers), and the list goes on. While we vary in our ways of baptism and communion and vary in our liturgical rigidness, when we start talking about issues of justice, Black Lives Matter, inclusion of transgender and lesbian, gay, bisexual and other queer folks, and welcoming refugees and immigrants, we have so much in common. I regularly have conversations in ecumenical gatherings of clergy (especially fellow clergy in a similar age range to me, but not always) about the same issues facing our churches. The same issues facing our communities. The same longing to follow Jesus and being held up by resources.

So why oh why oh WHY ARE WE NOT WORKING TOGETHER? Why are we still separated on Sunday mornings? Why is (as the author of the blog post I shared stated) Sunday morning still the most segregated hour, decades after Martin Luther King Jr. called us out on it?

I know I am not the first to say it, but as a response to white privilege and white supremacy, perhaps those of us in the traditional white protestant churches, as we face closing down and shrinking numbers, need to go join a Black church. Perhaps we need to listen to someone else preach on Sunday morning and tell us how to be involved in the community. We can do this within our own denomination to start with.

Secondly, we can join with our kindred down the street. While many of us have “full communion” with other denominations or allow for those of other ordination standards (or none at all!) to preside at the table and at baptism, we do not move beyond those relationships (as again, the author of the blog post I shared stated).

As we enter 2017, the future of the church doesn’t lie in us keeping to ourselves on Sunday morning. If we do that, we will continue to shrink, decline, and close. Those of us who are white Christians need to especially consider giving up our power and ownership of space to join with our Christian kindred of color to truly follow the ways of Jesus (who wasn’t white, as we keep pointing out but fail somehow to truly comprehend). We might find that the church isn’t declining, but thriving, if we give up our own vision of what the church is supposed to look like, and join in God’s vision:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God, and to the Lamb!”

~Revelation 7:9-10

The Glass Ceiling Ain't Broke Yet

By Rev. Mindi

A few weeks ago, we watched the graphic of the glass ceiling break as Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential nominee by a major political party. While presidential candidates in the past have had it mentioned that they were good parents, there was much lauding of Hillary’s motherhood, and behind-the-scenes talk about her sticking by her husband during their difficult times.

This past week, we have heard stories of Kerri Walsh Jennings being a terrific mother and how she has to balance motherhood and being an athlete. Headlines that congratulated the wife of a Chicago Bears lineman who won bronze in women’s trap shooting: her name is Corey Cogdell (the Chicago Tribune received a lot of feedback on that one). That glass ceiling is not broken, only cracked. Because women are barely getting through.

Less than one quarter of the churches in my region have a woman on the pastoral staff, and of that quarter, one third are part-time. And while more women are still entering seminary than men, more women are in search processes and more women are not considered by search committees. There are still churches, in 2016, in my denomination that refuse to look at the professional profile of a woman minister in their search processes.

So I would like to ask my male colleagues to consider the following:

--Would you enter a profession in which you were significantly less likely to be hired because of your gender?

--Would you accept a position at a church if the person before you was a woman and received more pay than you, even though you have the same level of experience (or even more?)

--Would you be comfortable in a denomination in which there were churches that would not consider you because you are male?

--Would you accept a position in which a major change in family status would require you to be gone for 6-12 weeks, but the church would not pay for your leave time?

 

Now, ask yourself these real questions that I have personally been asked by search committees in the past, and how would you feel about them being asked of you:

--“How will you balance your family time and church time?”

--“What will you do on Sunday if your child is sick?”

--“What will your spouse do if you are the pastor? Will they be involved in the church?”

--“How is your physical health?”

--“How will you be able to pastor the (opposite sex) in our church?”

--“Will you leave the church if you have a baby?”

No my friends, the glass ceiling has not been broken. It has been cracked, but we have a long way to go in breaking it.

 

*Note: this post reflects a binary way of thinking, and is definitely not encompassing of all ministers or all families, especially LGBTQ individuals and their families. I cannot imagine the list of questions my LGBTQ clergy friends have been asked that would never be asked of those of us who are cisgender and heterosexual. 

Two Secrets of Good Leadership: Learning to Live with Other People's Pain and with Your Own Mistakes

By Derek Penwell

Two Keys to Good Leadership

Thesis: You can’t be a good leader until you get comfortable with other people’s pain and with your own mistakes.

Learning to Live with Other People’s Pain

I know about a church that developed some bad habits over the years. They had worked with a paradigm of ministry in which the minister was responsible for virtually everything. If a light bulb burned out in the exit sign, they dropped a note to the minister. When the lady who was supposed to bring the grape jello to Vacation Bible School forgot, everything stopped while they called the minister to let him know. When the garbage cans didn’t get put back, somebody would leave a message on the answering machine to apprise the minister of this crucial oversight.

And, as if by magic, new light bulbs and purple jello would appear. The garbage cans mysteriously found their homes. The minister made sure complaints were addressed and problems were solved. He did most of it himself.

The arrangement suited everybody—the minister had a compelling need to feel needed, and the congregation had a capacious reservoir of need. Everybody wins![1]

Except when the minister left, the arrangement was no longer viable. Now there was a congregation trained to be needy, but no longer anyone to meet those needs. How do you handle a situation like that?

What will the next minister have to do if she doesn’t want to continue this co-dependent relationship?

She’s going to have to develop an extraordinarily high tolerance for pain.

“What?”

Any minister who wants to make changes to a system that depends on the minister to make changes is going to have to get comfortable watching people suffer.

“How can you possibly say that? Isn’t suffering part of what ministers are supposed to be in the business of alleviating?”

No. Where did you get that idea? Ministers are in the business of helping equip people for the reign of God. Sometimes that means being intensely and pastorally present when people suffer. But pastoral ministry is almost never about fixing people’s suffering, about doing away with people’s anxieties, about slaying everyone’s dragons for them.

Pastoral ministry is about helping people discover a new story that makes sense of their suffering and anxiety (and hope, doubt, aspirations, needs, etc.) in light of God’s reconciling love manifested in Jesus Christ.

In the case I’ve been describing the new pastor, if she is going to be faithful to her vocation, is going to have to get comfortable with the pain caused when people see burned-out light bulbs, jello-less VBS extravaganzas, empty garbage cans by the side of the road, and mistakenly believe that the only person responsible for them is the minister.

“So, you’re saying the minister should just be lazy and let everybody else do everything?”

