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.

Embracing Failure: Why the Church Needs to Quit Worrying about Dying

While on vacation, I thought it might be helpful to revisit this post. Enjoy!


Your pal, Derek

My Dirty Secret

I have a secret fear. I don’t like to talk about it, because I find it embarrassing.

I’m afraid of looking stupid.

I don’t like to be laughed at. As a professor, I operate with a low-grade fear that at any moment one of my student’s will pipe up and say, “That’s not correct, what you said.”

I teach World Religions–mostly the big five: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I’m fine with Christianity, and Judaism to a lesser extent. The other three, though …

I’ve taught the course so many times that I maintain a fair comfort-level. But when I get into a tradition that’s not my own, I realize how much I don’t know. It can get pretty nervy.

I had a student one time who had been a Buddhist monk. I found that out, of course, just as we reached the unit on Buddhism.

Really? It already feels like I’m doing this without a net. Now, you’re going to tell me you know this stuff better than I do? How am I supposed to teach this stuff in front of you?

I told him to jump in if I got it wrong. (I hope my commitment to education surpasses my fear of looking incompetent.)

He was really nice about it—corrected me only a couple of times.

As a pastor, my recurring nightmare is that I show up to church on Sunday morning, everybody’s waiting for the processional—when I realize I can’t find my sermon. I look all over the place, growing more and more embarrassed by the moment. As I scramble around, the panic grows, and I can feel the disapproving looks joining together in some great meta-expression of disappointment, as if to say, “Yeah, we knew it was only a matter of time before he screwed up on such a grand scale.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that dream. After those dreams, I realize how much I have invested in wanting to appear omni-competent. Always ready. Never makes a mistake. Mr. reliable.

Looking stupid is something I assiduously try to avoid. I don’t like to fail.

But it happens.

It’s my dirty secret.

Failing in Church

The church, which ought to be a place where the penchant for failure is readily recognized, often has the same aversion to failure as individuals. This realization seems odd, since the church has traditionally understood itself as a reception hall for failures—which is to say, sinners, those who’ve failed to hit the target. The whole concept of grace centers on the idea that when we sing “Just as I am, without one plea,” whatever else we mean, we most certainly don’t mean, “Just as I am … as soon as I get it all together.”

I find it interesting, then, that the church often operates with such an institutional fear of failure. I don’t just mean failure in the large our-church-is-dying-and-we-don’t-know-what-to-do sense; I also mean failure in a much smaller we’d-like-to-paint-the-women’s-restroom-yellow-but-what-if-someone-feels-strongly-it-should-be-pink sense. On this account of the church, boldness and creativity emerge as threats to an ouchless existence. In fact, decisions don’t even have to be bold or creative to meet resistance, they just have to represent something different.

This paralyzing fear of failure is why the default answer for declining congregations is “no.”

“Should we launch a new ministry to homeless people?”


“The largest part of our congregation works evenings and nights. Could we have a service at some other time than in the morning?”


“There’s a Korean church who’d like to use space in our building. We’re not using it. Should we let them?”

No. No. No.

The interesting question is whether the relationship is causal or correlational between congregations in decline and congregations whose knee-jerk response to anything new tends to be “no.” That is to say, is continually meeting each new opportunity with a “no” a cause of congregational decline, or is it merely the case that congregations that tend to say no also tend to be in decline—but for different reasons? To put a finer point on it, is saying "no" as a default response, at its heart, a disease or just a symptom of disease?

I’m not sure I’m smart enough to untangle that knot fully, but I do think that confronting each new situation negatively suggests a persistent fear of failure. In sports, coaches call it “playing not to lose.”

I would like to suggest, however, that congregations that live with fear always gnawing at the edges hasten the very death that has them in such a constant state of panic. It’s a vicious cycle.

Get Used to It

I want to set down the paradoxical assertion that it’s only when a congregation can endure a load of small failures that it has a possibility of avoiding the largest failure—death. Conversely, a congregation that spends its life avoiding as many small failures as possible will often wind up dying earlier than it might have otherwise.

Failure is not an enemy to be avoided at all costs; it’s a guide to be embraced.

Notice I didn’t say that failure should be embraced because it feels good. I’m not saying that messing up isn’t painful; it is. What I am saying is that success only comes in the midst of a flurry of failures. Failures help you to refine the field of possibilities. This is true for individuals; it’s true for businesses; it’s true for athletes, musicians, people who play Sudoku; and it’s true for churches.

All right, so opening an ice cream store at the North Pole wasn’t such a great idea. So what? If the question is “What do we do next?” you’ve already trimmed the range of possible options by at least one.

Maybe that Death Metal service wasn’t such a good fit for your country club neighborhood. Now you know. If it teaches you something about who you are, and where your gifts lie, and what kinds of things you’re able to do in the context in which you find yourselves—you’re now a smarter congregation. But just as importantly, you also know that you can survive decisions that don’t pan out. What is almost certainly a threat to your survival, however, is having three hour board meetings in which you painfully try to head off every possible failure, then wind up doing nothing.

Sitting on your hands is an option—one that many congregations have employed. But let’s not kid ourselves that the ministry Jesus has in mind requires nothing more than locking the doors and hoping that someone will magically bulldoze the neighborhood and build a sparkling new subdivision, filled only with young professional families.

Living like Jesus, really living like Jesus, is an outrageous act no sane group of people would presume to tackle.  As a congregation of Jesus-followers you’ve already taken a precipitous slide down the ladder of common sense. Get used to it.

Live Courageously

  • Think hard. (Brainstorm. Dream. Embrace the vision of a different future.)
  • Pray ceaselessly. (Why not bring God into the whole process?) 
  • Do something interesting. (There’s plenty of mediocrity out there mass-marketed as “safe for church.” Hint: Throwing out your hymnals and getting a “praise team” was still daring in 1988. Now it just looks like you think that if you wear fishnet stockings you can be Lady Gaga.)
  • Evaluate. Evaluate. Evaluate. (This is the part where you learn from failure. If a ministry flops, factor it in as you get back on the horse.)
  • If the timing wasn’t right, but everything else seemed poised to succeed, be flexible enough to try it again under better conditions. (The same idea may work next month, in the summer instead of the winter, or next year.)
  • If a decision doesn’t work out, don’t make the mistake of automatically shutting out the person who brought the idea. (Monday morning quarterbacking that takes on an accusatory or condescending tone disincentivizes creativity . . . from everyone.)
  • Bring young people into the process. (Let them try some crazy-sounding things. They need the experience, and the church needs the life and creativity they bring.)
  • For denominations: Try letting folks who don't ordinarily get to make the final decisions, make the final decisions. (It's less than helpful to bring Latino/as, AfricanAmericans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Women into the planning process, then just go ahead and do what you were going to do anyway.)

The gospel is first about failure and death—because it’s only losers and corpses who who’ve got nothing left to lose. Why a people who remember the failure of crucifixion and celebrate the victory of resurrection in the Eucharist every Sunday should have its sphincter seize up every time it thinks of death is beyond me.

Embrace failure as a road to success—even God did.

Just A Spoonful: Why Congregations Can't Just Get By

By Derek Penwell 

One of my best friends is a funeral director. He told me the other day about a family he’d had dealings with at one point in his career. It seems that a woman had died, and the family had my friend’s funeral home take care of the arrangements. The family, according to my buddy, was especially difficult to deal with. They didn’t know what they wanted, and they never brought up the subject of how they were going to pay for the funerary services. They fiddled around long enough without making any decisions that, after fourteen days, my friend had to do something. So, he shipped body off to be cremated.

When the woman’s cremains finally came back to the funeral home, my friend invoiced the family for the cost of cremation and embalming. The bill went unpaid for quite some time, until a member of the family (the woman’s sister) eventually called and asked for the woman’s ashes. My friend said that they would gladly be turned over to the family upon receipt of the bill–$2,250.

“We don’t have that kind of money.”

.“That’s no problem. She’ll keep till you can locate it,” my friend informed her.

“Couldn’t you just give up her ashes, and we’ll pay you later?”

“Sorry, mam. It doesn’t work that way. I’ll be happy to turn loose of them after you pay your bill.”

She was, of course, upset and hung up the phone.

Not long after that another sister called, “I heard you won’t let us have our sister’s ashes.”

“That’s right, mam. When you’ve paid your bill, I’ll make sure she’s turned over to you.”

The sister persisted. She was torn up over the loss, and just wanted to have something by which to remember her loved one. In a choking voice she said, “We ain’t got much money. Can’t you just let us have her?”

