Missional

The Idea of a Creative Worship Space

By John O'Keefe

A Brief Memory of Childhood:

The only real memory I have of church from when I was a child was going one day with my Grandmother, she needed to talk with the Priest and I was stuck going with her. As we walked into the church I was surprised with how big it was, how dark it was, how cold it was, and how weird it smelled (weird, and not in a good way weird). I can remember it being a place where I did not want to be at that moment in time – and mostly because it was dark, cold and smelly. As we passed into the front of the church my Grandmother looked at me and said, “Go sit in the pews,” as she walked into the side rooms to talk with the guy in black. To be honest with you, for the longest time after that when people talked about “pews” I thought they were talking about how bad church smelled.

A Short (I used the term brief before and I do not desire to be redundant) History of the Pew:

Ever wonder why the church has pews? For just about 1,500 years the church had nothing for those gathered to sit on – the pew (probably both the furniture and the stink) came into the church during the reformation. I guess the idea of having to stand for hours while some long-winded minister rattled on about something or another was just too much for people to take – so, sitting became an issue.

It is true (OK, it is debatable) the Reformation brought about two major evil changes to our church life, long-winded ministers and pews (I guess the pews were added so people did not fall on the floor when they fell asleep listening to those long-winded saints.) Let me rephrase that, the first pews where not for everyone; the reformation (even though we like to think it did) never said that equality would enter the church – oh, no – only those with the big bucks and the ability to buy a pew could have a pew, the rich (after all, we can’t have the rich sleeping on the floor – they need a place to sit and sleep). You see, throughout Christendom those with the big bucks got to sit while the long-winded minister rambled (shouted may be a better word) on and on about who was going to hell and how big the hand-basket needed to be to get them there. But the regular people (the “you and me”), those who worked for a living, needed to stand in the back. Never mind, if on the off chance someone would desire to visit the church, visitors needed to stand as well. The idea was, “no cash, no ass” (if I am not mistaken there was something about grass and gas too – never mind, that was much later) But have no fear, change was on the way, and by “change” I mean another way for greed to enter the church.

Soon, many stuffy old church boards and long-winded preachers figured they could bring in some extra cash if they purchased some pews and rented them out – there we have it, the creation of “the cheap seats.” That’s right, many churches in America got the idea of “renting” the pews to help fund the church – I guess the idea of “giving cheerfully” was not something church people did at the time.

SIDE NOTE: I wonder, did the term “nose bleed section” come from people sitting in the cheap-seats falling asleep and hitting their noses on the pew in front of them?

Through the work of somewhat lesser great men, for example Richard Yates, in his pamphlet The Church in Danger (1815) estimated that over 950,000 people could not worship in a parish church. (I tend to think that those 950,000 people had no desire to be in church to hear some long-winded preacher tell them they were on their way to hell.) So, people soon realized that everyone, not just the rich, had the right to be forever uncomfortable in church – so, pews were added for all (they might not have been the best, or padded – but they were there); well, OK, when I say “all” I don’t really mean “everyone.”  In the Edinburgh Review (1853)[1] a man named William James Conybeare wrote an article entitled “Church Parties” where he mentioned that the Anglicans had adopted the slogan "Equality within the House of God.” It seems that they (those pesky Anglicans) decided that each church was only required to offer 20% free seating (no more, no less). That’s right; the Anglicans ran the first church special, “20% off your salvation seat.” In fact, the idea of “renting” pews became such an issue that some new churches, mostly in the USA, started to let people know that they were "free and open churches" where everyone could sit – keep in mind, when they said “anyone” they don’t really mean “anyone” – please, this was still the mid-1850s. By 1866, Samuel Ralph Townshend Mayer founded The Free and Open Church Association[2] (again, it was 1866, so it was not truly “free” and not even close to being “equal.”).

Generally speaking, pews have a mighty, soughed, weird, greed-filled past within the church. Yet, it took forever to get them into the church, and in some cases it will take hell freezing over to get them out.

Moving Past Pews and Into Fresh Air

Not too long ago I had a very nice conversation with a pastor from the New England area who asked, "Why would you remove the pews from the church and replace them with couches, tables and chairs?" I thought for a moment, and replied, "Well, have you ever noticed how a courtroom and a church look the same? Since one is for judgment and the other is for forgiveness, maybe we should not look like a courtroom."

The idea in creating a worship space that is comfortable for all, not just those who hold to the old tradition of pews, or even folding chairs, seems foreign to the staunch followers. For many, church should not be a comfortable place. I remember once talking with a church leader in Pennsylvania and mentioned that we should get rid of the pews and put in couches. You would have thought I suggested we kill that Jesus guy. He said, “No way. If people want to sit on couches they can stay home.” I said, “They are.”

 If the worship space is where we gather, and God lives, I think it should look more like God’s house, and less like God’s courtroom (I have a feeling God does not have pews in the living room – I see couches, chairs, tables and a killer big screen plasma TV). For this to happen we have to realize that creative people do not do their best work in large, cold, dark smelly places. Here are some thing’s I think we need to do:

First, make the space intimate. Large caverness spaces are not the best places to have an intimate moment with the Divine, or with others. I am pretty sure there is less intimacy in the football stadium church, than in the coffee house church. I do realize that this goes against everything we think of when we think of church. For many, if not most, the idea is that “the only good church is a large church.” I’m not sure that is the case. I have Pastored both, and I can tell you that intimacy is better achieved in a smaller setting. What is important to know is that intimacy also breeds creativity.

Creativity requires that people connect, people share, people talk, people listen, people touch. Without it, without intimacy you will never have the foundations of creativity.

Second, get warm. Now, I am not talking about setting the thermostat at a certain level (though that helps) I am talking about opening up to others. At some level this is related to the idea of having an intimate space, because in that space you are able to connect with others. When I walked into that church when I was a kid, it was cold. Yes, it was physically cold, but it was “cold” – it lacked a human dimension. You see, warmth comes from human contact and seeing that there is human life in the building. We have to get past this idea that everything needs to be spotless, and everything needs to be in its place. When humans enter a space, chaos ensues. Humans bring with them “stuff” (crap, if you will – physical crap, emotional crap, and spiritual crap). Let that “stuff” be, let it form, let it birth the creativity in others.