No. I’m saying that if everybody else believes the only person who needs to do anything is the one getting paid, you haven’t hired a minister; you’ve hired domestic help.[2] The minister isn’t doing anybody any favors by constantly rescuing the congregation from those situations for which other people need to be taking some responsibility.

Authentic, Jesus-centered ministry that seeks to enable growth rather than merely enable, requires learning to have a high threshold for other people’s pain.

It’s tough, but there aren’t any shortcuts.

Learning to Love Your Own Mistakes

I just took a group of people down to San Luis Potosí, México. We work in a children’s home there, started by Ted and Wanda Murray. I’ve been taking groups down for over 20 years now. The trip is one of my favorite things to do.

Anyway, I took my two oldest children again this year. My daughter wants to speak Spanish better to be able to communicate with the kids down there. So, I started her on a language series, The Pimsleur Method (It’s the best language learning system I’ve found, for whatever that’s worth).

So, I've been talking to my daughter about how her Spanish is progressing. She said she really likes the lessons. So, I gave her some tricks about learning a language.

“The nice thing about the Pimsleur method,” I said, “is that, if you do it daily, you wind up having to hear yourself speak the language out loud over and over again—which is important, because one of the biggest obstacles to speaking a foreign language when you travel is overcoming your fear of speaking out loud in front of other people.”

She said, “Yeah, that’s the scariest part, because you don’t want to goof up and have people laugh at you.”

“That’s the trick to learning a language, though—being able to withstand the embarrassment of getting it wrong. If you can’t stand being laughed at, you’ll never learn another language.”

Why is that?

Because the process of mastering a language requires making mistakes. Lots of mistakes. Tons of mistakes. Painful, embarrassing mistakes.

Learning a language is just as much about learning what not to say. There are no shortcuts to the hours of practice or the patience to endure the humiliation of doing it incorrectly.

I also think that’s another secret to good leadership.

Much of what passes for conventional wisdom about good leadership has to do with always making good decisions.

When presented with a choice, the good leader will choose X; the poor leader will choose Y—where X is eventually shown to be a wise decision, and Y a poor one.

I want to suggest, however, that making good decisions isn’t the best indicator of leadership. Instead, I think the sign of excellence in leadership is the desire to learn from mistakes.

If you’re going to learn to pound nails, you’re going to have to make peace with mashing your thumb every once in a while.

On this reading of leadership, excellence requires not only a willingness to be wrong, but an enthusiasm about being shown where you went wrong. Good leadership values being shown where things went wrong.

You can’t be a good leader without risking mistakes and embracing the humiliation of getting it wrong.

Here’s the secret: Ministry isn’t about being right; it’s about getting it right.

And if you want to get it right, you’d better learn to love your mistakes, because they’re your friends on the path to good leadership.

Good leadership is often counter-intuitive. But if it were easy, great leaders would be everywhere. They’re not. So, we have to work at it.

_______________

  1. Before I get a whole bunch of email arguing either that I’m being unfair to to needy congregations or needy ministers, I’m willing to spread the blame across the clergy/laity spectrum.  ↩
  2. Again, prior to emailing me, let me hasten to say that I know there are lazy ministers out there. If that’s your problem, then this post won’t help you address your situation.  ↩

Accessibility and Necessity

By Rev. Mindi

I remember when my child was less than a year old, joining a clergy group for breakfast, and finding out the hard way the restaurant bathroom had no changing table. And this was one of those baby pooplosions, where you cannot wait to change the diaper. It made me angry, and luckily, my clergy group decided to switch locations after that.

I also remember so many times my husband had to change our son in the car because the men’s public restroom did not have a changing table. Very few still do, and this is 2016.

With all the talk about bathrooms in the news these days, I wonder:

Are we having this conversation about accessible restrooms in our churches?

I serve a congregation where thankfully all of the bathrooms in our small building were renovated in the last fifteen years, are all accessible for disabled persons, and two out of the three having changing tables. All three are large enough not only to bring a wheelchair or walker inside, but also for someone to bring in another person who needs assistance in the bathroom.

My child is almost eight, and due to his disability needs assistance in the bathroom. Oh, and because both my husband and I are incredibly tall people (someone once remarked that we breed giants), our kiddo is the size of a ten-year-old.

I highly suspect this being an election year has brought this latest wave of transphobia and bathroom shock to light. Masked in the cloak of protecting our children from predators (look at statistics of child assault and abuse and you’ll find that 75% of the time it happens within the home from a relative) we have ostracized our transgender kin. And we have made restrooms—a basic function, a basic need of our humanity—less accessible than before.

Even if my kiddo didn’t have a disability that required some assistance in the bathroom, I’ll be honest: as a parent, I have a hard time sending my child alone anywhere with strangers. But I am 100% not worried about transgender folks. I am also 100% not worried about someone pretending to be transgender who might harm my child, because let’s face it, that is NOT happening. That is a lie perpetuated to drum up fear in an election cycle. No. I am concerned, however, of something happening to my child in a public restroom from a child predator, who most likely will be a white straight dude, based on statistics.

I remember the fear when I sent my child to preschool, after having moved, knowing no one in the area. Sending my child to a strange teacher with strange paraeducators in the classroom who would be helping my son use the restroom. Why? Because videos and stories of students with disabilities being abused by staff are abundant on the internet. New stories are abundant in the suburbs of Seattle, along with stories from parents.

I have seen the stares, heard the jokes, seen the rolling eyes by women as I bring my tall son into the bathroom with me. I remember once at a child’s play space a young girl complaining that “there is a boy in the bathroom!” I once had someone complain when my child was three—yes, three years old—that he didn’t belong in the women’s bathroom with me.

I am afraid for transgender people. I am afraid that they will be abused and harmed, even killed, by someone claiming to “protect” someone else. I am also afraid that as my child grows larger, as he gains more independence and uses the restroom by himself, people will report him because of his strange sounds and the time he spends in the restroom. I have known many parents of teens with disabilities telling me how they had to talk with a police officer outside of a public restroom where their child was inside because someone called the police on a “dangerous” person inside. I am also afraid that someone will take action themselves and claim to be “protecting” others.

So what can we do as the church? I’ve seen many conversations in social media focusing on certain laws and policies, but what about within your own congregation’s physical space?