“Not until the bill’s been paid.”

“How about part of the ashes?”

Puzzled, my friend said, “What do you mean?”

“Well, how much,” she asked, “would you charge us for a spoonful?”

“$2,250. And if you pay for that, I’ll throw in the rest for free.”

I know congregations like that. They want to know how little they can pay and still get by.

“We don’t have much. Isn’t there an installment plan we can get on? A little up front, and then we’ll pay the rest along the way? Anything like that?”

Following Jesus isn’t for the faint of heart: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:34b–37).

Interestingly, congregations have gotten very comfortable with individual sacrifice. Stewardship month in November every year wouldn’t be the same without the reminder that “Jesus’ sacrificial giving of his own life ought to motivate his followers to be sacrificial givers in response.” Some aspiring greeting card copy-writer wannabe even came up with that execrably jejune bumper-sticker slogan: “Give until it feels good!”[1]

One thing congregations often have a more difficult time coming to terms with, however, is the idea of sacrifice on a corporate level. I know of congregations (not all, mind you–but a notable number nevertheless)

  • who would rather the minister learn to exercise a little personal financial discipline than to give up the professionally printed letterhead contract
  • who would be much more comfortable holding the line on educational curriculum than on waiting to invest in touchless paper towel dispensers
  • who would prefer to ignore, and risk alienating, their LGBTQ members (and the straight people who love them) than to risk making even one member uncomfortable by openly addressing the possibility of becoming Open and Affirming
  • who would sooner frustrate the attempts of young leaders to try something bold and new than to seek to withstand an onslaught of recrimination from the former leaders who’ve otherwise faded into the background
  • who would rather burn bridges with the old by continually treating tradition as something to be avoided at all cost.

Surely, there’s something in there to offend most people. The point, however, is not to offend people, but to alert us to fact that congregations are generally all for personal sacrifice, but are often surprisingly skittish about the collective sacrifice of the community.

Why shouldn’t congregations have to pay too? Congregations are no less bodies than individuals.

“Well, sure, but going out on a limb might cost us our lives if the limb fails.”

Welcome to the joy and excitement of following Jesus.

“Aren’t there safer ways?”

Absolutely! It’s just that none of them have to do with living and dying like that crazy Galilean.

“How much for a spoonful?”

Full price.


  1. I’m all for “giving” and “feeling good,” just not for distilling important theological concepts and experiences into bumper-stickers.  ↩


(Just finished up with the content editing portion of the book, so this is the last one from the archives.  Back to full production next week.) 

Fighting the Last War: Churches with Bad Habits

By Derek Penwell

“We’re looking for a minister who can preach and teach. We’d like the successful candidate to be able to keep people from falling asleep during the sermon. We feel like we need good preaching because we want our people to grow; so, being able to challenge us intellectually and spiritually is a must.”


“We’re looking for a pastor who will pay attention to us, who’ll spend time in the hospitals and nursing homes. The successful candidate will be a nurturing presence committed to loving all of our people during the difficult times, as well as the good times.”


“We’re looking for a someone who knows how to manage a large staff, who knows how to lead and offer vision. The successful candidate will be creative, but more importantly will know how to follow through, get things done.”

If you want to know what a congregation thought its previous minister lacked, sit in a pastoral search committee meeting. Like generals, churches always seem to be preparing to fight the last war.

a. We won the last war.

b. Our massive navy presence determined the outcome.

c. The key to winning wars is a big navy.

It happens.

They may not come right out and say it, but churches often attempt to compensate for, what they perceive to be, the inadequacies of their former pastor by emphasizing those needs in their search for a new one.[1] But this phenomenon is not limited to pastoral searches.[2]

Congregational planning often bogs down in seeking either to avoid or to recapture the past.

How many churches still think that getting the right worship style is the key to a vibrant congregation?


How many churches think that their problems would be solved by getting a young minister–one who looks like a thirty year-old, but with the vocational experience of a fifty year-old?


How many churches think that if they could find the right VBS material, and some committed volunteers, they could have 100 kids roaming the grounds–just like they did back in 1986?


How many churches think that there’s an elusive evangelism (or stewardship) program (or workshop) that, if they could just get their hands on, would ensure that people and money would come flooding in?

But, let’s be honest, those are easy ones, aren’t they? Low hanging fruit. There are tougher situations to identify–ones that are often transparent to us while we’re in the middle of them.

You can usually tell you’re witnessing a church fighting the last war when you hear some variation of the following:

“Well, we could do that … but we did that once, and it didn’t work.”

That, of course, can be just about anything. In fact, anything that takes your eyes off where the church is headed for for too long is a distraction.

Look, I have a degree in history, so I’m not saying you should ignore your history; I’m just saying you shouldn’t relive it. If you want to move forward, you’d better be focused on the road ahead, and not the road you’ve already traveled.

Following Jesus takes courage … for congregations as much as for individuals.

Here are a few random thoughts:

  • If you’ve opened up your church in the past to be used as a soup kitchen and somebody trashed the bathroom, try it again.
  • If you threw over all your committees, and your problems didn’t all of a sudden disappear, give it some time, stay strong in the face of criticism and uncertainty.
  • If your congregation had a battle over whether or not to become Open and Affirming that caused people to leave the church, that doesn’t mean you can’t ever have that conversation again.
  • If you’re a minister and you got fired in the past for what you believe, don’t become somebody you don’t recognize just to get (or keep) another job.

Cum hoc ergo propter hoc

Congregations, like human beings, often commit the logical fallacy of mistaking correlation for causation (cum hoc ergo propter hoc). It’s a simple parlor game, really. Anyone can do it.

a. Mainline churches have experienced declining membership.

b. Mainline churches tend to be more liberal.

c. Therefore, liberal theology has caused a decline in membership.

It’s fun! Try it!

a. We used to have a huge Sunday School.

b. We used to have a Sunday School superintendent.

c. If we tried having a Sunday School superintendent again, we would increase Sunday School attendance.

See how easy that is?

Choose a past success or failure, plug in a variable (any one will do), and shake vigorously! You can reach just about any conclusion you want!

The problem is … the answers you come up with may or may not have anything to do with the variables you use.

“So what do we do, smart guy, since you seem to have all the answers?”

I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure there are any easy answer in this case.

I think, though, that the place to start is right here and right now.

  • Make sure the problem you’re solving isn’t the one that kept you up at night 5, 10, 15 years ago.
  • Don’t be afraid to try something you failed at before.
  • Don’t be afraid to abandon something that was successful in the past.
  • Be sure the variables you plug into your decision-making formula are the right ones, and not the most convenient ones.

It’s not easy. It’s never easy.


  1. I realize that once in a while, congregations are so thoroughly pleased with their former pastor that they go looking for the former pastor’s long lost twin, but, I would submit, that is exceedingly rare.  ↩
  2. Indeed, it’s not limited to churches; pastors also carry with them the hurts and joys of previous experiences. It’s no more fair for pastors to treat new situations as simple retreads of the old than it is for congregations to do so.  ↩

Doing the Reassurance Dance

By Derek Penwell

The Reassurance Dance

Debbie, who comes into the church where I work at least three or four times a week, suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Most of the time she’s as docile and kind as she can be. Sometimes, though she gets afraid. And when she experiences fear, she lashes out. (Who doesn’t, right?)

Debbie talks freely about her life–what kinds of things are happening at her apartment complex, who’s hassling her, what kind of health problems she has. From Debbie’s perspective, there seems to be a great deal wrong with the world … wrong in ways that threaten Debbie’s world. I’m not sure what her world looks like to her, but from my vantage point, the world Debbie inhabits looks pretty scary.

I understand Debbie’s fear, given the reality she inhabits. Because that fear seems so proximate and real, whenever she goes to leave, Debbie will come to me and ask: “Father Penwell [although I’m not a priest–at least of any recognized order, except, perhaps, the parental one]: Is everything all right? Does Debbie have anything to worry about? Everything’s ok, isn’t it?”

I call this the Reassurance Dance. The reassurance dance exists as a desperate need to have someone tell us everything’s going to be all right.

Debbie’s pleading strikes me as genuine. She’s afraid of a scary world, and she’s seeking a little reassurance. That makes sense to me. I look for that kind of reassurance myself sometimes. Things get hectic at work–I’m running late on a deadline or I sense some unease over a decision, and I search for ways to reassure myself that everything’s all right, that the world isn’t falling apart.

The problem with the reassurance dance, though, is that it doesn’t work … at least in any meaningful way over the longterm.

Why not?