Third, turn on some lights. I like darkness, and yes it is easy on the eyes, but I have no desire to live in darkness. Let the light shine in; let the light disinfect the space. For many, it is creepy to walk into a dark place, find a spot on a wooden bench and try to connect with others. When I sat waiting for my Grandmother, I keep looking under the seat because I just knew there was some freak monster under the seat – and it was going to grab me and eat me alive.

Lastly, air it out. Now, when I talk about “smells” I am not talking about incense, or candles – those are cool (and let’s be honest, they can hide the smell of the crap that comes in) I’m talking about that musty, rank smell of old. I’m talking about that smell everyone knows about but has no desire to talk about. That weird smell; the one when you ask “what is that smell” everyone says “We have no idea, but it’s always been here.” By letting the light in, by airing out the place, by making it more intimate that smell will go away – that smell could be old books, the ones published long before the oldest member of the church was born and no one reads (dump them – even if you think they are classics – trust me, they’re not) – that smell could be old theology, the kind that hides in the small cracks in the wall only to show itself at the worse time ever (dump it – it has no value and all it does is crowd the room and make it smell). That smell could be old traditions, old memories, old furniture or so many other things. But for the church to truly air out and invite creativity to move in, you have to air out the smell.

Closing

Don’t “think outside the box,” think as if there is no box to begin with. Do not fear change, embrace it and move the church forward.

[1] Sydney Smith (1853). Edinburgh Review, Or Critical Journal. A. and C. Black. p. 309. Retrieved 27 February 2013.

[2]  "Mayer, Samuel Ralph Townshend". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.

 

SCOTUS Decisions—Reflections Part 2

By Rev. Mindi

This morning on the West Coast I quickly turned to the news at 7 a.m. just in time for the breaking news to be revealed that DOMA had been struck down, and in the revealing of the decision and the minority opinion it was clear that Prop 8 would also be struck down.

I rejoice in that there is no federal reason for denying people the right to marry or to deny benefits for certain types of marriages. However, the ruling leaves it still up to states to pass equal marriage laws.

As many have already noted, if one really is for civil rights, for human rights—we cannot rejoice fully. Voting rights have been restricted; Euro-American cultural values have been valued as the norm; we still do not acknowledge the T in LGBT. Trans rights are often ignored or scoffed at, though there are currently several court cases for trans teens fighting for their rights in state courts. Teenagers are the ones speaking out for their own rights because teachers and administrators have failed to do so.  And as a parent of a child with special needs, even though we have had the IDEA act renewed in 2004, we find our rights and our son’s rights violated everywhere we turn in the public school system. And we are Euro-American—add in other cultural differences and different languages, and we find that even Supreme Court rulings do not guarantee rights for all will be granted.

As people of faith, we must lead the way on human rights. We must listen to the minority voices in our congregations and beyond in our communities, and work for justice for all. It’s easy to take a quick look at one’s congregation and see some of the issues they face, whether it’s the right to marry, the right to receive disability benefits, the right to get a driver’s license; it’s much harder to know whose rights are violated with the lack of a comprehensive immigration law, who doesn’t have access to adequate health care, and other rights that may be violated or ignored. If we assume a certain issue does not apply to our congregation so we can ignore it or evade it, we are failing the community at large.

Church Buildings and Plastic Couch Covers

Growing up I had a friend whose family had a formal living room. I’m not sure why they had a formal living room, since they got just about as much use out of it as the crawl space under the stairs, which always seemed prone to flooding. But having a formal living room was a big deal … I guess in case the President or K.C. and the Sunshine Band stopped by to visit.

And while the President and Mr. Sunshine Band would have been welcome to sit on the plastic couch cover, ordinary human beings were not. It was a place set aside for some ultra special event that everybody believed might one day occur, and for which no one wanted to be unprepared. And so it languished in all its Teak-paneled and shag-carpeted glory, its uncomfortable looking orange couch and lacquered end tables gathering dust.

Not that it looked like a great place, either to play or relax, but I always harbored a secret desire to sneak into that living room and start moving the macraméed owl wall hangings and the vases filled with big glass balls around. I knew such hijinks in the forbidden room would be stroke-inducing to the people in charge, but dang, it felt like it needed to be done.

I suspect the need to have a perfectly preserved room (even if it looked like a touching/creepy homage to the Partridge Family) stemmed from the desire of working class folks to have nice things. Many of the folks in that generation had come of age in the aftermath of the Depression, World War II, and then the cultural pre-pubescence of the 1950s. Having nice things for certain social classes in this generation was still a relatively new phenomenon. Like domestic police, the impulse to “preserve and protect” seemed a natural response to the rapidly shifting political and cultural forces reshaping the American landscape.

“Get out of the living room!” and “You better not spill anything on the good furniture!” became the new suburban rallying cries. Some rooms were for everyday, and some rooms were for … well, never.

I preferred the family rooms of my youth to the living rooms—the former to be used, dirtied, broken, and restored, the latter to be encased in harvest gold amber, and to be later excavated by post-apocalyptic anthropologists looking to explain the domestic habits of late twentieth-century bourgeoisie.

Unfortunately, not only were the aesthetics of this time ecclesiastically enshrined in church buildings [Seriously? Burnt orange upholstery on the pews?], but so were the attitudes about church buildings as special places to be protected against all human encroachment, preserved for some special purpose at a distant point on the horizon of time.

Look, I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be places in a church that are set apart as holy space. The sanctuary probably shouldn’t double as the gym for the Day Care during the week. The baptistry probably shouldn’t house hidden jacuzzi nozzles for staff parties. We probably shouldn’t eat our Cap’n Crunch out of the offering plates. Fine.

Let me be clear, I’m thinking less about the use of particular rooms in the church than about the church building itself. In many people’s minds the church building has become the plastic-wrapped living room that should be safeguarded against the invasion of sticky-fingered people bent on messing it up.

But what if the church building was recast as a family room, to be used, dirtied, broken, and restored?

What if we turned loose of the idea that churches are antiques to be collected, rather than tools to be used to accomplish some purpose?

What if we took a chance and let the community use our space as a gift to those with whom we live and work, instead of defaulting to suspicion of motives or fear of what might happen?

Declining mainline denominations have these huge legacy buildings, sucking up more and more of our resources. What if we said, “We’re going to think about this building as a launching pad, rather than a saddle?”

We’re going to make mistakes. It’s going to get messed up. Somebody’s inevitably going to spill something on the plastic couch covers; somebody’s going to move the owl hangings and leave beer can rings on the lacquered end table.

So, fix it … or learn to love beer can rings.

People visit museums; they don’t live in them.

