ministry

You're Not Alone: Finding Friends in Ministry

By Rev. Mindi

I graduated from seminary fourteen years ago, with ninety credits and one unit of CPE under my belt. Though I had loved my Biblical Studies courses more than anything, I made sure I took the more practical courses: Church Administration, Stewardship, and of course, Pastoral Ministry Ethics. I figured those would be the courses that would help me in my day-to-day ministry.

Until I came to a church that didn’t want to talk about money or stewardship.

Until I came to a church that had too large of a governing structure for its body.

Until I came to a church that had no internal governing structure for its body.

Until I came to a church that had unhealthy power dynamics within the staff and within the lay leadership.

Until I came to a church that was barely surviving.

You get the picture. In the variety of calls I have served, I have encountered situations that “they didn’t teach me about that in Seminary.”

And even though I am an outgoing person and have immediately sought out clergy groups, sometimes it is hard to relate to other clergy who have had a different experience in ministry. I find it hard at times to relate to clergy in which they were always paid a full time salary with benefits, or were always able to attend continuing education events and their regional and national governing bodies. We all know that relationships are the key to ministry, and if who you know matters, how can you move to a new call when no one at the regional or national level knows who you are because you have never been able to afford to attend? Or how can you compete with pastors who have D.Min’s or other credentials when your continuing education budget is small?

Ministry can be lonely, even when you have colleagues.

Sometimes, you have to build what you envision. “Built it, and they will come.”

A few years ago we began a great local “younger” clergy group. We are small. We can fit around a dining room table. We gather once a month for lunch and to check in with one another. We bless one another when they leave a call, or transition to something new. We honor one another by listening and not judging. We pray for one another when we are going through difficult times. We have built a beautiful support network that I could not minister without.

I also joined another clergy group, with clergy of different ages, but also different cultural and language backgrounds. Many of these colleagues I have been able to relate to in my experience of finding time for ministry while working another job. I have also had a good listening ear from my recently retired colleagues in this group, who get that ministry has changed from when they entered and that those of us in our early years of ministry need more support than ever.

But perhaps the greatest support network I have been part of is UNCO. The UnConference (and yes, I keep blogging about this here, and here, and here) began a few years ago as a “built it, and they will come” event that brings together clergy and church leaders without a keynote speaker. We share our ideas and our concerns in ministry and form breakout sessions based on those topics. All those things I didn’t learn in seminary? I’ve learned more from UNCO than any other continuing education conference. And, it’s affordable! It’s under $500!

Ministry gets awfully lonely at times, and sometimes we feel we are going it alone into uncharted territory, especially as the traditional church wanes and something new is birthing. What is coming forth? What is our role? UNCO is helping us to figure that out for each of us, and I always receive encouragement and support, and even enthusiasm as I return to my ministry setting. And the support continues, through Facebook, Twitter, and Google Hangouts. Sometimes we even pick up the phone and call the old fashioned way, across time zones and denominations.

UNCO West is October 24-26 at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The cost is $350 per person including meals and room for 3 days and 2 nights. There is KidUnco (the BEST!) and there is still space available. Register now!

The Glass Ceiling Ain't Broke Yet

By Rev. Mindi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

--“How is your physical health?”

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

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

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

 

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

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

By Derek Penwell

Two Keys to Good Leadership

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

Learning to Live with Other People’s Pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to Love Your Own Mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________

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

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

By Rev. Mindi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Dinner and Silent Auction

--Kids Carnival

--Community Festival and Appreciation

--Concerts

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

--Online giving campaigns

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

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

Broken . . . but not Shattered

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Dr. Mark Pointdexter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Dr. Mark E. Poindexter

Is there another way? Buildings, landlords, and ministry

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Rev. Mindi

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

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

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

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

So what’s the big deal about buildings?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UnCommon Acceptance

By Rev. Mindi

Two years ago, I sat in a breakout session at my first UNCO—The UnConference for pastors and church leaders—and in the first fifteen minutes of the session titled “Show Me The Money,” I learned more about fundraising and stewardship campaigns than I had in seminary—and I had taken an entire January term course on stewardship and church finances. I listened as church leaders shared what had worked in their congregation, ways of talking about stewardship, and focusing on the positives (“Look what ministries we participated in last year”) rather than the negatives (“Our budget shortfall means we will have to cut programs unless we raise enough money”). 