How do I know whether everything’s going to be ok for Debbie? I have no idea. Therein lies the problem. No matter how reassuring I sound, I can’t guarantee Debbie anything–about whether her landlord is going to kick her out, or whether the rain is going to start up and drench her in the afternoon, or whether she’ll be hassled out on the street. I rely on the law of averages, and say, “Everthing’s fine.” But the reality of the situation is–I don’t know.

Same thing with me. I feel anxious, so I check my email. I’m feeling nervous about the unknown so I somehow maneuver to be able to be in the presence of someone who will tell me I’m a good person, and that everything’s going to be ok.

Well, that sounds pretty callous. Why is caring about people’s feelings a bad thing?

Look, I’m not suggesting that seeking reassurance for oneself or offering reassurance to others is always a bad thing. Seeking affirmation in the face of uncertainty is a coping mechanism. The purpose of coping mechanisms is, of course, to help us cope. Tautology notwithstanding, sometimes we need the psychic boost that reassurance provides to make it through the day. Fine.

But, what I’m talking about is the reassurance dance, which amounts to a kind of psychic feedback loop. I feel anxious, so I seek some affirmation. I feel better for a bit–not because the nature of my situation has changed, but because I’ve distracted myself for a bit–like getting drunk when you’re girlfriend breaks up with you.

But, getting drunk when you’re sad doesn’t work very well, does it. Why not? Because you wake up and you realize that your girlfriend still thinks you’re an idiot–plus, now you have a headache that will last until sometime just prior to the Vernal Equinox.

Now, you’re depressed and hungover. And Lord knows there’s only one thing to do when you feel that bad … get out a bottle of Tequila.

You see the problem.

Life Inside the Ecclesiastical Echo Chamber

Unfortunately, the church is just as prone to the reassurance dance. How often do you hear a congregation asking, "Is everything all right? Do we have anything to worry about? Everything’s ok, isn’t it?

Usually, they don’t say it quite like that–but you know what I’m talking about. Want to know how to recognize the signs that a church is getting ready to dance the reassurance dance? Here’s the tip-off:

They start paying inordinate attention to the numbers–baptisms, transfers, pledging units, personnel budget, the ratio of incandescent/cfl bulbs, whatever.

Notice I said “inordinate attention to numbers.” You have to pay attention to numbers. It’s stupid to act like numbers don’t count. They do. Numbers provide information, and information isn’t necessarily good or bad; it’s just information.

The problem comes when you think that numbers provide all the information you need to evaluate–you name it–the effectiveness of ministry, the legitimate expression of worship, the curriculum for VBS.

"Well, that’s just hyperbole. No church makes decisions based solely on numbers."

Let’s be clear, I didn’t say decisions get made “solely” on numbers. Even extremely anxious congregations will tip their hats to concepts like faithfulness and integrity.

But let me ask you this: When was the last time you had a board meeting and everyone forgot about the treasurer’s report because you were so involved in trying to figure out the most faithful way to provide a much needed latch-key program for kids in your neighborhood?

When was the last pledge drive where the Stewardship committee said: “We need money, but you’ve always given in the past … and we trust that you’ll do so this time around. So, this year we want to devote our whole campaign drive to figuring out how we can identify and tap the gifts for ministry of everyone in the congregation?”

When was the last time the elders said, “You know, we’ve got enough members to sustain this level of ministry for awhile, why don’t we shift our focus off of membership, and put it squarely on the ministry? Why don’t we invest in doing the thing God is calling us to do and let God take care of new members?”

That’s what I thought.

Instead, congregations are almost always preoccupied by numbers. Numbers are a very human way for the church to seek reassurance that it’s successful, that it’t popular, that it means something.

Again, I’m not saying numbers don’t matter at all. What I am saying, however, is that numbers aren’t always the best way to keep score in the church.

“Is everything all right? Do we have anything to worry about? Everything’s ok, isn’t it?”

I can’t tell you because I don’t know. And besides, you wouldn’t believe me for long, even if I said yes.

Let me ask you:

  • Do you perform baptism and eucharist? .
  • Do you seek to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, hold hands with the fearful and the grieving? .
  • Do you open your doors and welcome those who are unwanted, those who’ve had to sit at the back of the bus, those who’ve been hurt by the church? .
  • Do you pray and study? .
  • Are people learning to be more like Jesus?

Because, until you can feel good about the answers to questions like this, the reassurance dance just isn’t that interesting.

Dear Church . . . Letters from Young People about Welcoming Everyone (2)

Some time back, I received from a youth worker a packet of letters written by young people at a retreat.  These letters were written to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), urging its people to open their arms to everyone, in particular LGBTIQ people.  I asked permission to publish the letters, without the identities of the authors being revealed.  I was given permission to use them in this way.

One of the emerging realities of the culture in which we live is the dawning awareness that young people—across the theological and political spectrum—overwhelmingly believe full acceptance of LGBTIQ people is self-evidently a good thing.  At the same time, young people are leaving the church in droves—a significant number of them over the issue of the exclusion of LGBTIQ folks. 

As it prepares to make big decisions at General Assembly about how it will include people at the table, it is important for the Disciples of Christ to hear the voice of its young people on this issue.  Consequently, [D]mergent will be publishing one of these letters every Sunday morning from now through the month of May.

Please take some time to listen to what our children are saying.

~Derek Penwell

Youth Letter 2.jpg

Words Have Power: On the Abdication of Authority

This article was written by George Rizor, Senior Pastor of Landover Christian Church, Landover, Maryland, and Professor of Psychology at Westwood College, Annandale, Virginia. Anyone familiar with the Freeh Report on The Pennsylvania State University?

Anyone familiar with Star Trek's Prime Directive?

Let’s be brutally honest for a moment. We’re not going to arrive at any satisfactory or definitive answer to the issues that we’re discussing when it comes to whether or not to introduce a resolution regarding the full inclusion of LGBTQ people into the life and ministry of the church, because a satisfactory, definitive answer would require revelation of an absolute.

There are still people who believe that black skin is the mark of Cain,and is God’s signal of the inferiority of black persons.

There are still people who believe in the primacy of ownership.

There are still people who believe that the American dream is about getting all you can and stepping on the next person if necessary.

There are still people who believe that marrying someone of a different race or different ethnicity is wrong, that racial purity is a desirable goal.

There will continue to be those who believe that homosexuality is an abomination and that homosexuals should be punished. In this thread, alone, we’ve heard that punishment posited as refusal to accept homosexual clergy and leadership in the local congregation.

So, the Freeh report? … ? Words have power. And leadership devoid of integrity, direction and a willingness to stand for ethics and morality, which it perceives as correct, is not leadership at all.

The Freeh Report on the Pennsylvania State University points to a culture that turns it’s head to avoid confrontation and upsetting the status quo. The result there was pedophilia. In the instance of bigotry toward gays, the result is—oh, that’s right—every thing from teen suicides to denial of basic human rights and opportunities.

The Prime Directive (i.e., “there can be no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations”) points to a higher, more mature society refusing to intervene in developing issues and cultures. What it fails to address is how strong the stench of degradation of integrity has to be before someone notices the odor.

With all due respect, or at least the respect I can muster, I am tired of calling abdication of morality leadership.

I am tired of calling equivocation over human rights and Biblical injustice leadership.

I am tired of pretending that there isn’t a disheartening familiarity between racial prejudice and homophobia, when the vast majority of Biblical scholars now suggest that homophobia cannot be Biblically justified.

I’m tired of being beaten up by those who call themselves Christian, but have elevated the Hebrew Scriptures and the Pauline epistles to levels of idolatry, while ignoring the Commands, example and teachings of Jesus, while still nominally practicing a religion that borrows his name.

I’m tired of apologetics apologizing, instead of explaining and guiding.

As I said earlier in this thread, there’s a body count in the debate over social justice issues surrounding exclusion of homosexuals from the full, open and comprehensive inclusion in our fellowship, and I’m pretty sure that a body count wouldn’t jive with the Jesus I read about in the Gospels, no matter how one contrives and convolutes to have Hebrew scripture words or Epistle words coming from Jesus’ mouth.

Good leadership may proclaim, but there should be prophetic truth embodied in that proclamation, and not so much accommodation and capitulation to societal influence and to the forces of cultural and religious dogma and tradition.

Authenticity: Goal or Sign?