Unfortunate Assumptions

By Rev. Mindi

“You have to be in community in order to experience God.”

“You have to be in a covenantal relationship in order for true community to be upheld.”

“To be spiritual but not religious is just a cop-out.”

“We welcome everyone who welcomes everyone.”

All four of these sayings I have heard uttered by more than one progressive, liberal, open and affirming, postmodern pastor or church leader.  All four of these sayings, sadly, make assumptions that actually keep people from wanting to go to church, which I am sure is not their intent.

“You have to be in community in order to experience God.”

When we look at the Bible, we do find many examples of community: the early house churches, the Disciples, the communities of the Hebrews after the exile, Israel and Judah, the twelve Tribes, the band of wanderers in the desert—even going back to Jacob’s family, or Abraham and Sarah and their entourage—there was a community.  However, the statement implies usually that those outside of the church seeking spirituality are not in a community. All too often, we assume someone is not part of an existing community. And I’m not talking a church or Bible study. I meet people all the time who are in community, even spiritual community, without necessarily setting foot into a church or existing church community: book groups, 12-step programs, coffee shop gatherings, the local diner where the locals gather, the Farmer’s markets, the picket lines—there are plenty of places where community happens that has spiritual components. I’ve been part of many communities outside of church where prayer, questioning, meditating, social action, concern and care take place. We need to strip away the assumptions that those outside of the church are not in community already.

“You have to be in a covenantal relationship in order for true community to be upheld.”

What that sounds like to someone who doesn’t use covenantal language on a daily basis (and trust me, fewer in the church actually do than we think they do, but I digress…) is that there is some sort of contract, some sort of membership clause that makes everything official, and if you don’t sign on the dotted line, it’s not official. I’ve had pastors argue this with me all the time. We need to unpack what it means to be in a covenantal relationship. When God makes a covenant with the people of Israel in the wilderness, God does not require them all to sign a contract. Rather, they make an affirmation of faith in the community, together. I’ve seen some churches do this better—a yearly affirmation of the covenant, rather than a one-time membership course and public declaration of membership.  But the assumption is again that people on the outside of the church aren’t in a covenantal relationship, or that those who visit church but haven’t joined aren’t ready for that kind of commitment. They may be ready for that commitment, but don’t want to join through an outdated “you’re in the club” membership system that too many of our churches use.

And there’s also the assumption that some kind of commitment needs to be made verbally or in writing. More and more often, I am meeting couples who are choosing not to get married, or choosing to wait to get married. Like it or not, this is happening more often.  There is a culture shift about what that kind of covenantal relationship means. For some, it is a way of not making such a deep commitment without serious thought and time to be sure this is what they want. For others, they don’t have the same need for themselves to make a legal, binding, contractual commitment—they see their relationship commitments differently. We need to understand this cultural shift, because it also applies to whether or not people want to join a church or any other organized way of being in spiritual community.  While I still uphold the tradition of covenantal relationship in the church, I also understand that others do not have the same need for making a commitment in the same way to an organization—they prefer to be in the group when their heart is in it, and to move on when it is no longer living up to what it claimed to be or fulfilling their needs. 

This attitude is not new—how many members are on your roles who never come to church?  Just because we may claim that covenantal relationship is key for true spiritual community doesn’t mean we’ve been particularly good at it ourselves.  We may need to reexamine what we mean by all of this commitment business anyway.

“To be spiritual but not religious is just a cop-out.”

Our saying this publically is not going to get those who feel spiritual but not religious to engage in any kind of conversation with those who claim to be religious. While you might roll your eyes at the “spiritual but not religious” claim, you’re not doing anything to invite those who feel that way into a conversation.  What we might do is ask them what it means to be spiritual for them, and if there are spiritual practices they engage in. Make a few friends who are spiritual but not religious. In my time as a pastor, I have found them to be my very best friends—people who understand my faith but don’t want to be part of organized religion. They are the ones I can confide in, turn to with my own questions and wonderings. And sometimes they see that we on the religious side can be spiritual, too.  And you might just find that SBNR folks do gather together in their own communities, or come together at prayer vigils, book groups, and other such gatherings.

“We welcome everyone who welcomes everyone.”

In other words, we welcome those who think and look like us. Yup. I’ve heard this from so many liberal/progressive leaders over the years who don’t seem to hear what they are saying. There is no discussion, there is no room for dialogue. And I’m not talking about only welcoming people who disagree with me, but also welcoming people who have been abused and wounded by the church. They may not be the most welcoming people. They may not ever feel comfortable setting foot inside a church. In the SBNR discussion, one thing that gets overlooked is just how many people have been hurt by the church in general. So many of my friends who claim SBNR grew up in a church where they were taught to be ashamed of who they were, where they were made to feel guilty for choices they made as a teenager, who experienced the loss of trust of a leader, who were the victim of gossip and lies in the church.  I know one experience where a child’s parents were divorced in the church, and the gossip and backstabbing that happened in the life of the congregation discussing her parent’s divorce has made her adamant to never set foot in such a place again.

So what do we do?

For one, I think we have to stop speaking such assumptions. I think as church leaders, we need to become more involved in the community around us, specifically finding who and where the SBNR folks are around us. Secondly, we have to stop the public judging. Third, we need to simply stop making assumptions about why people don’t go to church, because those assumptions are what drive every single program designed to reach the “unchurched,” every single change that a congregation makes that is not something they would normally do but in hopes that it might bring in younger people who don’t go to church.  Those changes and programs do nothing but burn us out even more in the long run.  Fourth, we have to have vision.  And that vision has to include the very real possibility that church as we know it, church the way we grew up with it, isn’t going to exist in the next generation.

This is not easy. But I think the stripping away of our assumptions is the first step towards moving forward in this new world as the people of God, followers of Jesus, Christians. If church truly is a people, as the old song says, and not the building, the steeple, the resting place, the programs, the worship service, the coffee hour, the youth group, etc., then we must go and be with the people, and we must listen and learn from them. In order to do that, we must let go of our assumptions: about what people are looking for, about why they don’t come to church, and also, the main assumption that we know better than they do. Because if we did know better, we wouldn’t be in this place, would we?

"We need all kinds of thinkers."

by Rev. Mindi

My husband and I had the opportunity to hear Temple Grandin speak last week. Temple is, of course, probably one of the most famous people with autism that we know of today, but as Temple shared, many also suspect people such as Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs had undiagnosed autism. Albert Einstein did not speak until the age of three, and Steve Jobs had few friends and was socially awkward as a child and youth.

