Leadership

De-Centering

By Rev. Mindi

“We’ve always done it that way before.”

You probably have heard of the Seven Deadly Words of the Church. And it doesn’t matter how often we talk about the need for change or transformation, or that we are in the 21st century, these words creep back up into board meetings, coffee hour conversations, and other areas of decision-making and complaining. Other variations of this are “We’ve never done it this way before” and “We tried it once, it didn’t work.”

All of these statements center us and our experience. The universal “we” can mean the whole church, or it can mean a small group of people, or it can mean just one person under the assumption that there must be more than one. Whatever the case, they are centering themselves. The reason whatever-it-is-you-are-trying-to-change won’t work is because from their experience, from their perspective, it won’t. They are putting their experience above any others.

How do we take a step back in these conversations in congregational life? How do we de-center the ones dominating the conversation when it comes to being the Christian Church in the 21st century? 

This question of de-centering has greater implications. In the current climate of the United States, too often white persons have centered themselves in conversations about race. White people have decided what is or is not racist, what actions are or are not racially motivated. Straight people have centered themselves in the conversations about welcoming and affirming gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Cis-gendered people have centered themselves in the conversations about what gender is or is not. Often, we center ourselves in the conversations that really have to do with other people and not with us, just whether or not it makes us comfortable, and we dominate the conversation rather than accepting an invitation to listen to those who are different.

If we are attempting to be the body of Christ and to “grow” the church (whatever “grow” may mean for you and your congregation), we need to allow for voices to come from outside. We need to de-center the insider voices and move to the outsider voices [Note: you may very well have outsider voices within your congregation—youth, elderly, people who work on Sundays, homebound, folks who come on occasion, children, disabled members, etc.] You may need to de-center the voices of those who are part of the congregation and listen to those who are not. Listen and center the voices of those in the community. 

All too often, churches find a perceived need in the community and decide to address it. However, they don’t always ask those they are supposedly serving if that is the real need that needs to be met. When we center ourselves in the context of mission and ministry, we are doing what we want, what makes us feel good—then we get upset when no one shows up, or they aren’t as grateful as we hoped they would be. We didn’t center the voices of those we should have been listening to.

In this post-Christendom 21st century, maybe it is high time we all de-centered the church voice. We are not the most important building in town. We are not the most important group. We are not the most important thing in people’s lives. God is still working in the world, in our community, and God calls out through the voices that we often have pushed to the margins. We have put ourselves first, our survival first, our prominence first. And we have failed.

I know. We’ve never done it this way before. Let’s take ourselves out of the center of the conversation, and move to listening to those voices that need to be centered. Maybe then the church can really grow into what is was intended—the body of Christ.

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. 

#MissionSummit2015

By Rev. Mindi

That’s an awfully a long hashtag. American Baptist Churches, USA, we still have a long way to go in using social media effectively.

American Baptist Churches, USA, we still have a long way to go in including our marginalized folks.

However, there was progress made at our biennial gathering in Kansas City last weekend. Besides more people tweeting this time, three out of the four general worship service preachers mentioned inclusion of LGBTQ folks. The first praised the SCOTUS ruling as a just and right ruling. The second said for far too long we have pushed LGBTQ folks out. The third said “If you have a problem with someone’s sexual orientation, go talk to Jesus.”

I know it made some people uncomfortable. I saw the walkouts. But I also recall sitting in far too many American Baptist biennial meetings and walking out with my lesbian and gay, bisexual and transgender friends as they were told, from the pulpit, that they were an abomination, full of sin and bound for hell. I have walked out to comfort so many with tears from the pain and violence of exclusion. So for those who felt they had to walk out, I didn’t have much sympathy. As another friend said, “For now, we get to stay.”

For now.

We still have a long way to go. As Baptists, we believe in Soul Freedom, and that means that I cannot tell you what to believe, and you cannot tell me what to believe. It means that you and your church are free to determine your theology and your stances on issues, and me and my church are free to determine our theology and stances. That is how it should be. And at times it may be uncomfortable when we express our Soul Freedom in ways that bump up against each other.

But will this progress continue? Will the ending of exclusion actually happen? Will our LGBTQ friends feel safe in attending a Biennial gathering without worrying about the threat of vitriol from the pulpit?

We still have a long way to go. We claimed #BlackLivesMatter from the pulpit but have yet to come out with a unified voice to work on racism within our own congregations and communities. Many of us signed a statement pledging to work on anti-racism but met resistance from some who felt it didn’t do anything. Thank goodness our outgoing President viewed this as an opportunity and read the letter from the pulpit, and we can continue the work long beyond our Mission Summit. You can read the Epistle of Metanoia from the 2015 Mission Summit here.

We still have a long way to go. We have fabulous young preachers who shared their gifts in the Festival of Young Preachers and young seminarians getting ready to enter the search process, but so many churches are cutting back salaries and opportunities. There are pastors retiring but then staying on or taking another church in their retirement instead of encouraging congregations to take the opportunity to call a young pastor. And as I’ve shared before, our definition of “young” sometimes stretches well into middle-ages, leaving the truly young pastors still looking for a call.

We have made progress. I believe it. I left with a lot of hope for our future and actual excitement about attending our next Biennial “Mission Summit” Gathering as American Baptists. But until we call younger pastors, have younger leadership represented at our national gatherings and in our national leadership, and work to include those who have been pushed to the margins because it makes some of us uncomfortable, we still have a long way to go.