We can start by creating safe spaces in our churches. Create restrooms that are accessible for persons with disabilities and their caregivers. Make it known that these restrooms are accessible and gender neutral. If you have existing men and women’s restrooms, if they have single stalls this makes it easier to go gender neutral, but also consider the need to renovate (if you can, knowing how church budgets are these days) to make them accessible for persons with disabilities. Also add changing tables, and if you are able to, adult changing tables. I have seen one restroom with an adult changing table. Yes, they are necessary for many adults with disabilities, and finding them in public is a very difficult task.

The simple, shortcut answer, is to create one gender neutral restroom, one accessible restroom out of the rest. This can ostracize folks, singling them out to use that restroom. Also, to be quite honest, it’s a pain to have to wait in line for the restrooms anyway—but to have to wait for that one special stall, or that one special bathroom to open up while everyone else is at least moving forward in line—that’s degrading. The longer-term solution is to make all of our restrooms accessible to all people.

While the debate continues over laws and policies, can’t we, within the church, start making safe and accessible spaces, including restrooms? Can’t we lead the way?

 Many thanks to the Unitarian Universalist Association for this inclusive restroom sign.

Many thanks to the Unitarian Universalist Association for this inclusive restroom sign.

Enemies, Trust, and Dying for Congregational Transformation

By Derek Penwell

From time to time someone will come to my office, anxiety etched across the brow, looking for a listening ear. When I open the door on these occasions, I don’t know what kind of pain lies on the other side. I summon my best active listening practices from Pastoral Care 101, and I say, “What seems to be the trouble?”

“Well, Gladys and I have been having problems. You may have noticed we haven’t been around much lately.”

 

Sometimes I have, and sometimes I haven’t. I try to remain noncommittal: “I”m glad you’re here now."

“Let me cut to the chase.”

(That’s good. I’m pro cut-to-the-chase.)

“I think Gladys has been having an affair with a co-worker…”

And with that we embark on an all too familiar journey into betrayal, fear, and recrimination.

I listen to another sad story, which often ends with a question. It’s a big question, one I never feel comfortable answering. People who come to see me with problems like this ask it anyway:

“What should I do?”

I know the difference between directive and non-directive counseling, between offering a way to move forward and offering the person the opportunity to make those kinds of discoveries and decisions. I often have a hard time keeping my mouth shut about what people ought to do, but in these situations, it always seems better (easier?) to go with a non-directive approach:

“What do you want to do?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know what to do. I lover her, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to trust her again.”

There it is. Trust.

Trust. Relationships require it if they have any chance at being healthy. To say that “once lost, trust is difficult to recover” is, surely, to have said something everyone already knows instinctively. How long does it take to quit checking text messages and phone logs? How much time has to elapse before you believe that a trip to the store for milk and bread is really a trip to the store for milk and bread?

Unfortunately, there’s no calculus capable of offering a quantifiable answer about how much time it takes to rebuild trust. However, one thing is certain: If trust is to be rebuilt, it won’t happen just because of the elapse of time. Trust takes work, hard, often tedious, repetitive, mind-numbing work. Showing up when you say you’re going to show up. Being where you said you’d be. Doing what you said you’d do. Going out of your way to reassure the other person.

No matter how strongly a person feels about having recovered, no matter how eloquent the protestations about “turning over a new leaf,” no matter how many genuine tears are shed seeking forgiveness, there’s no short cut to the actual work of rebuilding trust.

Everyone knows that, right?

The other side of it, though, which also seems equally self-evident, but often gets overlooked in the face of the pain is that the wounded party has to want to heal, has to want to find trust again. This too requires work.

It’s possible to bang your head against a wall for someone who appears only to relish the sight of you concussing yourself. It is impossible to heal, however, when the infliction of pain becomes the glue that holds the relationship together.

Betrayal and the Congregation

It occurs to me that many churches have been wounded, whether by promiscuous pastors who took advantage, or by unprincipled lay leadership, or by denominational neglect–or just because the organizational system was set up to fail. Whatever the cause, the first casualty of betrayal is trust.

Unfortunately, the lack of trust in wounded congregations is a self-destructive feedback loop of bitterness and distrust that inhibits healthy growth and creativity. Distrust in a congregational system treats all change as equally menacing, treats everything new (people, programs, ideas) as presumably hostile–until proven otherwise.

A trip to the store for bread and milk is always assumed to be a pretext for something else, something surely more nefarious.

A new Sunday School class can never be just a new Sunday School class; it’s an indictment of the other Sunday School classes or a new avenue for some hostile party to consolidate power.

A change to the worship service or to the worship space is either an attack on tradition or a play to increase the power base of some suspicious constituency–or both.

What gets communicated in a wounded system where trust has been lost is: “We’re not quite sure yet how you’re trying to screw us over, but we’re pretty sure you are. Therefore, we’re withholding approval and/or permission.”

Has your church lost trust? Here’s an informal checklist:

  • Do you regularly have meetings that last longer than 2 hours?
  • Do people bring dog-eared copies of Robert’s Rules of Order to board meetings?
  • Do you hear at least one reference to the Constitution and By-laws at every meeting?
  • Do people bring their own calculators and red pens to the meeting where the budget is being proposed?
  • Do you have meetings where there are arguments about whether everybody on staff “really needs their own stapler?”
  • Does rearranging the furniture in the narthex or switching brands of air freshener require board approval? (Bonus: If really bad, does it require congregational approval?).
  • Do you have a lot of congregational meetings?
  • Does the announcement of a meeting elicit a particular kind of feeling in your stomach?
  • Do you keep an extra bottle of Rolaids in your car for use before meetings?
  • Does recruiting for congregational officers evoke anxiety not for a fear of who will say “no,” but for fear of who will say “yes?”
  • Do you require a doctor’s note from staff who call in sick?
  • Do you have people who regularly drive by the church to see if the pastor’s car is there?

How Can We Trust Again?

I wish it were easy. It’s not.

I wish I could point you toward “7 easy steps to recovering your trust.” I can’t.

It all comes down to this: a wounded congregation must make a decision to begin trying to trust again. You may get burned. But relationship is always a crap shoot.

How about this?

  • Be mindful that each positive step in which you don’t get hurt is a step in the right direction.
  • Call attention to and celebrate positive steps.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t enter every new situation convinced you’re going to get burned.
  • Assume people (even those who feel like the “enemy”) are telling the truth until you find out otherwise.
  • Don’t get into the habit of thinking of people with whom you share the body of Christ as the “enemy.” It’s too difficult to pull back from the precipice.