While Temple has contributed much to our more current understandings of how people live in the world with autism, I was reminded that she is one person, with one set of experiences, and that as parent of a child with autism our experience and our son’s experience is different.  Her experience has taught her that sometimes the rest of us try to make it too easy and we don’t challenge our children enough. Perhaps there is some wisdom in that; maybe we do make it too easy at times. However, I am again reminded that is her opinion from her experience, and that we knew little about autism when she was a child. While we still don’t know as much, we do know that intensive therapies such as speech-language and behavioral therapy can go a long way in helping a child with autism achieve access to education as “typically developing” children do today.  We have had to think differently about how we care and educate children with autism, and we are continuing to do so.

But what I took away from Temple’s speech was that “We need all kinds of thinkers.” She thinks in pictures. She did not do well in math, especially algebra, but she is known for her incredible, creative designs for cattle farmers because she drew them out in elaborate detail.  She sees things in pictures. While many of us start at the top with a large concept and work our way through a problem by breaking it down into smaller pieces, she starts with the smaller pieces. She thinks differently. And many people living with autism do. Steve Jobs , as she shared, started by dreaming of an interface that was easy to use. He didn’t start with trying to figure out how to develop the software to do it—he left that to the engineers.

In the church, we need all kinds of thinkers. We need dreamers who dream of the church differently, out-of-the-box, along with the people who work on the ideas and ministries that help us to move into the new church concept. All too often, we are still working from the old concept, and we expect the pastor to do it all. We are not working out of the box, we are instead looking at the old concept of church and breaking down into smaller pieces: Christian education, outreach, programs, Bible Study, Youth ministry, etc. I have seen way too many churches think if they just hire a new Youth Minister everything will change for the good, or if they just try a new program for Young Adults they will change. But the truth is they aren’t looking for that kind of change—they are looking to fix one small problem without seeing the larger picture: the church they once knew is dying. Or dead. Or just completely outdated and irrelevant. And the pastor often gets blamed when the change does not occur (as expected).

We need all kinds of thinkers. We need dreamers and imaginers and organizers and planners. We need to go back to vision and purpose: who do we imagine God desires us to be as the church? Are we fulfilling that dream and vision, or are we fulfilling a plan of the past, an old model that doesn’t mean the same thing anymore?  How can we think out of the box in this world, today?

More importantly, how can we use all kinds of thinkers? How can we bring in the doubters and the strugglers, the ones who don’t know (and perhaps don’t care too much) about our denominational identity along with the cradle churchgoers? Or, to think even more outside of the box, how do we go out and be the church with all of these?

We need all kinds of thinkers. This isn’t easy to do, but we need to let go of the old models of programs and staff configurations and even building maintenance to move into a model of being the church as Christ’s Body. The church, since even the early days, has been challenged to think outside of the box. In many ways, this isn’t something new. It’s just time to dream it up again, and to include the dreamers who might think about church differently than you. It’s not enough to include a token young adult or youth on a committee; a church needs to engage communities of youth and young adults and actually desire to build a relationship. It’s not enough to say “Let’s have a program for young families to get them into the church;” a church needs to think outside the box and look at the greater picture: are we really a child-friendly church? Are we welcoming of children who may cry or run around? Do we provide child care? Do we care if children eat all the cookies at coffee hour? And are we welcoming of non-traditional families? How do we include families whose children may live with another parent and only attend on occasion?

It’s time to think outside the box, and to do that, we’re going to need some help. We’re going to need all kinds of thinkers.

Silence

by Rev. Mindi

Nation, we’ve had a rough seven months.

Superstorm Sandy. Newtown. The Boston Marathon. West, Texas. Moore, Oklahoma.

And there are more tragedies that don’t make the national news, or at least not to the same degree. The Mother’s Day shooting in the 7th Ward of New Orleans. Other school shootings. Gang violence. Homophobic violence.  Massive fires in Southern California. Natural and unnatural disasters.

It’s all a bit too much for us to take at times. For many of us, our first reaction is shock and shared grief. It may hit very close to home (for us, my husband’s cousin lost their home in Sandy, my in-laws live in Newtown, and we own a home in Southern Oklahoma where we lived just a year ago) or it may just be the shared shock and grief we have when a child, the epitome of innocence and hope and joy, is killed.

For others, our first reaction is to act. How can we help? What can we do? We hear the stories of heroes, the First Responders, the ones who put their own lives in danger to save the lives of others. We hear the stories of teachers who bravely shielded the children in their classroom from bullets or tornadoes. We want to do something that can help and honor those who have given of their lives.

But still, for some, there is a need to say something. A need to speak, a need to put meaning into words. And this is very, very dangerous ground. There was a flurry of activity on Twitter yesterday, much of it deleted today, but the stings of those words are still fresh.

From the right, we hear this is God’s will. We hear Scripture spoken as if to say this is part of God’s plan. We hear words of judgment and condemnation of those who claim to speak for God.Those words, even if one agrees with them, do NOT bring comfort to those who are mourning, do NOT bring healing to those who are hurting.

From the left, we hear blame. We hear messages about climate change, lack of funds for disaster relief, and poor payment of teachers. We hear words of judgment and condemnation towards those who disagree with them.  While one might agree with these opinions, those words do NOT bring comfort to those who are mourning, do NOT bring healing to those who are hurting.

Church, we are called to be different. We are called to be Living Hope.  We are called to both action and silence. 

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”  Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  John 11:32-37

Perhaps our own response ought to be silence, weeping, and then action. Perhaps words are utterly unnecessary, and even harmful.

*You can give through the One Great Hour of Sharing (Week of Compassion) in your local Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), American Baptist, United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian Church USA, Cumberland Presbyterian Church, AME Zion, and Reformed Church in America to help those in Oklahoma with tornado disaster relief.

Idealized Failure

By J.C. Mitchell

Growing up in New England, I remember going to Woolworth’s counter and spinning the seats, but generally my mother would take us to a different store called Caldor.  It was a regional discount department store that originally started as a 5 & Dime.  It was where I am sure most of my toys and clothes were purchased.  I even remember the tent that I picked out when I turned ten was from this predecessor to Wal-Mart.  There were stores throughout the East, but the one in Ridgefield and Norwalk were the two I knew like the back of my hand.  