Inside Out

By Rev. Mindi

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

There stood a church by a major road that said they wanted to grow. They had a beautiful old building and everyone in the community knew exactly where the church was, but few knew there was a congregation that still met there. They tried making better signs, but still, people zoomed by in their cars. Sometimes, people would stop and visit, and now and then some would stay and join the church. This congregation was not too small, but not very big. They held a Bible study and a youth group and four Sunday school classes. Still, they said they wanted to grow.

And yet… the church did not grow very much. Some were puzzled by this. Others were concerned, worried about finances. Most didn’t know what to do, except to say that they needed to advertise more. The church often said they wanted to grow, and immediately afterwards would add, “But we don’t want to be a megachurch.”

The church had traditions it practiced for years—a yearly retreat, a Christmas party—but the folks who had been there a long time never talked about what they were. The folks who had been there for a long time lamented that the new folks never came on the retreat. The newer folks said they were never invited, and they didn’t know where it was or what happened on the retreat. The Christmas party was held year after year, and everyone knew what they were supposed to bring except the new folks, who felt out of place if they came at all.

But the kicker was the time the church leadership purchased new mugs with the church logo, but gave them only to members and told the pastor and the greeters not to give them to any new people that day, because they were a gift for the church.

The church claimed to want to grow, but what it really wanted was to stay the same and not die. It wanted to keep the people they already had, and while they were friendly they were slow to welcome newer people into leadership, and sometimes those newer people faded away after a few years.

Sound familiar?

Maybe that church isn’t so far, far away after all, but way too close to home. We have become an internal institution with insider speak, hell-bent (for lack of a better term) on sticking to what we know because we don’t know what else to do. We don’t want to die, but we don’t want to do what it takes to change, because it means we have to change, and it means that the whole understanding of church we grew up with has to be turned inside out.

The first place to start is to stop. Stop using insider language. Start from within and work on moving outward. Start making sure that traditions are explained and not assumed. Start by assuming that not everyone always knows what everyone is talking about. The worst place insider language is used is in the talk of church membership. We assume everyone knows what membership means and why it is important. Even in my current church setting, though I have invited people to become a member almost every Sunday, it was only recently that someone who has been part of the church for a long time asked me about what it means to be a member and wanted to know if they could join. Even our membership language is insider language that needs to be turned inside out.

Next, look at those traditions and see if they are only practiced by a few (usually the folks who have been there a long time) and if it is time to start something new. Then look to moving outward. Moving ministries from inside the building, inside the time constraints, inside the leadership that has always done things one way at one time in one place and move back into the community.

We have to turn the church inside out in order for the church to be what it was intended to be: the body of Christ, the community of faith.


“But what about the people who have been here for so long? What about the people who have been part of this church their whole lives?”

When I’m asked that question, I often ask the person who is questioning me if they have talked to the senior generations in the church. In all of the ministries I have served, the oldest generation in the church has never been afraid of change—because everything already has changed.

We need to speak the truth. We need to stop talking about growing if we really just want things to stay the same. If we are the ones afraid of changing, then we must turn that fear inside out into hope. And if there is just one thing to change, one thing to start that you can do, its stopping our insider language.

Reverent and Rule-Breaking: There's a Woman In the Pulpit

Available today at Skylight Paths Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Available today at Skylight Paths Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble

I have had the pleasure of being part of the RevGalBlogPals community, a group of active clergywomen bloggers, and the great honor of being a contributing author in the RevGals first collective book There’s a Woman In the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments, and the Healing Power of Humor, which is being released today by Skylight Paths Publishing.

As Rev. Martha Spong, director of RevGalBlogPals and the editor of this work (as well as a seminary colleague and friend of mine), states in the introduction, “Our community includes people who are single and married and partnered and divorced and widowed, gay and straight, cis- and transgender, parents and not, clergy and clergy spouses and laypeople, with an age range of twenty-something to seventy-something…” and we come from a variety of denominations around the world. In short, you will not find another work with the personal voices of such a diverse group of clergy women.

Included in this diversity of clergy women’s personal stories are some common threads: the difficulty of following one’s call into ministry by a still male-dominated patriarchal church structure, sometimes calling women away from the denomination of their youth; the focus by others on what clergy women wear and look like; wrestling with theological questions and walking with people on their faith journeys. 

There are prayers and poetry, laments and reflections; tales of baptisms and communions, deaths and births, revelations and resolutions. The stories shared are often of those intimate moments in ministry: placing ashes upon the forehead of a stranger; praying for a dying stranger; baptizing a child; being in the ER when people are informed their loved ones are gone. These intimate moments are shared beautifully, and as I read them, renewed in me the understanding of God’s call to this important ministry I am part of as a Christian pastor.

As I read each woman’s story, I recognized my own frustrations and trying times of being a woman in ministry. I especially resonated with the tales of breaking the rules. Standing in the line of Jesus, women called into ministry have been called to break the rules—even if their denomination ordains women. We still are challenging a status quo, a cultural idea that men are ministers and women are not. And in subtler ways we have been breaking rules even in our liberal, affirming contexts, because the work is not done to welcome all and to follow Jesus’ call.