Even if trust hasn’t been restored, you’re going to have to live like it has. Until you can live together with a commitment to restoring trust, ministry, if possible at all, can only be tenuous and fragile.

And if all else fails, remember, it’s God’s church–not your’s (or your “enemy’s”).

Besides, trusting your enemy is just about impossible--although dying for your enemy has been done before.

Social Media and Pastoral Ministry

By Rev. Mindi

In my last ministry call, I used to feel guilty if I checked Facebook during my office hours. That was a time when I posted pictures of my baby kiddo, checked in on what friends were saying and doing and scrolled through endless posts of cat pictures.

Flash forward eight years, and the guilt is gone, because so much of my pastoral ministry does take place on Facebook, along with other social media. Checking Facebook is how I know what is going on in the life of my congregants. When I see them on Sunday, or in passing during the week, I often ask how things are going, and often the response I hear is, “Fine, Pastor.” But through Facebook I know when anniversaries come up—and not always the celebratory ones, but the anniversaries of loved ones gone. I know when people are going through difficult times. People share struggles looking for new jobs or stress at home that they don’t always share in person with me. Through Facebook messages, people have shared prayer requests and urgent concerns. Through Twitter, community members have reached out to me and my church for prayer and support.

I still pick up the phone and call, and I still do personal visits, but I have had congregants admit to me that they are afraid of the pastor stopping by. I’ve had others tell me that they struggle with social anxiety and have difficulty picking up the phone and calling, or sometimes answering. Text messaging and other messaging services have helped me to connect in ways that are comfortable for others. I’ve had congregants ask me in-depth questions that may lead to a conversation over a cup of coffee later, but in the beginning, allow me to share links to articles and books (and sometimes an occasional Study Bible) that help them explore more deeply.

A friend of mine (who gave me permission to share) once reached out to me to share a prayer request—over the messaging system on Words With Friends. Even gaming can lead to pastoral conversations and ministry!

Many churches still have not “bought in” to doing social media. Many pastors I know don’t “friend” their congregants on Facebook for their own privacy issues; but through a church Facebook page messages can be received; through groups, information and prayer requests can be shared. There are other ways of maintaining one’s privacy and space while still participating in social media ministry. But by not doing social media, churches are missing out on how pastoral ministry is happening in the 21st century.

*Want to learn more? Join us on Tuesday evenings for the #chsocm (Church Social Media) Tweetchat at 9pmEST/6pmPST. Or check out the blog for transcripts of the #chsocm tweetchat at the Church Social Media blog: http://churchsocmed.blogspot.com/. Follow the hashtag #chsocm and ask questions—it is how I learned when I was starting out!

Rev. Mindi is now the Social Media Coordinator for the Evergreen Association of the American Baptist Churches, USA.

Financial Support "Ain't What It Used To Be."

By Rev. Mindi

The second congregation I was called to as a pastor, an old New England church with white columns and red carpet down the aisles of the white pews and white walls, had a chart in the back of its sanctuary, built in 1825. The chart was for the old box pews, long pulled out of the main floor, but still standing up in the balcony. Because, as you may know, back in the day families paid for their pew for the year. Back then, when someone got mad at you for sitting in their pew, it was because they had paid good money for it. That was how church buildings were funded, Sunday School literature purchased, and how pastors were paid.

At some point, the box pews were pulled out. The idea of being able to buy your seat in church and pay more for better seats became appalling. You can’t claim it’s your pew anymore, and all are encouraged to give what they are able. And this model worked for some time, where those who had more could give their share, and churches began creating endowments and building bigger buildings. Families still had a lot of children that filled up those Sunday School classes.

But here we are, in the twenty-first century. Two adults with full-time incomes also may have student loans, childcare expenses, healthcare expenses, rent or mortgage, and other costs that leave little wiggle room. Fewer and fewer have disposable income. People are not able to give as much to the church, and churches are shrinking their budgets, cutting staff, and in some cases, closing altogether.

We know this. And we know the church is changing and the new worshiping communities don’t look like what we have known on Sunday mornings. For some of those communities, income isn’t a problem. They meet in coffee shops or at bars or other public places, and don’t pay rent, or pay little for reserved space. Many do not have a full-time pastor, but someone who leads their community and works a different full-time job. Some of them are not seminary trained and don’t have the same debt. The operating costs may be significantly less.

But there are still many who value seminary trained pastors, who need to pay their pastor something to help with their debt, who have expenses for worship space. And they have a lot in common with the traditional church coming in to today’s world: both need to figure out how to raise financial support.

Being a PTA mom, sometimes I turn my nose up at the word “fundraising.” All I can think about is wrapping paper and cookie dough sales. But we need to look at ways to raise financial support beyond what we are used to, whether we are in a new, innovative ministry that meets outside of the box, or if we are continuing within the traditional church—the old ways are not going to work any longer.

Here are some ideas I have seen traditional and non-traditional worshiping communities use:

--Dinner and Silent Auction

--Kids Carnival

--Community Festival and Appreciation

--Concerts

--Inviting people to partner with the community through financial giving, whether they attend worship or not, by inviting people to give to help fund meaningful work in the community.

--Online giving campaigns

For the next two weeks, the “out-of-the-box-in-the-box” worshiping community I am part of, Open Gathering, which is a ministry of Bellevue Christian Church in Bellevue, Washington, is partnering in an online fundraising effort with other innovative ministries in what we are calling the “Island of Misfit Toys” Fundraiser. We are inviting folks from our communities and those who support them to offer up an item for an online auction—something they received for Christmas they didn’t want, or new (and like-new) items they have, or handmade items (there are some delicious baked goods being offered by a former Manhattan pastry chef). You can check it out on Facebook, and even bid on items to support some of these innovative ministries happening around the country. To see what other ministries are being supported by this online auction, visit this website.

Feel free to steal these ideas. Better yet, reply to this post and share your own ideas for thinking outside of the box, partnering in the community, and helping to support new and innovative ministries, whether it happen within the traditional four-walled church, or outside of the box!

