Who We Are, When We Are, Where We Are . . .

By Rev. Charlsi Lewis Lee

Since my first memory of church there’s been a constant struggle to “redefine” who the church is, what we are doing, and to whom we are doing it.  I grew up in the age of vision statements, mission statements and the like.  They all serve a good purpose.  They help us to articulate the mission to which we have been called and the church’s best possible understanding of how to make that happen. 

I have witnessed churches spend months and months crafting delightful vision and mission statements.  I have participated in developing well-thought out carefully worded phrases that encapsulate the essentials of the gospel as lived out in a specific time and place.  I do not deny the usefulness of such activities because it gives focus and intention to the work we are called to do.

I do, however, wonder if we sometimes get so lost in the work of producing documents about being church, or in philosophizing about church, or even preaching about church that we forget to be church in the moment.  We meander about waiting for the next step and busy ourselves fretting over who is going to sit next to us in the coming years that we completely neglect the work and the identity that is now. 

In the interests of full disclosure, I have been accused of being impulsive.   I do like spontaneity and creativity.  I also recognize that there does need to be a road map to the church’s identity. 

Last week, I preached from Matthew 5.  Jesus tells those who are listening that they are salt and light.  They are a city on a hill.  What I love about this text is that Jesus does not say that we have to prepare to become these things.  Jesus says that we are salt, we are light, and we are a city on the hill.    That’s the vision statement.

I am a member of a congregation that just made a tough financial decision.  Some were disquieted by it, some were relieved, but in the end most understood that it was a decision that allows the church to continuing being salt and light in our city.  One member stated that if we spend our money in such a way as to maintain ourselves we have lost our flavor and we have hidden our light under a bushel.  If we use our money in such a way as to continue in ministry and make the Good News known in the community, then we are living into our saltiness and producing light. 

So many of us are afraid to claim who we are in this world because a stigma that has been placed upon us as Christians.  Even today, announcing ourselves as Christians is often met with a roll of the eyes or a sigh.  It does not matter.  We are who we are, when we are, where we are.  We are conveyors of God’s presence in the world when we offer food to a stranger or shelter from the rain.  We are seasoning our towns and communities with God’s love when we pass the peace to a cashier at the grocery store.  We are lighting a little of the darkness when we choose to spend our time and money giving instead of collecting.  It is that simple.

The church is the church because God has called us to gather in the presence of others who are salt and light.  We are who we are, in this time, and in this place—where ever that may be.  We do not have to ponder it any longer.  We only have to claim our saltiness, own our light, and live it out at the top of the hill.

Vision and Branding

By Rev. Mindi

I had a really awesome talk with a local advertising agent for our local news blog just this morning (Monday as I write this) and it has me thinking that we in the church still are so, so far behind in so many ways.

We are so good in the church about saying “We are not a business.”  But then we go and act like a business with a board that runs like a corporation and congregational leaders that act like CEO’s.   We draw up budgets and we crunch the numbers. We put resources into staff positions and maintenance and cut outreach and education and mission. We get smaller and smaller and so we cut all “non-essential” budget items like continuing education and health insurance, cut salaries and positions down to half-time or less, and finally, we are left with nothing to cut and we close. We are a failed corporation.

That’s where our problem is: we say we are not a business, but then we act like big business.  Rather, we have a lot to learn from small businesses (and yes, not every business is the same, not every small business is the same).  Many new start-up small businesses are based on a passion, a dream, that is driving the business: a vision. Many people start up their own business because they love doing what they are doing and dream about doing it, whether it be a restaurant or a bakery or a used book store, a consulting firm or jewelry shop, just to name a few of the small businesses in our town on one street. But here’s the thing: they are local, and they begin with a dream, a vision.

They also have to compete with the big box stores or big firms or big chain restaurants, but don’t worry too much about the competition from them because they are local, they offer personal service, they don’t mind you taking time and they will take time for you when it comes to making decisions on purchases or transactions of services.  Of course, the church is not a place where we exchange money for services, but the personal service, the attention to detail, and the time given for decision making are all good aspects we can take into the church, on top of the notion of dreams and passion: a vision that moves people forward.