This is not just a book to give to the clergy woman you know, though she will enjoy it, I’m sure. This is the book to give to anyone considering the ministry. This is the book to give anyone who loves Jesus but isn’t sure about the church and its laundry list of rules. Guess what—some of the clergy aren’t so sure about those rules, either. Yes, there is a place for you. There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and she’s inviting you in.


Disability Advocacy in Your Community

By Rev. Mindi

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

Did you know that you can be an educational advocate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Was Like This When I Got Here

Rev. Evan Dolive

**Also posted on Sojourners** (http://www.sojo.net/blogs/2015/02/10/it-was-when-i-got-here) 

A lot has been written about the decline of the mainline church over the years. There are numerous theories have been passed around. Nearly every pew-sitting faithful Christian in America has her or his own opinion. As a minister I have heard a lot of these complaints from the masses; the request is simple. They want the church to be the center of social and political life as it seemed to be in the 1950s and 1960s. They want the pews packed with people, the nursery overflowing with babies, and the church to have the same level of particularity that it did years ago. The church today finds itself having to share time and attention with the rest of the world. Because of this (and numerous other factors), the church for the most part has seen the number of people attending the hallowed halls of a church house begin to decrease.

In an effort to find a culprit for the shrinking size and popularity of church, a scapegoat has been named and they are "young people today” — a catchall term for people under the age of 35 (or thereabouts) who have seemingly left the church en masse.

They are vilified as the sole reason and cause for the church to not be busting at the seams with people. If only those "young people" could just stop being so selfish on Sunday mornings and just come to worship God at 11 a.m. like people have been doing for years, the world might be a better place.

Maybe you have heard some of these gems before:

"Young people today don't care about religion ... unless they can find it on an iPhone."

"Young people today weren't made to come to church and that's why they aren't here."

"I know young people today like contemporary music but I don't care for it."

"Young people today would rather sleep than come worship the Lord."

"Young people today are too busy with sports and extra activities. They are too overextended. If they can put effort into sports, they can put effort into God."

"Young people will spend all day getting ready for a prom or a dance but show up to church in jeans and t-shirt."

The list goes on.

How does a "young person" effectively convey the notion that “the church was like this when I got here?”  

I have met some people who are deeply spiritual, caring, compassionate, loving people, but they don't attend church. But young people for the most part do not have a problem with the church or with Jesus or even with teachings of church. So why the absence on Sunday morning?

For many people, the problem is the people who call themselves Christians but don’t live up to Christian ideals. They say the church focuses on the wrong things; why are some people so acutely aware of the "sins" of others but cannot see the hungry child in their own backyard.

If you want young people in your church, give them something to do. Young people are ready to go, do, serve, be, and extend the ministry of Christ to all people — but they have to a place through which they are able to do so.

There is a drive in young people who want to do something greater than themselves and to give and love, but when it's met with pledge cards, committee meetings, condescending looks for wearing jeans and t-shirts, or saying they have to wait until they are 45 and have three kids to make a difference, then what's the point?  I can worship God in my house or in nature just as easily as I can in a building with stained-glass windows.

Give "young people" the chance to and they will knock your socks off ... I promise. You will see movements of God that you would have missed if you had "stayed the course."

The decline of the church is not my generation's fault. It was in decline long before I was born; it was like this when I got here. But that doesn’t mean it is too far gone. The church does a lot of things right and can still do more.

Let the "young people" lead; let them be the hands and feet of Christ in the world and watch what happens. Listen to their passions, listen to their concerns, and listen to where they feel God is leading them.

It's not "young people's" fault for the decline of the church, but they can surely be a part of the answer.

Keep the faith ... all is not lost.

You can contact Rev. Dolive at evan@evandolive.com

Inclusion and Acceptance--of those already among us

By Rev. Mindi

Recently, my son AJ was invited to a birthday party. This is a rare occurrence for us, as AJ has special needs and is not included in a classroom with typically developing peers. Though he goes on field trips and is on the playground at recess and in the cafeteria for lunch, most of the time he is in a classroom with other special needs students.  We know families with typically developing children, but AJ is often not invited to birthday parties. I’m sure it is not on purpose; I’m almost certain that he wasn’t thought of, or it was assumed that we would find it too much trouble to go, or that AJ would not be able to participate. Even when he is invited, often the other children do not interact with him. They don’t know him and don’t know how to. He doesn’t go up and talk to them like typically developing children; they have to take the initiative to go up to him, say hi and try to communicate with him.

This birthday party was great because he was not only invited, he was included and some of the kids knew him from other parties and occasions, and some of the older children did communicate with him. And when he didn’t respond at first and I told the older girl who was asking him a question that he had autism, she replied “One of my friends has autism” and went on to tell me about their friend.

This experience led me to reflect on the church, as all too often we say “no one is coming” or “there isn’t anyone to ask.” How many people do we not think of because of their age, or perceived ability, or perceived allowance of time? How often do we ask the same people over and over again, and not realize the people who are missing out on being involved in ministry?

And though I know we are all tired of the generational divide discussions, how many of our churches do not ask folks in younger generations to participate in the leadership and ministry of the church because of the assumptions we make? “They’re too busy,” or “They only come once in a while so I’m not sure how committed they are,” or even “They don’t know how to do it yet.”  I have heard all of those assumptions made about Gen Xers and Millenial church members that really wanted to be involved, but were never asked. And I wonder if the problem might be that we don’t know how to communicate past our assumptions.