Authentic is a word I have heard and have used to describe church.  However, when you look up the definition you will find the definition to be very specific.  That is, something claiming to be authentic can be proven, such as what one would see on Antiques Roadshow, "this is an authentic 17th century vase" or" first printing" of whatever favorite comic book (or graphic novel, as you may prefer).  However, we use this word for humans and human institutions such as church, and it is far from specific or able to be demarcated. So how do we know if we are moving toward authenticity as a person of faith and especially as a community of faith?  I am not positive, yet when I have experienced it I have known it, such as when viewing art--you just know.

I believe that there are at least four signs that authenticity is close, which are the following:

Passion—is there enthusiasm, excitement, and optimism about the community?

Vision—can everyone concisely name what the community has and continue to discern what they are doing for God’s culture on earth as it is in heaven?

Mission—is the love discerned coming out as action and not simply good thoughts and feelings?  Are there actual goals of the vision being completed?

Laughter & Tears—are the people in this part of the Body of Christ able to laugh and cry together?

These signs are important to the church but they are not the legalistic definition of authenticity.  Probably the greatest sign you are on the right direction is if you are not worried about being authentic.

I remember during college going to the co-op coffee shop with two other great friends.  We would drink coffee and tea and read and write (paper and pen), two to three times a week.  We had no idea we were observed by anyone else, but one night a young person came up to our table and said something about us being cool, just being there visiting with friends and studying and discussing the topic of the evening.  We were shocked at this individual’s need to say something, yet we were not quite sure if it was sarcasm or truly a compliment. That night we spent about a second discerning why this person shared with us and left quickly.

That story reminds me that authenticity is not determined by those outside, and that coffee house table of comrades was truly being authentic and did not let an outside observation, be it positive or negative, affect our behavior.

To know if we are being authentic, we cannot make that a goal--it is truly a sign of a healthy community or person of faith.

Is authenticity the goal, or the sign we are following the Divine?

Father's Day Dreams of Dance

I have so many dreams for my son: theologian and New Testament scholar are on the list as well as swimmer and ballet dancer.  The first two are because that’s the family business, since my wife and I are both ministers.  The swimmer is because he loves the water and he has flippers for feet.  The dancer is because he loves music and loves to dance, and spends hours in front of his reflection trying to get the choreography (sometimes his own) just right.  To be completely honest, I am also a very big fan of the ballet, not that I ever was a dancer, but I like to dance.

I was pondering these dreams for my son as I rode my motorcycle to a clergy gathering, and then pondered how the ballet dancer has something to say about the role of clergy.  As an ordained minister I am constantly reading and discussing the Bible and theology-- it is my vocation, just as a dancer lives and breathes dance.  Good dancers train and have great discipline, as do good clergy.

I want to be clear that the art form of ballet is not the same mission as the church.  It is quite different, yet the art of dance is something we all should do in some form.  We do have professionals that give their whole life for the performances.  Many of are influenced by music and great themes within humanity, and some even by the Bible.  To this day, my favorite interpretation of Luke 15:11-32, “The Forgiving Father” was created by George Balanchine with the music by Sergei Prokofiev and titled the “The Prodigal Son.”

As a fan that is moved by such powerful performances by the dancers and choreographers, I am influenced to dance in my own life as well, to read body language and to move to the music, all of which is important to life.  I would be so proud if my son became a ballet dancer.

Without these professional artists we would not have the great performances that remind us of the great beauty of the human body and music.  That is one role of the clergy.  We are to demonstrate the beauty of the divine--but I do not simply mean during worship, as if it is a performance.  While I am pretty proud of my latest sermon and worship service, my greatest work last week was being with a woman who died with her family and friends surrounding her.

I was present and demonstrated love of God, mainly with the help of the Spirit, but my words and stance help me open to the Spirit: it is a dance. I must admit these pastoral moments are very emotional and very difficult, and the more I experience and even practice for such events the more graceful I become.

I think of the dancer’s pointe shoes.  The first time, she (or he, but usually a woman) wears pointe shoes, the pain is probably the only thing she feels.  Slowly it becomes part of them and they are able to dance and experience the grace and movement greater than the pain.

As ministers (laity and ordained) we are called to demonstrate the Grace of God despite the pain of life and death. I can picture the “Father” God of Luke 15 dancing to his son, the same God at the table where everyone is invited. Our ministry must be on pointe, that we need to show grace and affirmation to everyone, which includes the LGBTIQ community, for the church has caused much pain, stayed silent to many deaths.  We need to move beyond casually observing to actively participating in the dance, and to participate means to include everyone.   It may be painful for the clergy to say this (we may be afraid of losing membership, financial contributions, or other fears) but we must lead the church to the Grace of the Table, now.

My dream is to see my son dance.

Church with No Forwarding Address

I have been called by Bellevue Christian Church to be their pastor and planter.  The latter is of course very new territory that has no physical address, and at this time, the possibilities are endless, making vision the first goal.  However, I am writing not about the plant but about the exciting existing congregation: Bellevue Christian Church.  I met this congregation in person a month after they sold their wonderful physical facilities. The building was too big and too expensive to maintain for this “graying” congregation.  The decision must have been difficult and gut-wrenching, but these heroes did just that.  This group of Christians did the unthinkable--they sold the building. Σπλαγχνίζομαι (Splanchnizomai) is the word that comes to my mind when I think of Bellevue Christian Church.  The root of this word it splangchna, “pity” or more literally “bowels.”  Specifically, it was used to refer to the organs removed in a blood sacrifice prior to the Christian context, when it started being used to refer to being moved to compassion from the gut.[i]  As I wrote above this decision was gut-wrenching, and their decision was based on self-care.

Splanchnizomai is the word Jesus uses for the hungry crowds (Matthew 15:32; Mark 8:2).  It is wonderful that Jesus refers to this feeling of pity coming up through his “guts.”  Thus it should be also when the Body of Christ (Church) should also feel and act.  To truly understand compassion it is important that the empathy is from the gut.  Even when you are part of the crowd and the Body of Christ, even when it’s about your local congregation, you need to search your gut for the way.

Bellevue acted on this compassion, and left their building.  They have funded some great things with the sale, but what is important is this congregation still exists.  They are currently visiting a local UCC congregation for Sunday morning worship, which may or may not be a new home, and may or may not be 50% more people to the congregation.

It may have felt like, and still is, a sacrifice for some of the members. It is also self-care.  They could have kept the church in the building, renting it out more, developing programs that would attract a family or two.  However, in their collective gut they knew what was compassionate.  And just as Jesus was moved to feed the thousands with limited resources, they opened up many resources for scholarships, multiple plants, regional ministries, and their own authenticity.

Their own authenticity is going to be their greatest gift to themselves, as well as part of their new vision.   Instead of worrying about the building or growing, we will be worrying about our spiritual practices, about each other, and we will grow.  However, I don’t know where.

When Prayer Is Not Enough

This post by Joel Engman originally appeared at Yesterday I watched a few news organizations cover the story of president Obama coming out in favor of Gay Marriage. One story I was watching shared a quote from President Obama’s book:

He says in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope that “It is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided…and that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history.”

In m own career as a pastor I have seen the denomination I serve (the CCDOC) and the church I serve decide to ‘prayerfully discern’ their stance on this and other issues that have the potential to divide. While I support prayerful discernment wholeheartedly I wonder at what point ‘prayerful discernment’ becomes a cop-out for doing the right thing in a difficult situation.

When is prayer no longer enough?

A colleague and friend of mine has recently been interviewing for church positions and was asked what I think may be the best church interview question I have ever heard: ‘Using the image of Jesus in the temple, what would you be willing to turn over the table in the temple for?’

Jesus certainly was a model for ‘prayerful discernment’ but He was also a model of action in difficult circumstances. Jesus certainly took time to pray as a first reaction to difficult circumstances, but prayer was not his only tool. He taught, spoke up, had compassion, lived alongside, and expanded the kingdom in His every action and word.

I hope that more often than not I speak up even when its hard. I hope that while I prayerfully discern I also remember that Jesus was ‘action.’ From that prayerful center comes a burning desire to follow the heart of Christ into battle for the least of these among us, for the right/ethical thing, for the compassionate thing and for what brings healing to our broken world.

My answer to that question:

Treating people with respect, not using power to manipulate and control, having high ethical standards in working with people’s money, time, secrets, and passions, standing with those who have no voice, caring for the ones among us who need a voice, and making sure that message is passed onto the next generation are the things I would be willing to turn over the tables for. I hope in doing so I will be on the right side of history when I look back.

Love Always Wins.

Obama's Announcement and What It Means for "Liberal" Christians

This is something that, you know, we’ve talked about over the years and she, you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do. And that is that, in the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others.


But, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.