Now here is where branding comes into play. I know of a church whose slogan on its sign is “Something For Everyone.”  Except it doesn’t really offer something for everyone and if it did offer something for everyone, I would expect it to be much, much larger than it is. Even my current church is using a slogan that is a bit too broad and too open for interpretation.  We do this all the time in smaller churches that want to grow: we don’t want to limit our possible outreach, we don’t want to say no to anyone who comes in, so we try to say “yes” to everyone. The truth is we can’t be all things to all people.

So that’s where my talk with the advertising agent comes in. She (an active member of another church) told me something I’ve known for a while: you have to brand yourself.  That’s the marketing term: branding.  What is it that makes you stand out, what makes you unique?

Translation for the church: What is your vision? How do you make your vision known?

I have been leading my church in a vision process for the past six months, and I led my previous congregation in a similar process.  First, we looked back at our past. We had a day where we shared memories by the decades (I started with the 1950’s but people had memories further back than that). We wrote them down on big sheets of paper, decade by decade. What was it that brought you to church way back when? What was fun? What was exciting? What made you want to keep coming back? We wrote it all down and then put it up the next Sunday for everyone to look at, and fill in a memory if they weren’t there or had remembered something later.  We talked about our memories. More specifically, we talked about the feelings we had, and we talked about the movement of the Spirit in the life of the church. The conversation turned from “what we used to do” or “how we used to do it” to “what was it that helped us feel alive, engaged with God, in relationship with Jesus, moved by the Spirit,” etc. 

The next month we talked about what was important to us, as individuals and as a church (this part is core to the vision process—what is it that we value?)  The following month, we talked about what we were ready to let go of—past assumptions, long announcements, etc. This is a time for venting the negative energy, the things that we do but we don’t know why we do them.  The next gathering we focused on the three core parts of the vision process: Values, Words, Actions. We’d already done the Values part, now we focused on what it was that we said about ourselves and what it was that we did. Do our words, actions and values line up with who we say we are, or is there is a disconnect? 

We’re nearing the end of this part of the process: we are going to be forming a vision statement.  A vision statement is not the be-all and end-all of the process, but it helps point the way. This vision statement will say something about who we are, who we want to be, and how we are being. This statement will go with our church logo, will go on our website, will be the branding that we use. 

For churches, I think (or would hope) that it is less about competition and more about saying who we are to those that don’t know us, and at the same time, reminding us of who we are and where we are going.  Habakkuk 2:2 says “Write the vision… make it plain so that a runner may read it.”  In other words, keep it short, make it easy to know, make it something that everyone can memorize and recite to those who want to know about who you are.

Lastly, so you don’t fall into the trap of “Something for Everyone,” be a little more specific. If you are Open and Affirming or Welcoming and Affirming, say it. Put a rainbow flag up, or a handicap accessible sign, or an Autism puzzle piece on your logo, or something else that symbolizes you are welcoming, open and affirming to a specific population. That doesn’t mean you’re not open and affirming of typically developing children, straight people, or people who don’t use a wheelchair! But it lets people know that your congregation thinks about these things and is concerned about the inclusion of others.  Most of us don’t want to limit ourselves so we either say nothing, or have a very, very long non-discrimination or inclusion statement.  The statements are great—and should be on your website and your welcoming information. But your vision statement, your branding, your logo, your identity statement—however you want to put it—should be shorter, something everyone can memorize and recite, and needs to contain something that makes people say “If they welcome these people, they probably welcome others as well.”  

So as I said, my current church is still in the process. We haven’t gotten there yet. But I’m very hopeful about the process and where we are going, and through this process, we are recognizing our need to be more specific in our welcome and inclusion of others. We are learning that we need to share our dreams, our passion, through the process of vision, remembering the spirit that once filled us before, and we are finding that spirit again. We are also learning more about who we are as individuals, and how we welcome one another is integral to our church.  The spirit is still there, and in the words of Habakkuk, there is still a vision for the appointed time.