Often the reality is that we act like parents planning a party, and we don’t even realize who we are not inviting. And when we do, we come up with quick excuses to dismiss them, and we’re not even conscious of what we are doing. We don’t want to be overbearing on the new family. We don’t want to burden the individual who started coming six weeks ago. We don’t want to ask the college graduate because they might get a job and be too busy or move away. We don’t invite the person who said no last time we asked because we assume they will say no again. And so on and so forth.

We need to be open to all of God’s people for all of the ministries of the church. And while I am thinking of my son AJ, I am reminded that folks with disabilities in our church are able to participate. There are a variety of ministries and a variety of gifts.

Inclusion is something we are constantly working on as a church. We want to extend the welcome to participate in the community of faith to all—but we often still have to work on including and accepting the people who are already part of us.

Change and Control

By Rev. Mindi

Recently I was part of a conversation with someone about a local nonprofit advocacy organization. The local nonprofit has had ups and downs but is less than three years old. It’s doing amazingly well for a new program. And yet, they told me that one of the founding board members feels the organization should fold because “it’s fizzling out. No one wants to be involved.”

I and others look around and see the amazing work this organization is doing, how it is reaching new people all the time, and wonder how in the world a founding member could say that. Then we realized that this founding member is tired and doesn’t want to be involved any longer, but does not want to see the organization proceed without them, and does not like the direction it is going with the new folks that have become part of it.

Immediately a little bell rang in the back of my head. This is just like church.

A lot of churches have people who are on the governing board who have been part of the congregation for a long, long time. They remember how great the church used to be, and all the programs it once had, and all the things they used to do—and because the church is no longer doing them, the church is fizzling out. Dying. Even if new people are coming in.

Now, we all know churches that hold on so dearly in hopes of not dying that they don’t ever change and eventually do end up closing. But I have seen a few churches in which those in leadership clung so tightly and were ready to have the church close and die as long as the hymns didn’t change. As long as the pastor they loved could bury them. As long as they could still sit in the same pew. And the leadership board never changed because they never asked anyone new, or made assumptions that new people couldn’t fulfill the commitments.

I guard against jumping to the conclusion that this is all elderly people in the church. Some of the greatest supporters for change in every church I have ever served and in many churches I have known have been my 80+ folks. While they love the old hymns they haven’t been afraid of trying a new song, or a new way of worship, or a new way of community involvement, even if they cannot participate at the same level any longer. I have found it doesn’t matter what age the person is; what matters is control.

Are those in leadership willing to let go of having control and allowing room for the Spirit to guide change in the congregation? Are we willing to let go of having control and allow room for new people with new ideas, insights and energy to move an organization forward? Are we willing to let go of “my way” or “our way” or “the right way?” And perhaps the greater question, for both the nonprofit organization and for our churches is this: can we be part of something we don’t have control of?

I see churches closing, but I also see a number of churches managing a great shift, from inward focusing to outward focusing, to finding new ways of being part of the ever-changing communities we are in. While these congregations may dwindle in numbers on Sunday morning, the impact they are making on the community is increasing tremendously. Making this shift does not mean these churches won’t close; but it does mean they gave the opportunity for the Spirit to be at work.

Churches, community organizations, nonprofits and others can learn from this: when we try to control and put our vision in place as the right one, it may work for a while but eventually it will fail. Because the Spirit works in community (we see this all the time in the book of Acts). The Spirit works when we come together and build vision together. When we try to maintain control, we have lost sight of the work of the Spirit among us. When we only have the same people, the vision grows stale. Leadership must change and grow, just as the church or organization must change and grow, and just as the community already is changing and growing.

Trust the Spirit; trust the process; trust that new leadership in the church will not let it fail. Even if they don’t do all the things you once did. Even if they don’t continue all the programs you did. Even if they come up with something very different than what your vision of the church should be. Trust the Spirit, and trust that new leaders will be open to the movement of the Spirit of God just as you are.

An Open Letter to All Those Who Came To Church

By Rev. Aaron Todd

To the one who came to church, 

It's a busy day.  You have a busy life.  You don't even have to be here.  After all, what is one Sunday out of the fifty-one others that will come and go during this year?  You've got a packed schedule and a brain and a heart that is full of thoughts, questions, and to-do lists. Some days, it's hard enough to get up and get moving when you have to be at a place where you get paid for your presence and participation.  Wouldn't it be nice to have a morning where you did not have to rush to get the family dressed and fed and hurriedly out the door?   No one would blame you if you were somewhere else today.

But you are here today.  There are many times when I long to crawl inside your head and your heart so that I may see more clearly what leads you out of your daily grind and into the Church and what good news you long to hear. 

What is it that brings you here?  Is it obligation and a sense of duty? Is it a need for refuge and a desire for sanctuary?  It is it a longing for community and companionship?  To you come here looking for a sense of belonging?  Do you enter through the doors of the Church desperately needing to hear the Good News that tomorrow can be brighter than today? What is it that calls you out of your home and into the house of God?  

Perhaps you come out of a sense of duty, and you sometimes feel under appreciated or that your commitment is not noticed or does not make a difference.  When you think those thoughts and when you feel like you are not making a difference, please know that I appreciate you and that what you do here is seen by the One we serve and that what you do matters.  