Two years ago, I connected with pastors and church leaders that I still go to regularly for ideas, support, and encouragement, as did my husband who was planting a new church. But more importantly for us, it was the first church conference that not only provided space and childcare for children (called KidUNCO), but fully welcomed our child AJ, who has autism, into the full life of the UnConference.

Last year, when we returned to UNCO, not only did we receive our warm welcome again, but as AJ ran across the gathering space, where we livestream our worship services and large group “brain-dump” sessions, people who knew AJ from the previous years but could not attend tweeted their greetings to AJ.

UNCO has created a community of church leaders who are connected not only after UNCO meets via Twitter and Facebook, but a way of connecting those who are physically present and those who participate via Twitter and livestream. And following last year’s UNCO, those of us involved in new church communities and the challenges of raising funds for our new ministries began using Google Hangout on a monthly basis—not only to share ideas and knowledge, but also to check in, and lift up one another and our ministries in prayer. The networks created within the larger UNCO gathering, including a writer’s group and synchroblog, provide support and encouragement for creativity in leadership.

UNCO has given me and my husband the opportunity to attend a leadership gathering together—and to bring our child with special needs to an inclusive and welcoming environment. Because of KidUNCO, my husband and I have been able to attend breakout sessions without one of us having to care for our child while we are learning and sharing.

More importantly, UNCO has provided close friendships with colleagues facing similar challenges in ministry. UNCO is not a conference you attend and take back with you what you learn—UNCO is the UnConference, in which you are participating all year long and in person for three days, if you are able to be there.

UNCO West is October 26-28 at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Click here for more information and to register. You won’t find a more affordable continuing education event that will benefit you throughout the year. You can also read Carol Howard Merritt’s excellent article on UNCO in the Christian Century.

Can We All Be More Vulnerable?

By Colton Lott

At the risk of rant, do you want to know what my biggest frustration with the church is?[i] It isn’t that we frequently worship in mausoleums at the risk of financial ruin. It isn’t that we sing songs that reflect a theology or social outlook that we generally decry. It isn’t even that we get hung up on the silliest things and try to call it important aspects of ministry, like the color of the carpet runner or parliamentary procedure. What really trips my trigger and gets me riled up? The fact that we can barely talk about even the small things, much less the big things.

The lack of willingness to engage meaningfully and with sincere openness is, to me, the number one factor affecting the church negatively today. Much like an addict who refuses to name their problem, many churches refuse to admit that they will only have inauthentic conversations about surface issues.

To a degree, this is because leaders are not always the best at prodding and poking for the “real story” to come out. It’s a difficult job to discern when and where to apply pressure to the fault lines of people’s lives—do so correctly, and energy is released constructively, do so haphazardly, and the result is an earthquake. Naturally, I don’t really know how to do this yet myself, but I do know that it’s not being done enough.[ii]

But more pressing than some changes leaders should make, congregations refusing to have hard conversations presents the most detrimental effects on their collective ministry. I think the unwillingness is caused by a marriage between not knowing what a hard conversation looks like and a fear that such discussions, should they arise, would cause a church apocalypse. Any discussion that doesn’t protect and perpetuate the (crumbling) status quo is deadly and unwanted. Such conversations don’t attend to the “real challenges and concrete decisions” that a church has to make.

However, and this is an important however, very rarely do we stop and ask about how and why we really feel the way that we do. And this lack of reflection is showing. Why cannot we not crack open ourselves to answer questions that deal with the root of our decisions and indecisions? For example, one of my early “not my biggest frustrations” was churches who worship in physical spaces that are exceedingly too large or nonfunctional for their ministry, an inheritance from a time of single-purpose design, higher religiosity and birthrates, and lower upkeep costs.

The conversation about “what do we do now?” gets delayed because of reasons we all too often don’t want to speak out loud. Perhaps it’s because we’re afraid that we will make a financial mistake and due to poor stewardship cause the ministry to fold. We’re fearful that we’ll lose the memories we’ve attached to a specific location. We are personally satisfied and we are worried that changing something big will cause our own satisfaction to dwindle.  