No Red Ink on the Vision Test

By JC Mitchell

As a boy in elementary school, I would sometimes tussle with other boys. Generally we would not hurt each other, but sometimes it would result in a visit to the nurse’s office. During one such incident, my head hit against a cement wall. It hurt some, but I felt I was fine; however, the teacher did not believe me, but who would argue with a teacher that was allowing you to go to the nurse’s office and miss some of class(as we were just coming in from recess)? The nurse examined me and asked questions. I was determined to be fine, diagnosis “boy.” The last question posed during the nurse’s examination was, “Are you seeing double?” My response worried her, as I stated, “No more than usual.” I was seeing double often while reading and I just trained and strained myself to read both images simultaneously. The nurse, concerned and curious, did some tests and discovered what I thought was normal: I saw double. What I also remember about her is she did not make me feel stupid for thinking that seeing double was normal, and she did not make me nervous about this situation.

I went to the optometrist, and I must say that was an exciting experience. It was explained to me that everyone has a focal point in which when you get closer to the eyes, one will see double, but generally it is centimeters from the nose, not an arm’s length. This doctor prescribed intense exercises. I had various contraptions and ditto papers and spent one to two hours a day strengthening my eyes, so my focal point would be in a normal range. I was committed because reading, which I greatly enjoy, was much easier with only one image.

I share this anecdote to emphasize the importance of knowing vision in the church.  We in the church world use this term often, and it is not easily defined as it is different for each ministry and congregation, while also being part of God’s Vision.  I assume that there is an importance of vision, for it is what drives a congregation and/or ministry in the direction of God.  We know that it is not simple to find a vision, but it is just as important to realize when your ministry has lost or been burdened with poor vision. Just as I believed seeing double was normal, many churches and ministries keep going, not realizing they would have a difficult time reading the bottom line on the metaphorical eye chart.

For many, the reality of finances brings a congregation to the metaphorical optometrist.  However, I want to share the story of a local food bank I was involved with this past year that closed.  The bank had been serving the community for 30 years, but the original vision of helping people between applying for food stamps and receiving them is now outdated.  Other food banks had taken form over the past decade serving the community more efficiently and in greater numbers.   The food bank needed a new vision of how to utilize their resources.  For various reasons the need of a new vision was not taken up by the board and the volunteers, until the vote that closed the bank.  Even a year before, a vote keeping it open (by one vote) didn’t get enough people realizing the need of a vision.  However, this ministry did not lack resources.  We had enough food, especially canned corn (not sure why so much corn), and we could have continued for 15 years without raising anymore funds, at the level of help we were providing, give or take a couple of years.

My point is that vision has nothing to do with finances.

We need to not wait until it is reflected by red ink.

My question is what is, or can be, our metaphorical eye chart?  (comment away)

“Tell me what you want to do, not what you want to avoid doing.”

“What do you want to do when you get out of college?” That was the question on the table. Summer camp. We were gathered together with one of the grizzled veteran counselors to talk about what we planned to do with our lives.

Having just graduated high school, we found the whole conversation a bit abstract. We didn’t know. And we certainly didn’t want to be reminded about the fact that we didn’t know.

But somebody asked the question, and we were all raised with the kind of manners that wouldn’t allow us to say what we were thinking: “I really don’t want to think about this. Ask me about the beach, or about what we’re going to do when we get to college. After college is just too far away.”

One girl said, “Well, I don’t want to have to do a job I hate, where I’m stuck doing the same thing over and over—like a factory. And I don’t want to work someplace that makes me do busy work just to satisfy some kind of Human Resources directive intended to create a ‘positive working environment.’”

“Ok. What kind of working environment do you want to work in?”

“I don’t want work with a lot of passive-aggressive people—you know, the kind who get mad about little things and start putting up signs about not eating their yogurt or taking the stapler off their desk.”

“You run into a lot of sign hangers, a lot of yogurt and stapler thieves in high school, did you?”

“No, but I hear my dad talk about it all the time.”

“Anyone else?”

A long-haired guy in a denim jacket and boots said, “I don’t want to have do any job that requires me to wear a name tag or be a part of a ‘team’” (his use of air quotes tipping us off to his studied use of sarcasm.)

I jumped in and said, “Look, I just don’t want to have to get up too early in the morning.” I was not particularly ambitious.