Broken . . . but not Shattered

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Dr. Mark Pointdexter

Eighteen months ago, I thought things were pretty good in my life.  I was in my tenth year of serving a congregation that I loved and planned to retire from.  I was the moderator for the Indiana Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a member of our denomination’s General Board. I also was writing a weekly column for [D]mergent at the invitation of my friend, Derek Penwell.  In addition, I was in the very beginning stages of working on a book proposal.  Writing had always been a lifelong dream of mine.  My two children were also both entering their senior years. My daughter in high school.  My son in college.  Both were doing especially well academically and socially.  Like I said, I thought things were pretty good in my life.  

But then, eighteen months ago, I came home from church one Sunday and my wife of twenty-four years told me she was through with our marriage.  She wanted a divorce.  I knew things had been what I would describe as a “little rocky” for a few weeks, but I didn’t think it was anything we couldn’t work through.  That I wanted to work through.  But she didn’t.  There would be no attempt to restore what was broken.  No effort at marital counseling.  She was done.   The end of my marriage eighteen months ago was sudden and unexpected and it took me into a spiral of depression that I am still working my way out of.  

Though I am genetically predisposed to bouts of depression, nothing compared to the darkness I endured during the first six months after I was told the marriage was over.  It was an overwhelming sense of disorientation and confusion.  I could not believe what had happened.  I could not grasp the reality of the situation.  I kept thinking surely there would be a phone call that spoke of reconciliation, a note that promised we would try again, a knock on the door with her ready to move back into the house—moved by all the good memories and laughter we had shared over the past two and a half decades.  But none of that ever happened.  She was done.  And it didn’t matter what I wanted or hoped for.  My marriage was over and there was nothing I could do that would change that.

Totally distraught, I went to see my therapist who could see that I was in no condition to do ministry.  He suggested that I take a thirty day leave of absence and wrote a letter to the church suggesting it. The church agreed to grant me that time off.  The problem was after the thirty days, I was still in no condition to do ministry.  I tried for a couple of weeks, but I had no energy for it.  My own faith had taken a huge hit by the divorce.  I was trying myself to figure out who I was now and what I believed. I wasn’t anywhere close to certain about my own faith journey, let alone helping anyone else with theirs.

Long and short of it, I resigned from the church that I loved.  I resigned from being the regional moderator.  I quit writing for [D]mergent.  I just couldn’t do it anymore.  I had lost my voice for preaching, my pen for writing, and my will to lead others.  I had no idea what I would do or how I would make it.  In a matter of a few months, I lost my marriage and my job—which meant as a pastor I lost my primary community of faith.  What I had gained was an avalanche of depression that took my energy, filled my mind with doubt and guilt, and very nearly took my life.  For the first six months after the break-up of my marriage, all I could think of was what a failure I had become. 

I started taking anti-depressants.  I continued to see a therapist on a weekly basis.  But the darkness for me was overwhelming and other kinds of treatment had to be tried as well.  As the depression gripped me deeper and more fully, no matter what treatment seemed to be tried, I wondered if I was going to make it out of the hell that I had descended into. 

Since, I am writing this article you know that I did make it out, at least part of the way, but before I tell you how that happened, I simply want to say that the reason I am writing this article is because I am one of the tens of millions of Americans who suffer from the mental illness known as depression.  Though it does not by any means describe the totality of who I am, when I am in its fierce grip, it can be utterly consuming of who I am.  It’s a battle for me.  I know it is a battle others fight as well, including other ministers.  By giving voice to my own struggle I hope others can learn they did not walk alone or live in fear that other’s might know they are in this specific battle of the mind.

I have heard the story several times that before he was President, Abraham Lincoln once spent six months in bed suffering from melancholia (depression).  I always thought that was an excessive amount of time, but now I am more understanding of those who take to bed for a long time.  It was six months after the ending of my marriage before I was beginning to feel like I was on the road back to good health. Here’s a few of the things that benefited me most.

1. I realized my depression was accompanied by a deep sense of grief and loss.  I had to let myself experience that grief because the loss was real.  Fortunately, I had family members and friends who were willing to grieve with me and let me talk as much as I needed to.  My sister, a couple of friends from seminary, some people from the church I served all stayed in contact with me and gave me the companionship and space I needed.  I had lost my primary community of faith, but I had another faith group that was undergirding me with their prayers and support.

2. My children accepted for a while a different role in my life.  I had done my best to be a good parent to them, but honestly for those first six months, I had trouble being anything for anyone including a parent to my children.  My son and daughter, 21 and 17 at the time, took on the role of care-givers to me. They made certain I took my medicines and went to my therapy appointments.  They even drove me to the therapies that required I have someone else drive me home.  It also helped that my daughter, after a year and half at a residential high school, came back home to live with me for her final semester.  Her presence took away a lot of the loneliness. 

3. I decided I had to move on.  Though I didn’t make the decision, the decision was made to end the marriage.  I had no choice but to accept the reality of that situation.  It took me six months to get there, but finally I did.   

After six months, I was well enough to put my relocation papers out looking for another congregation to serve.  It didn’t take long before I was getting some calls and interviews.  Which helped with my diminished self-esteem.  And just about the time the money was going to run out, I got a call to serve a church in Virginia and I am having a blast in this congregation.  I am developing a love for them like the one I had for my previous congregation.  I’m not back to where I was before my life changed so drastically but I am headed back that way.  I would give me about 75-80 percent on the recovery scale.  I am back to writing sermons and doing pastoral calling and attending meetings. I’m back to working at the homeless shelter and helping those in need whatever way I can.  I’m back to the work of a pastor.  

I still have work to do.  Most importantly, I’ve preached dozens of sermons in my life about the importance of forgiveness in the Christian journey, I’m still trying to discover its role in this situation.  I would appreciate your prayers as I learn that lesson.

There is, of course, much more to the story than I have shared here, both to the end of the marriage and my battle with the depression that followed.  But I wanted briefly to relate to anyone who might be going through their own battle with depression.  The darkness can be overcome through time, hard work and the conscious decision that it won’t win.  You need not be ashamed of your battle or be afraid to speak of it.  Confront it as honestly as you need to and allow your friends to care for you.  

Peace,

Dr. Mark E. Poindexter

Is there another way? Buildings, landlords, and ministry

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Rev. Mindi

My alma mater is selling its buildings, its beautiful campus, and relocating. At least, that is the plan. It made the news last week. The oldest graduate theological school in the United States is going to sell the campus.

I’ve written about churches and buildings before, our connection to a space, the power structures in place with building ownership, and of course, the fact that the church is not the building but the body of Christ.

