community

"Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today, to get through this thing called life."

By Rev. Mindi

I was sad when David Bowie died, and Alan Rickman, and Glenn Frey. Each death made me reflect on their contribution to culture and society.

But Prince’s death is still rattling me. Maybe because it was so unexpected. Maybe because he was younger than the other three, although not by much. Perhaps, because, as a late Gen-Xer, his music was the soundtrack of my childhood in the 80’s.

It’s more than that. Prince was an artist that couldn’t be captured in a single genre, an activist through music and art. A hell of a guitar player—one of the best. And someone who celebrated sexuality and faith, writing “Sexy MF” and “The Cross.” Prince transcended social and musical boundaries.

And while I was sad on Thursday, it was the public singing of “Purple Rain” and the purple tributes across the world that got to me. Public mourning is something that brings us together, that unites us.

We have had too many communal tragedies in the last fifteen years, from 9/11 to Sandy Hook, to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and beyond, in which we gather in our sadness, but we are also angry. We grieve and we demand justice. We cry out to God and to each other as to how this could have happened again.

With Prince’s death, for now, we simply mourn. And while we ask why and what happened, and we experienced at first the shock and numbness that comes with a sudden death, we are also free to grieve together, and to celebrate his life. The public celebrations and singing, even the thousands of purple balloons outside of Paisley Park, point to a life well lived, something worthy of admiration, and grief at its brevity.

What we’ve learned since Thursday is that we need to collectively grieve, and Prince has given us the freedom to do that, without the anger and shame that has come from so many other collective memorials in the last fifteen years. Think of all the roadside memorials after car accidents and school shootings. Even when we have come together, it has been incredibly tragic, our feelings of grief meshed with cries for justice. We need a public mourning that frees us to grieve, as well as to celebrate, life.

Maybe that’s why so many churches posted the opening lyrics from “Let’s Go Crazy” on their sign boards. But better yet, we ought to have invited folks to public singings of “Purple Rain,” or at the very least, “The Cross.” Because the church needs to be joining in, if not leading, in collective mourning and celebrating life, death and resurrection.

Cause in this life
Things are much harder than in the after world
In this life
You're on your own.

Social Media and Pastoral Ministry

By Rev. Mindi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there another way? Buildings, landlords, and ministry

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Rev. Mindi

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

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

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

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

So what’s the big deal about buildings?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unlearning

By Rev. Mindi

My twentieth high school reunion is coming up this summer. I’m unable to attend due to cost, distance, and time… but it’s also difficult for me to go because I am in touch with so few of the people I grew up with, and in reality, much more time has passed between then and now than the time I spent with my classmates, even the ones I knew from elementary school. Still, I have fond memories and there are people I will miss being able to see again. As I look up in my office, above the commentaries and Bibles and theology books, I still have a short stack of books from my high school English class: Jane Eyre, Siddhartha, and The Little Prince, among others. I have kept a couple of notebooks of writing. I haven’t looked at it in years (maybe since high school, I can’t remember), but I haven’t thrown it out yet. There are some things I am still holding on to, after all these years.

It’s been thirteen years since I graduated seminary and there are very few books and notes that I look back to from that time. I do still use the Biblical commentaries I had to purchase (at $75 each!) and occasionally I scroll back through the pages of notes for sermons and Bible studies (and notice how much I doodled in the margins), and sometimes I go back to look at books on church history or brush up on some theological concept, but other than that, there’s not much that I look back on. Prior to my last move, I finally recycled most of my school notes, and culled some of my books.

In these thirteen years I’ve had to unlearn some things. I’ve had to unlearn concepts around church structure and organization. I’ve had to unlearn the idea of Sunday School as our society transitions into a new era of education and worship. I’ve had to unlearn ideas of stewardship as we move into an era in which most people my age cannot tithe ten percent and most of us, regardless of profession, have student debt up to our eyeballs. I’ve had to unlearn much of what was taught to me as the norm for many years

When I think of what I have learned in seminary that I wasn’t taught, for me it was the value of friendships in the community of faith. My seminary friends were the ones I could confess my secret doubts with, show off my beginning guitar skills to, and discuss my future with because most of us were heading in a similar direction. Though we’re scattered across the country, our paths cross more often than not in clergy circles, denominational gatherings and conferences—and also, thanks to social media, we have been able to stay connected.  My seminary friends were the ones I could share my fears and hopes and dreams—and also share my questions, my skepticisms, and my struggles. Those were the friends I could truly be myself with.

“The church is where my friends are. The church is where I can be myself. The church is where I belong.” This was not a seminary student who told me this, but a churchgoer who recently decided to be baptized. I know not all churches are like that, but I realized that the congregations I have felt the spirit of God most poignantly are the ones where I could laugh among others, where we could tell jokes and be serious in almost the same moment. Where I could be myself. For this person, this church is where they could be themselves, where they were accepted, where they were loved exactly for who they are.

