Friday, May 27, 2016

How to Let People Know, "It's All About Us."



Churches in my tradition often post pictures of their church edifice on their website home page.

While it may communicate pride in the building, the congregation, or the church itself, what does it really communicate?

It's all about us.

One thing I've learned from watching HGTV and the shows that involve the sale of a home involves the staging process. The key to connecting with a potential buyer is giving every opportunity for that investor to imagine themselves in that space. Overly personal clutter takes away that imagination. Insider artifacts and language overpowers any story being told about the good things happening in the congregation.

When making public invitations to connect with a congregation, be aware of what you communicate. Using "us" as part of church language (or other first person plural language), or overly focusing on insider things prevents people from imagining themselves as part of the community. Church websites and social media are often like walking into a room where all of the people are telling each other inside jokes, and you have no idea what anyone is talking about.

Try telling stories about your community. Stories invite people to imagine the observer in that place. Don't tell people it's a welcoming and friendly church (lots of churches say that); let the stories speak for themselves.


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Is Faith Worth the Investment? On Neighbors and Relationships

A view of my church neighborhood.

Why am I still a Lutheran Christian?

I occasionally need to ask myself this question, because being a Lutheran Christian involves a lot of noise. I dealt with a similar topic 3 & 1/2 months ago. The Northern European ethos is tiresome. The self-congratulatory theology is tedious. The DNA of unreflective norm maintenance is maddening. 

What keeps me going is that there is something about Luther's teaching that a faithful life is formed by Jesus and neighbor in relationships. Martin Luther frequently used the term "neighbor." For Luther, neighbor is attached to numerous teachings about Jesus. This fascination with neighbor is not Luther's fabrication. The "Good Samaritan," an idea still employed in society today, is not merely about doing a good deed, but an exploration of the challenges of being a good neighbor. See Luke 10: 25-37. Luther wasn't always a great neighbor--but his understanding of the importance of the neighbor is foundational.

I appreciate the opportunity to partner with other Lutherans, but I'm much more interested in finding people and groups who are willing to work with me and the congregation I serve--for the benefit of the community. If that involves Lutherans, great. But not merely for the benefit of Lutherans. My partners and I may not have agreement on everything. What I want to know, can we work together for the benefit of the community? For the benefit of those who are seeking a renewed life? This past week I met with Pentecostals, Evangelicals, a middle school principal, a taekwondo teacher, and even a few Lutherans pondering how we could work together for the benefit of neighbors. It was exciting and scary, but I felt it was where I needed to be.

There is baggage associated with being a Lutheran, and being a Christian. There is also baggage working with me. But let's find a way to work together. As long as I have a space to do that work, let's get to it.


Monday, May 9, 2016

Ending Warm Body Thinking

I spent the past year being a warm body.

Being a warm body usually carries negative connotations, except for cold winter nights when my wife finds it challenging to stay functionally warm. Then I can be a snuggling assistant.

No volunteer organization wants to have leadership filled with warm bodies, but that is the running joke. There are committee and constitutional responsibilities, and it seems that any warm body will do. It's gravy if that warm body comes with some degree of competency and leadership skills.

Maybe.

I have some leadership skills and other competencies. I can run a meeting. I can take the long view. I want to help others. I am willing to make difficult decisions, be unpopular, and make challenging statements. But leadership skills and competencies mean little without relationships. Unlike certain people in the public eye, I cannot merely declare my love for a certain group of people, eat some version of their food, and call it good. That's not a relationship; that's turning people into commodities. No one wants to be a commodity.

In the past year I served as a president at a community swimming pool, and on a parent/teacher organization of a school. I had responded to requests to serve in leadership. In both situations, no one was willing to serve as president. But someone had to. My lack of experience in local leadership and minimal connections with neighbors did not seem to matter. There had to be a president!