The counselor, showing signs of frustration, said, “You’ve obviously thought about this. Here’s what I want, though. Tell me what you want to do, not what you want to avoid doing. What are your dreams? What makes you excited enough to get out of bed in the morning? What do you care about so much you’d be willing to die for?”

The impression many young adults who’ve lost any desire to associate themselves with the church feel like they’ve heard ad nauseum an answer to the questions, “What do Christians want to avoid? What do Christians hate? What kinds of things are Christians willing to kill for?”

As cliché as it may sound, more people in emerging generations know Christianity by what it stands against than by what it stands for. Jesus, though he clearly had strong opinions about what people should stay away from, seemed on balance more concerned about the kind of things in which people should be investing their lives.

This full-throated commitment to doing something got Jesus in trouble. In Matthew, he is contrasted with the ascetic John the Baptist: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’”

It’s important to point out that Jesus drew the contrast between himself and John the Baptist to indicate that there’s just no pleasing some people, no matter what you do. However, it is worth noting that Jesus developed a reputation not for the things he avoided, but for the things he threw himself into.

In a post-denominational world the church must be aware of the widely held perception that it cares more about keeping people from doing things than in giving them the resources they need to live and flourish, and, finally, to follow Jesus. As commitment to mainline denominations deteriorates, the church would do well to think more intentionally about how it embodies its vision of the reign of God.

Justice. Equity. Mutuality. Community. Compassion for the poor, the outcast, the powerless. These are positive visions.

“But isn’t that just a rehash of the traditional liberalism mainline denominations have been trying to interest people in since the latter part of the nineteenth century? If it were such a winning strategy, why are mainline denominations dying?”

Excellent point! I realize I’m trying to thread a pretty fine needle here. What I’m suggesting, though, isn’t a strategy (I don’t think traditional liberal mainliners necessarily thought the Social Gospel was just a strategy either). Making strategic decisions about justice in God’s reign as a way to attract more people misses the whole point. Justice, equity, mutuality, etc. are what we think Jesus came to establish, not well-devised membership recruitment tools.

In a post-denominational world the church needs to quit thinking first about how to save its own bacon, and start devoting more thought to doing the right thing—because we have no other way of conceiving our lives as followers of Jesus.

What We Need Is Adventure

Growing up, Goonies was one of my favorite movies.

It had lots of things a 10 year old boy loved - pirate ships, skeletons, sparkling jewels, funny characters, ice cream, booby traps, mean villains, and water slides.

I realize that Goonies isn't the greatest example of cinema. Sure, it has a sense of fun and a handful of good moments, but the sets look like a cheap theme park ride, the acting is over the top, and Cyndi Lauper rarely makes my iTunes playlist.

But in my book, Goonies got something dead on - the dream of many of us youngsters who longed for a good, old fashioned adventure.

That’s the only reason Goonies has persisted in my imagination. I didn’t just like the film - I wanted that film to be my story. I wanted to discover buried treasure in my backyard.

As a youngster, I spent many of my summers exploring the beauty of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, an amazing stretch of rocky wilderness in southwest Oklahoma that was haunted by the legend of folks like mobster Al Capone and outlaw Jesse James. Somewhere and somehow, there had to be gold in those ancient hills. Those short expeditions were a break from the mundane and an entryway into a world of mystery and excitement. Even as a father and minister, that longing and thirst for adventure has stayed with me.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman, in his work about family systems theory, once taught that “the only way to get a system unstuck is to go on an adventure”.

Whether it is a political system that lacks any sense of moral imagination, a church that seems to bear more witness to judgmentalism than good news, an organization that fails to protect the very people it is designed to serve, or a declining congregation that gets keeps rearranging the deck chairs rather than engage in deep discernment about their calling, there are stuck systems all around us.

I often get to speak with members of other congregations and enjoy finding out what God is up to in their community. In particular, I love to hear what is the most unique about their community. The vast majority of the time, I hear how people love their church because it is warm and caring, like a “family”. I don’t often hear about daring ministry projects, unique efforts to reach out to their neighborhood, exciting initiatives to love others, or ongoing transformation through spiritual disciplines. I know how valuable warm and caring community is for each of us, but a church without a thirst for adventure is likely stuck.