Perhaps you are coming here seeking sanctuary and safety. Feeling as if the world is an unforgiving and unrelenting place you coming here seeking to have the waves of life buffered by the sturdy walls of the Church.  As you seek that refuge, maybe there have been times when you have not felt safe even within the Church.  Perhaps you even come here slightly wary, feeling like you have to be on guard even as you want nothing more than to lower your defenses.  If you are coming here for safety, please know that I desire nothing more than for you to find it here.  

Perhaps you come here for companionship and to know that you belong..  Perhaps you have recently retired, sent your children off to college, or bid a final farewell to a parent or spouse. Perhaps life has brought circumstances to you in such a way where now all you need is someone to sit and to share with. Even in the midst of the commotion of this day, and though or in spite of the numerous activities offered by the Church, I pray that you found a cup of coffee, a comfortable chair, and a soul or two to worship alongside you today.  I pray that you were able to laugh, to cry, to listen, and to be listened to.  I pray that I showed you love and properly acknowledged your presence here.   

Perhaps you come here searching for Good News.  Perhaps this has been a week of less-than-good news and you need more than anything to hear a word of hope and of promise. I hope that the words that were shared in the hallways, around the coffee pots, in the classrooms, and in worship were good words. I hope that you were able to hear a message of love from not just the scriptures and the sermon, but from the eyes, lips, and hearts from all in this place.  I pray that you found yourself encouraged, strengthened, and enlivened by your time here.  I pray that you, even for a moment, had your sense of hope restored.  

No matter what led you to this place, and no matter if I will see you again next Sunday, please know that I am grateful and humbled to have the chance to share in a time of worship with you.  Please know that I saw you here and that I thanked God that we had this time together.  While I long to see you again, please know that no matter where life takes you that you will forever have a partner on the journey.  

In Love,

Your Minister

15 Things the Church Needs to Do in 2015

By Rev. Evan Dolive

It's that time of the year again, when we stand on the precipice of a new year and look forward to what is in store for us in 2015. Last year, I wrote 14 Things the Church Needs to Do in 2014, and many of them are still true for 2015. However, given the events of 2014, the church now also has a monumental opportunity to provide healing, justice, care, and compassion in new and exciting ways — ways I believe are important for the church in the upcoming year. 

1. Review what happened in 2014. What worked? What didn’t? Where did we spend our money? How did we touch people’s lives? What one word would describe 2014? Take some time and objectively look at what transpired in 2014.

2. Honestly answer the question, “Why in the world would anyone want to come to this church?" I believe this is the biggest question that every church must ask itself. How one answers this question affects the ministry, outlook, and mission of the church. If you answer this question honestly, the answer might surprise you and scare you at the same time.

3. Answer, "If we closed our doors tomorrow, who would miss us?" Is the church a place to go on Sunday morning or an impactful piece of the community? Is the church a place that is finding areas of ministry that are outside the four walls of the church? Is the church a place of community building, fellowship, and service, or is it just merely existing? If the church closed tomorrow would there be a gap, a hole, a void left in the community or even a particular community? 

4. Then ask the even harder question — "If no one would miss us, then what are we doing here?"

5. Speak up for the voiceless in our own backyard. Too often churches have a understanding of changing the world. Don't get me wrong — the message of Christ has that ability. But instead of constantly looking at overseas mission trip destinations, are we looking in our own backyard? Are there areas that we are missing because we think someone else is handling the problem? There are needs in any-sized community — the church is called to speak up for those who cannot and be the voice they are longing to have. If the church cannot and does not speak to community, state, and national issues then we are missing a big piece of the gospel.

6. Have honest conversations about race. In Ferguson, Staten Island, Ohio, and everywhere in between, the complexities of race in our society has been thrown to the forefront of news, conversation, and lives. Was Dr. King correct when he said that 11 a.m. on Sunday was the most segregated hour of the week? For many churches that still does seem to be the case. How the church responds to the issue of race in the 21st century will be extremely important.

7. Re-evaluate missions. What is the purpose of missions? What is our mission as followers of Christ? Is the church supporting missions that support our mission? Reviewing how the work of the church is done will focus the ministry opportunities for 2015. 

8. Remember that failure is not a bad word. So you planned and planned and planned some more and your ministry idea that was supposed to bring people the good news didn’t get off the ground. Well ... that's OK. Ministry is tough. Failure is never easy but it something we must see not as a negative but as a growing point. If we are holding back for fear of failure then we are limiting what God can do in that situation. Churches cannot simply just wait for "home runs." Ministry is more about trial and error than it is an exactly science. So get out there and try something, get your hands dirty, be the hands and feet of God!

9. Love the people, love the people, love the people. And I mean no matter what. The church needs to strip away the cold exterior and welcome people — all people — with the loving arms of God. We need to love people for who they are not for who we want them to be.

10. Answer, "If someone came to this community for the first time what would their impression be?" Some parts of the church have a reputation of being an "insiders" club. For some congregations it is difficult for a new person to find their place or role within the community. If the same 10 people do everything in the church, how can the rest of the church have an impact? If someone were to walk into your faith community what would their first impression be? Is the signage correct? Are things laid out well? Is there someone to greet them yet not ask 100 questions and make them fill out a commitment card? Let's look at the church with fresh eyes and see what happens.