Maybe it was because I was an awkward teenager, but I never felt like I fit in when I was in high school. I’m sure many other people feel the same. Sometimes, I wonder if church can feel like a high-school reunion: we are going back to something that doesn't really connect with who we are now. When I found the place where I could be myself, I felt that I was at home. I felt that in my home church. I felt it in seminary. I still feel it on retreats with colleagues, and lately, I have begun to feel it within my own church again. I share my still-sharpening guitar skills as I miss chords but try to play anyway. I share stories of my own faith struggles. And what happens is that others begin to share their stories, too, and weren’t afraid of saying or believing the wrong thing.

Diana Butler Bass said in Christianity After Religion that we have to switch from the old pattern of “Behaving, Believing, then Belonging” to “Belonging, Behaving, then Believing.” Again, this is something we have to unlearn from seminary and from church tradition. It’s something you can’t teach, but you know it when you experience it: when you belong somewhere, you can be yourself. By finding a place where I can be myself, I am not only a more authentic minister, but a more authentic child of God and follower of Jesus. And in turn, I have found the church to be a more authentic body of Christ in all its diversity.

“The church is where my friends are. The church is where I can be myself. The church is where I belong,” the churchgoer told me. What are we doing to usher in that sense of belonging? What are we doing to bring about an understanding of authenticity, of a place where we are free to be who we are, with all our questions and doubts and head-scratching? 

Disability Advocacy in Your Community

By Rev. Mindi

April is Autism Awareness Month. In previous years for Autism Awareness Month, I have written about how to create a welcoming environment for families that have children and youth with autism in your church. However, there is a greater need within the greater disability community to help support advocacy. Here are some ways you can help become an advocate within the greater community, and therefore your church.

Did you know that you can be an educational advocate?

As a member of my local special needs PTA (Parent Teacher Association), I have let parents know that I am willing to go with them to IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings. Students with special needs often have an IEP or a 504 plan (a 504 plan provides for accommodations for students with special needs; an IEP provides for individualized instruction and is much more detailed).  What do I do at those meetings? I am a non-anxious presence, there to provide support for the parent so they know they are not alone, as well as for the student. I ask clarifying questions. I am not there to take sides, but rather to encourage dialogue and offer support.

I am also an educational surrogate. I serve as a surrogate within the school district for students whose parents do not currently have custody and are not in the foster care system. I work to ensure that a student receives the supports necessary, which may include an evaluation for services and support and the beginning process of an IEP or 504 plan. I become part of the educational team.  How this happened for me is that I was asked to do this by a district official, who knew me as a parent of a special needs child, a board member for the special needs PTA, and as a local pastor. Since this time, I have now met two other pastors in other districts who also serve as educational surrogates in their district.

You can also join your local special education PTA, if there is one, or help form a community support network for students, as well as parents and educators of students with special needs. It takes the whole community, not just the family, not just the school—to help educate and support our special needs students and families.

Look for local disability advocacy organizations—they often need volunteer help—and partner with them. The ARC is a national disability advocacy organization with local chapters that has folks with disabilities on their staff and boards, and works to help individuals become self-advocates. With any disability organization, always check to see where its funding comes from, how its funding is used, and whether or not persons with disabilities serve on its board and staff. Persons with disabilities should be included in their own advocacy.

And as always, remember to include folks with disabilities in your church life. Folks with disabilities are already part of your congregation. They may be regular attenders in worship, but sometimes we forget that folks with disabilities can, and should, be included in leadership, worship, education and outreach—in other words, all aspects of the life of the church just as anyone else. And above all, be an advocate, wherever you are, for inclusion of persons of all abilities into our faith communities.

Rev. Mindi and her friend Rev. Danae Ashley launched Autism and Church in January. They are looking for more contributors, especially from adults and youth with autism, to write from their experience.

Losing to Gain

By Rev. Mindi

I was called to a small church two and a half years ago, a church that promised a two-year agreement but couldn’t go beyond that because they would surely run out of money. They were in do or die mode, and it was going to be an incredible challenge. It was a congregation that met for Sunday School, worship, coffee hour, and once a month, a potluck supper and a board meeting.

Here we are, two and a half years later, beyond that two-year mark. We’re not much better off financially, but now we have a thriving Young Adult’s group that meets twice a month for Pub Theology, a restarted women’s group that meets monthly for lunch and to support local and global missions, and now an after-school tutoring program for students in need and we are preparing to do a summer day camp for students with disabilities and their typically developing peers. Except for the women’s group, the other three ministries received grant funds. We have also started a community organic garden, an annual Easter Egg Hunt, and participated in many more local missions and community events.

The truth is we still are hanging on the edge of financial sustainability, but the congregation seems to be doing well. We are in this together. We are struggling together and working to give more and to do more in the community, rather than sitting on what we have to survive. It’s been exciting to see.