Not all churches are like this. Sometimes, adventure happens without our choosing, whether it is a devastating hurricane that forces a congregation to turn its building into a mission center, the loss of a beloved pastor that moves a community to reexamine its vision, or a grim financial report that suggests only a few months of “normal” ministry remain before bills go unpaid.

But for the rest of us, our stuck system won’t change until someone (or a bunch of someones) does something radical, more than adding a worship service, hiring a new pastor, changing the style of music, or building a website. We have to have an adventure. As Helland and Hjalmarson say in Missional Spirituality, we long to be “freed to venture out on reconnaissance with Christ on mission in the wide open expanse of God’s cathedral in creation and culture.”

Or as Jesus so often does, we have to embrace the unexpected, rounding up people from the streets, “both good and bad”, for God’s banquet (Matthew 22:10), going two by two with nothing but the clothes on our back and a spring in our step (Luke 10:1), venturing into the rough part of town to be transformed by folks different than us (Mark 7:25), or partying with people of ill repute (Luke 5:27-32).

I suppose this huge theme of adventure that runs throughout the Bible, starting with Abram’s call to go to a distant land and continuing through the Great Commission and launch of the early church, continues to feed and prick the imagination of that 10 year old Goonie inside of me.

No, there may not be buried gold in my backyard, but there is an epic story unfolding all around, the work of Creator, Son, and Spirit reclaiming, renewing, and making whole.

May we join that adventure, and in the words of Shane Claiborne in Jesus for President, “live the contagious love of God.”

Using Only What's There

I have a favorite moment in the movie Apollo 13; it is dear to my heart and serves as a wonderful analogy for those of us in the church. You may remember it: the space capsule is damaged and orbiting the earth; the astronauts are in communication with the ground but only at a distance.  There is no face-to-face interaction at all, but it is the responsibility of the ground crew at NASA to help the astronauts make it make home safely.

The ground crew is in a room, gathered around a table looking at possible options, when a guy bursts through the door.  His arms are filled with all sorts of flotsam and jetsam – tubes, boxes, and the like.  He drops everything on the table and says, “This is all they’ve got up there in the capsule.  We have to figure out how to solve this using only what they already have.”

See, I love this moment.  As a newly minted minister, it helped me figure out how the church can best function.  So often we look at a master plan, or a constitution, or the newsletter from 1987, as a starting point for putting the life of the church together.  We look for people to fill roles and needs. This can backfire when there is a gap – and then it can turn sad (*sigh* remember when George was still alive?  We always had a clean baptistery when George was alive.) or the panicked (Quick!  Tell the evangelism committee to set their sites on a tenor!  Preferably one who can also ring handbells!).

But remembering that moment in the movie caused me to have my own realization about the way the church can look.  So now, I try to make sure that when someone new joins our midst they start thinking about what it is THEY bring to the table.  Then on a regular basis, we all get together and empty our collective spiritual gifts pockets onto the table and we see what’s there.  That’s what God has given us – ergo that is what we will use.

Now this can be a crap shoot.  For example, I pastor the only church in Kentucky – nay perhaps the country – that has a dearth of sopranos in the choir.  No, really.  But we press on.  We find that there are gifts available that weren't there five years ago; someone offers to design a new logo, start and maintain a Facebook page, empty the recyling bins,  teach a course on Myers-Briggs and spirituality.  We also find that there are roles that were around twenty-five years ago that don’t need to be filled – and it is a fact that my husband, even as the spouse of the pastor, cannot be the president of the Women’s Mission Circle.

An Apollo 13 approach to church growth and planning may seem a trifle odd.  But if anyone can figure out a way for us to think outside our mission statements and our long range plans – it’s sneaky old Jesus.

By Molly Smothers

Molly Smothers is an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ denomination. She has pastored congregations in Harrison and Montgomery counties in Kentucky. She lives with her husband Leon on a farm in Rowan County, where she has been the minister of First Christian (DOC) for the last five years.  She enjoys klezmer music, and shaving yaks.