11. Stop the bodies-in-the-pews game. There is more to being a ministry of God than painstakingly counting bodies in the pews. This is does not mean people who are missing are unimportant — it means the church needs to stop defining itself by numbers physically in attendance. What if we worried about how many lives we have touched, instead of the number of people that come on Sunday morning?

12. Pray for ... everything. Patience, peace, mercy, safety, movement of the spirit, direction. Start praying and never stop. The church, the world, and our souls need it.

13. Increase giving. It takes faith to increase giving even during good financial stability but even more when it times are tough. Have faith, take courage, and step out and increase the giving of the church. It doesn't have to be much, but it has to be some. Watch what happens when a little is given in faith.

14. Decrease complaining. Yes, there is a lot to do and few workers to do it. The budget may have its pitfalls and attendance is not what it once was 40 years ago, but that doesn't mean we have to let it affect us and our life. We have a lot to be thankful for. Attitude is important — especially in the church. If people are always complaining — especially about insignificant things — then this will spill over to all parts of the church.

15. Don't give up on the church. I know what Christ said — that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church — but there are times when this feels untrue. People from all walks of life have been shunned from or have run out on a congregation for differing beliefs or theological styles. As the body of Christ we need to remember that the church is made up of imperfect people who are trying to do the will of God. While we might not like the direction the church is heading we cannot give up on it. God has never given up on us — let’s not give up on God.

Rev. Evan M. Dolive is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He is married to his high school sweetheart and has two children ages 3 and 1. He currently serves in Beaumont, Texas. He also blogs for Houston BeliefGood Men Project, and Radical Parents. For more information about Evan visit www.evandolive.com or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Grow up, Grownups!

By Rev. Mindi

I went to hear a prominent Christian speaker today and she was excellent.  She spoke about our current cultural dynamics, broken down by generation and religious affiliation, and that the future of the church is now. 

The speaker mentioned how those in the 18-29 age range are adults.

Then an older woman made the comment, “Legally.”

SERIOUSLY?

And we wonder why millennials are not in the church?

Right after the woman made that comment, several people shouted back, “NO” to the woman, and “They are adults!” The speaker confirmed gently that yes, they are adults and we need to reframe our thinking.

But this comment by one woman is a symptom of a much greater problem in the church. The fact is, we treat young adults like they are children and what used to be middle-age like they are adolescents.

Look at your church board. Is there anyone under 40 on it? Anyone under 30?

I have seen this happen in the churches I have served. As a young pastor, I’ve been called “kid” many times. Ironically, when my hairdresser recently asked me about coloring my hair I said no. I need my grays that are streaking in. However, the larger issue is that regularly, people in their 30’s and 40’s in the churches I have served and known are referred to as kids (because everyone probably remembers when they were kids and their parents probably still attend that church), but what’s worse, they are often treated like kids.  I have seen adults in their 70’s and 80's scold the 40-year-olds in the church over various things—their attire, their tattoos, the way they teach Sunday School—and we wonder why even younger adults are not there.

We have to stop this symptom. We have to change our attitudes. We have to treat millennials and Gen-Xers as adults. Gen-Xers are middle-aged. Millennials vote and work.  We are adults. We have a vested interest—perhaps even more than others—in the future of the church and if we are not included right now, treated with equal value and respect—then why in the world would we want to stay in an institution that doesn’t treat us this way?

This symptom, of course, is a symptom of a greater issue—power and control. I remember in a previous church a group of young 30-somethings complaining about some of the decision-making in the church and how they were excluded from it. Even though they served on the board, their ideas were dismissed and opinions ignored. They often joked, “When we get to be their age, then we can be ornery and stubborn and make the church the way we want it!” That was said tongue-in-cheek, but it reflected the behavior of the boomers and the seniors in the church leadership at that time.

We shouldn’t divide on generational lines, and as was shared by another participant in this conversation, the church is one of the last institutions that can be truly intergenerational and was intended to be that way. There is value of all people of all generations being together, and we know the value of diversity within those generations. But all too often, we are dismissing “younger” adults as not being an adult, not capable of participating or making decisions or being trustworthy or having the right skills. News flash: if your church is in decline and all your leadership is above fifty, you might want to consider that you may not have the right skills for leadership today.

We cannot change all of the reasons why younger adults are leaving the church, or why they haven’t come in the first place (that would take another article, plus we would need to address the assumption that we still need to get people in to the church, and that perhaps we need to rethink our models of church, but I digress). But we can do better. The first step is changing our attitudes about younger adults. The second is to be intentionally intergernational and to break down our stereotypes of all generations.  It’s going to take all of us, together, to nip this in the bud.

Clergy Compensation, Debt, and Poverty

By Rev. Mindi

There have been a number of articles about clergy compensation in the past few days. First, there was this article in the Atlantic on the Vanishing of the Middle Class Clergy, followed by a response in the Christian Century “Pastors in Poverty” from Carol Howard Merritt, then a number of responses on several blogs and on Facebook.

I have only served in Disciples and American Baptist congregations. The region that my first two churches were in published a minimum suggested salary for starting pastors. My salary never met the minimum requirement in either church, and the first church I served was a well-known and well-off suburb church. The housing allowance offered did not even cover a studio apartment. Not only did I have to have roommates, but now out of seminary my student loans from college were due, and once meeting my rent, my share of the utilities (this was just electricity and heat and phone—we did not have cable), my student loans, my car payment and insurance—I had $175 left. That was to pay my food, my gas, and any other expenses. Thank God I did not have a medical emergency. Unfortunately, my used car did have a few repairs that had to be made. So what did I do? I opened a credit card.