These painfully personal conversations don’t happen because opening up is hard work that requires trust. And the human institution of the church, as much as we like to call it a family, is not always good at holding other people’s feelings in warm and close regard. Often, humans acting together do horrific things, things that make it hard to trust the collective with the individual’s intimate self.

Our unwillingness to be vulnerable is causing our Good News to be disconnected from our deepest self. We sterilize and package until all that is left is freeze-dried and unpalatable to even the most desperate. Goodness is mushed into blandness.

I understand that the church has lackluster obligations like paying the electric bill. But when our organizational leadership is most concerned with the earthly and not heavenly, or even the humanly, then a problem arises. I have yet to see a healthy church that doesn’t have a corresponding healthy governance structure, one that asks and reflects on the hardest questions while attempting to ask individuals to reach deeply into their feelings and ask “why do I really feel this way?”

I overheard a minister friend of mine say that whenever the folks in a church discuss important issues, one should ask “Why is that?” five times in a row to a response, causing the responder to dig deeper and deeper into their own answer, attempting to seek the root of their hope or their fear, their faith or their doubt.

Real truth occurs when we can have real conversations. They don’t just happen, though. I have to commit to trusting the group and trusting that the group will challenge and comfort me if I find out something that I don’t find savory about my own self. I have to resolve to aide others when I find out things that I don’t find appealing about them.

If you’re skimming this article, the take home pay is this: when you show up for your next church board meeting, are the folks around the table talking about something that’s deeper than replacing the lightbulbs? And if not, who is? And if no one is, then why not? And if you can, begin modeling rawness for someone else so that we can all begin to start being authentic, because authenticity starts with sheer vulnerability. Be raw, because so many of our churches are so well-done that they’re, well, done.

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[i] By “biggest frustration” I mean “the biggest frustration I have today.” Tomorrow, it’ll be something different. Frustrating, isn’t it?

[ii] This is not to diminish the reality that some churches are willing to quickly fire or abuse a minister who tries dig too deeply. That is a subject quite different than this article is attempting to deal with. 

Ceremony Seeking Meaning

By Colton Lott

I graduated from college this past May, joining about 1.9 million other students who were conferred a bachelor’s degree this year.[i] Like many of these students, I went to my commencement and heard words of life, wisdom, and foo-foo as we were set off into the sunset with shards of hope, crystalline dreams, and massive amounts of student debt (but hey, who’s counting?).[ii]

While I was decompressing in a school sponsored reception, I began talking to my favorite professor. As we were chewing the fat, one of the topics we touched on was the odd phenomenon that is graduation, especially how students in the United States make such a hullabaloo about commencement. And sports. And church. And weddings. And lots of things.

So I’ve been obsessing on why the culture I was born into obsesses about pomp and circumstance. Why is there a cavernous drive to have ever-expansive ceremonies to mark the turning points of life? Big graduations, expensive weddings, and elaborate celebrations for birthdays and anniversaries dot the landscapes of our lives, mostly without critical questioning. Kindergarten graduations are becoming formalized and holidays are becoming holimonths. This is without mentioning in detail the ways we sincerely celebrate relatively meaningless accomplishments, such as dating someone for a few weeks, doing well on a required task for school or work, or a pet’s birthday.

Capitalism drives much of this “biggering,” but to have expanded consumption serve as the only answer for this phenomenon seems stunted. A surface response is that our society is starved for true and/or profound meaning and we try to fill this hole with ever-enlarged celebrations as a supplement or substitute. But the question I’m more interested in is: “Why are we so famished for a true and/or profound meaning to enter into our lives?”

One of the biggest contributions made by the emergent church movement is it attempts to detail why and how our culture is being unanchored from what was previous understood as a “given.” Phyllis Tickle identifies our questions du jour as revolving around our collective source of authority and lack thereof; what constitutes true “human-ness;” and how we relate to other systems of life, especially other religions.[iii] Just as has happened, and will happen, we have become untethered and are desperate for a rock on which to rely.