Caldor is no more than a fond memory, for the Ridgefield store is now a Kohl’s, and in Norwalk, a Wal-Mart.  Honestly the items are not very different, especially since fashion seems to repeat itself, and retro is currently quite popular.  Therefore I have been known to say to Mindi often, “Let’s go to Caldor,” referring to Kohl’s, Wal-Mart, or Freddies.  Her correction has turned to a laugh, for it is generally all the same thing anyway.  

Caldor and Woolworth’s both came to end in the same decade, but the former was the one where I had the stronger memories.  Today I compare any department stores to my Caldor.  I say “my” for it is actually an idealized memory.  Kohl’s and Wal-Mart are the successful competition, yet I can’t shake my boyhood memory.

Living in the past can keep stuck us in the present: it is not the past because you actually cannot go back, but you cannot go forward as well.  We all have our Caldors and the church is often one of our strongest.  Of course, a store is not nearly as emotional as a church, but it is easy to see how hard it is to progress when we only have the conversations that start with, “I remember….” Or “What if…”  Well, the reality is I now shop at Freddies (Fred Meyers) and I still have the essentials and some things I want and do not need. 

 So upon reflecting on my Caldor memory, I realize it was not their prices or logo, but that my mom would bring me there with my sister. That when I put on a new shirt, even if it wasn’t bought at a fancy store, I knew of my mother’s love.    I worry less about remembering the store or trying to figure out how they could have stayed competitive.  I am fine with knowing the store was for a season, but the memory lasts a lifetime, compelling me to make similar memories with AJ, my son. 

Early in this millennium the church has seen a lot of attempts of change.  We are not a business, which I cannot over emphasize, but I do believe we can learn from the reality of these “failed” department stores.  Of course I am sharing how my memory is often trapped by our idealization of our past.  This is a very real problem and we need to be aware of this when looking to implement new ways of being church, be it in worship, study, programs, or space.  The other key is to remember that we can also learn from “failed” ministries.  I put that word in quotes, because is it a failure to have served people but only for a specific time?  I do not think so.  

If we are looking to create new churches and new programs to serve people that have felt the church is not relevant, we need to understand we are not to create an institution that will last for eternity.  That is for the Divine, not us.  I want to be clear that we should not make the Gospel relevant: the Gospel is relevant.  However, the reality is there are many people that are suspicious, bored, or mad at the human institution we wrap the relevant Gospel within.  So if we criticize the traditional model and believe it must change, and even die to make room for a Resurrection--we must be ready that our new emergent programs, churches, thoughts, and ways will not last forever, either.  

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Rethinking Routine

By Rev. Mindi

As a mom of a child with special needs, I understand the importance of routine, stability, and predictability. It’s comfortable, it’s familiar, and it’s simply what one knows. But over time, even the routine needs a little mixing up now and then, because what ends up happening is not the routine you first established, but a second routine that emerges. This second routine creeps up on you out of nowhere. One day you have activities scheduled out—a good healthy mix of physical play, one-on-one learning, quiet time, therapies, etc. You bring in music and reading and flashcards and the latest technology. But over time, quiet time turns into putting-on-a-DVD-so-mom-can-take-a-shower, music time turns into putting-on-Steve-Songs-because-it-makes-my-child-happy, physical play is going-to-the-park-and-running-while-mom-checks-her-emails-on-her-phone, and so on and so forth. There are some things still established: regular appointments with therapists, regular play groups, etc, but other things fall through the cracks over time. The second routine emerges accidentally, without thought, and while it resembles the intentions of the first, it is not the first.

This is what I believe happens often in our churches.  The first routine that was established: the worship service, the education programs, the outreach opportunities, the fellowship events—these were all great ideas and worked well at the time. But over time, the routine has slipped away into finding a program for our kids and filling teaching positions with volunteers that are reluctant to step up, dropping away from outreach unless someone can come up with a new idea, reducing fellowship to coffee hour and doing the same order of worship that we’ve done for the past forty years.  At times we manage to shake up one thing—try moving the Sunday school hour, try contemporary music instead of traditional hymns—but we haven’t looked over the whole routine.

When I realize as a parent we’ve gone into the second routine, I try to go back to the beginning—not to the first routine, but I try to go back and see where things started to slip up and look at the root of routine change. It may be that the first routine set up was too rigid, too structured. It may be that what once worked for my son (such as a particular CD) has become boring and he won’t pay attention any longer, or a certain system for communication isn’t working any longer. We have to rethink how we do that part of the routine, and in rethinking that part, I may have to rethink the whole thing.

As a church, it may be it’s time to rethink the whole thing. Is worship really the central part of who we are? Do we still count attendance by how many are sitting in the pews on Sunday, or do we think of all the people we’ve reached out to during the week (which also leads us to ask the question, should be concerned about numbers anyway)?  What is our goal, our purpose, our vision? If it is to share the message of God’s love through Jesus Christ, is that best done through a worship service on a Sunday morning, or through volunteering time at a food pantry on Saturday afternoon? Does Christian education have to take place on a weekly basis in classrooms or Children’s Church, or can it take place alongside parents and other adults volunteering, or at a playground, or at a coffee shop (or ice-cream parlor—I used to do my Baptism classes at a local frozen yogurt shop!)

What is your church’s routine? What was its original intention, and what does it look like now? Is it time to rethink your routine?

Coming Out as a Christian Liberal

By Rev. Mindi

I attended and graduated from a small, liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest, a college affiliated with my denomination.  In my first year, I became involved in all of the different Christian organizations on campus, ranging theologically from middle of the road to conservative. The few theologically liberal Christians on campus that I knew (that admitted to being Christian) didn’t attend most of the Christian organizations’ events or kept quiet about being theologically liberal most of the time, as I did for my first year.

But by my sophomore year I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. I didn’t like hiding part of myself just so I could feel like I belonged and fit in to Campus Crusade or any of the other groups. I grew up in a congregation that was Welcoming and Affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning folks, and there was a group on campus that was the equivalent of a gay/straight alliance. In addition, my pastor had recently written a book about his journey as an evangelical pastor coming from a place of “love the sinner,” to full acceptance and affirmation of gay and lesbian people. I wanted to share this book with the group and hopefully find a place where I was welcome with my liberal Christian theology.