Currently, I’m a part-time pastor of a tiny church, with a tiny church building, with a tiny campus on top of a hill, across the street from an elementary school. A building that is just shy of sixty years old. A building with asbestos in the ceiling and peeling paint and ripped brown carpet in the sanctuary.

I also serve with my husband at Open Gathering, a gathered community without a building. And I have a group of young adults in my tiny church that have started to form a new(ish) community we are, for now, calling “Good Neighbors.” One is renting space; the other meets at a local coffee shop/bar (which, actually, is a Lutheran ministry funded from the sale of a church building).

So what’s the big deal about buildings?

We get attached to space and places. Of course, I am going to mourn when my alma mater moves. Not only did I live there for three years, receive my Master of Divinity there, make some of the greatest friends of my life there and learn so much—I happened to meet my husband afterwards and we had our wedding reception there. The background of my wedding photos is the quad at Andover Newton.

But the school can continue in a different place and space. Indeed, for much of the arguing going on about whether online classes are not personal enough, let’s face reality: more and more people are going to school online. More and more of us are getting our core instruction that way. It doesn’t replace the practical—and I feel that a good seminary education that prepares us for ministry is going to get us out into the field more. Interning at local congregations. Participating in local ministries. Doing chaplaincy residencies at local hospitals and mission organizations. That’s what I received at Andover Newton that was most formative for my practical training.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s what we need for our congregations as well: more practical training in the field. Participating with other congregations in ministries in the community. Volunteering at our hospitals and homeless shelters. Visiting one another where we reside and where we work. I have noticed an increase in participation, from both congregation and community, every time we move an activity outside of the church building—Bible Studies in coffee shops. Pub Theology gatherings at a local bar. Caroling at the train station.

But there are buildings that house wonderful ministries as well. All too often, I have seen congregations hold on to the building by renting out every single space every single day of the week. The congregation becomes a landlord. They are concerned about wear and tear on the building but also how much income is coming in.

Our tiny church building houses four congregations. Four! Our building is in use every single day of the week—for worship, for Bible study, for prayer gatherings, for a Christian preschool in the morning and an After-School tutoring program that we run in the afternoon. We also have had Vacation Bible School, as well as a Social Skills Summer day camp for students with disabilities and their typically-developing peers.  A few years ago we planted our first Community Organic Garden plot, and we hope to expand. One thing I have noticed: when we stop worrying about what's going to happen to us, and start focusing on what God is doing through us, we are open to more possibilities.

Sure, we face the same issues. And maybe we’re kidding ourselves by holding on as long as we can. But the difference may be seeking what is the intention for the space we are in. Is it so we can just keep going? Is our renting to others just to sustain us? Or is it possible to be open to other ministries and missions and giving space for them to flourish? What is God’s intention for us? And ultimately, we do have to ask the question: is building ownership the only way to do this?

It's hard to begin to think of letting go of a place where you've had your wedding, had your child dedicated or baptized, or where your parent's funeral was held. It's hard to not have an attachment to that space, and it is a grieving process.

In my congregation, we are asking some of the hard questions now, and we aren’t sure exactly where we are going. But we are trusting the Holy Spirit. I pray that the leaders at Andover Newton are doing the same. For the rest of us in traditional churches with aging buildings, what is the Spirit calling you do to? Because I’m sure when you agreed to join in membership, or if you’ve been there since Sunday School days, that God wasn’t calling you to be a landlord of the church building. God is calling you into ministry.

 Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Getting Depressed By Yearbooks, Again (Sort of)

By Jeff Gill

Being a bit of a history geek, I was tracing developments a century ago in the congregation I serve. This had me reading through old Yearbooks, 1914, 1915, 1918, 1923 (they’re all easy to find on Google Books, just look for Christian Church, American Home Missionary, and Yearbook as search terms).

It was kind of, well . . . depressing, in an unexpected way.

Perhaps you remember Derek last year talking about getting his new Disciples Yearbook:

He was, at least at first, a little bummed out. The numbers (with the help of a stats geek friend of his) are cratering for the objective measures, at least, for our institutional life. We’ve gotten a newer Yearbook in the last few weeks, most of us, and the rate of descent is still, in Tom Wolfe’s description of the Mercury astronauts returning to earth, that of a ring of car keys flung onto a parking lot pavement. Anyhow.

Statistically, things 100 years ago were quite different. “Men and Millions” is the big thing back then (yeah, yeah, we’ll come back to that in a moment), and the relatively anonymous writers of most of the content, speaking quite self-consciously as the voice of our Brotherhood (okay, okay, I’m getting to that), are optimistic about being able to mark those millions in almost every category, if not now, then by the end of the decade or so. Remember, this is when a) “The Christian Century” was mainly our sandbox as a publication, and b) we were quite sure we were IN a Christian century. That theme’s been done, but it’s worth noting again.

Today, we have a million of just about nothing. A quarter mil in worship on an average Sunday, maybe realistically half a million members, but that’s probably not true today and won’t be tomorrow. Say 450,000 tops.

As “Men and Millions” was firing up to bring together the multitudinous, various, fractious programs of missions and education and “church extension” (as we called our building campaign and church planting program back then), there is clearly excitement in those long-deceased voices speaking from the page.

“Chief among the benefits accruing to the Society from the Men and Millions Movement is the wide and sympathetic hearing its work was given. Never have the great claims of the American Christian Missionary Society been presented to such multitudes as from the platform of the movement… The Joint Apportionment Committee was devised by the General Convention to mollify evils of competition growing out of multiplied missionary agencies. The Society has from the first championed the work with enthusiasm and its representative has served the committee this year with devotion. The present apportionment plan has failed to correct both the missionary myopia and the ‘lopsidedness’ in our churches. It begins to appear that if the churches are to be apportioned at all, the work should be done by a committee close enough to the local churches to be conversant with their ability… The remarkable results of the ‘Emergency Drive’ of the Men and Millions Movement not only revealed the large financial ability of the Disciples but points the way to better methods of calling it forth. Here again appears the wisdom of the county unit policy in our organizational scheme. The Joint Apportionment Committee is recommending through the Men and Millions Movement, The World-wide Every-Member Canvass, for an all inclusive budget for all the missionary, educational and benevolent agencies, to which the Society gives hearty approval.”