With only $175 a month to live on after bills, I only paid the minimum on the credit card, meaning my debt accumulated drastically. I began babysitting on my days off to earn extra money. But by the time I met my husband, I had almost $4000 worth of credit card debt.

I did not have loans from seminary—I was fortunate enough to not only have great financial aid from my seminary, but the wonderful financial aid officer at my seminary would put a little note in my box about every single scholarship or grant opportunity she came across, and I applied for them all. I also worked two part-time jobs (three the year I did Field Education, as I received a stipend for Field Ed). My student loans were not from seminary, but from college.

Contrary to popular belief and even the line on the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form), there was no great contribution from my parents—my dad paid my application deposit, my mom paid my books every year and my plane tickets home—and that is because my parents were not able to contribute more than that.  I had two scholarships and a grant and I still had to take out loans to go to college. Poor begets poor. There is no leg up or hand out simply because we receive financial aid.

My salary and compensation package from my first church did not cover my expenses. After I graduated and later married my husband, also a seminarian with a lot of student debt from seminary, we had difficulty keeping up. We had to borrow from another credit card in order to pay taxes and make our bills. The good news was that we had a lower interest rate and therefore were able to borrow to pay off the higher interest rate cards I had borrowed on.

It wasn’t until my second calling that I finally received a salary that we could live on. And by living I mean we met our bills every month and we started to pay down the credit card debt. We even opened a savings account. Still, we did not meet the minimum salary requirement of my region.

Both churches had the ability to meet the minimum salary requirements, but chose not to for one main reason: they were afraid of running out of money. Budgets were tight and they were afraid that paying me too much would stretch them too thin. Never mind that in both locations, I made less than others with a college degree in our neighborhood (and I had a Master of Divinity). But both congregations were not in a do-or-die mode. Both had endowments, both had savings, both were running a balanced budget. But fear of not having enough made them hold back on their resources, unwilling to meet even the minimum recommendations.

Now I am serving part-time in a small American Baptist congregation in a different region. What I have seen happen over the last ten years is a dramatic decrease in salary and benefits across the country. More churches are unable to meet a minimum requirement because they cannot. Their endowments and savings have dried up.  I am serving a church that has simply run out of money. Members are no longer able to tithe what they used to.  The church needs a full-time pastor but cannot afford one. Instead, I give about the same amount of time I would to a full-time position, but receive only half-time pay. I am grateful my husband receives a full-time package, but it is by serving two churches to create a full-time position. And we have a son with a disability. It seems that we may never get out of the cycle of debt.

The truth is it is not only the pastors who are becoming poorer but the middle class is disappearing all around us. My church cannot afford to pay me a full-time salary and is being stretched thin on a half-time salary because most of the church cannot afford it any longer. Credit card debt is rising. The number of people in the community I serve that live on food stamps and other government resources is rising. While pastors are becoming poorer, so are all of the people around me.

This is not just a pastor problem, this is not just a church problem; this is a problem for us collectively as followers of Jesus: the poor are getting poorer. We can call upon churches to pay more but in many cases that is not possible. We can call upon our people to give more but in many cases that is not possible.

The question we should be asking is much more difficult: how do we tackle poverty? How do we tackle the cycle of debt that many individuals and families in America face today? We are not college kids taking out credit cards to buy stuff we can’t afford, as the media might suggest: we are people who go into debt in order to survive. We are not addressing this question adequately at all.

We have not worked towards a solution to the growth in poverty and debt. The poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer, which is the antithesis of Mary’s Magnificat: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53).

We must work to alleviate poverty and debt, for all people. This must become a collective responsibility. Pastoral compensation must become a collective responsibility of the church, and poverty and debt must become a collective responsibility of us all. 

Pastoral Care to Families of Children With Disabilities

By Rev. Mindi

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, October is Disability Awareness Month. Being both clergy and a parent of a child with a disability, I thought I would share some of my experience for other clergy and church leaders in terms of pastoral care to families of a child with a disability.

When, at twenty months old, our son AJ stopped talking completely, we knew something was wrong. Our son had never said much—just “Hi,” “Uh-oh,” and “Mama.” But he knew at least twenty baby signs, and he would pick a sign up in a day, such as “more” and “all done” and “milk.” But this all stopped by the time he was twenty months old. At twenty-two months he began speech therapy and continues to receive speech therapy today at the age of six.

 

When AJ was three, we received the life-changing diagnosis of autism. I didn’t know what to do, or what to think. I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of information on the internet and in bookstores, much of it contradictory. We tried different diets, we tried different supplements, but nothing really changed AJ’s social or behavioral patterns.

A good friend of mine who has a child with a disability gave me some advice: I needed to grieve the child I had lost. It sounds harsh. My child did not die, they just received a diagnosis, a medical categorization, but my child had not changed from who they were. But at the same time, she was absolutely right. I needed to grieve my own dreams and hopes for my child, now lost probably forever. My child will most likely not grow up to be a great scholar or star quarterback or Olympic swimmer.

The truth is, most of our kids don’t grow up to be those things. At some point, our dreams as parents have to die and we have to mourn their passing, but we usually have a lot more time to recognize it. Parents of children with disabilities or life-changing illnesses have to make this leap a lot earlier and a lot faster: we have to grieve, and then we have to accept our children.