Time investment is essential to build relationships, and after being a relative newbie in the city and neighborhood, the title of my position seemed to matter little. While serving as president in the two volunteer organizations, I felt paralyzed. I had no relational capital and little influence. One thing I have learned as a pastor is that people don't respond to calls to action without some degree of trust. Trust takes time to build. I have served my congregation for almost five years, and it is only in the past year or two that I have felt we can have some real traction to our actions. We are still getting to know each other, but there has been trust built over time. We are present for each other through difficult times, and share something sacramental in the midst of those difficulties, as our faith call us to do. My qualifications and credentials may be important, but the relationships create movement. I may take my experience and qualifications to other organizations; without the relationships, I am but a warm body. Could I have done more? Yes. Could the organizations have done more? Yes. But we go nowhere without building relationships. Some of our organizations may have to fail, or take a sabbatical, until those relationships can be built.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Being Part of the Neighborhood is All the Rage



Church decline is not a new subject. Church growth is not a new subject. As a social science practitioner and pastor, these are topics of interest for me. My shelves and data storage drives are filled with information about trends, techniques, and theologies. Akin to weight loss, there are fads associated with growth and decline in churches; yet axioms exist that have been passed through the generations. Whether the idea has centuries of staying power or come around recently, count me among the curious.

Whereas I pay attention to numbers, figures, and trends, I have taken special interest in how congregations look to their neighborhoods for renewal. I have colleagues who spend hundreds of hours and dollars for the concepts and best practices of neighborhood engagement. The church will do well if it invests in being a good neighbor. In my tradition as a Lutheran Christian, the idea that the church ever lost contact with its neighborhood is a problem. Martin Luther's writings and teachings are filled with references to the life of faith intrinsically connected to the neighbor. One of Jesus' most famous parables, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is shared because someone asks him the question, "who is my neighbor?"

Granted, for all of the good that transit technology has brought to the world, the concept of the neighborhood has rapidly evolved. This evolution has frequently disoriented society to the point that the question "who is my neighbor" is a realistic, profound, and timeless question. Curricula and training programs are springing up that will help you and your church wrestle with the questions posed in history at least since the days Jesus walked the earth.

I may read a study of neighborhood ministry. The training programs look interesting. Yet, Mister Rogers has served me well. His entire show centered on two concepts. 1. Implicitly, you are made in the image of God. That's something. Don't forget it, but I will remind you. 2. You can learn a lot from your neighbors, and they can learn a lot from you. Take turns doing so.

If you're looking for something simpler and a less expensive exploration about the concept of neighbor, try this excellent video series.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A User's Guide to Joining the Club



Join the club!

The casino in Las Vegas where I recently attended a conference wanted me to join their club. Because I look like a high roller, right? So many clubs to choose from! I am a member of the coffee shop club, which appeases me with the occasional free drink to make me feel better about their inflated prices. I can't get into Costco to shop without their club card--and they have a picture of me that makes my driver's license photo look like a Glamour Shot. If I want help by the side of the road, I need to be in the club. I could pay double the price for a package of cough drops, but if I'm in the drug store club...voila! Menthol in my sinus passages for a reasonable price!

Club requirements vary widely. Maybe you remember the days of the Columbia Record and Tape (later CD) Club. 12 albums for a penny! Then pay 2-3 times the normal price over the next 2 years for an album each month...I'm embarrassed to say how many times I tried joining that club. Some clubs will let you join only if you give them permission to spam you until you can't see your email inbox. Other clubs want to lull you into complacency with free stuff, until you forget they have your credit card number and start charging a monthly membership fee. Some clubs promise status, some promise benefits, some promise connections. We live in a world of membership opportunities.

Look in your wallet or desk. There is evidence of all kinds of memberships and clubs in your life.

How is it there are more and more clubs in the world, but less belonging?

I won't try to fool you and say the church is the best place to belong. Sometimes the church can be the worst place to belong. I have stories from 18 years as a pastor that make me wonder what the church has to offer the world. But I believe in the church's ability to be a public space where the important things of life are discussed, pondered, and lived out. Love. Mercy. Compassion. Inclusion. Forgiveness. Service. Opportunity. Grace. Even though Jesus spent time in a house of worship, most of his greatest stories of these ideals were practiced in public. No club membership necessary. No ticket needs to be purchased. No political favor exchanged. Social status does not give you a preferred place at the table.

The church doesn't always practice their ideals, but these stories do guide the church and its work during worship, service, and friendship. Most of all, beyond what the church communicates to you, know that the story of God in Jesus Christ wants you to know that all of the good things mentioned above (most of all--unconditional love) are for you.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Full-Time Ministry Ideal

Ministry has always been full-time.