It goes on like that, pages and pages of it, in between the charts and lists and tables.

Sure, it’s dated language. Very Roaring Twenties, the religious side of The Great Gatsby, the not-so-creepy side of Elmer Gantry. But allowing for all that, the thing is: it’s so hopeful. So optimistic. And so certain that things will go a certain way.

And it’s not that they’re just affirming a status quo or a social quietism, either. Recommended reading lists for Sunday school teachers include Jacob Riis, author of “How the Other Half Lives,” and social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. The wording is most emphatically dated, but the passion is present to minister in minority communities of a wide variety of settings, from Bohemians in Cleveland (no, not those Bohemians) to Philippinos in California.

What the authors of this material don’t know, or are averting their eyes from, is the looming shadow of World War (the book “Preachers Present Arms” came to mind repeatedly); the racism and slavery behind what is called “Negro poverty” is unmentioned, although lynching is decried and economic opportunity is called for; and the eruption in 1920 of the “Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy” may have begun in Presbyterian circles, but it was clearly visible to Disciples leaders of the day: not so in these pages.

In the authorial tone of the century old Yearbooks, even though self-evidently written by many different hands and with an assortment of styles, the Stone-Campbell churches are one. The Restoration Movement, even though by 1906 clearly divided already between the “a capella” and instrumental branches, is spoken of as a single unified force whose drive and capacity will only flourish as that unity of purpose and action is focused.

The fracturing, of course, was already going on, between cooperatives and independents, progressives and traditionalists, northern and southern ways of being church and doing missions. The role of most minority groups was still, even with the best of intentions, that of being the object of mission efforts, not as autonomous subjects themselves; the role of women was . . . well, it’s complicated, but the Yearbook’s narrative still seems to have much in common with Matthew 14:21, telling us about great things, “not counting women and children.”

Really, it’s amazing how much unity we had for how long, given the depth of the divisions that soon would be revealed. And it’s also got to be the case, I believe, that the shock of what the institutions of our “Fellowship” (or Brotherhood) realized they had supported through the war-fervor against “the Huns” (oh yes they go there, and they go there hard, “threat to civilization” and all that, “enlist now, young men”…), all of which had to have made many if not most of our leaders say “we have to stop pretending.”

Because the tone does start to change in the late Twenties. You can blame it on the Depression, but it starts well before October of 1929. There’s plenty to praise and congratulate one another about in those years, but the relentless boosterism, the almost-manic sunny optimism, recedes. We lose some optimism, but get a bit more realism in our outlook. Sharing good news into America, across the world, is going to be hard, and we probably won’t figure it all out by 1999. The Disciples are starting to come to grips with just how fractured the world is, and that as a movement for wholeness, it’s going to take more than just a plea for unity based on the New Testament model that, frankly, we ourselves didn’t all agree on in detail.

Like Derek, I got depressed, but this time it was from reading those warm, cheery, happy, sunny, not just hopeful but utterly certain Yearbook reports from 1915 and vicinity. Then I had to think about it a while. And as he ultimately realized last year, in the end, we are as Christians, as Disciples of Christ, given a very particular gift, and that is to preach the Gospel to our particular context, in this specific era. (He said it with seven points and different language, but that’s how I took it.)

Who knows how our reports and Mission First! plans will look in 2115. It’s actually kind of helpful to ask that question of my own calling, this congregation’s mission, our denominational issues today. After smiling at the insouciance of 1915’s vision of the future, what will my take on where we’re going right now sound like in a hundred years? And does that tell me anything about what’s really moving towards wholeness in my plans if I ask it from that point of view?

That’s not exactly taking God’s perspective, but it’s getting closer.

Church, Go Back to School!

By Rev. Mindi

We checked in over coffee, talking about the start of the year, about what hadn’t been done over the summer. We shared our frustrations about things that were still the same, and celebrated the changes that have been made and places where we saw hope and opportunity.

We weren’t talking about church; we were talking about school.

Over the course of the conversation, as we talked about our admiration for the younger teachers who seemed to be able to adapt and adjust better, who could multitask and understand the differing needs of today’s children, of all abilities, I couldn’t help but think about church and how so many of the conversations we are having in the public education sphere are almost the same conversations we are having in the church world. While a younger age does not guarantee someone is open to change and adaptation, these observations came from parents at this gathering about younger teachers and administrators:

-Technology is seen as a necessity, not a luxury, especially for students with disabilities, and all students benefit from access to technology.

-They use social media as a teaching tool in the classroom, to share the accomplishments of the school with the public, and to connect with parents and families.

-They are able to multitask and maintain their presence of authority in the classroom, even when there are disruptions and distractions.

-They want to know about students’ lives outside of the classroom—culture, family, interests, progress they are making academically and socially.

 

In contrast, teachers and administrators that are “old school” tend to be:

-Unfamiliar with technology or supports for students with different and unique needs.

-Unfamiliar with social media—even afraid to use it for fear of privacy concerns.

-Using one-size-fits-all models of classroom instruction and behavior expectation.

-Unable to adapt to major changes—want to use same curriculum or method of teaching.

-Struggle with cultures that are different or new to them.

Of course, these are generalizations. Of course, every school is different, every administrator and teacher is different. However, public education in the United States is changing, and these conversations are eerily similar to the conversations I have with my colleagues in ministry.

There are plenty of factors that make a comparison between the church and public school a different one. However, in this conversation with parents, I heard many familiar themes:

-Struggle of an institution stuck in patterns of the past.

-Administrators unable to think outside of the box and try new ideas, or even see the reason for doing something in a different way.

-Teachers not being paid enough to live even near the communities they teach in.

-Not enough resources to go around.

-Access to technology lacking.

-Buildings in dire need of updating, but can’t due to lack of funds.

-Struggle of educating students in a rapidly changing multi-cultural community.

-The number of students on free and reduced lunch rapidly on the rise.

Change “Administrators” to “Administration Board” or whatever your governing body is, change “teachers” to pastors, etc. You get the idea. Our communities are changing with new immigrants and cultures and the number of families at or near the poverty level is on the rise.

What I see that is helpful in this comparison is that change is possible. As part of this group of parents, I am seeing significant change in our school district towards inclusion of students with disabilities. Younger teachers are being hired who are able to multitask and maintain their presence of authority in the classroom. More resources are being invested in technology, including an app for parents to keep up with what is going on at their child’s school and in the district.