But society around us is very slow to catch up. I cannot tell you how many well-intentioned people have told us “just look at Temple Grandin!” Very few children with autism grow up to be like Temple Grandin or have the resources her mother had when Temple was a child, to attend private school, to have a full-time nanny, to be sent to an alternative boarding school as a teen. Most of us do not have those kind of resources available. And even those with good financial resources cannot always expect that their child will develop and grow the same way. The mantra is, “If you’ve met one child on the autism spectrum, you have met one child on the autism spectrum.” Every child is unique.

The truth is as a society we like to gloss over the challenges and difficulties many people face, with good intentions: we want to cheer them up, we want them to find hope, and somehow we think that our words will bring that. Hearing so many times, “He’ll be all right,” “He’ll grow out of it,” “He’ll catch up,” does not help me at all. It’s true he will be all right, no matter what his diagnosis or ability. It is not true that he will grow out of it. And I do not know whether or not he will catch up, and neither will you, because I am guessing you are not an expert in autism spectrum disorder. 

What is helpful is hearing, “That must be hard,” or “Thank you for sharing that with me,” when I or another parent of a child with a disability shares what they are going through. Also, silence is also acceptable. Just having someone to listen as we struggle and advocate and support our children is more than society often gives us.

I am a glass half-full kind of person. I still have a lot of hope for my son. Recently he is starting to verbalize more, repeating words and phrases from TV shows and songs for the most part, but he is using some of it in context. He seems to understand what he is being asked a lot more than he used to. He uses an assistive communication device (currently an iPad with speech software) to make his requests known and sometimes to comment on things that he likes. He also spells out words and is trying to read more. I have hope. Maybe someday he will go to college. Maybe someday I won’t have to buy large diapers in bulk. Maybe he will still live at home the rest of his life or have to live in an adult assisted living facility. And all of that is fine. One step at a time. 

Thank you for listening to me. Please be sure to listen to other parents of children with disabilities.

My son spelled this out in my office one day. I know that I have to be his voice, until he can speak for himself.

My son spelled this out in my office one day. I know that I have to be his voice, until he can speak for himself.

Racism, Ferguson, and the Mainline Liberal Church

By Rev. Mindi

At the time I am writing this, a state of emergency has been declared in Ferguson, Missouri, as the results of a grand jury investigating the death of Michael Brown on August 9th, 2014 are soon to be released. Officer Darren Wilson has been on paid administrative leave since the shooting of the unarmed teenager.

If you haven’t been paying attention, there have been protests every day since Michael’s death. Peaceful protests. In the first week, much attention was paid to the “riots” which were, in fact, twelve businesses that were vandalized, mainly by out-of-town people according to reports. There have been no officers harmed in any of the protests, but plenty of protestors have been shot at with rubber bullets, assaulted, and arrested. Yet the protests have continued on, and they haven’t been in the media’s eye because they have been peaceful. Because they have continued on, day after day, demanding justice for Michael Brown and for other young black people who have been killed by police violence.

The state of emergency declaration means the National Guard has arrived. Police have been militarized. They are ready for war, against a people who are crying out for the right to live, the right to exist. I hear people say “It is the 1960’s all over again,” but in reality, this has been the daily life of Black Americans. When I speak to my black friends, this is the fear they live: that they will be pulled over, that they will be assaulted, that they will be presumed guilty when they walk into a store or walk down the street, that they will be hurt or killed without question. This is not a fear I live with as a white person, but it is a fear made real to me as I hear stories from the black members of my church, from the black children who have been kicked out of stores for fear of shoplifting when they were just talking loud.

Racism is rooted in the heart of America. It is rooted in our Constitution that only saw black people as 3/5ths of a person. It is rooted in our forefathers and foremothers owning of slaves. It is rooted in our economy, our history, our social construction and our community planning. It is rooted in the heart of the American church, too.

In the mainline liberal church, we have been slow throughout history to take up the cause of justice. We put our hands in our pockets or cover our ears, thinking the church doesn’t have a voice in this. We get involved slowly, reluctantly, whether it be against racism or against misogyny or against homophobia and transphobia or against ableism. And the truth is we have never, ever recovered from our sin of racism, a sin that also caused us to wipe out tribe after tribe in the name of Jesus when the church came to the Americas.

As we raise our rainbow flags, remember that LGBTQ voices of persons of color need to be lifted up and heard. As we work to include people of all abilities, let us remember the persons of color with disabilities. As we work to include more women in church leadership, let us work to include women of color into the pulpit and other leadership positions. White persons end up taking up the space in other marginalized groups. Racism still prevails, even when we think we are working for equality for all.

Pray for Ferguson now. Follow the #Ferguson hashtag on Twitter and social media. Sign up for the daily newsletter at This is the Movement. And pastors, church leaders and others: read the Faith in Ferguson blog and follow #FergusonTheology on Twitter. Preach on injustice and racism, especially this Sunday, as the grand jury decision will probably be out by then. If you follow the lectionary, the Matthew 25 passage preaches Ferguson. Involve your church in anti-racism work. If there are protests planned in your city, perhaps your church can be a safe place for organizers to gather, for protestors to rest. Or think of the protestors needs: water, hats, gloves, prayer. What can you do? What would Jesus have you do?