Sadly, far too often churches, missions and ministries are cut short, told it is because of a lack of funding, but often it is a lack of vision. The inability to perceive beyond what is in front of them, the building closes, the congregation’s members are told to move on, the mission is dissolved, the ministry ends. But what is shocking is that often these churches, missions, and ministries end with thousands—sometimes tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even a few stories I have heard with seven figures—left in the bank. 

 

Did we not learn our lesson from Jesus’s Parable of the Talents?

I was talking with a colleague of mine who has started many churches, and he let me in on a secret: sometimes it is better to go forward with vision and little to no money, than to have money and a lack of vision, which often equates to money with strings attached.  Those strings may be an old guard vision of what church is or a perceived intention of the original givers, rather than being open to the movement of the Spirit in the here and now and the potential for ministry right in front of us.

A wise professor once told me that Jesus does not like big bank accounts on churches. It means we are not using God’s resources as God intended—to fulfill the needs of our neighbors in this world and to continue to share the Good News of God’s Love. But all too often, money sits in bank accounts and churches, missions and ministries close.

I’m really proud of the little congregation I have been called to. They don’t have much, but they are doing a lot with the little they have. And somehow, grant funds have come through and we’ve been able to do more than we could imagine. Even when it comes to the resource of time and people-power—we ended up receiving a couple of volunteers from the community and parents of students willing to volunteer and work with us. The more we dream and act, the more we seem to be able to do—and the worries over finances, while still there, seem less and less every day. God isn’t through with us yet. While we don’t know what the future holds, and maybe we’ve just postponed the closing date—no one can say we sat around worried about losing what we have any longer.

Slow Down, and read Slow Church

By Rev. Mindi

My small local clergy group was taking suggestions for new books to read, and me with my smart phone and sometimes smart mouth decided to search right then and there for a new book rather than taking a month to go do research. In my Amazon recommendations popped up Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. I really didn’t know much about it but that it was a brand new book, and that the book has a Twitter account that followed me, so I followed back.  It was really by chance and Amazon’s logarithms that I began reading this book.

But I’m so glad I did. Smith and Pattison are not pastors, not professional church leaders, but were inspired by the Slow Food movement to think about church life as an alternative to the “McDonaldization of Society” as George Ritzer coined it. (I read The McDonaldization of Society back in college and still have the book on my shelf—it was a profound wake-up call to the capitalist production machine that our society functions by: the idea that we have to make more stuff and make it faster, and that even our self-worth has come to depend upon it).  Slow Church looks at how church, just like the rest of the institutions of our society, have bought into the hyper-fast production-based model. “Decades, if not centuries, of taking shortcuts have repelled many people from the faith and diminished the quality of our life together” (117). We have tried to short-circuit discipleship and evangelism.

You might think at first that this is a book for a more conservative or evangelical audience, not for a mainline congregation—but we have done the same thing in the mainline church. Maybe we haven’t watered down the Bible to a tract that fits in the size of a business card, but we have (often) failed to do a good job of teaching our children and youth what it means to believe in and follow Jesus, what it means to be part of the church, how to participate in the kingdom of God.

Furthermore, we have failed to connect with the greater community, and that is the key of Slow Church—a reminder for us to slow down and reconnect with God, others and nature. “The ‘ecology’ of Slow Church is embedded in the interconnectedness of creation and God’s reconciliation of all things” (90).

Mainliners don’t differ much from our evangelical or fundamentalist kin in that we also water-down and short circuit the uncomfortable parts of our faith. We don’t do mourning well. Where our evangelical and fundamentalist kin will jump to “there’s one more angel in Heaven,” and lots of celebration that a loved one is now with the Lord, we do the same: we water-down the grieving process and try to jump into getting over death, rather than struggling with the suffering. Slow Church looks at the way our society as a whole has tried to just overcome suffering rather than the “willingness to enter into the pain of others” (83). If we are going to be committed in community to one another, we also need to be willing to suffer together as well as rejoice. This is what it means in particular to be part of Christian community: that we do not suffer alone.

Slow Church is about digging deep and being engaged and committed to the process of God-growth in us and around us. This commitment happens with God and with each other and with the greater community. Slow Church goes back to the roots of our faith in Scripture—Sabbath practice, discernment, community—and asks how we can re-engage with our roots and develop long-term, lasting foundations.

My major critique of this work is that  while my experience resonates with the book's view of church and society, I wonder if similar parallels would be drawn by my colleagues of color and different church cultures. I often err on the side of viewing US culture as homogeneous when it never has been; even critiquing the McDonalidzation of our US culture comes through a white lens, as the McDonalidzation was a white creation to begin with. Just some food for thought.

I highly recommend Slow Church. It is not often that I read a book that I say, “Yes, Yes!” out loud while reading it. I often highlight while I read; this time, I made notes as to what parts to quote for my next board meeting when we talk about stewardship. Each chapter has good discussion questions at the end for small groups or churches. The authors also have a blog: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slowchurch/ and are active on Twitter and Facebook.