At the same time, teacher salaries are low. Teacher turnover is high in the state of Washington, where I live, and more and more teachers are leaving public education altogether. Bonds are not passing at the local level and so buildings are falling into disrepair, and resources are stretched thin. Every year, there are teacher positions that are unfilled by a permanent teacher and instead filled by a substitute, sometimes for the entire year.

The conversation is all too familiar. All too close to home. What can we learn, and what can we do differently?

The Mysterious Magic Pill

By Colton Lott

 

This is going to seem like an article about politics, but it’s not. Promise. Just keep with me. How folks feel about one issue/item/thing often reflects how they view another issue/item/thing—like how our views of the church influence our views of politics and vice versa. For example, this week Derek Penwell (one of the senior writers for [D]mergent) wrote a fantastic article about Donald Trump and evangelicals, which you can read here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/derek-penwell/evangelicals-love-donald_b_8058518.html. For all of you who won’t read the article, he says that evangelicals crave a cultural relevance that Donald Trump seemingly has.

But Rev. Penwell isn’t the only one talking about the GOP nomination and the takeover by non-political candidates, such as Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Virtually every news source has article after article asking “Why are voters gravitating towards these unconventional candidates?” The peculiar rise of these candidates is not only a topic of the talking heads on the national level, but one that is happening in my own intimate world, as I have  family members who favor some of these dark horse candidates. On the whole, I am intrigued with their support of folks who, in the eyes of every savvy political strategist, should properly be considered “losers.” So I, too, keep gnawing on that why.

When I conduct my informal research, the responses are something like, “we need someone who knows what they’re doing,” or, “we need an outsider to fix Washington,” or “I want someone who has a business background to fix the financial mess.”

I don’t mean to de-legitimize the benefit of fresh ideas to any corporate body or diminish the way that different forms of knowledge come together to make a more powerful whole. But where did we come to believe that any one person possesses a secret knowledge that will somehow “save” this entire country?

Because at the root of many of these conversations, the subtext of what I keep hearing is: “we desperately need a magic pill that will shock our system into working like it did ‘in the good ole days.’”

In truth, I don’t have much interest in using my weekly article for political analysis. But this style of thinking/wishing/hoping is not isolated to the political sphere; indeed, these unsaid-but-ever-near desires show up far too often in the church. In the parking lots comes the whispers of:

“If we just had a young pastor, we could get young families.”

 Or in those fraught moments we may let say something like:

“Our pastor doesn’t have a clear vision or leadership. If we just had someone who would tell us what to do, we would be successful.”

The list goes on and on about the good fruit that follows the “if we just had…”

Are leaders and leadership important to institutional vitality and success? You bet. Can poor leadership disrupt and seriously injure religious communities? Absolutely. Can a pastor make everything good and smell like roses? Definitely not.

When churches decide to pin all their hopes on a minister they are trying to swallow the elephantine magic pill that will solve the problems that come with being church in this time and in this place.

A new president nor a new pastor will fix all the problems that plague life as we know it. Just as running a successful government takes a sincere congress and prudent courts, a healthy church takes praying elders, service-oriented deacons, and loving members. Perhaps we would be well to remember that revolutions are lengthy affairs; that turning around lives and culture are like steering a large ship with an undersized rudder; that churches are successful in how they are faithful to God, how they work alongside what the holy is doing within their community. We can’t wish a better time into being. We can’t hire solutions. We can’t elect a savior. But we can stop reaching for the opiates, stop begging for the magic pills of wonderfulness. By breaking free from our addiction to dreams unobtainable we can start to be authentic and earnest no matter what conditions we find ourselves to be in.

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Clip art used can be found at: http://www.clker.com/cliparts/b/e/I/U/t/B/pill-md.png

De-Centering

By Rev. Mindi

“We’ve always done it that way before.”

You probably have heard of the Seven Deadly Words of the Church. And it doesn’t matter how often we talk about the need for change or transformation, or that we are in the 21st century, these words creep back up into board meetings, coffee hour conversations, and other areas of decision-making and complaining. Other variations of this are “We’ve never done it this way before” and “We tried it once, it didn’t work.”

All of these statements center us and our experience. The universal “we” can mean the whole church, or it can mean a small group of people, or it can mean just one person under the assumption that there must be more than one. Whatever the case, they are centering themselves. The reason whatever-it-is-you-are-trying-to-change won’t work is because from their experience, from their perspective, it won’t. They are putting their experience above any others.

How do we take a step back in these conversations in congregational life? How do we de-center the ones dominating the conversation when it comes to being the Christian Church in the 21st century? 

This question of de-centering has greater implications. In the current climate of the United States, too often white persons have centered themselves in conversations about race. White people have decided what is or is not racist, what actions are or are not racially motivated. Straight people have centered themselves in the conversations about welcoming and affirming gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Cis-gendered people have centered themselves in the conversations about what gender is or is not. Often, we center ourselves in the conversations that really have to do with other people and not with us, just whether or not it makes us comfortable, and we dominate the conversation rather than accepting an invitation to listen to those who are different.

If we are attempting to be the body of Christ and to “grow” the church (whatever “grow” may mean for you and your congregation), we need to allow for voices to come from outside. We need to de-center the insider voices and move to the outsider voices [Note: you may very well have outsider voices within your congregation—youth, elderly, people who work on Sundays, homebound, folks who come on occasion, children, disabled members, etc.] You may need to de-center the voices of those who are part of the congregation and listen to those who are not. Listen and center the voices of those in the community. 

All too often, churches find a perceived need in the community and decide to address it. However, they don’t always ask those they are supposedly serving if that is the real need that needs to be met. When we center ourselves in the context of mission and ministry, we are doing what we want, what makes us feel good—then we get upset when no one shows up, or they aren’t as grateful as we hoped they would be. We didn’t center the voices of those we should have been listening to.

In this post-Christendom 21st century, maybe it is high time we all de-centered the church voice. We are not the most important building in town. We are not the most important group. We are not the most important thing in people’s lives. God is still working in the world, in our community, and God calls out through the voices that we often have pushed to the margins. We have put ourselves first, our survival first, our prominence first. And we have failed.

I know. We’ve never done it this way before. Let’s take ourselves out of the center of the conversation, and move to listening to those voices that need to be centered. Maybe then the church can really grow into what is was intended—the body of Christ.