~Pres. Barack Obama

That President Obama’s announcement of his support of marriage equality for LGBTQI people was met with consternation by many in popular Christianity shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. That his “brand” of Christianity fails to be persuasive to a portion of the Christian world should surprise no one either. It is common to dismiss anyone who supports hospitality to those created LGBTQI by God as deluded (at best) and evil (at worst).

What I continue to find troubling, though, is the extent to which people who oppose marriage equality maintain that any support of it by those who call themselves Christian is some kind of hermeneutical dodge. The working assumption seems to be that if you fail to employ some form of traditionally conservative interpretive schema, you can’t reasonably expect to call yourself Christian. Because everybody knows that “liberals” don’t actually believe anything important about God or the Bible or following Jesus; they’re just trying to baptize their godless agenda and impose it upon the unsuspecting majority of real Christians.1 What many people apparently find too difficult to fathom, however, is that some people—among whom I take President Obama to be one—hold these “liberal” positions not in spite of but because of their commitment to following Jesus.

On a “liberal” reading of scripture, “loving one’s neighbor” isn’t a frothy placeholder for moral action nobody cares much more about than to feel it deeply in the heart; it is the very thing of which moral action is an embodiment. Put more simply, to progressive Christians “love” isn’t so much something you “feel” about God or another person, but a way of life that seeks to demonstrate its own authenticity by seeking justice and peace for those kicked to the margins by the powerful—which is to say, by seeking to love those whom God loves, but for whom love in this world is often illusory.

The greater (and more damning) criticism of “liberal” Christians is not that they don’t believe the Bible, but that they don’t live up to their claims about “justice” and “peace.” This is a real danger in progressive Christianity. Talking about justice and peace, without actually going to the trouble to see it realized rightfully leads to charges of hypocrisy—that is, failing to walk the walk.

In President Obama’s case, however, the criticism has for some time been reversed: His words about justice and peace for LGBTQI people weren’t matched by his deeds (e.g., refusing to uphold DOMA, doing away with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc.). His failure, according to his critics, was in not being willing to “talk the talk.” In other words, people from both ends of the spectrum were inveighing against him for failing to say in words what he was already doing in practice—a perhaps rarer, but no less damning criticism.

Since I don’t hear the you’ve-also-got-to-talk-the-talk line of argument very often, it got me to thinking about denominational officials, who privately will offer reassurances that they are in support of affirming the full inclusion of LGBTQI folk in the life of the church, but who publicly find it difficult to articulate that support. I understand why taking a stand publicly in support of a controversial issue presents all manner of political land mines, and it makes a certain amount of sense when politicians hesitate to do it. Even religious officials must weigh the political costs of taking, what we religious types call, a “prophetic stance.” But whereas in the case of our political leaders (to our shame, I would argue) we tend to expect political calculations to trump the integrity of personal convictions, one would hope that we haven’t yet reached that level of cynicism about our religious leaders.

Is it to be the case once again that the church can’t quite get its theology straight until the culture shows it the way? Because, let’s not fool ourselves, inclusion is the way things are inexorably headed.

The upshot of it all? If David Kinnaman is right, as Rachel Held Evans deftly points out, what our continued silence risks is the better part of a whole generation coming to the conclusion that they can find better ways to spend their time because they believe the church and its leadership to be “anti-homosexual”. And while I realize that speaking openly about support for our LGBTQI brothers and sisters carries its own risks, I think—like President Obama, it would appear—that silence is a risk no longer worth taking the.

  1. I know that description may sound like an exaggeration of a seriously held position, dear reader, but in my own defense, you haven’t read the kind of correspondence I receive. I do know that there are serious people who disagree with me about the issue of biblical interpretation, but they don’t seem to have maintained good relations with the gatekeepers of the interwebz—since their voices are routinely drowned out by that seemingly professional class of the perpetually aggrieved. ↩

Why Can't We Say Our Denomination Is O&A?

Another Conversation

Pastor (First Church, Anywhere, USA): Hey Derek! Good to see you. Listen, I want to tell you that I’ve read some of your stuff about churches becoming Open and Affirming.[1]

Me: Yeah, I seem to be having those conversations quite a bit lately.[2]

Pastor: I also see that you think our denomination [Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)] should declare itself O&A.

Me: Yes, I do.

Pastor: That’s not going to work.

Me: Really? Why is that?

Pastor: Congregational autonomy. Churches can do and believe just about anything they want. So, to say that our denomination is O&A is basically a lie, because we have a significant majority of churches that aren’t.

Me: So, just so I get this right: Are you saying that we should never make claims about ourselves as a denomination that can’t be demonstrably supported in the life of all congregations?

Pastor: Not all of the congregations. If that were true, you could never say anything.

Me: True enough. Then, how many of the congregations need to be on board before you’re comfortable making claims about our denominational identity?

Pastor: I don’t know that we should put a number on it—but at least a majority.

Me: Do you think that should apply to our denominational Statement of Identity?

Pastor: What do you mean?

Me: “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us.” Should we be able to say that about ourselves if we don’t always live up to it? Should we wait to say that about ourselves until we can be reasonably certain that it’s true for Disciples and Disciples congregations … at least a majority of the time? At what point, and based on what polling data were we convinced that it was theologically acceptable to allow women to become ministers? Even though it’s fairly clear that in practice, at least based on the hiring practices of a majority of Disciples congregations, as a denomination we don’t believe in women ministers.

Pastor: But, here’s where you’re missing the point: The Statement of Identity is not necessarily supposed to be a descriptive statement. That is to say, we don’t slap that up on our web site, claiming that this is true of all Disciples all of the time. We put it up there to show us who, according to our best lights, we ought to be.

Me: Ok. So, here’s my question: How is voting to say that Disciples are Open and Affirming any more a lie because it doesn’t represent all congregations than saying that “Disciples are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world?” Neither are true of all Disciples everywhere. Isn’t that false advertising?

Pastor: No. It’s an ideal, not an empirically verifiable statement of fact.

Me: But voting to declare ourselves O&A as a denomination should be?

Pastor: It’s not the same thing. We don’t want to mislead LGBTQ people by telling them that we’re O&A and have them come and find out we’re not.

Me: I understand that—and I think it’s a legitimate concern. But the church always has to deal with the issue of hypocrisy—saying one thing, but doing another. What happens if a person who’s been hurt by the church before wanders onto the denominational web site and sees this Statement of Identity and thinks, “At last, I’ve found a denomination where I can be safe. They heal people here; they don’t break them?” Then that person goes to a series of Disciples churches and finds out that in practice we aren’t always “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” Don’t we risk alienating people by representing ourselves this way, when sooner or later they will find out it’s not always true of us?

Pastor: All right, but at least we can all agree in general as a denomination that we should be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world”—whether or not we always live up to it. We don’t all agree in general as a denomination that we should be “Open and Affirming.”

Me: But isn’t that what the second part of the Statement of Identity says? “As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us.”

Pastor: “Welcoming” people to the table isn’t the same as “affirming” someone’s sexual orientation.

Me: I’m not so sure about that.

Pastor: You know what I mean.

Me: I think I know what people who disagree with me about this issue mean when they say it. But how does the average person reading our Statement of Identity know that?

That’s the point: If you say that we can’t honestly claim to be an O&A denomination because it’s not true of enough congregations, then you’ve seriously limited what we can say about ourselves as a denomination—since, we’re never in full agreement about much of anything. Moreover, we don’t have any metric in place by which we can measure when we’ve reached consensus—apart from “Sense of the Assembly Resolutions,” which is what many have said we cannot put forward on this issue because there’s not enough evidence to establish its veracity—a veritable ecclesiastical extravaganza of question-begging.

Additionally, if you say that we can’t claim to be an O&A denomination because it might mislead people by luring them into the church under the false pretense that we affirm their sexual orientation or gender identity—which they may soon find out isn’t necessarily true and by which deception they might be hurt—then we’re always in danger of false advertising and potentially harming people any time we hold out the vision of who we think God wants us to be … since we so regularly fail to live up to it.

“You are master of the straw man argument. You use this ‘conversation’ device to trot out easy arguments so you can knock them down.”

Fair enough. If the past is any indication, I’m sure I’ll get all kinds of email pointing out my failings as a logician, a theologian, and a human being.

But my point in all of this isn’t just to be right; it’s to struggle toward the truth. And the truth is that “We can’t say we’re O&A when we’re not” doesn’t settle the matter. It risks confusing different kinds of discourse. A Statement of Identity is at least as exhortative as it is declarative.