The disciples of Jesus offer us a poignant analog. As followers of Christ, they were drawn into an alternative lifestyle that required them to live without traditional boundaries, without the culture’s guideposts that could sustain, correct, or reassure them. They were untethered, unanchored, and forced to seek new meaning for the time and place they were situated in. In Luke 9, we see Peter, James, and John following Jesus up the mountain for what will be the transfiguration of Christ and the appearance of Moses and Elijah.

When things started really happening, Peter jumps up, johnnie-on-the-spot, and wants to “construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Luke 9:33, CEB). Before Peter could even cease speaking, the other two figures leave, a voice from the cloud speaks, and they are eerily back to their regular programming.

What a celebration! What a ceremony! Like Peter, we want to capture the holiness that comes through in the flash of light, but like Peter we are powerless to do so. We cling to the hope that if we could just make these shrines bigger, just a bit bigger, we could hold down something deep, we could examine something true. But the ceremony, the pomp and circumstance, is heartbreakingly ephemeral.

The wish is that the celebration or the ceremony holds the meaning, but that is not what we experience. When Christ is transfigured, there is no significant change within him, but only the disciples’ understanding of who Jesus is—the ceremony offers only a glimmer of what the profound and/or true meaning is. Birthday parties don’t magically make someone have a year’s worth of wisdom and growth, but the celebration serves as a pause to merely recognize what has happened in the past year. One of the common critiques of marriage is that a piece of paper doesn’t “mean anything;” there is something true to this contemporary argument, as the formality and ceremony doesn’t make a meaning, but the wedding points to the change that has, is, and will be happening between two people.

As hard as we try, we can’t find solve our dilemmas and problems of the twenty-first century by making ceremonies and celebrations more spectacular in the hope that they will be more meaningful. While it would be easier, we can’t substitute the party for the cause of the party. We have to continue struggling and asking the hard questions of meaning, even though the progress of answering such questions can be frustratingly minimal. Just like Peter, James, and John, we have to follow Jesus back down the mountain into a very messy, unknown world. Just as Jesus wreaked havoc for the original disciples, we are living in holy disorder, too. We live in the tension, both desperately waiting on something profound and/or true to come our way and rescue us from our insecurities and angst, and also realizing that in following the radical Jesus we slowly gain something meaningful and get to glimpse something ultimate.

 

[i] https://www.naceweb.org/press/faq.

[ii] The servicers on your debt. That’s who’s counting. And, like the undead or crab-grass, they never go away. Ever. 

[iii] This thought is detailed most accurately in her book The Great Emergence (2008).

Lead Us Not Into Temptation . . .

By Joseph Pusateri

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
(Matthew 4:8-9, NIV).

For no particular reason, I have been thinking a lot about what it would be like to go back into the secular business world. Up until 7 years ago, I worked for a very exciting food service distribution company that I liked a lot. I was very good at it, I enjoyed my job, and I made a lot of money doing it. But then, after experiencing an Extreme Makeover Home Edition build in Louisville, which my dad’s company organized and executed, I caught the bug of serving something greater than myself. That experience is hard to put into words, but when I was a part of an effort that took the total focus and selflessness of a community to pull off (building a home in 4 days), I knew whatever the essence of that was, I wanted to be apart of that. So I left the food service business to work for my dad. It was an initial pay cut, but I figured that one day, I might have an opportunity to run the company if I worked hard and paid close attention.

Then came the call into ministry, which flipped my world upside down.

I took another reduction in income in order to faithfully live my calling to serve God in professional ministry. Lest I be misunderstood, I am paid well for what I do. I know not every new minister has the opportunity to serve a church that is willing to invest financially in the ministry like the one I serve does. My bills are paid and I have not yet once felt underpaid or underappreciated. That this was a pay-reduction simply reflects the socioeconomic reality that compensation for professional ministry, like education and social services, are less than some other professions such as sales in a successful distribution or construction business. I was and remain completely satisfied with my compensation, because I don’t do what I do in order to get rich.

In fact, I love my vocation. I have been in love with my vocation since God first grabbed ahold of me. I enjoy it more today than the day I first began. Which is why I have been baffled by the near constant thought lately taking up residence in my mind, that I could or should go back into the secular business world.