I attended my first meeting and after about a half hour, I finally introduced myself. When I mentioned I had brought copies of my pastor’s book for free, I heard a collective gasp as people’s eyes grew wide. I suddenly realized they thought I was there to condemn them and I quickly had to assure them that was not the case.  Once they knew I was not only an ally but convinced by my beliefs that God’s love meant a full inclusion of all people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, the tension left the room.  Following the meeting, several people stayed and we chatted about our religious backgrounds.

What followed was story after story of rejection. A Missouri Synod Lutheran who had faithfully attended church with her grandparents until she came out at seventeen and when the church rejected her, she rejected the church and Christianity. A Catholic who now identified as spiritual but not religious. An evangelical Christian who was now an atheist because she had not experienced love from Christians in the way she imagined love was supposed to be.  Story after story after story. 

And finally, a story of acceptance.  After almost everyone had left, a woman who identified as a Quaker and attended the local Friend’s meeting spoke to me. She spearheaded change in the food purchases by the campus cafeteria in regards to migrant worker’s rights and was involved in raising awareness of social issues on campus.  She shared that it was her trust in Jesus’ teachings in why she was involved so much in the local community.  But as far as I know, she never shared about her faith in that way outside of this small gathering, with the few who had not left.

It’s time for liberal Christians to come out and stand up. This week, Jason Collins came out (and I had to look up who he was because I’m not an NBA basketball fan). Sixteen years ago yesterday, Ellen DeGeneres came out on live TV. I was in college, junior year, at a “coming out” party put on by the student group and the one fraternity on campus that did not discriminate based on sexual orientation.  Every day, people come out to their families, to their pastors, to their bosses, to their friends.

How many liberal Christians still hide their beliefs, because they don’t want to rock the boat? How many liberal Christian pastors stay quiet when a member says a derogatory slur, making the excuse that “they are a long-term member, I can’t offend them,” or some other excuse? How many liberal Christian leaders say nothing because “the issue hasn’t come up in my congregation”? 

How many more stories will we continue to hear of people who have been rejected by their church, so they have rejected their church, their religion, or God, altogether?

It’s been seventeen years since I sat in that campus room and came out as a liberal, welcoming and affirming Christian. After that moment, I didn’t hold back from my friends my views. Eventually I dropped out of most of the campus Christian organizations, except for one, the Student Chaplain’s group. My junior year also marked the year I was not alone. While I had known a few other liberal Christians on campus involved in the different organizations, they had kept quiet in public about their views. But my junior year, two others from the Student Chaplain’s joined the gay/straight campus alliance group. And one eventually came out about her sexuality as well.  And that all happened because one night I was hanging out with members of the alliance group and these two Student Chaplains came up to me and I introduced them and invited them to join the alliance group.  

It’s been seventeen years, and yet I know so many pastors still afraid to come out as welcoming and affirming or open and affirming today. It’s long overdue, friends. Come on out. Stand up for equality and justice for all LGBT folks. Even if you don’t think your church is ready to join O&A or W&A yet, they aren’t going to get there at all unless they know their pastor will help lead the way. And you never know what youth is hanging on by a thread, needing to know not only that God loves them, but that God’s representatives in their community—their church and especially their pastor—love them too. Otherwise, I fear that more college campus alliance groups will be filled with the same stories mine was—stories of rejection and loss, instead of stories of Christ’s love, faith, and hope.

Growing Peace

By Rev. Mindi

I lived in the Boston area for ten years, attending seminary in Newton, just blocks from the Marathon route on Comm Ave (Commonwealth Avenue for non-Massachusetts peeps).  For the first six years I could walk to the same spot where Centre Street crosses Comm Ave and watch for the runners I knew. One year the youth of my church and I made posters for one of our members running the race, staying until we spotted her and could give her our high-five blessings of encouragement.  My last four years, I lived in Framingham, Massachusetts, closer to the start of the race, and I would drive to downtown Framingham early before the road was closed, park my car at the Assembly of God church and meet my friend, Pastor Bob, and we would set up our chairs along Rt. 135, near the Dunkin Donuts.  But it was in my first visit to Boston in 1999, when I was checking out seminaries, that I first saw the small tortoise and hare statues that grace the end of the Boston Marathon in Boston on Boylston Street.

I am still recovering from Newtown, so I don’t feel like the weight of what has happened in Boston has fully hit me yet. A colleague remarked to me after Newtown that many of us were “walking around with PTSD.” With social media, 24/7 news coverage, instant photos (whether real or fake)—the bombarding of information so quickly, the plethora of connections we now have (many of us know someone now, perhaps through friends or family, or maybe a Facebook friend of a friend, for example), we all feel like we know someone there, whether we do in our day-to-day life, or not—more of us are experiencing closeness to these events, to these people who have suffered loss.  In turn, we are suffering collective PTSD.

Of course, whenever something like this occurs, there are reminders that many others in the world live with this kind of terror on a more regular basis. Whether its suicide bombers in Palestine and Israel, drone strikes in Pakistan, IED’s in Afghanistan, or car bombings in other parts of the world that barely register a blip on U.S. news, if at all, there are probably many more people around the world who suffer from collective PTSD on a more regular basis. 

And just like after Newtown, some of the first articles of advice on dealing with violence are geared toward how to talk with children about the events. Good stuff. We need those resources and I’m glad they are there, just as I’m glad that the quote from Rev. Fred Rogers keeps resurfacing about looking “for the helpers.”  We all need those reminders, not just children.

But we need more. We need to do more than just talk to our children about this. We need to do more for all of us. 

I believe, as followers of the Prince of Peace, we have got to live out God’s ways of peace. There’s just no other way.

We need to work on eliminating the language of violence from our vocabulary. We need to work on practicing peace in our daily lives, with our family, friends and neighbors. We need to live into the ways of peace by being aware of where the products we buy come from, how they were harvested or mined, and what happened to the people who worked for those products.  All of the little things we can do.

And then we need to get beyond ourselves. We need to grow our churches into peace churches. We need to say that in the name of Christ, we will no longer live into the violent ways of our world. We will no longer allow violence to have power, to have the final word.

By becoming peace churches, we have the opportunity to transform our communities through education, service and outreach—all the same things we always try to do for our own church growth, but instead, now we are doing it for God’s Shalom.  We have the opportunity to partner with other peace and justice organizations. We are doing this because we want the world to be transformed. 

So I urge you to check out the peace resources offered by the Disciples Peace Fellowship or the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America or other Christian Peace organizations, and work towards growing a peace church. Peace isn’t just something we teach to our children; we still have much to learn ourselves, and there is much for us to do in the work for peace, together.

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.