The question that our denomination will continue to contend with is the extent to which we can claim to be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” that welcomes “all to the Lord’s table,” when in practice we defend a brokenness that excludes people from that table.


  1. Open and Affirming (hereinafter: O&A) is a designation that speaks to the decision of a congregation or organization to declare itself publicly to be not only welcoming to LGBTQ people, but embracing of them as people created by God with equal standing in the church.  ↩
  2. As always when I write about this issue, I realize that not everyone agrees with me on the proposition that LGBTQ people are fine just the way they are—at least as far as their sexual orientation or gender identity. If that describes you, this post isn’t addressed to you and will just make you mad. I’m writing to people who already agree with me on the basic issue, but who (for whatever reason—and there are many) don’t think pressing ahead on the question of O&A is a good idea.  ↩

Welcoming Gay People: Why It’s a Conversation You Need to Have (Redux)

The Conversation (Part 2)

Pastor of Christ’s Church, Anywhere, USA: "Hey, Derek! How'€™s it going? I'€™ve seen what you guys are doing at your church. I want you to know how much I appreciate the work y'€™all are doing with the LGBT community. The church needs to wake up on this issue."

Me: "€œThanks. I really appreciate that."

Pastor: "€œYeah. It's good stuff. Of course, in the church I'€™m in we aren'€™t there yet . . . €“I mean, "€˜Open and Affirming.'"€

Me: "Why's that?"

Pastor: "Well, I don’t think it’s the right time for us. Unfortunately, having that conversation now is liable to call down a firestorm."

Me: “I guess it could.”

Pastor: “Look, I’m with you on where the church needs to be on this issue. If it were up to me, we’d already be Open and Affirming. The problem, though, is I’ve got two constituencies I’m responsible for.”

Me: “Which two constituencies would those be?”

Pastor: “Aw, come on, you know … the liberals and the conservatives.”

Me: “What do you take being ‘responsible’ for them both to mean?”

Pastor: “As a pastor, I can’t be seen to be too partisan on this issue.”

Me: “I’m not quite sure ‘partisan’ is the word I would have chosen. I guess I would’ve preferred ‘prophetic,’ but I think I know what you mean.”

Pastor: “Ok. I see the dig. But the truth of the matter is that I have to take the whole congregation into consideration ... not just those folks who agree with me.”

Me: “Sorry about the sarcasm. Look, I understand, but if you’ll forgive me, taking them ‘into consideration’ sounds less like pastoral responsibility and more like conflict avoidance.”

Pastor: “Maybe so, but I don’t want to be the person who caused the split I fear would be inevitable.”

Me: “I know it’s tough. But there’s another constituency you haven’t named that also has a stake in this.”

Pastor: “Who’s that?”

Me: “All those people interested in finding Jesus, but who won’t ever walk through the doors of a church that talks about justice and equality, but then offers a long list of qualifications about who can receive it, and who’s not eligible for one reason or another—starting with LGBTQ people.”

Pastor: "€œLike I said. We'€™re really not there yet. Maybe one of these days."€

Me: "Yeah, maybe one of these days."

The Post-mortem on the Conversation

You will perhaps, dear reader, recognize the format from a previous article. It seems to me, though, that this a good way to begin an analysis of that conversation.

I can'€™t tell you how many times I have had that conversation. These are pastors who, on an individual level, believe that LGBTQ people ought to be welcomed into the life of the church without any qualification of the kinds of ministry or service in which they might engage. That is to say, these pastors are sympathetic to the idea of Open and Affirming as a move the church needs to make … some day down the road. They'€™re "€œjust not there yet." If "€œwe'€™re just not there yet"€ describes your congregation, this post is for you.[1]

Let me preface what I'€™m about to say with a nod toward the difficulty of negotiating the pastoral waters. All churches are different, but they share enough in common that I know what I’m about to say is a difficult word to hear. Pastors have to take into consideration a number of factors, not least of which is their livelihoods. As someone who very nearly lost his first job out of seminary over this very issue, and who had to leave another job over some principles on which I thought it necessary to take a stand, I'€™m well aware of the treacherous waters in which pastors swim.

Having offered that disclaimer, let me once again jump in with both feet.

"I have to take the whole congregation into consideration ... €”not just those folks who agree with me."

On a theoretical level, I think I know what this means. Talking about taking the whole congregation into consideration, it is believed, is an attempt at fairness—€”sort of like the conversation every parent of multiple children eventually has:

“Dad, who’s your favorite? Am I your favorite?”

“I’m a parent. You’re all my favorites.”

Whether or not it’s possible for parents to avoid having favorites, the analogy falls apart when it comes to one very crucial issue: This issue isn’t about liking one group of parishioners more than another—or even the appearance of liking one group more than another. This is an issue about faithfulness to what you understand to be the direction of God’s reign in this world, and your responsibility to point toward it.

“Meaning what, exactly? That sounds an awful lot like stacking the rhetorical deck in your favor.”

Ah, yes. Ok. Let me come at it a different way. If one of my children were to begin living in a way my wife and I were convinced was destructive, would the fact that another of my children pointed it out mean that I should ignore the destructive behavior—€”just so it didn’t appear as though I favored one child over the other? Isn’t there a sense in which keeping silent so as to avoid sibling rivalry ceases to be loving and becomes enabling? That is to say, isn’t speaking truthfully a prerequisite to true love even being a possibility?

“But that’s exceptionally patronizing, don’t you think? It sounds like you’re the parent and your parishioners are the children—that you have all the answers, and that they can only hope to grow up spiritually with the benefit of your wise guidance.”

Point taken. However, I’m not sure it shakes out quite so easily as that. For one thing, pastors get paid to speak the truth … they don’t get paid to keep the peace, if by peace one means the maintenance of a theological DMZ. True peace, as I’ve stated before, is only possible where speaking the truth in love is a higher priority than preserving some mutually beneficial cease-fire.

Second, as a pastor, while I must retain a certain amount of humility about my capacity to have all the right answers, that doesn’t mean that I should just shut up until we stumble across an issue upon which everybody already agrees. If the primary virtue of pastoral ministry centers on articulating non-controversial platitudes, there’s really no need for pastors; all that’s necessary is a “well-lubricated weather vane.”

Being prophetic, though it can function as an altogether too difficult to decline invitation to self-righteousness, is part of the job. I’m not saying it’s easy; I’m just saying it’s necessary.

“Once again. All that’s easy for you to say. You don’t face the same kind of pressures I face.”

Perhaps not. I suspect I do work in a different environment than many pastors. But please don’t be tempted to think that I operate in some blissful pastoral idyll. I still have to figure out which vocational hills are worth dying on—just like everybody else.

“What about this third constituency you were talking about?”

Right. Conversations on whether or not a church should officially take on the identity, “Open and Affirming,” often seem to assume that only two groups have much interest in the fight—€”liberals and conservatives. Whatever decision you come to is guaranteed to make one side or another mad.

As a result, what savvy pastors do is the utilitarian calculation about maximizing pleasure (in this case pleasure can be defined as the absence of pain). Making decisions based on what will anger the fewest number of people seems to keep the waters calmer. Unfortunately, one group that gets left out of the calculation are those people who might be interested in church, but who are scared away because of the perceived hostility to LGBTQ people.

“Why is that?”

For whatever reason, it’s harder to take into consideration people who aren’t seated around the decision-making table. From the church’s standpoint, it’s difficult to consider the impact of decision-making that excludes people who don’t come anyway. You can’t lose what you don’t have, right?

I want to suggest, though, that this failure to factor into decision-making people who love the idea of Jesus—whom they understand to offer an expansive welcome to everyone, but whose followers often cultivate the perception that purity ranks infinitely higher on the list of priorities than hospitality—is one of the reasons young people are staying away from the church … in droves.

According to research done a few years back by the Barna Group, an evangelical research firm, 91% of non-Christians age 16–29 believe that “anti-homosexual” is the term that best describes the church. Among church-going young people of the same age group, the number is only slightly better at 80%.

“Well, of course. The church has traditionally taken a position opposing homosexuality. So, that number may just be describing what everyone already considers the church’s historic position on the issue, not the church’s attitude toward gay people.”

That might be an important objection, except that the Barna Group probed the perception and found that “non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians.” The very group churches say they want to attract—declining mainline denominations in particular—have already formed strong opinions about the church’s moral authority. That’s increasingly problematic.


According to Gallup, the truth of the matter is that “there is a gradual cultural shift under way in Americans’ views toward gay individuals and gay rights.” That shift is toward acceptance. Gallup indicates that “this year [2010], the shift is apparent in a record-high level of the public seeing gay and lesbian relations as morally acceptable.”