Whether people who make their living in the church are paid a full-time salary, carry two or more jobs with half-time pay, receive a small stipend, or get paid in livestock and housing, ministry is full-time. The term "full-time" comes from a small window of influence from the Industrial Revolution that compensation should be similar to a laborer or manager who works 40+ hours per week. Full-time is how anyone who serves the church for a living lives themselves, regardless of their compensation.

There may have been a relatively brief period of time where that full-time ideal fit people who work in the church, but I'm not sure it ever could fit or ever will fit. What does it mean for a pastor or other worker in the church to be fairly compensated? There are many variables associated with compensation--cost of living, size of family, retirement planning, disability, health insurance, taxes, Social Security, paying for theological education, student loans, and housing (there are probably others). Given the thousands of churches who cannot afford a living wage for those who make their living serving the church, how can the church realistically create an environment that does not include a vow of poverty for those who work in the church?

I do not know the answer to these questions. To me, the variables are tangled far beyond the level of my Christmas lights that I will take down from my rafters next month. I am thankful my wife has good work with a good wage so I can do what I do. Yet, as I am tangled the cords of compensation, I have come to accept a few realities that help me move forward.

1. I need to let go of the ideal of full-time compensation if I am going to work in the church. This doesn't mean that I'll never receive this level of compensation again (I haven't had it in almost 5 years), but letting that ideal go opens me to other possibilities.

2. I'm not sure I ever want full-time compensation in the church again. The church, as an institution, seeks to preserve itself. When I was compensated full-time, I was expected to participate and labor toward the church's own self-preservation. If I was released from one aspect of the church's self-preservation, another part of the institution would attempt to suck me in. The church was never called to preserve itself, but to participate in multiplication for the good of our neighbor.

As someone compensated half-time in the church I serve, I am free to choose some activities at a distance from the scrutiny of the institution. I have earned money substitute teaching and delivered bagels for income. I have served on PTAs, volunteered at the neighborhood swimming pool, in classrooms, and as a youth basketball coach. I would not trade any of these activities in order to participate in self-preservation. The religious landscape is full of stories of congregational decline that are rooted in a loss of connection with neighbors. I still work full-time, and then some. Not being compensated full-time by my church frees me to be connected with my neighbors. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Critique of Pope Francis and the Pastoral Role


When listening and watching political commentary in the United States (from varying ideological perspectives) it seems that regardless of the ideology, Pope Francis is a disappointment. He is either identified as a "Marxist," "anti-capitalist," or a corrupt leader of a church that continues to marginalize LGBT people, women, people who use birth control, or victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by Roman Catholic clergy. Whereas many are impressed by his people connecting skills and pastoral demeanor, the expectations and critiques of Pope Francis are curious.

I know little of the personal experience of Papa Francisco. I do know something about the role of Pastor and Preacher on a much smaller scale. When I listen to and read the critiques of Francis and compare these critiques to my own experience of people in the church and the community at large, people seem to believe that the preacher's job is to affirm their own beliefs and ideological perspective. I don't agree with Pope Francis on several points, but I don't expect him to deliver teaching or preaching where we are in 100% alignment.

The media and public discourse noise over Pope Francis are indicative of the heightened anxiety of the current age. People generally aren't looking for conversation or debate that results in better lives for people, or offering very thoughtful analysis of the words and actions of Pope Francis. In the midst of anxiety, people look for solidarity. Pope Francis has no solidarity with the "Left" or "Right" of the USA; I doubt El Papa cares.

In my congregation, people will sometimes let me know they disagree with me on certain points from a sermon or study. While I will review and sometimes change my own study and approach in response, I am not interested in affirming the beliefs of people in the congregation. I do my best to faithfully preach good news about Jesus Christ and the opportunity of reconciliation, with God, neighbor, and self. As a preacher and pastor, I do my best to be faithful to the biblical witness and my particular tradition. I fail often. I often believe the vows of my ordination are too much for me to handle. It is too much of a task for me to worry about whether I am pleasing Republicans or Democrats, liberals, conservatives, or libertarians; my ordination vows are sufficiently challenging. While I am influenced by several different ideologies, I haven't made promises to any ideology or group. Someone can disagree with me all they want, but if that disagreement comes with the expectation that my actions need to come in line with their own personal expectations of my work as a pastor, then we may actually have a problem. The church has a history of corrupt relationships with power, and I know I'm not beyond that. But I have to figure out where I stand before I know where I'm going. Watching the response to Pope Francis in the USA has made that a little more clear for me today.