Becoming Unchurched

By Rev. Mindi

When I was in seminary, I remember attending denominational events for seminarians and new pastors in which we talked about the “unchurched.”  Questions were asked in workshops and seminars about how we were going to reach the unchurched. Friends were being called to positions such as Ministers of Outreach whose primarily function was to seek the unchurched and somehow get them to come to their church.

Though the language may have changed over the past fifteen years, from referring to those who don’t go to church as the “unchurched” to the “nones,” the terms we use are all based on old, and often false, assumptions. We assume that the “unchurched” have never been to church and just don’t know what it is we have to offer.  We assume that they don’t know anything about the Bible, God, Jesus, or church.  We assume that the “nones” have no spiritual or religious background and were not brought up with any traditions and that they are out there, lost, and in need of what we have to offer.  Notice that there are an awful lot of assumptions made in this paragraph about the church, and the last, big assumption, is that we have what others are looking for. 

Okay, wait, there is one more assumption: we assume that in bringing people from the outside in we are doing the best thing for them: to make them “churched.”

We want others to conform to us. We know what’s best, because we’ve been doing it this way since before we can remember.  This is how you are Christian, this is how you do church.  If you are on the outside, you are not churched.

It’s time to become unchurched.  It’s time to remove the divisions, that somehow those on the inside have it right. Becoming unchurched doesn’t mean that those outside have it right, either, but rather we are removing the distinction of inside vs. outside, churched vs. unchurched, spiritual vs. religious.  It is time to take off the lens of church that we see everything through.  It’s time for us to do our part to break away from the old assumptions held deep within the walls of the concept of church.  It’s also time for us to stop assuming that people who aren’t in church or affiliated with a local institution of faith are not spiritual, are not religious, and are lacking something in their life.  Maybe it’s less about what we have to offer and more about what we can learn from listening to each other.

Let us become unchurched.  Let us listen to other’s stories and share our stories.  Let us focus not on bringing others in but on breaking down divisions.  It’s not about closing doors and emptying buildings as much as it is removing the barriers that have been put in place.  For there is no Jew or Greek, nor slave nor free, neither male nor female; neither is there church or unchurched, spiritual or religious, haves or nones; for all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Practice of Stewardship

I’m going to begin by saying I don’t have the answers to this. I’ve been thinking about this since I started at this church in September, even before I began, and still haven’t come up with an answer.

How do we practice stewardship better with limited resources?

Facts: few people give 10% of their income anymore.  I know I don’t, and can’t, with the amount of student loan debt, healthcare expenses and other things that have been added into my life. I’d like to give 10% and strive to get closer to that amount, but I can’t right now. 

In larger congregations, traditional stewardship campaigns may work, but I bet they don’t work as well as they used to.  While you may have a greater pool of people who can give ten percent or more, it’s not the same as it once was.  In smaller congregations, the pool of course is much smaller.  And there are income demographics to take into consideration.  I currently serve a small church, with most folks on a fixed income (retired) or two-income households that still struggle to make ends meet.  Most young adults in my congregation still live at home and/or depend upon their parents for childcare or other help. 

So what are our options, as income shrinks and operating expenses grow?

Some churches have opted to sell the building.  This is a great option for those who can go through the process.  It is difficult.  So many have memories that intertwine “church” with “building” and it is hard to let go.  I have now seen a number of congregations who have sold their building and moved into rental situations or have purchased much smaller, more efficient buildings for their ministries and they are thriving. Still others are meeting in more communal settings such as malls, schools, community centers, and bars.  Operating expenses are down, plus they have a nice financial cushion for the period afterwards.

For churches that aren’t in commercial locations, however, this can be a challenge.  Crunching the numbers, it may not be a great financial decision in the long run—short-term needs will be met, but longer term needs are set aside. 

There is, of course, the option of renting space. Most churches (in fact, I think all of the mainline Protestant churches I know if in the area) rent space to other groups.  We already do so.  What happens then is that one owns a building one cannot use except for the previously reserved times and dates.  As ministry is moving back out of the building and into the community, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but churches end up in the tenant/landlord business which isn’t always good business or good ministry.  I have seen some great models of this relationship where the church building has become more of a community center.  It can work, but it can be difficult as well.

I think, however, the question still needs to be asked of stewardship.  What does stewardship look like in the 21st century? Is it always about tithing or giving money?  What else does stewardship mean?

I have always thought of stewardship as taking care of the gifts God has given us.  Gifts such as finances, but also our time, our prayers, and our gifts.  Stewardship needs to have a holistic approach.  Those who cannot give much financially maybe give more of their time. We all know that one person in the church who does so much—they aren’t always the biggest givers financially but they are the biggest givers of themselves.  There are also those you know who are praying for you and the church.  They are giving much of their spiritual gifts and energy.  We need to find ways of cultivating those gifts and honoring those who give out of what they have.

But we still need to talk about money, and it’s not easy.  Some are repulsed by the thought of churches talking about money, especially pastors talking about money from the pulpit.  This hasn’t changed—if anything, it’s become more difficult as the gap between the rich and the poor increases.  There are those who cannot afford to give and those who don’t believe they should have to give because they can afford it. 

As I stated before, I don’t have the answers.  But I do believe we have to change the way we think about stewardship.  It’s beyond money, and yet still includes money.  It is beyond the giving of our individual gifts but it includes all that we can give, individually and collectively.   It involves the questions of how we use our buildings and whether it’s time to rent or sell our buildings.  It also involves the question of what is our purpose and vision and are we needed anymore?  

The questions about continuing on or closing are also difficult.  My small church is choosing to continue on, casting a new vision and generating new ideas and dreams for the church.  There is a lot of great energy here.  And yet, a church twice our size decided to close due to dwindling numbers.  Are we fools for thinking we can go on? Or are we dreamers with a lot of faith?  I think we may be a little of both. 

How are you addressing stewardship in your congregation?  How are you rethinking your ministries?  How are you rethinking the purpose of having a building?  How are you rethinking your church? For newer congregations, how are you addressing stewardship?

Get Out of the Office

By Rev. Mindi

In my last two pastoral positions, I was an office worker, or I worked from home once my son was born.  I did emails, prepared sermons, counseled members, met with people and did most of my work from the church office. 

This time, I wanted to be different. I wanted to get out of the office, which is in an out of the way place on the church property, and away from the church building, which is in a residential area behind a school and not something most people see and notice.  I wanted to read and do work in a public space, where I might engage in some pleasant conversation that might lead to an invitation to my church.