And the younger you are, the more likely it is that you believe that “gay and lesbian relations” are “morally acceptable.”

“So, are you saying that the church should just follow the culture?”

No. I’m saying that if you already believe in the acceptance and celebration of folks who are LGBTQ, but resist taking a public position on the issue for fear of alienating people, you need to realize that you’re alienating more and more people every day by not taking that stance. As I said before, if you think the whole LGBTQ issue is wrong tout court, you probably stopped reading a long time ago—since my reflections are aimed at that already-convinced-but-not-ready-to-go-public segment of the church.

“Then, you’re saying that the church should make theological decisions based on pragmatic considerations about church growth.”

Again, no. If you’ve already made the theological determination that LGBTQ people deserve to be received with hospitality in the church but haven’t made the decision to go public, all I’m saying is that refraining from taking a public position on the issue for fear that people will be alienated if you have the discussion, fails to take into account the fact that you’re already alienating another group of people by not having the discussion.

Why not be just as afraid of losing people who aren’t part of the church yet as of the people who might decide to leave? At least in the case of the latter, chances are extremely high that people who leave because you’ve decided to make this decision publicly will find a new church home. In the case of the former, however, chances are they’ll never find a church home.

It’s not easy.

Once again, I'€™ll stipulate that it'€™s difficult. It'€™s hard, potentially-lose-your-job-and-your-friends kind of hard. I know.

But you'€™re a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ; hard is what you do ... €“or, at least, it'€™s what he did.

I didn'€™t make the map; I'm just telling you where I think it leads.

  1. If, however, you happen to be someone who is not convinced that LGBTQ folks should be welcomed into the life of the church, you probably ought to stop now, and go find another article to read, because the rest of this post is only going to irritate you. I don'€™t mean go away for ever, just for the rest of this post.

Tickets Please?

AJ, my three-year-old son, and I went to the museum in Fort Worth recently, because his mom (my wife) was out of town.  We got to the entrance and purchased our tickets and I asked about the children’s section.  The woman helping me probably assumed AJ was older as per his height and certainly did not know about his autism.  I politely listened to her talk about an exhibit that I knew was beyond AJ’s attention and comprehension.  So we went onto to the children’s section, and to my disappointment most of the items were too complicated for his interest, but he seemed happy to be among the energy of the children.  He does not interact with other children but he does enjoy the energy.  We then went to the water area, and if you know anything about AJ, water is as exciting as letters and numbers.  AJ ran around in circles and got soaked.  AJ was ecstatic and so was I.

After I got him into the dry clothes I decided to go by the exhibit that was recommended.  I bet we were the quickest through as it was all much too complicated for this tall non-communicative three-year-old.  So we went on to the store where AJ was again happy to be among the energy of a crowd.

I share this story because I have read many discussions about what the church should or will look like in the future.  I believe it is an important conversation--a conversation that has occurred since Paul.  We all know there is no formula for church success, and if one thing works for a specific community, it will not necessarily transfer to another, even if the communities look similar.  I am sure most reading this are saying that I am stating the obvious--I am because I keep running into people who write or talk about church as if they were the ticket sales person at the museum.  The generalizations and assumptions seep in even to the best intentions.

I must admit for a moment out in the water area, I felt awkward because AJ did not play with any of the water things properly.  I then noticed his smile and heard his squeals of joy as he splashed in the water.  Those moments are wonderful, such are the moments when he writes letters and words, and recites the alphabet.  These are not normal for his age, but it is what we utilize with his teachers and specialists to encourage better communication.  We go through a lot of hard work to truly share these happy moments with him, for he now lets us into his enjoyment and we have great hope.

As church, we need to do the hard work of discernment and research for each community, new and old.  We need to encourage each community to work for its own vision, finding its joy, its specialties, and work as a community to discover God’s vision for each community.  It is hard work, especially because it is too easy to see programs working at other congregations, especially in churches that look similar, or too easy to depend only on leadership, be it pastor, board, or just the key active lay leaders, to “sell” the vision to the congregation.  New church plants are clearly individual and unique, but humans often look to others for ideas, and that is fine for established and new church starts, if you are honest about your community’s vision from God.  What are your community’s unique gifts and joy?  The answers will lead the church toward the work needed for discernment, and it will be fun.

It will be hard and unique work and the result is a vision that truly calls out of the normal, secular, world, and the Body of Christ will run around influencing the world, for we will be following the “happiness” that surpasses all understanding.

Pacifying the Inevitable Resurrection

Change is inevitable, or so it has been said.  There are many types of changes, and preparation for change is also inevitable.  The classic metaphor of preparation of change is the nursery for one’s first child.  As we prepared our son’s first room, we researched what we may expect and need.  Once A.J. moved into his nursery we were prepared for the change, or as prepared as any parents could be for such a huge change. Parenting has many changes, and some are easier than others, and sometimes there are changes that you do not expect.  I recall Mindi, my wife, did not want to use a pacifier, however on the second day of A.J.’s life I was sent out to find what will become known as his “binky.”  The first two years A.J. seemed to always have his binky.

We discussed different methods of getting him parted from his binky.  Originally it was based around reasoning with him, such as giving all his binkies to a younger baby who needed them or perhaps a little trickery that included the “binky fairy.”  However, A.J. to this day still does not communicate (part of his autism) on the level one would need for either of those plans to have a chance to work.  We got him into a Headstart program starting shortly after he turned three, and while we had at least weaned him to only have the binky when he slept or napped, he would not be allowed to have one for nap time at the center.  He would rarely fall asleep without the pacifier in place.

We dreaded taking the binky from him, but if we wanted him to nap at Headstart he was going to have to learn to sleep without it. Not to mention we knew he was sometimes going to “nap” just to have the binky time, but not sleep.  We considered just not giving it to him, cold turkey, but how could we explain why since he does not communicate?  My wife found a great idea-- she was going to cut off the nub and hand him the binky and say it was broken.  So that was the plan.  We kept putting it off, for we liked him sleeping at night and an occasional nap.  We were terrified and convinced he would not sleep well, and thus keep us up.  Since we felt we knew what this change would entail, we even picked a week where it seemed less of a burden.

So we even threw out all binkies, save the one Mindi cut the bulb off, no turning back.  She handed him the broken binky at bed time as she usually would, saying, “Mama broke it.”  He looked at it and laughed and laughed.  He held it and fell asleep almost as quickly as normal.  The next night he laughed as well.  By the end of the week he wasn’t even looking for the binky.

We delayed this process for fear of what we knew certainly would happen.  Honestly, we can often predict our son’s behavior, and it is smart to be prepared, hence the diaper bag filled not only with pull-ups, but snacks, books, straws, crayons, coloring pages, and of course wipes for any sort of mess.

During the Transfiguration, Peter came up the mountain saw the great event and assumed making booths to contain and hold this event was the answer.  This assumption came out of fear, as it says in the scripture, and I believe this not only refers to this specific moment on the mountain, but the inevitable resurrection.  Jesus even tells them to hold onto this sign and God’s command to listen to Him, after He had been raised from the dead.

We know what Peter witnessed, that the tomb was empty and the change was not the change we were terrified of—death—it was resurrection.  To contain the church of the good ol’ days, to believe we know the Bible, to worry about change we are terrified of actually doing, having programs without vision--this is how we try to put Jesus in a booth.  We need to share the empty tomb, the great change, the laughter over death, the Resurrection!!!

SHHH God, You Are Bothering Me

This article, by Rev. Maggie Sebastian, first appeared on revmother.
I hate when that happens.  When I get all self-righteous and decide how I'm going to think or believe about something, and God sticks God's nose into my business.  Such a nuisance. Shhh God, I just got this figured out.

Here's the background:  After some "should I or shouldn't I" this morning, I decided to attend church once again at First Christian Church, Portland, OR.   I wanted to stay home under the covers in this grey place I've moved to.  I thought about visiting the Metropolitan Community Church again, having had an amazing worship experience there last week.  I finally talked myself into attending FCC again. It IS the first Sunday of Advent after all.

FCC Portland is a beautiful, modernized old church in the heart of downtown.  It is space to be envied. People have been friendly and welcoming the few times I have visited, but . . .  I don't know.  I am struggling with what I think the church should look like, sound like, be like these days.  FCC is very traditional in many ways.  Is this where I am supposed to be?  What does church mean?

And then there's the whole Occupy Portland thing.