You see, the Devil has been at work on me. Before that phrase convinces you to go read something else, let me explain that while demonic power has fallen out of fashion to be interpreted “supernaturally,” there is still good use of that metaphor whether you think of the Devil as a supernatural being or as the personification of malevolent powers greater than ourselves, such as the demon of endless war, poverty or greed. And the Devil’s been whispering enticing ideas in my ear. You can get more accomplished, even for this God you love, in more efficient organizations than the 2000-year old church. You can make a bigger difference. You can send your kids to college. You can avoid the insulting, snide comments of people who think you only work one hour a week. You can avoid the awkwardness at social gatherings of people who think that you are some holier-than-thou religious nut. You can stop worrying about the two or three people who left the church because they don’t like you.

Supernatural, metaphorical, socio-psychological, personified or not, let me tell you, the Devil knows your weak spots, your shadow side. And he knows mine. The Devil knows that it’s the last thing I want to tell anyone, which is precisely the reason I am writing this painfully vulnerable confession: to shine light in that shadowed corner and hope it dissolves his grip.

I am addicted to comfort, approval and my own marketability. I am able to do meaningful, daring things in ministry only because I know that if it blows up in my face, I can fall back on a good salary somewhere in the business world. Several colleagues over the years have remarked that unlike them, who have been in ministry their entire lives, I “have options.” I usually try to deflect that, but they’re right. And here’s what the Devil knows: hedging my commitment to ministry by leaving the option open to leave when the heat gets too hot, as though making a some difference is better than none at all, is trying to have my cake and eat it too. I get to have it both ways: the clear conscience of “doing the right thing” as well as the comfort of a safety net. The Devil says to Jesus, fall down and worship me, and I will let you eat your cake too. You get dominion over the all the kingdoms of the earth, which we both know is your mission, and you get it now, without having to die knowing your people will suffer for centuries as they wait for this cruel drama to play itself out. The Devil tortures Jesus. Tell me what I want to hear, and I will make all the pain stop.

But Jesus says, the people you crush under the clawed foot of evil don’t get that luxury. Without me, the poor stay poor; there’s no grand bargain for them, no hedged bets. The deal they get is more invisibility and hunger. The oppressed have no leverage, so they get no deal. They require liberation from evil by a power greater than evil, and I am that power, Jesus says. So I can never bow before you, no matter how many years are shaved off the Kingdom plan, no matter how many cries of lament are extinguished in the meantime. There is only one path to the liberation of those whom God came to save, and that is for God to literally become one of them: poor, oppressed, nailed to the imperial cross, crushed by unjust economies, jeered at by religious people.

Several weeks ago, I saw the film, Selma with my 10-year old daughter. The image that struck us both was the young, thin, white pastor (who looked a lot like me) who was murdered by racists in Alabama standing next to those whom God was working to liberate from a devil named Jim Crow. My daughter asked me if I would have been one of the white people who hurt black people or one that helped black people. I told her that I was a minister precisely for the purpose of finding that out.

The Devil repeated my daughter’s question to me this morning. He whispered it in my ear: are you willing to die like that? Are you willing to die for LGBT people? Are you willing to die for poor immigrants who shoulder the burden of the label, “illegal alien?” Are you willing to die standing on the rooftops and proclaiming that God loves Muslims and atheists too? Are you willing to give up your comfort, approval, and your backup plan for God? Are you willing to put your wife and children’s comfort at risk? Think carefully; this is not a rhetorical question. This is not an easy question. If you answer too quickly, you’ve not thought it through. Because if you’re not, then go write your résumé now. You know that you’re giving Jesus a bad name.

And this makes me so mad that I can’t stand it. The Devil whispers these things and I turn to God and I cry out, “Is this is the way it has to be? Can’t I love from a distance? Can’t I love silently, behind the scenes? Can’t I preserve the approval of my community in order to advance the Gospel in safety? I’ve given up so much! I’ve said yes to your stupid call! I’ve left a 6-figure salary and a chance to own a successful business that will ensure my children go to college, to see the world and never go hungry. Must I suffer too? What does that accomplish. Do you want the welfare of my children? They had no say in the matter!”