I’m in the Seattle area, so of course the coffee shop seemed the natural place to go (If you want coffee in Seattle, all you have to do is point and walk a block or two in that direction).  I have friends who love doing their work in the local coffee shop, and they know their baristas by name.  But the coffee shop I went to was too sterile for conversation—people were engaged clicking away on their Macbooks or reading magazines I had never heard of.  The few that were talking were in private conversations or talking about gossipy news.  I was able to get work done, but I was not able to engage others in conversation.  Staff were always busy behind the bar and working the drive-through.  Plus, I saw I wasn’t the only one with the idea.  One time, a man was sitting at his table with a very large Bible open, which he pretended to read and then scan around the coffee shop hoping someone would engage him in a conversation. I’m quite certain that had I attempted to, I would have heard more about the Bible’s “plan for my life,” and would not have actually had a theological discussion but a one-sided lecture.

Then I heard a story of a pastor who would set up in a local bakery once a week in the morning with a sign reading “The Pastor is In” (think Lucy from Peanuts).  I thought the bakery in my town might be more of a suitable location.  After indulging in chocolate croissants and cookies, though, I also found it hard to engage others in conversations.  Again, staff were always busy, often having to work in the back to prepare the delicious food that was served, and most customers did not stay long.  I still go there now and then, but more for a publically private place to read and work.

Then I found the diner. The hole-in-the-wall, greasy spoon dive place.  Where the booth seats squish down and do not spring back up.  Where there are bowls of creamer and bottles of Tabasco sauce on every table.  I brought in a couple of books to read and some light work to do. The hostess begins a conversation about what her horoscope says. The waitress asks me about what I am reading.  Every time I am in there, I see the regulars—lots of seniors who come for a cup of coffee and conversation, some truck drivers and other workers who gather for breakfast every morning, and some young couples, just off the night shift, getting in a good meal before they go to bed.  It’s a mix of class and culture, with a table of women in scarves and dress shoes next to a table with two fresh-out-of-high school workers on a breakfast date with paint on their pants.  Across from me sits Jack, who must be in his 80’s and has old faded tattoos on his arms, who comes every Tuesday to meet his Navy buddy, and at the next table another man also introduces himself as Jack, and he is a local pastor.

In one hour of having breakfast and reading at this diner, I made more ministry connections and new relationships than I had in the first four months of my ministry here.

It’s important to get out of the office.  While there may still be some who expect their pastor to be in the office, most understand that we need to be out in the community.  Sure, there are times we need to buckle down and get some things done in the office, but more and more, we need to be out and about, making connections and engaging in conversation, getting to know the people. 

Find your space in the community: a diner, a bakery, a coffee shop, a pub or an ice cream parlor (another friend I know holds office hours at an ice cream shop!).  Find the place where people more naturally engage in conversations with strangers. Get to know the regulars and the staff. Bring some work, but understand that by being a customer there, you are engaged in ministry already.  Enjoy it!

Creative Pastors, Energized Ministries

By Rev. Mindi

Some might think I’ve taken a few steps down in my career: I started off as an associate minister of a well-to-do congregation in an urban area. The type of church that pastors like to retire from.  The type of church that is often called a flagship church.  But I felt called to something else, so I moved to a smaller urban church in another town, where I had no administrator, and after my first two years, I became a solo pastor.  Then I took time off and became a volunteer chaplain and stay-at-home mom while my husband pursued a full-time call into ministry.  And now I am the part-time pastor of a very small church, which was referred to as “Oh, isn’t that church a dying church?” during a clergy conversation recently.

It’s not a dying church.  I don’t believe it is.  And while I have enjoyed each calling differently, I am loving this call because this is exactly where I am supposed to be, now.  This is how I have felt at every position I have been called to so far, and I hope it will continue.  Right now is where I am called to be.

One of the great skills that all pastors need is the skill of drawing out people’s gifts.  In my view, many of those gifts lie in great ideas—creative energy—that often lies dormant in the minds and hearts of people.  They are afraid to share their great idea because it will be turned down. Because no one will hear them. Because someone will say there isn’t enough money or enough people to do it, or it’s not the right time.  And the idea, the dream, the energy—will fizzle out, fade and even die at times.

There are different ways to draw out the gifts of others. Some will go to a meeting and say, “Anyone have any bright ideas?” It’s not exactly the best way to start, especially if you’ve had a history of people turning down ideas for the reasons mentioned above.  People may be afraid to share their ideas.  There’s also the risk that people who don’t have such great ideas, but instead say, “Church A is doing this down the street, we need to do what they are doing,” will come forth.  Just taking other people’s ideas and programs doesn’t really work and is trying to be a band-aid to the real problem, which is not using the gifts of the people you have.

What I have found in my ministry is that when I share my ideas, my energy and enthusiasm, others catch on to the spirit, but are fueled for their own ideas.  In a church where we had few children and no ideas for a Children’s ministry other than “we want them to feel welcome in the worship service,” we are now coming up with creative ideas for children’s space within the worship service as well as for those who would prefer to go to their own space downstairs (cleaning out the nursery that has been used as a storage facility for the past few years).  We are moving from a Wednesday night Bible study series into a Pub theology forum.  And while I may have begun with these ideas, others in my congregation are now sharing their ideas for Children’s ministry, outreach to seniors, and other ways to be involved in the community.

In order to give space for people to use their gifts, to share their creative energy through their ideas and dreams, a leader also has to be willing to share their creative energy, their ideas and dreams. And it all takes a little work. There are still the same trip-ups that happen, where someone shares the idea but doesn’t want to do the work. Some ideas sound really great but are awful once you start implementing them, or just don’t fit your community.  Time and again I have found myself starting off with a great idea, then find myself doing the work, then realizing that if I stopped no one would really notice (except with a “Why aren’t we doing that anymore?” question at the next board meeting).

But don’t stop. Try and try again. I have found in all of my ministry locations that when I come to the table with ideas, not only do others get on board, but they get inspired. They remember the idea they once had a few years ago and find the courage to bring it up again.  They see your energy and enthusiasm and are encouraged to tap into their God-given gifts and creativity.

There is life in the small churches, and perhaps there is still time to re-create the vision (Habakkuk 2:2), to be inspired again, to see the possibilities for new life in ideas that had been dormant for so long.  So don’t give up. Be creative. Let your ideas flow. Go for it.