I have not been "on the ground" much at Occupy, but my husband is a member of the Occupy's  Interfaith Chaplain Guild.  I believe that this movement is just beginning.  I believe in the basic premise that there is an unjust distribution of wealth that needs to be corrected. I believe that we are in the midst of cataclysmic change and none of us know what the end product will be. A few congregations have been openly supportive of  Occupy PDX - FCC not being one of them.  I admit that I've been disappointed by this; however, I've been no more personally involved with the church than I have been Occupy, so who am I to criticize or push?

With all that as background on how God stuck God's nose in my business this morning, let me try to find the point.  I arrived at church just in time as is my pattern and sought out a seat by myself.  Very quickly an elder of the church and leader of the denomination greeted me and asked to be my pew buddy.  Nice.  I like pew buddies and particularly this man.  As we rose to sing the first hymn for the hanging of the greens, he leaned in to point out "the gentleman in the bright tie" walking into the sanctuary- the chief of police for the city of Portland.  My elder companion expressed his compassion for this member of the congregation who had had a rough few weeks.  I could see the Chief's stress on his face.  Crap. Shhh God. You are SO bothering me right now.

For the rest of the service, God and I argued.  Mainly I listened, and God pointed out the obvious.  We are the One Body of Christ.  One.  That means the 1%, the 99%, and those caught between rocks and hard places. We are all the One Body.  Vilifying the man sitting behind me was not productive nor was it remotely in keeping with the Gospel message.  The Chief had come to worship the Christ he loves just as I had.  And in good Disciple tradition, we don't have to agree on our beliefs, but we are called to love one another.  Shhh God.  Stop bothering me.

If I could chat over coffee with the Chief, there would be many things that I would want the Chief to explain to me, to acknowledge, and to hear from me.  I think that there are things that need explaining.  But the Christ whose birth we anticipate, tells me that I must address this man as Brother.  The ideals of the Occupy movement, as I understand them, call for us to care more for each other than profits and to eschew dehumanization.  Shhh God.  It was so easy a few moments ago.

At the conclusion of the service, my elder friend introduced me to Chief Reese and his wife.  The elder had blogged about the Occupy and gave the Chief the web address.  Although the elder said words of encouragement to Chief Reese, the Chief's eyes seemed to dart between the elder and I as he quickly tried to explain (?) apologize for (?) the situation.  I probably didn't help when I mentioned Tim was an Occupy Chaplain.

In front of me stood a Brother in Christ whose fatigue and stress were obvious.  Mistakes were made by both sides here in Portland and those responsible need to be held responsible.  If the Occupy Movement is to maintain its passion, its mission, and its credibility, we must continue to reach out to each other to find peaceful ways to protest injustice.  If the police are to maintain their community trust, they must use restraint and when protesters "must" be arrested, they absolutely must be treated with dignity.  Last Sunday was an excellent example as leaders of Occupy worked out with the police how our march would be conducted.  Portland police basically left "policing" of the march to the the Occupy "safety team" which worked splendidly.

God bothers us.  Continually.  As God yearns for us to move closer to God, God bothers us to love one another as God loves us.  God bothers us to love police and protesters.

Wait - you don't suppose God expects us to - yikes -love  bankers, too?  Shhhh Shhh Shhhh God. You are really bothering me now.

Putting on Christ

It has not been cool enough to put on a jacket, but I am sure looking forward to doing just that. I hope to find a five dollar bill in a pocket, I certainly will find a receipt or a business card from the last time I wore the jacket. I will take this item out and recall the event that brought me to save said item in the pocket. Often I remember it quite well, yet my memory was jogged by the discovery. Would I have remembered the event without finding the item, perhaps, but I obviously forgot about the item tucked within the jacket. The Christian canon, we refer to as the Bible, is not something we can read from Genesis to Revelation in one sitting. Well that is if you have any other responsibilities in life, and fitting three books in a week is hard enough, making sixty-six very difficult even if some are as short at Philemon. Of course, no one expects someone to read the entire Bible between Sundays every week. However, even those of us that have read the entire Bible once is not enough. We must return to the scriptures every day. Yet I know many Christians who concentrate on certain scriptures, and there is certainly reasons to hang around the familiar, the friendly, and favorites, for they confirm and comfort. That is important.

We must also read the passages we find less familiar, for we will find things we forgot. Our memories will be jogged by our discoveries, even memories that were not ours individually. We are all part of the one body as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:12 “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” Therefore, our individual discoveries are assisted by others. Pastors, theologians, commentaries, scholars, church mothers and fathers, have all left important knowledge, be it in writings, sermons, actions, and questions, and all of them must be part of one’s Bible reading experience. We read the Bible and read the comments in our respective Bibles. We read old and new scholarship. We are in it together thus we go to Bible Studies and help each other. We do not simply have people tell us the truth, we together as Christians discover the truth of God’s Love and Grace, together. Every time we open our Bible we open it together as church, and we have personal epiphanies, assisted by our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Knowing the Bible is not done in a day and it is not done alone. It is done with a jacket that has many pockets, with many depths and textures. We read our Bible with this jacket of Christ’s that we share and explore all pockets of the truth united by the Holy Spirit.

Taming the Chihuahua Brain

As I sat at the kitchen table yesterday, reading the paper, I heard one of our dogs barking outside on the deck. We have five dogs, so hearing a dog barking just outside the kitchen is not particularly noteworthy. Our dogs are so sensitive, they bark at cross-eyed gnats. It is, however, annoying to the neighbors. I got up to let the dog in, so he’d stop ruining everyone’s leisurely Saturday morning. As I opened the door, though, I noticed a man I didn’t recognize walking away from our neighbor’s garage. I found our six-pound chihuahua delivering, what I’m sure he intended to be, a bracing message of warning. The strange man, looked back over his shoulder at me, and hurried down the driveway. Something didn’t feel quite right about the stranger’s presence.

As I walked back into house, I remember observing, “Well, maybe the dogs get it right once in awhile.” I don’t suppose I’ll ever know.

The whole thing got me to thinking, though. Evolution has honed canine senses to acute levels[1]. They are so sensitive, in fact, that they respond to any new stimulus as a threat. And they can sniff out a threat a mile away. Living in the wild, constant vigilance against natural enemies is evolutionarily advantageous. Living in a suburban home, on the other hand, where the fiercest threat is the neighbor’s dachshund three yards over, constant vigilance is maladaptive behavior.

Besides, what exactly could a six-pound chihuahua save me from anyway?

Noting the highly sensitive threat detection systems that patrol our back yard, people have said, “You’ve got some good watchdogs.”

Usually, I smile and nod my head. What I want to say, however, is: “No, they’re not. They’re horrible watch dogs. If everything makes them bark, then they’re useless as watchdogs.” Fear only works as an effective warning signal if there’s truly something to be afraid of. To walk around in a perpetual state of fear is not only exhausting, but sustained long-term stress is damaging to the body. It releases all sorts of chemicals that are helpful for short term confrontations with genuine threats; but perpetual stress is corrosive. Prolonged stress has been linked to heart disease, hypertension, stroke, cancer, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, as well as sexual disfunction. In other words, thinking that everything will kill you … will eventually kill you.

In addition to the physical impairments caused by prolonged stress, the psychological toll can be debilitating. If you’re afraid all the time, you lose perspective about what to be afraid of and when it’s appropriate. It’s possible, in other words, to be afraid of, and react with hostility to, things that are good for you–and inevitably to tune out real threats.

It occurs to me that churches, especially churches experiencing decline, often confront the world with the nervous system of a chihuahua–treating each new change in the environment as a threat. They’ve evolved highly sensitive threat detectors over time. Unfortunately, these threat detectors issue an unacceptable level of false-positives.

If you bought a pregnancy test, for instance, that gave you a false-positive 90% of the time, you’d quit using it. If you had a security system that went off every time the baby cried or the parakeet belched, you’d be on the phone imploring your provider for an emergency service call to recalibrate the sensors. Threat detectors that go off indiscriminately and often are useless (at best), and insanity-inducing (at worst).

Why do churches settle, then, for a life wired to respond to every new thing like a six-pound dog–certain that calamity is behind every bush?

The only way to tame the chihuahua brain is to relinquish control of the future to God. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). In other words, thinking that everything will kill you … will eventually kill you.

It’s God’s church, after all. God’s plenty capable of taking care of God’s stuff. What exactly could I save God from anyway?

  1. It has been called the “lizard brain” or the “triune brain,” but I have more experience observing chihuahuas, so I’ll stick with “chihuahua brain” for the purposes of this post.  ↩