The silence of God is unnerving. He turns away. I open the Bible and I see God instead looking down at those who have not the things I am asked to give up. He looks at those who have no say in the matter.

Jesus says to the Devil, I cannot take your path to the ends God seeks, because what God seeks the end of your reign over my people. It is up to you to take the deal, asserts Jesus, not me. And it appears as though the Devil chooses to fight this all the way to his end. So be it, God says. That means Jesus will have to suffer and die alone with only nakedness and ridicule to accompany him. So be it. The only way to dissolve supreme evil is supreme love, and the only definition of supreme love is that which comes above everything. Every. Thing. That include one’s life. And so God has made the wager that the divine love born in his touch, in his words, on Calvary’s cross as Jesus forgave those who stripped him of dignity and life, is powerful enough to flow still among those who dare to follow him.

So I stand still at the foot of mine. And I realize that I have not yet made the decision to pick it up. Pray for me that I find the strength to do so, and never fall for the Devil’s offer to carry it for me. Pray for me.

Ministry in the Conversation...

By Rev. Mindi

In most congregations I know, if a ministry event or program got down to being just two or three people (and one of them was the pastor), they would probably look to end it soon. And until a year ago, I would probably have done the same thing.

We began our Pub Theology ministry just over two years ago, when I began at my current congregation. More accurately, we joined another congregation’s Young Adults group in the city and met with them at least once a month. Then we received a grant between the two congregations, and decided to start a new location closer to us. The idea was to grow and expand and have new folks join in and start new pub theology ministries. For a while it worked, we had other locations and folks joining us from Meetup and other online sites. Fast forward two years, and the other church group doesn’t meet anymore, and the other locations have faded out, but we still meet. Although we have had as many as fifteen, we are most often down to five or less, and sometimes just two or three. And there have been a couple of times I have been the only one.

I mentioned to my Pastoral Relations Committee once that it might be time to pull the plug on this ministry. “Oh please don’t,” a member told me. “Even if it is just you that are there, you are there on behalf of the rest of us.” Me, having a beer—or more likely, a Diet Coke—and waiting for people who will not show up that evening. No, I disagreed with her. But she continued.

“You see, I know someone who doesn’t go to church and thinks the church is just a hypocritical place. But when I told her about our Pub Theology, she listened. She said she could go to a church like that someday. And I keep inviting her and one day she will come with me. But until then—you never know who you might meet.”

It’s true, I don’t. And if I stop going, there is no opportunity.

However, I’ve stopped thinking of our Pub Theology ministry as an outreach opportunity—except for the fact that twice a month, we tip our server generously and are a witness that there are still good, kind people in the world who happen to be from a church.

Instead, I’ve seen it as a place where ministry happens in the conversation, and these kind of conversations just don’t happen in the church that we are used to. 

One of our attendees brought a friend one day who remarked that we got off-topic really quickly. Every week I bring a question or a thought to begin the conversation, and we stick with it maybe five minutes. We try to get back to it but inevitably are sidetracked. Sometimes those attending feel bad that we got sidetracked. I don’t. Unless it is someone railroading the conversation, I welcome those side trails to the discourse. That’s where I learn about relationships, work, values, goals in life, dreams that have been delayed or died, broken relationships, sorrow, joy—you name it. That’s where the real ministry is taking place, in these conversations about the lives we lead. We’ve gotten to know each other on a much deeper level than we have on Sunday morning during worship and coffee hour, or during Bible study, or any other traditional church ministry activity.

In some ways I wish we’d stop calling it Pub Theology or whatever phrase we are using, because the theological discourse—while interesting (our topic last night was hell, whether there is one or not) rarely scratches the surface. What does dig deeper is talking about our lives. And it’s there that we find the harder questions to ask and answer.

We’ve had as many as five in recent weeks, or as few as two, but they still come. And I love these meetings so much and I’m so glad that my congregation understands that they are not full of people all the time, but they are leading to fuller life.  And as one attendee said a few weeks ago: “This is Church. Right here, right now. And it’s church on Sunday morning, too. But this is no less church for me here than there.”